MSA Holdup Puts Fisheries’ Future in Peril

Brian Hartz

The renewal of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) has sputtered in Congress, and from my perspective as an avid boater who enjoys fishing trips, lawmakers’ lack of action is putting our nation’s fisheries at risk.

If you’re not familiar with this important topic, MSA, as we know it today, became law in 1996 with the aim of putting a stop to chronic overfishing. It drew ardent bipartisan support, and was strengthened in 2006 with the addition of scientifically-determined catch limits that went into effect in 2010-11.

But now, healthy fish populations could be imperiled because of the inability of Congress to pass an updated version of MSA that keeps firm fishing quotas in place. Luckily, status quo prevails and the current MSA law prevails until the bill is reauthorized. Unfortunately, ensuring that the MSA remains effective and intact is a full time job. The House of Representatives passed a version of MSA, H.R. 1335, that does not include annual catch limits, and if you’ll excuse my pun, that pretty much guts the law its potency.

Congress is looking to renew MSA — truly a landmark piece of legislation — but the House version is (again, no pun intended) dead in the water, and the Senate has not made the time to take it up. President Obama has said he will veto MSA if it reaches his desk in its current form.

I don’t fish for a living, but when I’m enjoying the beautiful waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, or wherever else my travels might take me, I want to see fish in the water. I want to be able to catch fish. Opponents of MSA can insist that there’s still plenty of fish in the water, but that’s because of the law, not in spite of it. Abundance doesn’t just happen. We simply can’t go back to overfishing with no eye toward preventing the decline of fish stocks.

Annual catch limits make a lot of sense, especially when you consider them in the broader context of MSA’s fishery management plans. MSA’s initiatives are designed to protect habitats, minimize bycatch, allocate catch among different fishing sectors, and rebuild overfished species within a set time period. Without catch limits, the rest of the plan won’t work.

I know many of you reading this aren’t fans of heavy-handed government regulations. Initiatives like those included in MSA aren’t conducted in a vacuum, however; MSA solicits input on a regional basis from eight fishery management councils across the country. These councils are made up of, yes, government agency personnel, but also commercial and recreational fishermen.

Catch limits may be a sticking point for some sectors of the nation’s fishery stakeholders, but not a reason to get rid of a tool that has demonstrably recovered many of the nation’s overfished populations. I understand these stakeholder’s concerns; I get it. People’s livelihoods are at stake, but it is these very same catch limits that have bolstered coastal communities’ economics, returned many commercial fisheries from the brink of collapse, and have allowed more access and opportunity for recreational anglers. These are parts of the economic argument often overlooked, but one that should be cheered in the headlines. But so, too, should we consider the livelihoods of the next generation, and the one after that, well beyond the present’s economic wins that catch limits have created. Doing the right thing now — reauthorizing MSA, with catch limits intact, maintaining its science and conservation based requirements — will resonate for many years, many decades, to come.

About Brian Hartz

Brian Hartz's passion for boating -- and writing about it -- has taken him from the lakes of Indiana and the shores of Lake Ontario to New Zealand's pristine Hauraki Gulf and British Columbia's Vancouver Island and Strait of Juan de Fuca. He's written, edited, and curated content for Boating New Zealand magazine, MadMariner.com, Showboats International, and Southern Boating magazine. Now based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Brian enjoys boating in and around Tampa Bay, Boca Ciega Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico aboard his Hobie 14 and Force 5.

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