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The Governance of Fish: Forty Years under the Magnuson-Stevens Act

April 11, 2016

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) has helped us end chronic overfishing and establish sustainable fisheries in the U.S.

Forty years ago many U.S. fisheries were in danger of collapsing and we had no framework for managing them sustainably. The passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) changed that, and multiple amendments to the law brought us to where we are today: chronic overfishing is a thing of the past and our federally-managed fisheries are on a solid, sustainable footing, earning a global reputation as among the most responsibly managed.

Through investment and sacrifice on the part of our commercial and recreational fishermen,  today, landings by U.S. commercial fishermen—and the value they get for those landings—are near all-time highs, and saltwater recreational fishing remains one of the nation’s most popular pastimes—providing enormous economic benefits to our coastal communities.

It took several iterations of the law to get us here, but one critical element of the law—and one that is fundamental to its success—was present from day one.

I’m referring to the eight regional councils that manage our nation’s fisheries. Participatory, transparent, and regionally based, these councils were unusual 40 years ago and still are today—there are few if any resource management systems like it—and they are central to our success at keeping our fisheries sustainable.

Decisions Based on Regional Expertise

The U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone is the largest in the world. In fact, our EEZ—the area of ocean, extending 200 miles from shore, where we control the use of marine resources—is one-quarter again as large as the land area of the United States, and it encompasses a mind-boggling diversity of fisheries.

In the Caribbean, for instance, biologically diverse coral reefs support a multitude of valuable but small-scale fisheries, while in the Bering Sea, 300-foot vessels catch and process billions of pounds of a single species—Alaska pollock—each year. And in the Gulf of Mexico, over a million recreational fishermen are as much a part of the region’s economy and culture as the commercial fleets and the seafood they provide.  

Biologically, economically, and culturally, these fisheries could not be more distinct. So instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all solution from Washington, the MSA established eight councils to design ways to manage fisheries in different regions around the country. Each council’s voting members include one representative from NOAA Fisheries and one from each state fishery agency in the region. Additional voting members, nominated by state governors, include commercial and recreational fishermen, environmentalists, academic and government scientists, and others. These stakeholders bring expertise on the unique challenges facing fisheries in each region.

Managing to meet 10 national standards, among other things, the councils set fishing limits that prevent overfishing, allocate quotas to competing user groups, implement gear restrictions, and protect sensitive habitats. The decisions they propose are subject to review and public comment by scientists and stakeholders before being put into effect. This transparent, participatory process ensures that the people most affected by fishery management decisions have a say in how their fisheries are managed.

A Contentious Process, but One that Works

Despite the open and participatory nature of the council process—or, perhaps, because of it—fishery management is often contentious. Decisions are reached through compromise between stakeholders, which often leaves people on both sides of an issue somewhat dissatisfied.

But while often contentious, this process reflects the democratic principles of our system of government. It also works. It’s easy to forget, amid the headlines of the day, how far we have come in the 40 years since the passage of the MSA, and even in the 10 years since the most recent amendments. We have ended chronic overfishing in U.S. waters. Many fisheries have been rebuilt, allowing for expanded fishing opportunities. Some, such as the Atlantic sea scallop fishery, are today engines of regional prosperity.

Yet we still have much work to do. We have resolved some of the thorniest issues we faced in past decades, but new issues are emerging. For instance, climate change is affecting the distribution and abundance of many fish stocks, and in some cases may be preventing them from rebuilding to previous levels. We will need to adapt our methods of assessing and managing fish stocks to this new environment.

Also, the opening of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico to offshore aquaculture this year after a 10-year council process shows that the U.S. is moving forward to meet these new challenges with careful management, science and technological advances.  

We also have more work to do to increase the economic value of our fisheries through better market timing, and greater domestic production through aquaculture to meet growing demand. We must try and find ways to smooth ups and downs in catch levels so that commercial and recreational fishing operations have a more stable and predictable business environment.

We are working on these issues and many others, and our partners in all of this—the fishery management councils–will help us achieve these goals. Thanks to the MSA and its transparent, science-based, regionally-focused process, our fisheries are among the most sustainably managed in the world. This dynamic and sometimes contentious process works because all stakeholders share a common goal: that our fisheries remain sustainable, and that the American people enjoy the benefits they provide, today and in future generations.

Sam Rauch