Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act: People Are Talking (And Rep. Huffman Is Listening)

Recreational anglers at sunset

This post originally appeared on Charles Witek’s blog, One Angler’s Voyage, and is reprinted with permission.

Last Friday, I had the privilege of participating in a “listening session” arranged by Rep. Jarred Huffman (D-CA), the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee. Eleven persons, not including the Congressman, sat at the front table. All were drawn from the academic, fisheries management, angling, commercial fishing, and conservation communities, and all were good representatives of their respective communities.

A view inside the listening session.

A view inside the listening session.

Our session, intended to address Mid-Atlantic concerns, was held at the National Aquarium’s Animal Care and Rescue Center in Baltimore. Two similar sessions have already been held in California, and more will be held in other coastal venues. Seattle is next on the agenda; fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast, will also have a chance to be heard.

The purpose of all of the sessions was to examine issues related to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and perhaps other, related legislation, in order to provide Rep. Huffman with the background information that he needs to move forward with a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill at some point during the next year.

Given the diversity of the invitees, with respect to experience, formal education and their relationship to Mid-Atlantic fisheries, it would have been reasonable to have expected that each of us would have presented a very different set of comments. But while all of us emphasized a slightly different aspect of fisheries management, there were a few common themes that united all of the speakers.

Everyone at the table who spoke on the issue generally endorsed Magnuson-Stevens as a successful fishery management law, even if some of the speakers questioned whether the law was overly rigid and precautionary, and so prevented some healthy stocks from being fully—but safely—exploited.

The need for the best possible scientific information, including but not limited to landings data, was certainly one of those themes. Whether the comments were made by Dr. John Wiedenmann, a professor at Rutgers University who focuses on sustainable fisheries issues, by Michael Waine, the American Sportfishing Association’s Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director, or by Robert Beal, the Executive Director of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, all agreed that good fisheries management depends on good fisheries data.

Of course, while there was broad consensus that fisheries managers require good data, there was less agreement on how to improve the data-gathering process and how to deal with the uncertainty that will never be completely eliminated from the final product.

In recent years, largely in connection with the so-called “Modern Fish Act” and the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, members of the recreational fishing industry have been calling for things such as anglers providing catch data via a smart phone application, or providing data that can be included in stock assessments and other research efforts. Those suggestions were made at the listening session as well, but other members of the panel, including Richard Robins, former Chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, noted that there is still a long way to go before data provided by anglers can be adequately scrubbed of bias, and so rendered reliable enough to be suitable for use by fisheries managers.

I pointed out that Magnuson-Stevens already includes a provision which states that

“annual catch limits for each of [a regional fishery management council’s] managed fisheries…may not exceed the fishing level recommendations of [that council’s] scientific and statistical committee or the peer review process established under [another provision of the law],”

and that the Guidelines adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service for complying with the National Standards for Fisheries Management included in Magnuson-Stevens provide, in part, that

“When specifying limits and accountability measures, Councils must take an approach that considers uncertainty in scientific information and management control of the fishery.”

While I didn’t quote that language word-for-word, I cited the general concepts, and suggested that because some level of uncertainty will always be inherent in fisheries data, it might make sense to amend the language of Magnuson-Stevens to require that each regional fishery management council’s scientific and statistical committee, when setting the acceptable biological catch used to develop annual catch limits, specifically include scientific and management uncertainty in its calculations, and thus create a buffer that would probably prevent overfishing despite whatever problems persisted in the data.

I still like the idea, but Rep. Huffman correctly noted that such a change probably wouldn’t go over too well with those who shared the views of Greg DiDomenico, Executive Director of the Garden State Seafood Association, who had earlier argued that Magnuson-Stevens already caused federal fisheries managers to be overly precautionary, and thus led to the “underfishing” of healthy stocks.

And, despite my preference for precautionary management, particularly in the face of uncertain data, I can’t say that Mr. DiDomenico’s comment was wrong, for there’s no reason not to fully exploit fish stocks, so long as that exploitation doesn’t threaten such stocks’ long-term health.

It’s clear that Rep. Huffman is facing a big job, trying to sort this issue out in a way that addresses all of the public’s concerns.

Adding to the problems with uncertain data is the certainty of climate change, and its impact on coastal waters. Dr. Wiedenmann has been doing a lot of work with New England groundfish, and noted that because of warming waters, and the related effects of that warming, in our northeastern sea, there is a lot of question as to whether past estimates of stock biomass, and rebuilding plans that are based on such estimates, are still realistic today. In a slightly different riff on the “underfishing” theme, he noted that the measures required to rebuild some groundfish stocks to the target level (he mentioned yellowtail flounder as an example) within Magnuson-Stevens’ default 10-year timeline could force fishermen to land smaller amounts of other species that remain at or near healthy levels of abundance, in order to avoid overfishing the depleted populations. The remedy for that problem, he suggested, might be more liberal rebuilding timelines.

