June 22, 2018

House Bill Would Reverse Progress on U.S. Ocean Fish Management

News Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author(s): Ted Morton

Note: This article was updated on June 28, 2018 after the House of Representatives rescheduled a vote on this legislation, and the number of groups and individuals opposing the bill increased.

In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill that would undermine a law that significantly affects the health of the ocean and the species that live there—the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The bill, H.R. 200, would weaken the very parts of Magnuson-Stevens that drove two decades of progress in the management of our country’s marine fisheries. H.R. 200 also marks a significant departure from the bipartisan effort behind the last two updates to the law, which passed in 1996 and 2006. The Pew Charitable Trusts joins more than 1,000 organizations, scientists, fishermen, business leaders, and others who oppose H.R. 200 and urge House members to reject it.

The wrong direction for fisheries management

The bill would erode the science-based foundation of America’s fisheries management system and dilute its core conservation provisions by allowing fishery managers to exempt many species, including forage fish that feed recreationally and commercially important species, from catch limits designed to prevent overfishing. H.R. 200 loosens the standards for rebuilding depleted stocks within a reasonable time frame and undercuts provisions to protect essential habitat and address bycatch—the unintended catch of non-target fish and wildlife. These changes would increase the risk of overfishing and delay the benefits that productive fish populations provide to both people and marine wildlife, in turn threatening the livelihoods of millions of Americans who depend on a healthy ocean.

In December, this regressive bill passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee on a divided 23-17 vote. This stands in stark contrast to the two previous bipartisan updates to Magnuson-Stevens, which attracted overwhelming support and ensured science was central to fishery management decisions while tackling the tough issue of chronic overfishing in our ocean waters.

Gains for ocean fish, but unfinished work

And those reforms are working: Since 2000, 44 overfished populations have been rebuilt to healthy levels. In 2015, the latest year for which numbers are available, U.S. marine fisheries supported 1.6 million jobs, a 12 percent increase over 2011, and the fishing industry posted $208 billion in sales, up from $185 billion in 2011.

Still, managers have more work ahead to end overfishing. In its latest fisheries management status report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that overfishing is still occurring on 30 populations (of 317 the agency assessed for that condition) and that 35 of the 235 stocks assessed for population size are at such drastically low numbers that they are under a formal rebuilding plan. Some in those plans are struggling to recover due to decades of overfishing, habitat loss, and changing ocean conditions. For these populations, the science-based annual catch limits and reasonable rebuilding timelines in Magnuson-Stevens are necessary, but they are not enough.

How to accelerate progress in U.S. fisheries

It would be a mistake to conclude that America has accomplished its mission of achieving sustainable fisheries and can afford to weaken the law. Congress should maintain our nation’s strong commitment to science-based fisheries management by ensuring that the law reflects the best current knowledge about ocean systems and that fishery managers better protect habitat, conserve forage fish, and reduce bycatch. Managers should be proceeding with caution before establishing new fisheries, to ensure they are sustainable from the start. And fishing rules should fit within a wider ecosystem plan that uses the best scientific information to understand the important connections among predators, prey, habitat, and human needs.

Americans—from seafood lovers to whale-watchers to fishermen—rely on a healthy ocean in ways they might not even realize. For the benefit of all of them, Congress should not cede the gains we have made over the past two decades or abandon the goal of sustainable marine fisheries. Lawmakers can, and must, do better than H.R. 200.