Last week, Pew Charitable Trusts convened a meeting in Washington, DC, for the 40th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), a bipartisan law created to regulate and protect fisheries, enacted on April 13, 1976. Lyf Gildersleeve, owner of Flying Fish, a sustainable seafood retailer in the Providore Fine Foods space on NE Sandy Boulevard, was invited to attend. At the end of his report is a link to contact your congressional representatives, which I urge you to do.
There seems to be consensus, particularly among West Coast officials, that the MSA has been successful. The work to maintain it is constant and always evolving, but we’re fortunate to still benefit from such a great piece of legislation.
The 1996 and 2006 reauthorizations added new provisions which strengthened the MSA and gave it some teeth in addressing overfishing, rebuilding stocks and reducing bycatch. These provisions created on-the-water components beyond the letter of the law—often unpopular smaller quotas, new marine-protected areas and gear restrictions for bycatch reduction and habitat protection. These tough decisions certainly affect fishermen, fishing communities and many other components of the fishing industry, but they’re critical to maintain the overall sustainability of the resource.
Atlantic stripers at The Wharf in Washington, DC.
But the goal—and the good news—is that the MSA’s provisions have allowed stocks to rebuild, causing fishing quotas to start rising again, too. As well, the untargeted fish, often forage fish important in the food chain that feed the prized fishes, remain in the ocean. In short, sustainable fisheries policy enables sustainable business in coastal communities.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC), one of eight regional councils to come about because of MSA, has likewise adapted their policy to reflect an ecosystem-based approach, rather than a focus on individual species. This approach accounts for the all the components in the fishery’s web, rather than a single focus that has no regard for the effect it has elsewhere. It’s a relatively new approach, and NPFMC is the only regional council using this kind of management strategy.
It’s a West Coast success story to be sure, but unfortunately not all management areas in the United States yield the same successful results.
East Coast councils have continually struggled to rebuild stocks. They’ve implemented rebuilding programs that include conservation areas and lowered annual catch limits, but stocks have yet to recover. It’s the typical story of overfishing beyond a level of sustainability, and now too few fish remain to adequately reproduce and rebuild the population.
In the South, states like Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida remain locked in a huge allocation battle for red snapper. The fishery has faced tremendous pressure as a staple Southern dish, and thus stocks are weak. The resultant smaller quotas must be split between commercial, recreational, and charter boat fishermen.
Oregon delegation (l to r): Lyf Gildersleeve, Flying Fish; Bob Rees, Assoc. of NW Steelheaders; Paul Engelmeyer, Audobon Society Portland.
Issues also exist in the definitions of state and federal waters. Some states want to extend fishable boundaries into federal waters, which would create a gray area for overlapping fishing areas (i.e. multiple takers for singular fisheries). It would also create a ripple effect for threatened species from red snapper in the South to striped bass in the upper Atlantic, not to mention the potential for exploitation of gas and oil extraction and development. Allowing any additional boundary extensions is simply a bad idea.
In a nutshell, the West Coast has served as an exemplary model for MSA implementation and operation by regional fisheries management councils. We’ve done a lot of work so far, but much more still remains.
One of the biggest takeaways from my time in Washington was the need for a coalition of delegates and representatives to stand together and promote the policy’s successes. We need to come together with a cooperative effort to improve upon the existing MSA; we can’t wait for someone to draft legislation that would weaken it. Now is the time to act—to lead with positive action, rather than waiting to counter and oppose a bad plan.
This should not be a partisan issue, and it wasn’t in 1976 when Senators Warren Magnuson (D-Washington) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) drafted the first law. This is our ocean, our resource, our food. Here in 2016, we’re watching a divisive election campaign unfold in front of an unproductive Congress. The MSA’s renewals in 1996 and 2006 were each bipartisan; the new reauthorization must be handled the same way—professionally and humanely, across the aisle. There is no other way.
The MSA’s statute spans ten years, so given its last renewal in 2006, it’s up for another renewal. But, with a short session this year and a Congress that seems uninspired to advance anything with the environment in mind, it’s unlikely it will be renewed this year. That means the law will remain as is with almost no risk of being adulterated.
That said, in 2014, H.R. 4742—the "Empty Oceans Act"—passed through the House, but stalled in Senate and was fortunately not adopted. Its biggest offenses were introducing terminology like “flexibility” and “if practicable,” which enabled regional councils to exercise wiggle room, opening the door for overfishing in the name of higher profits. It’s not only crucial that the current MSA must be maintained, but with a longer view in focus it can incorporate new topics like: climate change, ocean acidification, estuary protection and upstream forestry protection.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the government entity that oversees the funding necessary for the MSA’s performance. And like many important interests, budget allocation issues are creating undue stress, in this case on fisheries.
For starters, there isn’t enough funding for research. The MSA states that regional councils must make the best choices possible with the best science available. But as it stands, the best science available is insufficient. Within the limits of current research, very tangible problems exist such as: 1) harvesting too many fish because populations were overestimated, and 2) its opposite, the underutilization of resources due to ineffective population analysis. Both of these are dangerous categories. Overfishing clearly causes damage, as we’ve seen on the East Coast, as it threatens to push a fishery beyond recovery. With underfishing, we risk one species overtaking a weaker one, creating the potential for further damage to weaker populations.
Within its current confines, NOAA doesn’t recognize the bigger picture. A more comprehensive overview would craft a better ecological picture—the relationship between what happens way upstream and deep in the ocean. Continued and deeper research on global warming and its effects on fisheries, ocean acidification and more is paramount.
NOAA also needs to create national training programs for displaced fishermen to build and enhance domestic aquaculture production, reducing our demand on foreign products. Currently, upwards of 90% of all seafood consumed in the United States is imported, most of it from China and Southeast Asia. We need to, and can, do better here at home.
With NOAA’s funding for research so limited, they should be more open to third-party science and research to help guide their decisions and policy. The current protocol, employing only in-house research, doesn’t work when there isn’t enough money for proper research.
Finally, I believe that NOAA could benefit from a marketing and awareness campaign, elevating the good work that NOAA does, like Fishwatch.gov, and bringing better attention to American fishing and seafood. I feel that much of the problem with the funding allocation stems from states not prioritizing a discussion about fisheries and the ocean.
I encourage you to write your congressional representatives and show your support for the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
All photos courtesy Lyf Gildersleeve.