The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 has been a success. The number of overfished stocks has never been lower in the law’s 40 year history. It’s not perfect by any means, and Congress is reviewing the Act to consider changes, as it does every 10 years. In my view, there are ways to improve it — more protection for ocean ecosystems, for starters — and NOAA Fisheries and the regional councils could find better ways to implement it. But for the most part, it’s working.
Past MSA reauthorizations were driven mostly by failure. I began working full-time on marine fisheries management in 1978, when it was just as young and inexperienced as I was. I got my feet wet working on the nation’s first fishery management plans, learning along with everyone else. The MSA’s shortcomings became evident as rapid development of U.S. fisheries was accompanied by rampant overfishing and the system seemed powerless to stop it.
The law’s failures were indisputable and the remedies obvious. Tough mandates were needed to compel fishery managers to stop overfishing and rebuild depleted fisheries, held accountable by firm timetables.
The issues are different today, some the consequence of recoveries underway. Are we fairly allocating the sacrifice among fishermen? Can we ease up on the speed of rebuilding as we near the finish line? Are the science and data good enough for micro-managing so many fisheries? How can we be more macro, more flexible in our rules, while still keeping our eyes on the prize?
There are problems which require changes in the law and those which could be addressed with more creative management. We need the wisdom, and the time, to understand the difference. All the previous overhauls of the MSA, when change was urgently needed, were made after several years of careful deliberation involving all stakeholders. The risk now is acting too hastily, forgetting what we’ve learned from past failures, taking success for granted, and undoing the progress we’ve made.
The House of Representatives, as I write this, is rushing a bill (HR 1335) to a floor vote, splitting the House along party lines, sharply dividing fishermen, alarming environmentalists and prompting a veto threat from the Administration. Its numerous exemptions from rebuilding mandates not fully vetted or widely understood, it can’t help but be treated as suspicious as to intent and ambiguous as to effect.
In the Senate, Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), chair of the Oceans Subcommittee, recently urged his colleagues, in both houses on both sides of the aisle, to take a step back and come together. “Movement forward on any issue related to fisheries requires both bipartisan and bicameral agreement,” Rubio told a May hearing. “Support by all stakeholders, in both parties, in both chambers, will be required for any legislation regarding fisheries to move forward and be signed into law.”
We agree. The only way to get that kind of consensus is to slow things down. Learn from our successes. After all, we’ll be living, and fishing, with the result for the next 10 years.