This post is the first in a two-part series about Charles’s personal journey with U.S. fisheries management and the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Read Part Two here.
As a boy growing up in the southwest corner of the New England coast, I had no way of knowing that Congress would someday pass the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens). But looking back on those growing-up years, there was never much doubt that the law’s path would wrap around mine.
I caught my first fish shortly after I turned two years old. From then on, my parents and I were weekend regulars at a local town park, where we caught eels and flounders from the park’s riprapped shore.
Around my 6th birthday, I hooked my first cod from a Provincetown, Mass. party boat. Throughout grade school, I looked forward to family cod-fishing trips with the same eager anticipation that other kids reserved for their annual trek to Disney World. At home, I sought whatever swam in the local waters of Long Island Sound.
When I left home for college, the cod population was still heading sharply downhill. In those Cold War days, we blamed it all on “the Russians,” a catch-all term for factory fishing boats from a number of nations, including then-Warsaw Pact states, that relentlessly dragged trawls across America’s continental shelf.
At that time, the United States only claimed a three-mile territorial sea. Foreign trawlers fished right up to the boundary, and could often be seen from shore. Off places such as Cape Cod, their lights sometimes lit up the night, the fleet looking like a small town at sea.
American fishermen asked Congress to protect their traditional grounds, but ran into stiff opposition.
U.S. tuna seiners, operating in the Pacific, feared that any such action would validate the claims of South American nations who threatened to board and prosecute any fishing boat that came within 200 miles of their shores. The United States Navy worried that any expansion of America’s maritime jurisdiction would give hostile nations an excuse to extend their own territorial seas, and threaten freedom of navigation.
Yet, despite such opposition, recreational and commercial fishermen, along with the nascent marine conservation movement, insisted that Congress take action. In 1973, fishermen formed the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (now called “Wild Oceans”) to support that effort. One of my first, tentative steps into the world of fisheries policy involved buying one of the tee-shirts that they used to help fund their efforts; afterwards, I walked around campus with the slogan “Back the 200-mile limit” emblazoned across my back.
In 1976, Congress passed the law that eventually became known as Magnuson-Stevens. It pushed “the Russians” 200 miles offshore, but did little to rebuild the fisheries that they depleted. Instead, it merely Americanized the fisheries and replaced foreign overfishing with domestic overharvest.
In New England, groundfish stocks continued to wane. TV anchormen and newspaper reporters presented stories about the “crisis” affecting New Bedford and Gloucester.
In June 1988, the Babylon (NY) Tuna Club had about 250 members. It held a fishing contest for summer flounder, planning to award prizes for the eight largest fish. We fished for two days but, in the end, one prize went unclaimed, because club members could only find 7 flounder that exceeded the 14-inch minimum size. The smallest of those “prize winners” weighed less than one pound.
By the early 1990s, a three-day voyage to Georges Bank aboard the Viking Starship, a Montauk-based party boat, yielded fewer and smaller cod than I caught on day trips out of Rhode Island twenty years before.
Things were getting out of hand, and both the commercial and recreational fishing communities realized that change was needed. That change came in the form of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 (SFA), which amended Magnuson-Stevens. SFA required that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) promptly end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks within a time certain, usually no more than 10 years.
The SFA became a turning point in U.S. fisheries management. The future of fishing had always depended on conserving the resource; in passing SFA, Congress had finally made fisheries conservation a national priority. As I’ll share in part two of this post, however, convincing fishing interests to embrace SFA is often a difficult job.