Federal Fisheries Bill Undermines the Health of Our Oceans

Ending years of bipartisan, science-based fisheries management, H.R. 200 will increase the risk of overfishing and hurt fishermen by prioritizing short-term gains

The federal fisheries bill just passed by the House of Representatives will make it even harder for overfished species like Atlantic cod to recover. Photo: Brian Skerry

Right now, the United States has some of the best-managed fisheries in the world. But a bill that just passed the House of Representatives is putting that at risk.

Many fishing communities in New England and across the country currently have the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) to thank for their economic health.

But a U.S. House bill, H.R. 200, threatens to undermine the success of the MSA, gutting some of the most important requirements that have led to an all-time low level of overfishing.

This bill creates numerous loopholes in the current law, allowing fisheries to ignore the requirements that have been so successful. These workarounds will lead to overfishing by exempting hundreds of species from the law’s science-based catch limits. As a result, many fish stocks could drop to dangerously low levels, ultimately putting our fishing communities at risk.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act Has a History of Success

The MSA was initially passed in 1976 and has been the primary U.S. law governing fisheries ever since. In 1996 and 2006, Congress reauthorized the act with almost complete bipartisan agreement. When they reauthorized the act, lawmakers added specific measures to increase the success of its four commitments: to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, increase long-term economic and social benefits, and ensure a safe and sustainable supply of seafood. Over the past 12 years, these measures have generally worked very well.

The MSA uses science and data to set annual limits on how much fish can be caught. Over time, with responsible management, many of our fish – such as haddock and redfish, which were on the brink of collapse due to chronic overfishing – have rebuilt robust, healthy populations.

Nationally, the MSA has helped rebuild 44 stocks that were once depleted, leading to huge economic gains. In 2010, rebuilt fish stocks led to a 54 percent increase in commercial revenues, proving that well-managed fisheries are profitable fisheries. Although New England has significantly lagged the nation in stopping overfishing, the MSA has still helped improve management.

This year, the MSA was up for reauthorization again. But instead of strengthening the law, Republican leadership spurned the traditionally bipartisan, science-based commitment to our ocean and our fishing communities. Instead of improving fisheries management to produce even better results, the House of Representatives has approved a bill that will take us back to bad management and overfishing.

H.R. 200 Will Harm New England’s Fishing Communities

This weakened reauthorized version of the MSA is a short-sighted decision. Here in New England, we’ve seen a 72 percent increase in revenue from commercial fisheries between 2003 and 2012. And that’s without the recovery of some of our most valuable fisheries.

Atlantic cod, one of New England’s most iconic fish, is just one of the many species that continues to be overfished under current protections. Loosening regulations will only make it worse. The current overfishing isn’t a failure of the MSA – it’s a failure of the New England Fishery Management Council to implement the law properly.

The Council has already abused the discretion it has under the current federal law. The new regulations established by this bill would give it the legal flexibility to set even looser standards. This will only compound the problem for fish like Atlantic cod that are already on the brink. The fishermen and the coastal communities they live in will bear the economic brunt of fewer and fewer fish to be caught.

We Need a Stronger Federal Fisheries Law – Not a Weaker One

Instead of crippling the Magnuson-Stevens Act, we should strengthen it to continue to improve the health of our fisheries. We should require fisheries management that considers the whole ecosystem. We should rebuild Atlantic cod.

Coastal areas, like much of New England, represent only 10 percent of the country but contribute half of our gross domestic product. A healthy ocean with a thriving supply of fish is key to the economic stability of many coastal communities. Weakening the MSA for short-term economic gain today could undercut the commercial and recreational fishing industries and the long-term economic prosperity they generate tomorrow.

To ensure we have enough fish to continue enjoying all the economic benefits of healthy fisheries now and in the future, we must apply strong, science-based conservation measures to the way we manage our fisheries.

Now that H.R. 200 has passed, it’s up to the Senate. The only currently filed Senate legislation, S.1520, would weaken the sustainable management of recreational fisheries. If both bills pass, some of the most beneficial parts of the MSA will be undermined.

But we remain hopeful. In the past, the Senate has been particularly vigilant in ensuring that long-term goals are not sacrificed for short-term profits. Healthy fish populations produce healthy fisheries that build healthy fishing communities.

CLF has fought for decades for regulations based on sound science to achieve long-term results and help fishing communities thrive. More work remains to continue this progress, and we’ll be working to ensure that the House’s myopic version of the MSA doesn’t make it out of Congress and into our waters.

You can help!

Here’s how you can help: Watch and share our videos to learn more about the MSA, then contact your senators to let them know you support a strengthened MSA that will allow us to rebuild cod stocks and maintain healthy, sustainable fisheries for future generations.


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