The Best Fisheries Law in the World

Charles Witek

On January 1, 2014, the European Union’s amended Common Fisheries Policy went into effect. The policy requires that, during the next five years, “catch limits should be set that are sustainable and maintain fish stocks in the long term.”

It appears that European fisheries managers are finally adopting the concept of “maximum sustainable yield.”

As an American fisherman who has been involved with the management process for much of my life, I can only say, “Welcome aboard, folks, and what took you so long? We figured that out two decades ago.”

And that’s true. The United States’ fishermen, and the fish we pursue, live in a far different world than we knew in the days before Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 in response to fish stocks collapsing along every coast.

Magnuson-Stevens, which requires overfished stocks be rebuilt and mandates rebuilding deadlines, changed the fate of American fisheries.

Here in the Mid-Atlantic, the sea bottom was desolate. Summer flounder, which had long been the backbone of our recreational and commercial fisheries, were not abundant. The minimum size was a mere 14 inches, fish so small and thin that it was hard to fillet the less-meaty white side. Black sea bass were mostly sub-10-inch “pins,” while the scup, when you could find them, were scarcely as large as a man’s outstretched hand.

All three stocks needed rebuilding, something that, save for the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, would have never occurred. Magnuson-Stevens, which requires overfished stocks be rebuilt and mandates rebuilding deadlines, changed the fate of American fisheries.

To understand fisheries management in pre-Magnuson days, consider the facts underlying the court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, the case that gave the Magnuson-Stevens Act teeth. There, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council saw nothing wrong with a summer flounder management plan that had a mere 18 percent chance of success; it’s how the council had always managed fish in the past.

But the federal appellate court down in Washington understood the new law, and noted, “Only in Superman Comics Bizzaro World, where reality is turned upside down, could the [National Marine Fisheries] Service reasonably conclude that a measure that is at least four times as likely to fail as to succeed offers a ‘fairly high level of confidence’ [that it will achieve its management goal].”

With those words, American fisheries management underwent a very profound change.

For the first time, it became effective.

Today, anglers frequently catch summer flounder so large that any one fillet (you get four from each fish) is longer and heavier than entire fish that were deemed to be legal in prior to the court’s decision.

Black sea bass and scup, are doing equally well. Anglers are now seeing unprecedented numbers of them, and the fish are not small. On my first sea bass trip last season, it took me longer to run out to the wreck where I fished than it did to limit out with eight quality sea bass. Scup are even more abundant, with so many available that neither the commercial nor the recreational sector can land their entire quota.

That’s what good fisheries management can achieve.

But the achievements didn’t come easily. As managers worked to rebuild the three Mid-Atlantic stocks, both commercial and recreational fisherman railed about the restrictions and called for the law to be changed. Fortunately, it was not, and those fishermen are now enjoying an abundance of fish that most had never known before in their lifetimes.

In other regions, where managers tried to escape the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s mandates, such struggles are still going on.

In New England, where commercial fishermen on the New England Fishery Management Council embraced the riskiest measures that were conceivably allowed by the law, the Gulf of Maine cod stock has fallen to a true crisis level, while Georges Bank cod, along with a whole host of flounders, are not far behind.

In the south, both the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils are trying to rebuild depleted red snapper stocks and are opposed by “anglers’ rights” organizations which seek to kill more.

Neither northern cod trawlers nor southern anglers have learned what their Mid-Atlantic counterparts know, that conservative, science-based catch limits, coupled with a modicum of patience, are the only sure way to restore stocks to abundance. Managers cannot undo decades of damage without imposing years of restraint.

Instead, such fishermen rally around the shibboleth of “flexibility,” seeking to weaken the legal provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that work. This year, they have found a champion in Congressman Don Young, who has already introduced H.R. 1335, the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.”

Young’s “Flexibility Act” would gut key provisions of Magnuson-Stevens that require managers to end overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks in a timely manner and hold fishermen accountable when they exceed catch limits.

There is much irony here.

Congressman Young is from Alaska. The conservation and management provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which emphasize science-based management, are often described as the “Alaska Model,” after the place where such measures were first successfully used.

And Congressman Young recently noted, in the Alaska Dispatch News, that such an Alaska Model is not only “considered the envy of the world,” but also is “what all regional fisheries management councils should strive to achieve.”

He has also assured his constituents:

“My legislation…will not change the way the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] manages our fisheries. Alaska fishermen and the communities they support will continue to reap the benefits of our well-managed fishery resources and the NPFMC will continue to use sound scientific data in their management decisions. Regardless of the changes proposed to the MSA, the NPFMC will continue to utilize innovate practices to be leaders in fisheries management.”

That’s fine for Alaskans and the NPFMC.

However, it would push the rest of the regional fishery management councils backward. At a time when Europe, and other nations, are moving closer to a Magnuson-Stevens, Alaska-like model, America’s fisheries managers would lose the incentive to “strive to achieve” the same thing. Instead, they would be provided with too great a temptation to fall back into Bizzaro World, when management plans that were more likely to fail than succeed were the rule.

America’s fish, and America’s fishermen, deserve better than that.

What is good for Alaska is good for the rest of us.

H.R. 1335 is no good at all.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

1 comment on “The Best Fisheries Law in the World

  1. If we take into consideration that the Maine shore fishery landed more fish by weight and species than the Maine offshore (or “banks” ) fishery in each year for which we have solid data from 1860 to 1919, (and that wasn’t counting Herring in most years) we have a long way to go to restore the Gulf of Maine to a solid, sustainably yielding suite of ecosystems.

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