Note: This article was updated on June 28, 2018 after the House of Representatives postponed a vote on the legislation, and the number of groups and individuals opposing the bill has 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 in it, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The bill, HR 200, would weaken the very parts of Magnuson-Stevens that led to two decades of progress in the management of our nation’s marine fisheries. HR 200 also marks a significant departure from the bipartisan effort behind the last two updates to the law, which were passed in 1996 and 2006. The Pew Charitable Trusts joins more than 1000 organizations, scientists, fishermen, business leaders and others who oppose the HR 200 and urge members of the House to reject it.
The wrong direction for fisheries management
The bill would erode the scientific basis of the US fisheries management system and dilute its core conservation provisions by allowing fisheries managers to exempt many species, including forage fish that feed important species for recreational purposes and commercial catch limits designed to prevent overfishing. HR 200 relaxes standards for rebuilding depleted stocks within a reasonable time frame and undermines provisions to protect critical habitat and address bycatch – the unintentional take 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 humans and marine life, in turn threatening the livelihoods of millions of Americans who depend on a healthy ocean.
In December, this regressive bill was passed by the House natural resources committee by a split vote of 23-17. This contrasts sharply with the previous two bipartisan updates by Magnuson-Stevens, which drew support. massive and confident that science was at the heart of fisheries management decisions while tackling the difficult problem of chronic overfishing in our ocean waters.
Gains for marine fish, but unfinished business
And these reforms are working: since 2000, 44 overexploited populations were reconstituted at healthy levels. In 2015, the last year for which Numbers are available, marine fishing in the United States supported 1.6 million jobs, a 12% increase from 2011, and the fishing industry reported sales of $ 208 billion , compared to $ 185 billion in 2011.
Yet managers still have their work cut out for them to end overfishing. In his last state of fisheries management report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that overfishing still occurs in 30 populations (of the 317 the agency assessed for this condition) and that 35 of the 235 stocks assessed for population size are at numbers so low that they are under an official rebuilding plan. Some of these plans are struggling to recover due to decades of overfishing, habitat loss and changing ocean conditions. For these populations, science-based annual catch limits and reasonable recovery times at Magnuson-Stevens are necessary, but not sufficient.
How to accelerate the progress of fishing in the United States
It would be a mistake to conclude that America has accomplished its mission of achieving sustainable fishing and can afford to weaken the law. Congress should maintain our country’s strong commitment to science-based fisheries management by ensuring that the law reflects the best current knowledge of ocean systems and that fisheries managers better protect habitat, conserve fish forage and reduce bycatch. Managers should proceed with caution before establishing new fisheries, to ensure that they are sustainable from the start. And the fishing rules should be part of a larger ecosystem plan that uses the best scientific information to understand the important links between predators, prey, habitat and human needs.
Americans, from seafood lovers to whale watchers to fishermen, rely on a healthy ocean in ways they may not even realize. For the benefit of all, Congress should not give up the gains we have made over the past two decades or abandon the goal of sustainable marine fisheries. Lawmakers can and should do better than HR 200.
Ted Morton heads the fishing work of Pew Charitable Trusts at the federal level.