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The number of fish stocks in the U.S. classified as “overfished” has reached an all-time low.
That was the headline of the annual “Status of Stocks” report compiled by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and released to Congress on May 17. The report found only 35 of 235 fishing stocks are overfished—the lowest number since the agency began tracking fish populations in 2000.
The news was hailed as proof, from sectors of the fishing and boating industries, that the time has now come to roll back certain fisheries regulations they view as overly burdensome and outdated.
Among the ideas being discussed are tossing out requirements that fisheries management decisions be based on peer-reviewed science, and instead giving Regional Fisheries Management Councils more “flexibility” in determining how fish stocks are divided between recreational and commercial interests.
Standing in the way, however, is a coalition of conservation groups and representatives of the commercial fishing industry who claim that easing regulations risks undercutting management practices that have worked well.
Known as the “Fishing Capital of the World,” Florida has a recreational fishing industry that generates $8 billion annually, supporting some 115,000 jobs, according to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.
In recent years the industry has pushed back hard on what it views as an arcane system of federal regulations that slow growth and create confusion, saying this includes overly restrictive catch limits and unnecessarily short fishing seasons.
“Regular fishermen are losing confidence in the system, and that is really bad news because recreational fishermen are the best conservationists we’ve got,” said Bob Hayes, chairman of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, which represents recreational anglers.
Hayes pointed to the case of gulf coast red snapper, a popular saltwater sportfish which was recently removed from NOAA’s overfished list, along with 5 other species including Western Atlantic bluefin tuna.
“Fisherman could have told you years ago that red snapper had come back, now the data has caught up,” he said.
Hayes told Bloomberg Environment that the federal management system unfairly lumps private anglers in with commercial fishing companies, many of whom operate fleets of vessels and catch fish by the thousands.
“I can’t think of an example where a fish stock collapsed because of pressure from recreational fishermen,” he said. “We need to bring some kind of parity back into the system that improves access for the general public.”
The current system is based on the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a law passed in 1976 that opened a new era of federal fishery management after decades of overfishing.
Speaking at a 2017 field hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, A.G. Woodward, the former director of the coastal resources division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, testified that rather than set prescriptive goals, Magnuson-Stevens should be amended to grant more autonomy to regional fisheries management councils.
This would allow them “to use their best judgment to determine how best to eliminate overfishing and rebuild stocks without eliminating all opportunities for access to the fish,” he said.
“While it is admirable to set uniform goals across all federally managed fisheries, the ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing marine species with widely varying life cycles, mortality and habitat requirements can’t work when applied from the Western Pacific to the South Atlantic,” Woodward said.
A coalition of groups representing recreational fishermen and the boating industry have galvanized behind a Senate bill called the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act,” otherwise known as “The Modern Fish Act.”
They claim the bill will provide responsible protections for fisheries while also safeguarding the economic benefits and tax dollars that come from recreational fishing.
“What the Modern Fish Act won’t do is harm fish populations or undo conservation efforts,” wrote Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a group representing boat manufacturers.
“If American anglers can only participate in their sport for a few weeks per year, their impact on the businesses that support their ability to fish and boat is directly undercut.”
But environmental groups and many commercial fishermen counter that The Modern Fish Act and its companion bill in the House (H.R. 200) risk undercutting the very management practices that have been shown to work.
“There is nothing modern about overfishing,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and a commercial fisherman based in Sitka, Alaska.
“From our perspective, that’s going in the wrong direction. If we allow any sector to overfish, the resource is going to suffer.”
Behnken told Bloomberg Environment that conservation management becomes moot if the recreational sector is exempted from annual catch limits, or if “alternative methods” of assessing fish stocks are adopted instead of the current science-based approach.
Others point to the benefits of managing for abundance over short-term financial gain.
“Take something like black sea bass, it’s 140 percent over where scientists said we should be, and as a result people are now targeting them hard,” said John McMurray, owner of One More Cast Charters, a fishing business out of New York Harbor.
“So you have to keep the regulations in place to still prevent an overfishing situation in the future.”
McMurray says he agrees that the regulations can be constraining but fishermen just need to evolve and adapt.
“For me to take clients out and have a reasonable expectation of finding fish, that’s more important than filling up the cooler with meat,” he said. “If it was about just harvesting meat in the cheapest way possible, people should just go to the store.”
The Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization historically has been a bipartisan effort, a reason for the law’s success. That is not the case in 2018.
H.R. 200, passed out the House Natural Resources Committee along a party line vote last December.
Conservationists claim the bill is a partisan effort to gut Magnuson-Stevens in favor of soft science and moving targets.
“It opens the door for overfishing by pushing alternative management tactics such as ‘angler observations’ in lieu of science-based management methods,” said Charles Witek, a policy and legal consultant for the Marine Fish Conservation Network.
As has been the case for more than a decade, Witek says fisheries regulators are required to make decisions based on peer-reviewed science. Basically, a variety of biological data is gathered, then used to come up with a harvest quota that the fishery can sustain. But some object to the approach.
“As Alaska’s fisheries continue to flourish, there ultimately comes a time when our laws—even those that are working well—must be reviewed and updated,” said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who is the sponsor of H.R. 200.
Witek also says the companion bill in the Senate, S.B 1520, (the Modern Fish Act) isn’t as bad as H.B. 200, but he worries that when the time comes to reconcile the House and Senate bills, what is likely to emerge is a bill destined to take management backward to the times of unhealthy fisheries.
Others claim that a better update to Magnuson-Stevens would go beyond managing the marketplace impacts.
“Atlantic cod has been the poster child of overfishing since colonial times, and recovery is still nowhere in sight,” said Shana Miller, program manager for global tuna conservation at the Ocean Foundation. She says efforts to rebuild fisheries like cod also should factor in environmental variables, such as climate change.
“The U.S. is a really the global leader in domestic fisheries management—that’s because the regulations are working.”
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