40 Years Of The Magnusen-Stevens Act

By Ryck Lydecker

After 40 years of one-size-fits-all management, Congress and federal managers can now redesign fisheries law and policy to include the rest of us. But will they?

Deep sea fishingBecause of the overall success of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service is recommending new provisions in the law's reauthorization that will benefit recreational saltwater fishermen.

It's called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Manage­ment Act (MSA), the cornerstone of federal law governing just what the name implies for 41 years. In that time, Congress, as it often does with laws on the books, has reauthorized it and adapted some of its provisions in accordance with changing national priorities.

The law was originally passed in 1976 to gain control over fish stocks in U.S. coastal waters. Congress added a provision in 1996 to reduce overfishing and cut wasted catch in commercial fishing operations. Again in 2006, Congress revisited MSA by adding more teeth to end overfishing in the commercial industry. It also included specific provisions to improve data collection through a newly created National Saltwater Angler Registry that would more accurately gauge sportfishing activity as well as the total recreational catch of sought-after species. This modest step, however, still left saltwater sportfishing in the backwaters of federal management, with stock allocations set as before, using formulas that applied to commercial fisheries.

Obviously, sportfishing is, as the saying goes, "a different kettle of fish" than commercial harvest. So an alliance of 10 recreational fishing, boating, and conservation organizations, called the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, set out to help the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) rethink its management goals and philosophy. (See "6 Big Fixes For Fishery Management" on below for details.)

Time To Get It Right

"The sportsman's ethic is to sustain and conserve our natural resources and fish populations. It's part of who we are," explains David Kennedy, manager of our BoatUS Government Affairs team. "But our part of the total fisheries harvest is relatively inconsequential, and the two interests should not be regulated in the same way."

Kennedy describes how this management mismatch plays out in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, as one example. There, NMFS divvies up the catch between recreational and commercial sectors according to a formula that in 2014 cut the sportfishing red snapper season to just a nine-day window, regardless of weather or any other mitigating factors anglers might face. That's an 80-percent cut in fishing days over past seasons. By contrast, he says, commercial fishermen could take red snapper at any time, all year, until the industry met its quota.

"Plus, they use an allocation formula based on total tonnage rather than individual bag limits," says Kennedy. "That's the way it should be done for recreational fishing. Everyone wants fisheries managed sustainably for the future. But we want federal management that works for recreational fishing, too."

With another MSA reauthorization on the congressional horizon, the commission unveiled its carefully researched situation analysis of federal fisheries management, "A Vision for Managing America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries," at the 2014 Miami International Boat Show. The report provided NMFS and members of Congress a blueprint that would give America's 11 million saltwater anglers and the $70 billion industry they support more equitable footing in the third MSA reauthorization, now on the congressional calendar. According to panel chairman Larry McKinney, this has been a long time coming.

To better understand how the commission's recommendations are faring in official Washington, and what it all means to saltwater anglers, BoatUS interviewed Dr. McKinney, a fishery biologist by trade and training who spent more than 23 years in fisheries management with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He's now executive director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi.

BoatUS: The Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management recommended that NMFS adopt some sweeping changes from its business-as-usual management of the last 40-plus years. Has MSA been a failure then?

McKinney: "No, it's done exactly what it was supposed to do. The fact is that the recreational fishing segment is now at such a robust level of national participation that it offers economic benefit for the nation and requires adequate management, just as the commercial sector once did. It's time to take the next step with the law."

BoatUS: One big step among your commission's recommendations was ­asking NMFS to adopt a "national policy for recreational fishing" that sets goals for sport fisheries management and identifies strategies to meet them. The agency did just that when it released its Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy in early 2015. Has that policy hit the mark?

McKinney: "The stated policy is good as far as it goes. But this is a big ship, and it takes time to change course. What it does do, however, is put the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its service on record as having such a policy, and that's important when Congress considers reauthorizing MSA."

BoatUS: Why is that so important?

McKinney: "Writing a policy is one hing. Actually managing according to what the policy says is another. That hasn't really occurred yet. One way to make sure an agency gets the message is having Congress incorporate this kind of policy language in the law. Then NMFS can't ignore it."

BoatUS: Congress hasn't reauthorized MSA in more than a decade. But last year, legislation moved in both the House and Senate. Did lawmakers take note of Commission recommendations in those draft bills?

McKinney: "Yes. In fact, a bill (H.R.1335) that passed the full House of Representatives would require NMFS to use management practices that make sense in managing sportfishing, which is very different from managing the seafood industry. Language in the bill requires better tools to assess the status of fish stocks to support more science-based allocation decisions. All in all, a pretty encouraging first cut."

BoatUS: In a significant departure from current practice, the commission wants NMFS to establish recreational catch limits by means other than the annual poundage quotas that it now divvies up between commercial and recreational sectors. Is that feasible?

McKinney: "Absolutely. For years, coastal states have managed their saltwater fisheries by using seasons and bag limits, not weight quotas, and have done it successfully. The examples are out there — Florida, Louisiana, Texas. Congress could direct the feds to apply this method to the stocks they manage in federal waters."

BoatUS: Why is that significant?

McKinney: "Because of the current budget situation, NMFS simply won't have the resources to properly manage recreational fishing on its own. The agency is going to have to find where it can better work with the states. Frankly, states are better equipped financially, due to the support they get from anglers and boaters through the excise taxes they pay — namely, the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund — as well as from fishing licenses and boat-registration fees that the states collect."

6 Big Fixes For Fishery Management

In 2013, the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management assembled a panel of state and federal agency administrators, researchers, industry representatives, and economists to promote a "proactive vision for saltwater fisheries management."

Its report, "A Vision for Managing America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries," differentiates the economic, social, and conservation needs of recreational fishing from those of commercial fishing, and provides six recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service and to Congress that should be incorporated in the next Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization.

  • Establish a national policy for recreational fishing that identifies goals and strategies for recreational fisheries management at local, state, and national levels.
  • Revise the approach to saltwater recreational fisheries management to base it on long-term catch rates, not strictly on poundage quotas. (Both conservation and angler access to more species would result.)
  • Allocate marine fisheries for the greatest benefit to the nation with criteria that consider conservation and socioeconomic output. Procedures for review and adjustment at regular intervals must be included.
  • Create reasonable latitude in stock rebuilding timelines, with greater latitude than in current law to rebuild in a timely manner.
  • Organize a process for cooperative management to determine on a stock-by-stock basis whether state, regional, or federal bodies are most appropriate and capable of successfully managing the stock. Manage the forage base (i.e., prey species) to provide optimal health, reproduction, and growth in important stocks that sustain predator fish.

As this article goes to press, the angling and boating community, including BoatUS, is working with the new Congress and the administration on a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill that will incorporate changes called for by the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management. Go to BoatUS.com/Gov for updates from our Government Affairs department. 

Ryck Lydecker is a fisherman and part of our BoatUS Government Affairs team.

— Published: June/July 2017


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