Column: Longstanding fisheries act doesn't need changing

Amy Sweeney file photoA fishing boat heads out of Gloucester Harbor past Eastern Point.

Those who catch ocean fish, dine on the country’s marine bounty or simply appreciate the remarkable improvement in the state of America’s fisheries can thank the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. From its passage in 1976, the nation’s premier fisheries law has been remarkably free of the party politics so often exhibited these days. And that’s exactly why we need to be careful about some current initiatives to change it.

Over the years, the act, sometimes called the MSA, has become increasingly prescriptive in order to assure that fishery management is based on sound science and that catches of fish do not exceed the limits of an ecosystem’s productivity. While some regional controversies continue, it is telling that the last reauthorization of the act, in 2007, passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly and was signed by then-President George W. Bush.

As we approach the transition to a new administration, however, a number of proposals have emerged to revise the law or change its administrative guidelines. Unfortunately, these would loosen effective protections that have been so successful in eliminating overfishing and rebuilding stocks.

For instance, one of these would increase the elapsed time between identifying overfishing and actually addressing the problem.

Why wait? For a fish stock that’s already under pressure such a delay could prove needlessly harmful. Much of our recent success has stemmed from quick action and firm timetables for rebuilding, and that approach has clearly worked.

Catching a certain amount of non-target species (termed “bycatch”) may be inevitable, but minimizing this wasteful result is critical. The first step in reducing the problem is knowing how big the challenge is, which can be done by counting how much bycatch actually occurs. Proposed changes to how bycatches are managed could severely handicap the ability to obtain accurate bycatch data.

Furthermore, under one option, the term bycatch would be refined to completely exclude some dead fish. Combining poorer quality data with such additional changes could mean the appearance of great progress on paper even as marine ecosystems decline.

Currently, the MSA is set up to invest control of allocations and management in regional councils composed of a broad representation of stakeholders. But if as has been proposed in Congress, we cede overall control of, for instance, the red snapper fishery to the Gulf States, local pressures might prove too powerful to resist and overfishing could return in force.

Maintaining flexibility in regionally based management measures under the umbrella of consistent national standards has been a successful formula for rebuilding the nation’s fisheries under MSA. But all of the proposed changes would put us on a slippery slope back to unsustainable fisheries.

Commercial and recreational fishers, managers and scientists have worked hard and sacrificed much to attain the status of having the best managed fisheries in the world, with all of the attendant benefits to America of stable and productive stocks. The law has functioned with full bipartisan and regional cooperation, and we need to resist the temptation of saying, “It ain’t broke, but let’s fix it anyway.”

William Hogarth is the director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography and was the head of the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 2001 to 2008. Steve Murawski is a University of South Florida professor and director of the Center for Integrated Analysis and Modeling of Gulf Ecosystems.

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