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Laws & Regulations Matter

In 1976, in response to widespread overfishing and increasing numbers of foreign fishing vessels in U.S. waters, Congress passed the Fishery Conservation and Management Act (since renamed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act or the Magnuson-Stevens Act for short, after two of its main sponsors). The law banned foreign fishing vessels within 200 miles of shore and promoted the expansion of the American fishing industry, leading to record catch levels in many ports. By the early 1990s, with the industry overcapitalized and many fish stocks depleted, the catch of some of the most commercially valuable fish -- such as New England cod and haddock -- had collapsed.

Chronic overfishing was "deep frying the goose that laid the golden egg," as former Congressman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) once said. Everyone, including the fishing industry, recognized the country's fisheries were in crisis.

In 1996, Congress responded by amending the Magnuson-Stevens Act to add a number of significant conservation requirements, including to require the timely rebuilding of depleted fish stocks. The new requirements led to the rebuilding of a number of important fish populations, such as haddock and sea scallops from New England, snow crab from the Bering Sea and summer flounder from the East Coast. Chronic overfishing, however, continued to hold back the recovery of other fish stocks. In 2006, Congress once again strengthened the Magnuson-Stevens Act by requiring fisheries managers to abide by the recommendations of scientists in establishing annual catch limits that do not allow overfishing.

Today, the Magnuson-Stevens Act has a clear track record of success and is frequently cited as a model legal framework in other countries. Nonetheless, dozens of major fish stocks remain depleted and are still subject to overfishing. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, about one in four stocks with known status remain overfished, while one in five stocks are still subject to overfishing.

last revised 7/20/2012

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