Updated on August 28, 2014
The Blue Ocean Blog is now The Safina Center Blog
Today U.S. fisheries are doing quite well, thanks to the U.S. fishery law, known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The U.S. fishery law was first enacted in 1976 to protect declining U.S. fish species. The law was greatly improved in 1996 and further strengthened in 2006. Under the current law, fishery managers are required to rebuild depleted fish species as quickly as possible and set catch limits to ensure we don’t catch fish faster than they can reproduce (called overfishing).
The U.S. Fisheries Status Report that was released last month reports that we have rebuilt 34 fish populations since 2000. As well, we have reduced the number of fish populations caught at levels faster than they can reproduce from 72 to 28! 1 The law is working and the U.S. has become one of the world’s leaders in fisheries management.
But now all this great progress could be in jeopardy. Once again the U.S. fishery law is up for revision. And this time it remains unclear if Congress will strengthen the law or weaken it.
Two different draft proposals to amend the U.S. fishery law have been put forward. The first proposal by U.S. Representative Doc Hasting [the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee] could take U.S. fisheries backwards. The revised version calls for more “flexibility” by managers when it comes to rebuilding depleted fish species and setting catch limits. Essentially it would allow for delayed rebuilding of fish species in some instances. And it would allow short-term economic concerns to trump the need to sustain fish populations – the very thing that depleted U.S. fish populations to begin with2. Some fishermen in New England and the Gulf of Mexico are in favor of these changes. These two regions have the most remaining depleted fish species.
Fishermen on the West Coast, however, believe the current U.S. fishery law is working and are more in favor of the recent draft fishery law put forward by U.S. Senator Mark Begich of Alaska. His proposal would leave the current fishery law largely intact, but would add goals to manage the overall health of ocean ecosystems, like leaving enough small fish to feed the big fish. It also calls for the avoidance of bycatch. 3
Hopefully Congress will focus on building on the second proposal and on improving, not weakening, the U.S. fishery law. We need to manage our fisheries using a holistic ecosystem approach that considers interactions among species, fishing effects on non-target wildlife, the destruction of ocean habitat, and threats from climate change. U.S. fisheries have made great progress as a result of the U.S. fishery law but there is still more work to do!
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at The Safina Center.