Opinion

Fisheries Management: Let’s Not Quit While We’re Ahead

There’s more we can do to manage fisheries sustainably

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Quitting while you’re ahead might protect your gains in gambling and investing. But in most other endeavors, that strategy can quickly backfire: Once you quit, you probably won’t stay ahead much longer.

Congress should embrace this common wisdom as it considers the next reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law governing U.S. ocean fishing. Forty years ago this week, President Gerald Ford signed legislation—later renamed to honor the leadership of Senators Warren Magnuson (D-WA) and Ted Stevens (R-AK)—that has helped the United States improve conservation of many fish populations that are important for commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishermen.

Advancements in fisheries and environmental science since 1976 and a rapidly changing marine environment have highlighted numerous gaps in U.S. fisheries policy. Fortunately, the shortcomings can be corrected with an update of the law that moves us beyond managing fish populations on a species‐by‐species basis to managing fish as part of the larger ocean environment.

This approach, known as ecosystem-based fisheries management, takes a big‐picture look at everything we already know about fish—such as where they live, what they eat, and how they are affected by pollution and other threats. It will also help managers understand how their decisions are likely to affect the broader ecological and socio-economic conditions of fishing communities, while ensuring that a diverse set of objectives yield the best possible results. In particular, it will secure the future protection of marine ecosystems and the more than 1.2 million jobs that depend on healthy oceans.

Congress can help achieve these goals when it updates the Magnuson-Stevens Act by including provisions that:

  • Conserve forage fish—the smaller fish, such as menhaden, herring, and sardines, that are the primary food source for larger fish and other wildlife—by setting limits on how many can be caught while making sure that enough of these food fish are left in the water for dependent predators.
  • Safeguard habitat by protecting certain key areas of the ocean from damaging human activities such as pollution, dredging, and fishing for spawning fish, to boost fish populations and help promote healthy, robust ocean ecosystems.
  • Call for bycatch to be minimized. This can be accomplished in many ways, including by improving commercial fishing techniques to help fishermen avoid catching animals they never intended to capture or kill, such as leatherback sea turtles, dolphins, and many species of fish.
  • Make sure that new fisheries are sustainable from the start by requiring that scientific data be compiled and analyzed to determine whether or how much fishing can be allowed in new areas of the ocean, or on new species, before opening a commercial or sport fishery.
  • Require the creation of comprehensive plans by regional fishery councils that take into account scientific data about what is affecting the fish they manage—such as the health of their habitat and their food supply—and how fishing is influencing other fisheries and the larger ecosystem. This information will allow regional managers to make more informed decisions.

Each of these improvements is linked to the others, so it is essential to include all five when the law is updated.

Pursuing a comprehensive approach such as this would show Americans that Congress can again come together for the good of the U.S. marine environment—and for the millions of people whose jobs and recreational interests depend on healthy, sustainable fisheries.

Lee Crockett directs U.S. ocean conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act at 40

Reasons major U.S. fishing law should shift to big picture management

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