Possible changes coming for the Magnuson-Stevens Act

There are a couple bills floating around in the House and Senate that seek to make changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the 1996 law reauthorized in 2006 by the Bush Administration that governs fishing in the country’s oceans. The MSA, which aims to end overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks, requires regional fishery management councils to put in place annual catch limits and accountability measures for every fishery by Dec. 31, 2011. The bills, known as S.1916 in the Senate and H.R. 2304, both refer the the Fisheries Science Improvement Act (FSIA), an amendment aimed at, among other things, extended this deadline to 2014, as well as attempting to make fisheries more accountable to scientific data when determining catch limits. According to a FSIA fact sheet, the bill will:

• Direct National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries to set annual catch limits and accountability measures only on those stocks of fish for which they have up-to-date scientific information to inform that decision.

The two conditions exempting a fishery from the annual catch limit (ACL) requirements are the lack of a stock assessment in the prior 5 years and the absence of any indication that overfishing is occurring. Under the agency’s interpretation of current law, it is planning to establish ACLs on all stocks under management whether or not scientific information exists on the health of the stock. FSIA ensures the agency can manage to the science they have.

• Transitions NOAA Fisheries and the regional fishery management councils to a science-based fishery management framework. With so many stocks of fish lacking sound scientific data, the agency is currently forced to either remove individual stocks from management or move only selected stocks to an administratively created ecosystem management category. This bill authorizes the administration’s informal guidance and broadens the criteria for the designation of a stock’s inclusion in the ecosystem category.

• NOAA Fisheries is preparing to set annual catch limits and accountability measures for some 528 stocks of fish to meet the deadline of December 31, 2011. FSIA extends the 2011 deadline to 2014 for stocks of fish that are not overfished and allows the agency to implement the act.

The bill has no shortage of proponents. Representatives from New Jersey, Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Maryland, New Mexico, Alabama, and California have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

In an article, F.J. Eike of Mississippi’s Coast Conservation Association, said “the act is a way of putting the National Marine Fisheries Service on notice that they’ve got to do their job better.

‘We believe the act is a reasonable amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act,’ Eike said. ‘It basically says that when we have good data, use it; when we don’t, let’s put off those management decisions until we get it.’

He said lack of reliable data is not just an issue in the Gulf of Mexico, but is a problem that has plagued fisheries management nationwide.

Eike said creation of the Marine Recreational Information Program, an alternative to what has long been described by scientists as the “fatally-flawed” Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey, could help with more accurate data.

He also endorsed more fishery-independent sample collection by marine scientists on the water as a way to get a better read on the true status of all of the nations marine fisheries.”

However, not everyone sees this as the next logical step in the MSA. Jamie Pollock, of the Pew Environmental Group says the bill will actually create more loopholes in the MSA and actually make it less effective, creating more risks for fish stocks mostly by exempting certain fish populations from science-based catch limits. This specifically refers to the first bullet point above: according to Pew, the bill exempts fishery managers from setting annual catch limits if the populations have not been assessed in the past six years, even if the populations are depleted. “This exemption could risk overfishing on a minimum of 48 species and potentially many more in the future if their assessments become more than six years old.

“This would actually create a disincentive to gather information on these species because managers will focus resources where the catch limit requirement remains.”

Pew also argues the bill does nothing to improve fishery science and instead defers the ACL requirement deadline without a specific plan to increase dependability of data collection. “Less fisheries science will lead to less certain management, which will hurt fishermen and fishing communities that rely on stable, sustainable quotas to run their businesses. Instead of creating a level playing field, this bill caters to a few in the recreational fishing industry who don’t want to play by the same rules that commercial fishermen will have to continue to abide by.”

The Pew Environment Group spearheaded the movement to save menhaden that I wrote about last month, so it was interesting to hear Pollack tell me over dinner at Zaab Elee on Second Avenue (by the way, they have snakehead on the menu there, Ben) that the Recreational Fishermen’s Alliance is often at odds with Pew’s views (In one of their press releases, RFA director Jim Donofrio said, “Pew and the Pew-funded advocacy groups like Marine Fish Conservation Network and Ocean Conservancy are not our friends, they don’t want to allow more fishing.”). “RFA is constantly charging us, saying we’re against fishing, saying we’re trying to take fishing away from people,” Pollack said. It isn’t true though, she said. “Pew’s fishery director is actually a huge rec fisherman.” Regardless, Pew and the RFA are at opposing sides here, mostly stemming from interpretation of the FSIA, which Pew regards as shortsighted and is instead pushing for more investment in data collection and population monitoring.

It appears extremely unlikely that the requirement for data on all fish stocks by the end of the year will be successful (I can’t help but think states like NY may be partially responsible for that while some communities fought tooth and nail against the saltwater license, the aim of which was exactly to improve data collection on the state’s fisheries.). While FSIA’s backers say putting annual catch limits on all fish populations, including those without recent stock assessments, is unfair and unnecessary, Pew argues the other side of that coin, saying it’s foolish to declare open season on fish populations without having hard scientific data to back up the health of the stock. Taking a step back, it seems both sides can agree on giving a check to the NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The amendments offered by the FSIA do appear (at least to me) to be shortsighted and nonspecific. It essentially increases the deadline for the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act without requiring solutions for assessments in the meantime. “It would do nothing to improve science, but it would undermine the law by exempting scores of America’s ocean fish populations from annual catch limits and accountability measures,” Pew states.

Contact for NY Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer:

Jordan Baugh (jordan_baugh@gillibrand.senate.gov ); 202-224-4451

Anne Fiala (anne_fiala@schumer.senate.gov ); 202-224-6542
Gerry Petrella (gerry_petrella@schumer.senate.gov) Gerry is Schumer’s Long Island regional director



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