Robert Beal mentioned two ASMFC-managed stocks, northern shrimp and the southern New England stock of American lobster, which have been so badly impacted by warming waters and climate change that they may never recover, regardless of what managers do.

A solution to that problem remains elusive.

Even the seemingly obvious issues turn out to be harder than they seem.

Pam Lyons Gromen, Executive Director for Wild Oceans, was the second panelist to speak, and the first to mention the forage fish issue. She spoke of the need to manage forage fish not just for human harvest, but for their role in marine ecosystems, where they serve as prey for not only fish, but for a plethora of seabirds and marine mammals. Comments along the same theme were made by Michael Waine and by Capt. Paul Eidmann who, besides being the owner/operator of Reel Therapy Fly & Light Tackle Fishing Charters, heads the organization Menhaden Defenders, which, as its name suggests, is dedicated to forage fish conservation.

Protecting key elements of the marine food web might, at first glance, seem to be a no-brainer, but as is often the case with fisheries matters, the reality is much more nuanced. Dr. Michelle Duval, an experienced fisheries scientist who operates Mellivora Consulting, noted that the definition of “forage fish” is not as clean-cut as people might believe, and pointed out that marine ecosystems hold a number of key species, and that all need to be adequately conserved. Dr. Wiedenmann also recommended giving some real thought to the forage fish issue, because different fish require different forage species, and many forage species are subject to wide swings in abundance due to natural circumstances, which are completely unrelated to fishing effort.

Mr. DiDomenico objected to forage fish-specific provisions in Magnuson-Stevens, arguing that the current law is protecting marine resources, including forage species, well as it is currently worded, and that there is no need to add an additional layer of legislation and regulation that might unnecessarily burden fishermen.

Thus, it became obvious that in the fisheries arena, even an idea that is a “no-brainer” will require considerable thought.

Finally, as the last three panel members had their turn to speak, a final topic was brought to the floor. All three speakers were recreational fishermen, and all three had decided to speak not just about how well Magnuson-Stevens was working to manage federal fisheries, but how inshore fisheries, which not managed pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens, but instead by the states, acting cooperatively through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, were not doing hardly as well.

We hadn’t discussed what we would say among ourselves. None of us had seen the other persons’ comments before they were made. But all of us had decided that it was time to ask Congress, in the form of Rep. Huffman, for its help, and to transform the ASMFC into a truly effective management body that, in its own sphere, might finally claim the same sort of successes that federal fisheries managers have long achieved.

Capt. Eidmann was the first to raise the issue, focusing on the ASMFC’s failure to properly manage striped bass. Tony Friedrich, Vice President and Policy Director for the American Saltwater Guides Association, then picked up on the theme, noting that we need the ASMFC to do better and to concentrate on what fishermen really need—rebuilding and maintaining healthy fish stocks. I was the last panel member to speak.

Magnuson-Stevens works. So my comments focused solely on the need for changes to the law that governs ASMFC. They weren’t easy comments to write, because I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t attacking the ASMFC’s staff, who in their competence and dedication are the equal of federal fisheries managers. What I decried, and asked Rep. Huffman to help change, was an ASMFC structure and management system that seems built to guarantee failure.

The final words of my comments read

“The failure to rebuild and maintain healthy inshore fish stocks is not the fault of Commission staff, who are good people, and do a good job, but of its species-specific management boards, which are dominated by individuals who have close ties to fishermen and the fishing industry, and tend to elevate fishermen’s short-term wants above the long-term needs of the fish stocks that they manage.

“After the regional fishery management councils proved themselves unwilling and unable to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, for much the same reasons, Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 which, for the first time, required that federal fishery managers end overfishing, promptly rebuild overfished stocks, and base their management actions on the best available science. Actions which failed to meet those basic standards could be challenged in court.

“Now, for the Commission to live up to its potential, we need what might be called the ‘Sustainable Atlantic Coast Fisheries Act,’ which amends the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which governs the Commission, in a similar way.

“I have often pointed out that, if you want to have a fishing industry, it helps to have fish. That’s particularly true in recreational fisheries, where abundance clearly drives effort, and effort drives revenues. A strong Magnuson-Stevens helps to create and maintain such abundance; requiring the Commission to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks would provide the same benefits for our inshore fish stocks.

“Thank you.”

I know that Rep. Huffman was listening to the comments that all of us made.

His listening sessions are just the opening rounds in a discussion, and then a debate, that will take a year, and probably years, to resolve. How many of our suggestions make it into the original draft of whatever bill results, and then survive the political process in both houses of Congress, is impossible to predict at this point.

Right now, all we can do is thank Rep. Huffman for reaching out to stakeholders on every coast, keep in touch with the political process as it evolves, and keep striving to convince legislators in both the House and Senate that a strong Magnuson-Stevens—and, on the East Coast, ASMFC reform—is in the best long term interests of both fish and fisherman.

About Charles Witek

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

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