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Flyfishing in Saltwaters, March/April 2007


Good News FOR FISH…  Finally!

The Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization

By Capt. John McMurray


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the United States’ primary marine fisheries law.  It was originally passed over 30 years ago in response to foreign trawlers plundering New England’s groundfish stocks. While the bill stopped such foreign depredation, it merely replaced one problem with another, removing international fleets but creating incentives that led to domestic overfishing. Later revisions to the law, particularly the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, emphasized conservation, but were undermined by politics, loopholes, poor oversight and spotty enforcement.   Two important reports, one funded by Pew Foundation and one ordered by the Bush Administration, pointed out the need for additional changes and called on Congress to act. 


Bills that embodied very different visions of Magnuson were introduced in Congress last year.  The Senate version sought to strengthen the Act, while the House version sought to weaken it.  Debate on Magnuson’s future came to a standstill before the November elections, and no one expected a final version to pass in the lame duck session.  However, on the last day of the 108th Congress, at approximately 2:00AM, the House passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 by a voice-vote.  On Jan 12th President Bush signed it into law.


Despite some last-minute compromises, conservation advocates agree that the revised law is an improvement on the old one, and the changes were long overdue. 


Congress rejected efforts to repeal the conservation provisions of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, although some House members, led by Representatives Richard Pombo and Barney Frank, tried hard to eliminate statutory deadlines for rebuilding overfished stocks.  Hiding behind the euphemism “flexibility”, they sought changes in the law that would have allowed overfishing to continue indefinitely. 


However, the bill did extend the summer flounder (fluke) rebuilding deadline for three years, to avoid drastic harvest cuts.   No extensions for New England groundfish or other species were included, and the new law will likely make it more difficult to grant these kinds of exceptions in the future because one of the Act's most significant measures, which should greatly strengthen the role of science in management decisions: A requirement that managers set catch limits at or below levels recommended by the management councils’ Science and Statistical Committees.  Too often in the past, when scientific data regarding the health of fish stocks clashed with political desires to retain the jobs of local fishermen, the latter consideration prevailed. 


Managers must also immediately end overfishing once a stock is found to be depleted, and develop a plan for rebuilding the stock within two-and-a-half years.   While common sense should dictate that when a stock is in trouble, overfishing should stop, councils would often succumb to political pressure allowing stocks to be overfished for a decade or more.


The new law also establishes a “federal angler registry,” which essentially is a federal saltwater license, exempting those anglers in states with licenses that meet federal standards.  While no fee may be charged before 2011, anglers will probably pay in subsequent years.  While a license has been fought by angling groups in the Northeast, creating a register of known anglers will greatly increase the accuracy of the survey used to derive recreational catch estimates. 


The Magnusson Reauthorization also addresses international overfishing by enhancing controls against illegal, unreported and unregulated (“IUU”) fishing.  It authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to deny access to American ports to countries that are found to be engaging in such activities in international waters.


Individual transferable quotas for fishermen, dubbed "limited access privilege programs" (“LAPPs”) in the Act, allow groups or individuals to trade shares of a fishery's overall landings.  By transforming harvest shares into an asset that can be bought and sold, with a value dependent on the health of the fishery, LAPPs make sustainable fishing economically attractive.  Similar programs have helped prevent overfishing in nearly every fishery where they’ve been implemented, a welcome contrast to the prevailing system that drives fisherman to compete for a larger share of a declining resource. However, who will receive the shares has yet to be determined. 


At the insistence of West Coast lawmakers, the bill also includes language to speed recovery of Klamath River salmon stocks in the Northwest. It further authorizes deep-sea coral protections in fishery management plans and mandates coral research programs. The bill further establishes a trust fund for, among other things, improving fishery data, broadening observer coverage on vessels, and providing financial assistance to fishermen to help them comply with the law’s provisions.


The bill also calls for a study of scientific information and management techniques needed to implement an “ecosystems approach” to fisheries regulation, and asks the Councils to develop regional ecosystem pilot programs.


Unfortunately, the final bill failed to incorporate a measure which would have required harvest overages to be deducted from the following year’s quota. Instead, the bill directs the regional councils to establish “accountability measures” to prevent overages, although it does not specify how.


The reauthorization bill also failed to include a provision to expand council membership to include a wider range of constituencies.  Currently, councils are dominated by representatives of the commercial and extractive recreational fishing industries, only two of the stakeholder groups concerned with the health of our fisheries.


The bill also fails to limit the voting powers of council members who have direct financial conflicts of interest, although it does mandate “increasing training” for regional fishery council members regarding conflict of interest issues.


However, such small flaws should not detract from the overall impact of this important piece of legislation.  It is a victory for fish conservation, and is well overdue. It moves the nation forward by acknowledging that we can no longer support the status quo.


Ultimately, it will be only as strong as its enforcement. The next step is implementing the bill’s provisions.  Assuming fisheries managers respect Congress's will, the bill will move American fisheries toward sustainable levels.