House Starts Dialogue to Build on Magnuson-Stevens Act Success

House of Representatives Committee Hearing

Water, Oceans & Wildlife Subcommittee Hearing Recap

On Wednesday, May 1, 2019, Chairman Jared Huffman (D-CA) called the Water, Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee to order for a two-panel, educational hearing on “The State of Fisheries.”

The first panel focused on illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing – often referred to as IUU fishing. The second panel focused its attention on the state of commercial and recreational fishing, and included testimony from MFCN’s Policy Council member Captain John McMurray, owner and primary operator of One More Cast Charters, the president of the American Saltwater Guides Association and a former three-term member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

Chairman Huffman’s opening statement sent a strong signal of support for the successes of Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which is focal point of the subcommittee as it tackles related marine resource issues.

This committee intends to maintain the important conservation and management standards in the Magnuson Act that have helped us end overfishing or depletion and rebuild a record number of stocks. But I also know there is room for improvement. I am interested in learning how we can strengthen Magnuson to protect our fishing communities and ensure sustainable fisheries for future generations.

Huffman called attention to the challenges of shifting stocks due to climate change and changing ocean conditions and stated that the Magnuson-Stevens Act may need to be changed to address these issues.

“We need to figure out what modifications to Magnuson make sense to help us address these new emerging issues and better support impacted communities.”

Of interest to federal marine resource policy watchers was Huffman’s comments on the process he will use to tackle related marine resource issues.

“I have started a robust process to meet with stakeholders across the spectrum from all regions and all sectors to address fisheries management issues in the 21st century and look at how we can build on the success of Magnuson.”

Abundance

Representing the Seafood Harvesters of America, board member Robert Dooley (recently appointed to the Pacific Fishery Management Council) echoed the chairman’s comments on MSA success.

I would like to begin my testimony by stating that in the past 40 years, we, as a fishing industry, have made enormous strides in the management of our fisheries resources for their long-term sustainability, thanks in large part to management principles established in the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). Through its successive reauthorizations, industry-supported changes were made to ensure that not only are the fish stocks responsibly managed, but that our businesses are profitable and we are able to provide consumers access to one of the greatest sources of renewable protein: wild caught seafood. We owe the current success of our nation’s fisheries to the forethought of our predecessors who had the wherewithal to include conservative guardrails in the last reauthorization.

Dooley pointed out the importance of accountability in fisheries management.

When we put accountability at the center of our fishing practices and the management of our fish stocks, we make economic success possible. When we ensure the long-term sustainability and growth of our fish stocks by using science-based management measures, we are able to grow both the commercial and recreational fishing industries.

Dooley also painted the subcommittee a vivid picture of how the Magnuson-Stevens Act works.

In 2000, the fishery was declared a disaster and the Pacific Council implemented severe catch restrictions; catch limits were so low it wasn’t even worth going out for these fish. Fast forward to last fall. NOAA announced that many of the West Coast groundfish complex species had recovered ahead of their rebuilding timelines and as a result, the Agency proposed increased catch limits for a number of species (these went into effect at the beginning of this year). NOAA originally proposed a 45+ year rebuilding timeline for the long-lived rockfish species in this complex, but in less than 10 years, many of these species have been declared recovered. The last two species left on the rebuilding list will likely be taken off next year after the next stock assessment.

Significantly higher quotas for a number of groundfish species means an estimated $60 million increase in fishing income for commercial fishermen across the three west coast states and an increase in the variety of fish available to consumers in grocery stores and restaurants throughout the region. This fishery is now also MSC-certified, providing consumer confidence in the sustainability and harvest practices of this fishery. And on top of all this, it is estimated that the increase in quota means upward of an additional 200,000 recreational fishing trips each year in Southern California.

This recovery was the result of following the letter and the spirit of the MSA. Commercial fishermen, processors and coastal communities made sacrifices, but we knew it was the right thing to do. The fish stocks were hurting and our catches were dwindling. Industry worked with NOAA and we trusted their science to put us on the road to rebuilding the groundfish fishery and here we are today — we’ve grown the pie so all sectors benefit.

