Fish, Congress And Nickelback

blogpic-leonard_150x175by Mike Leonard, Ocean Resource Policy Director at the American Sportfishing Association
August 9, 2013

As I’m writing this column, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is holding the first of many hearings to discuss reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the law that governs federal (three miles to 200 miles) fisheries management in the nation’s oceans. For many anglers, the thought of Congress getting involved in fisheries issues probably doesn’t bring much comfort. This is, after all, the entity that recent polling has found to be less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, and even Nickelback.

But with the MSA set to expire later this year, everyone with an interest in federal fisheries management is looking ahead and planning their recommended changes to the law.

To provide some background and context, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (named for then-Senators Warren Magnuson from Washington and Ted Stevens from Alaska) was originally passed in 1976 amid a variety of other landmark environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, prompted by decades of unfettered industrialization. The primary purposes of the original law were to extend the U.S. exclusive economic zone to 200 miles offshore and eliminate competition from the foreign fishing fleets off our coasts.

Since its original passage, the MSA has seen numerous revisions, most recently in 2006, that have resulted in tremendous progress towards ending overfishing, rebuilding depleted fish stocks, protecting essential fish habitat and a variety of other improvements to the nation’s marine resources. However, despite its significant socioeconomic, cultural and conservation values, recreational fishing’s importance is still not reflected in MSA or the resultant federal marine fisheries management process, which remain primarily focused on commercial fishing. As a result, many in the recreational fishing community have argued that the law does not adequately acknowledge or respond to the needs of recreational fishing.

The current situation with red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico provides a perfect case study into what’s wrong with federal recreational fisheries management. As the red snapper population continues to rebuild and fish get larger and more abundant, anglers are “rewarded” with the shortest fishing season on record.

A system in which healthier fisheries translates to less angler access is a system that needs some serious revisions.

A recent conference hosted by the National Marine Fisheries Service titled “Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries 3” brought together leaders in the recreational, for-hire and commercial industries, as well as academics and environmental groups, to discuss the upcoming reauthorization of the MSA. As you might expect, a variety of opinions (many of which were in direct contrast to one another) were brought forward. From the recreational fishing community’s perspective, several common themes were evident throughout the conference, including:

Exploring alternative management approaches for recreational fishing in federal waters to better maximize access and fishing opportunity.

Increasing funding for fisheries data collection and developing more cost-efficient research programs; and reexamining how fisheries with both a commercial and recreational component are divided between the two sectors.

During most of the 20th century, before saltwater recreational fishing achieved the current high level of popularity and associated impact on the resource, managers were able to get by with managing recreational fishing secondarily under a system designed for commercial fishing. While this approach has worked adequately in some instances, in many others it is clear that new approaches are needed that recognize the values, motivations and impacts of recreational fishing.

Past reauthorizations have been remembered for addressing a few key issues. For example, the 2006 reauthorization was primarily noted for setting in place strict provisions to end overfishing. With so much attention throughout the country focused on the struggles with recreational fisheries management, hopefully the upcoming MSA reauthorization will be remembered for making substantial improvements related to management of this complex but extremely important sector.