Thirty-six years after enactment of the law that is now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), we are turning a corner on ending overfishing (taking fish faster than they can reproduce) and rebuilding our nation's valuable fish populations. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reports that 23 depleted stocks have been rebuilt since 2000. In addition, it has estimated that fully rebuilt U.S. fish populations would generate $216 billion in annual sales impacts and support 2.5 million full- and part-time U.S. jobs in commercial and recreational fisheries.
So-called flexibility bills—including H.R. 1646, the “American Angler Preservation Act”; H.R. 3061, the “Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011”; and S. 632, the “Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011”—would undermine the bipartisan conservation provisions of the MSA by creating loopholes that could extend timelines indefinitely for rebuilding depleted fish populations. Doing so would raise fishing pressure on depleted populations while increasing the difficulty and cost of their recovery. These bills also would allow fishery managers to put short-term gains for a few ahead of the nation's investment in healthy fish populations, which provide income and jobs for many.
Many regions across the country are beginning to reap the benefits of years of hard work to rebuild depleted fish stocks to healthy levels. For example, in the mid-Atlantic region, summer flounder was rebuilt in 2010, thanks to measures put in place to restore this once depleted population.
However, in the name of “flexibility,” H.R. 1646, H.R. 3061, and S. 632 would exempt fisheries from certain rebuilding requirements, delaying the economic and ecological benefits that healthy fish populations bring to coastal communities in the form of vibrant fisheries, fresh seafood, and greater fishing opportunities for anglers.
After decades of costly fishery declines resulting from mismanagement, Congress amended the MSA in 1996. It now requires that the time to rebuild depleted fish populations be “as short as possible,” but no more than 10 years, which was twice the time scientists calculated that a majority of fish populations required for rebuilding. The law provides flexibility in meeting these rebuilding requirements, because it makes reasonable exceptions allowing the timeline to be exceeded to accommodate the biology of a fish stock, other environmental conditions, or management measures under an international agreement in which the United States participates. Regional fishery management councils, composed of local fishing representatives and members of coastal state governments with support from scientific advisers, create rebuilding plans and have included these exceptions in many cases.
Some supporters of the flexibility bills claim that the MSA requires any fishery designated as overfished to be completely rebuilt within 10 years. This is simply not true. Because of the flexibility inherent in the MSA, more than half of the existing rebuilding plans already exceed 10 years. (See chart, Pages 2-3.) The rebuilding requirement represents a key conservation provision of the MSA and should not be undermined. Bills such as H.R. 1646, H.R. 3061, and S. 632 would harm, not help, fishermen by weakening the very fish populations upon which their livelihoods depend. Congress should reject these bills and instead help fishermen by investing in data collection and analysis to improve fisheries management and by supporting targeted efforts to help U.S. fishermen make the transition to long-term sustainability.