McMurray echoed similar sentiments when he shared his experiences with the committee. He has consistently been a champion of management that leads to abundance in fisheries, a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Yes, the 2006 reauthorization required that we manage fisheries more conservatively than we had been, and that folks simply couldn’t harvest as many fish as they had been able to in years prior. But history shows that when such harvest levels could be kept higher, a large number of federally managed stocks were depleted. Prior to 2000, 92 federally-managed stocks were overfished, and 72 were subject to overfishing. Early last year that number dropped to just 38 overfished stocks, and just 30 were subject to overfishing.

Still, as members of this Committee likely know, there has been a lot of pushback since the 2006 reauthorization. There have been calls to go back to the old way of doing things, to give federal fisheries managers the flexibility to avoid annual catch limits and accountability measures, and there have been legislative proposals that would allow numerous loopholes to the annual catch limit and accountability measure requirements. Furthermore, there have been calls to manage federal fisheries in a manner similar to the way states manage their fisheries, avoiding annual catch limits and accountability measures altogether.

But the truth is these simple conservation provisions contained in the current version of the Magnuson Act cut the number of stocks being overfished by more than half. Forty-five stocks have been successfully rebuilt from previously depleted levels. Recreational participation and seafood landings are both up as a result.

The only truly discordant note, as foreshadowed by McMurray, came from Nick Cicero, a board member of the Recreational Fishing Alliance and the sales manager of the Folsom Corporation, a wholesale distributor and manufacturer of fishing tackle and outdoor apparel. Cicero was dismissive of the successes of Magnuson.

The true intent of Magnuson is clearly not being followed here. We are not managing for sustainability we are managing for abundance and preservation. It is a failed philosophy that is based on emotion and agenda and it is killing our recreational shore communities.

At the completion of Cicero’s testimony, Chairman Huffman characterized Cicero’s comments as a “withering criticism of Magnuson” that might leave the subcommittee members with the wrong impression about the state of recreational fishing. He cited statistics from the American Sportfishing Association to make his point.

Lest we take away from that testimony that recreational fishing is in steep decline, I would like to enter into the record a 2018 Sportfishing in America report from the American Sportfishing Association which shows by ASA’s own data show the total of U.S. recreational anglers increase by 8 percent between 2011 and 2018 and fishing equipment sales grew more than 21 percent.

ASMFC and Striped Bass

McMurray, who has direct knowledge of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission actions, used the current situation with striped bass to amplify his concerns about how states manage the fisheries and suggested they need to comply with the same federal mandates that the Regional Councils do.

On the issue of managing federal stocks like the states manage their fisheries, one need not look any farther than the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) – A cooperative compact of East Coast states that share migratory fishery resources. While their charter would certainly seem to suggest that they prevent overfishing and rebuild stocks, they have no federal or other mandate to do so. As a result, this body frequently bows to political pressure and allows overfishing.

The ONLY stock the Commission has successfully rebuilt since it was created in 1942, is Atlantic striped bass. Now, however, a recent stock assessment has revealed that even striped bass are once again overfished and subject to continued overfishing. Certainly, the Commission could have avoided that. And had striped bass been managed under federal law it’s likely that they would have.

It is my opinion that such management body should be subject to some sort of federal oversight in the near future. It would be good if the Commission had to comply with the same federal mandates that the Councils do.

As Chairman Huffman said at the end of the hearing, “it feels like we just scratched the surface on some really important subjects and conversations that I know many of us want to continue.”

He was right, and we will be following the committee’s progress closely. This hearing demonstrated that there is an opportunity to advance marine policy with improvements to fisheries science and data management, economic security for working waterfronts, electronic monitoring and bycatch reduction, and other priorities that will safeguard the ocean resources upon which so many Americans rely.

The Marine Fish Conservation Network’s diverse coalition stands ready to work with Congress to ensure the state of U.S. oceans and fisheries remains healthy and productive for generations to come. You can read the Network’s statement about his hearing here.

About Tom Sadler

Tom Sadler is the Network's deputy director. He has an extensive background in advocacy and journalism and a passion for oceans and fly-fishing. 

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