40 Years Of Fish Management

By Ryck Lydecker

The federal Fishery Conservation and Management Act became law on April 13, 1976. So, what has it done the four decades since?

Foreign fleet of vesselsFind your own fish!

1976: "They're stealing our fish!"

The Fishery Conservation and Management Act, championed by the late Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington, puts the United States — with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in charge — firmly in control of the fish in our coastal waters and sends packing the foreign fleets that for years have been scooping them up with impunity.

1979: What's in the cooler?

Now known as the Magnuson Act, the law requires NMFS to assess the recreational catch, thus the agency establishes the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS), a system based primarily on blind telephone surveys and dockside interviews with anglers. But questions about its accuracy will remain a bone of contention with the sport fishing community for years.

Commercial fishing vessel"Stop wasting fish."

1996: "Sustainable," it's not just a buzzword anymore

After 20 years on the books, Congress adds major environmental provisions to the law and requires the eight fishery management councils to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks. Congress adds to the law the name of its early champion, Sen. Ted Stevens. Now the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) sets a course for long-term management and stock stability with its new Sustainable Fisheries Act amendments.

1999: Seen on the bait shop wall

BoatUS publishes its "10 Most Wanted" list of overfished game species under NMFS management in U.S. waters, calling for increased focus on restoring overfished stocks like Atlantic bluefish, king mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific salmon for the benefit of recreational anglers. (Today five of the 10 are recovered.)

2000: Caught and released

In a welcome effort to put much-needed focus on saltwater sport fishing, NMFS convenes RecFish2000, "Managing Marine Recreational Fisheries in the 21st Century — Meeting the Needs of Managers, Anglers, and Industry," a national symposium cosponsored by BoatUS Although intended as the first in a policy-setting series in accordance with the agency's Magnuson-Stevens Act mandate to include recreational fishing, shifting priorities will stall any follow-up conferences for over a decade.

Using commercial fishing netsEnd overfishing, now!

2006: Wrong lure

The National Research Council (NRC) releases its assessment of the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey, noting that the methodology NMFS used to measure recreational fishing activity and catch rates for over two decades "have serious flaws in design or implementation" and "should be completely redesigned."

2007: Congress adds teeth

The second major MSA reauthorization adds specific requirements to end overfishing, rebuild depleted stocks, and set "sustainable catch limits" for all the stocks NMFS manages. It also introduces the privatization concept of "catch shares" for commercial operators (that in subsequent years will be discussed — often heatedly — as an option to manage recreational fishing), kicks up the role of science in management decisions several notches, and adds mandates to significantly reduce bycatch in commercial fishing operations. Congress also tells NMFS to establish a "national saltwater angler registry" by January 1, 2009.

2008: R.I.P. for MRFSS

Now known as NOAA Fisheries, the agency replaces the Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Survey (MRFSS) with an improved Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). To ensure accurate data collection and application to management decisions, NRC will monitor its progress for years to come.

2010: No, it's not a "saltwater license"

Pursuant to Congressional direction, NOAA Fisheries unveils the National Saltwater Angler Registry, designed as "a telephone book" of anglers who can be more accurately surveyed on their fishing activities and landings. Confusion mounts over whether it's a "license" that anglers have to pay for but the system is designed to exempt anglers already licensed to fish in saltwater by their home state, which can then feed data to NOAA. (All states but Hawaii have implemented saltwater licensing.)

2014: At the end of the tunnel

At the same time NOAA Fisheries announces that overfishing and the number of overfished stocks have hit historic all-time lows, an alliance of sport fishing, boating, and conservation groups releases its assessment of saltwater sport fishing under nearly four decades of MSA. "A Vision for Managing America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries," puts forth six recommendations to give saltwater angling its due as MSA once again comes up for reauthorization.

Fishing buddiesIt's our turn.

2015: Message Received

NOAA Fisheries releases it first-ever National Saltwater Recreational Fishing Policy, promising to promote bluewater and inshore angling, plus the habitat that gamefish — and anglers — depend upon, through science-based conservation and management principals. The outlook is promising but Congress must act.

2016: 40 years and counting ...

Congress is overdue in reauthorizing the MSA but several draft bills are making their way around Capitol Hill, including one (H.B.0000) that includes many provisions advocated by the boating and sport fishing community.

A Healthy Bottom Line

"A recent United Nations study found that the U.S. leads the world in managing its fishery resources for sustainability," says BoatUS President. "So despite 40 years of lumpy seas and numerous course corrections — intended and otherwise — that show the Magnuson-Stevens Act is working; that is, it's working for the fish, and now it's time to fine-tune the law and its management tools to provide more and better opportunities for recreational anglers." 

— Published: August/September 2016

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