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Originally Published in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters Magazine



Current “fixes” to Magnuson don’t address the real problem


In the Jan/Feb column (In Defense of Fishery Management) I made the case that despite some problems the system generally serves anglers well.   “The biggest problems are related to the lack of adequate data and the need for reliable stock assessments in a number of fisheries,” I wrote, “but even in those situations, there are folks working to implement a fix that doesn’t threaten the intent of the Magnuson Act.”  For better or worse, indeed folks are working on various fixes, yet recent ones don’t appear to address the real problem.     


The Flexibility in American Fisheries Act isn’t relevant here as it and would essentially put us back to pre-1996 levels of overfishing.   For decades NOAA and the Regional Fishery Management Councils had the flexibility to put off needed conservation measures and thus facilitated a long period of overfishing of which some stocks may never recover.  Fortunately, for the time being most of congress seems to realize that “flexibility” is what caused decades of overfishing, and certainly isn’t the solution now. 


But there’s another “fix” out there now that appears at first to address the data problem and is indeed more benign that the aforementioned “flexibility” legislation.  Furthermore, it is supported by a number of organizations I have great respect for and that I generally agree with on most issues.   But, from where I stand, I can’t help but see it as fraught with unintended consequences. 


Such a fix, the “Fisheries Science Improvement Act,”  (FISA) appears to be a response to some regional dissatisfaction with the Magnuson Act’s requirement that fishery management councils establish “annual catch limits” and impose “accountability measures”  if those annual catch limits are exceeded.


Such annual catch limits and accountability measures have long been a feature of many commercial fisheries.  In other words, if fishermen go over quota, they get shut down, and/or have to pay an overage back the following year.  Historically, however, recreational fishing has been managed by “bag” limits or seasons, or by “soft” limits which are often been exceeded when angling effort, or angler success rates go beyond anticipated levels.  In all but a very few fisheries, anglers were never directly penalized for exceeding their annual quotas.

That has now changed.  The most recent reauthorization of the Magnuson Act included a provision which required that annual catch limits and accountability measures be implemented for all stocks under federal management, beginning this year.  For the most part Councils have met that deadline, which in itself is a historical achievement.   After decades of overfishing, the great majority of federally managed stocks are either rebuilt or rebuilding, largely as a result of the conservation requirements in Magnuson and movement toward annual catch limits and accountability measures. 


A number of recreational fishing groups are unhappy with the limits being set for some species, claiming the science doesn’t exist to justify them or that the requirement is forcing unfair closures when annual limits are reached.   The Fisheries Science Improvement Act seeks to exempt fisheries from the requirement to establish annual catch limits if there has not been a stock assessment for that fishery in the last 5 years, and NOAA has determined that overfishing is not occurring.


Proponents claim that setting catch limits for fish species lacking full stock assessments amounts to guesswork…  Hyperbolic  “wild-ass guesses.”  The truth is that there are scientifically sound and proven methods to set annual catch limits for fish populations without full stock assessments, which are currently in use.  All federally managed species have data such as catch history, fishing effort over time, and life history characteristics that can be used for setting rational catch limits.   Fisheries scientists use the best available science to inform management, further drawing upon information about reproductive rates, other biological factors and other relevant data. 


Everyone supports using full stock assessments when available to guide annual catch limits, but alternative methods can enable managers to set limits when full-scale stock assessments are not available. The appropriate application of these methods reduces the risk of overfishing.  


To the credit of supporters of this Bill, they are not arguing against such scientifically sound and proven methods.  It is annual catch limits that are rushed to meet a deadline, without the kind of rational analysis described above they oppose.  There seem to be quite a few such examples in the South Atlantic.  Regardless, Magnuson is pretty clear in its intent that when there is uncertainty in the status of a stock, more, not less precaution should be used.  While FSIA might be well-intentioned legislation to addresses some legitimate concerns, should it pass, it will have unintended consequences. 


Ken Hinman, President of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation points out that a number of fishery management plans that sought protect healthy fisheries from unregulated commercial expansion would not have been possible under the Fishery Science Improvement Act.  The Dolphin/Wahoo fishery management plan (FMP) of 2003 placed an annual catch limit on commercial fishing, without a stock assessment, in order to prevent new commercial fisheries from harming a thriving recreational fishery.  The Atlantic Billfish FMP of 1990 banned all commercial fishing without a stock assessment and no evidence of overfishing, simply to preserve the sport fishery.  The Sargassum FMP of 2003 set a very small quota, sans a stock assessment, to protect an essential habitat from commercial exploitation. The Atlantic Shark Plan of 1993 imposed the first annual catch limits on commercial fishing for 11 coastal species in the face of very little data.  


In all of the above cases, fishery managers were being proactive in order to prevent overfishing.  It’s clear that requiring annual catch limits only in those fisheries where there are up-to-date stock assessments and evidence of overfishing would deny fishery managers a precautionary tool that seems to have has served us well in the past - the discretion to identify a potential threat to a healthy fishery and take pre-emptive action. 


The bill also exempts any “non-target stock” that is not technically overfished from catch limits.  That means that an annual catch limit, such as a bycatch-cap, could not be set for species such as river herring and shad that are caught in federally-managed industrial trawl fisheries.  River-herring and shad, which are currently managed by the states have not been designated “overfished” under the Magnuson Act, despite the fact that these critical forage species are so depleted a petition was  recently filed to list river herring under the Endangered Species Act. 


What is perhaps most noteworthy about the Fisheries Science Improvement Act is what it does not do.  Nowhere does it require NOAA to improve its science or provide any incentive to do so, which is particularly confusing given the bill’s stated purpose is to “provide the necessary scientific information to properly implement annual catch limits”.   “The bill does not authorize any new money for stock assessments or even data collection,” writes Hinman “the latter being the number one obstacle to accurately assessing a fish stock’s condition.”   


This bill could actually jeopardize the legal incentive for managers to collect information on species without stock assessments.  It’s likely that managers would allocate their research and assessment funds to those species for which they are still legally required to set science-based annual catch limits. So rather than improve fisheries science, this bill could lead to less science for the dozens of species that would be exempted from the annual catch limit requirement. 


The real issue here is that we need more and better science if we want to improve the implementation of annual catch limits and accountability measures.  As far as I can tell the Fisheries Science Improvement Act simply doesn’t address that.  What it does is lay out some broad and in some cases dangerous exemptions to address what is largely region-specific issue. 


The bottom line is this: we will have more and better stock assessments if we have more and better data, science and of course man-power.   Any bill that doesn’t directly address this is not in my view a “fix”.  


The good news is that there has recently been talk of a bill that does indeed address the funding issue.  At the time of this writing the bill does not have an official name, yet from what I know at this point, it would redirect an existing funding stream – The Kennedy- Saltonstall Act - to support fisheries research and management programs and to provide assistance to fishing communities.   The Kennedy-Saltonstall Act, was for decades intended to direct a portion of fish tariffs to managers and fishermen, but it has simply gone into the NOAA general coffers.  Tapping Kennedy-Saltonstall is a great idea, but such funding will have to compete with commercial interests who want to use the same money to promote US fisheries products—which was a big part of its original intent.  Winning that fight may be difficult.  Yet if the entire recreational and environmental community get behind more funding for needed science it would go a long way toward making it happen.