Why not first ask: 'Is it working?'

As Congress prepares to consider reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the rebuilding provision of that law has—again—become a lightning rod.

The rebuilding provision, which Congress incorporated into the law by Congress in the 1996 reauthorization, mandates that overfished fisheries be rebuilt to healthy levels in a time period “as short as possible… not [to] exceed 10 years except in cases where the biology of the stock of fish, other environmental conditions, or management measures under an international agreement in which the United States participates dictate otherwise” (Section 304(c)(4)).

There is much debate about whether the provision is flexible enough (despite the clearly stated exceptions).   And last Friday, Representative Doc Hastings introduced a bill that would severely weaken the provision.

Curiously little attention has been focused on the primary question: Is it working?

In a recently released paper, we (Kimberly Lai-Oremus, Brad Sewell and I) gathered data from every regional fishery management council and conducted the first statistical examination of this question. In this study, we asked whether the implementation of the rebuilding requirement was associated with a rebound in depleted fish populations. The analysis shows compelling evidence that it was.

In other words, the provision seems to be working. Keep in mind that exploring causality is difficult in this situation because—by law—there can be no fish populations that serve as a scientific “control” (i.e., legally designated “overfished” stocks which do not get put into formal rebuilding programs). That said, the data support the hypothesis that the rebuilding programs are making a difference.

Specifically, we found a strong temporal correlation between implementation of the rebuilding requirements and the recovery of many formerly depleted fish populations. Of the 44 fish stocks in rebuilding plans, 19 showed a statistically significant positive association with the implementation of rebuilding plans. Not one showed a statistically significant negative association.

To find such a striking signal in so many fish stocks is noteworthy given the high natural variation in fish populations and the wide range of factors that influence—and challenge—rebuilding plan design and implementation.

It is never easy to tease out the precise effect a policy is having on a complex system such as a fish populations.  It has taken 15 years to acquire a data set that could begin to address the question. The results should be encouraging to everyone who cares about revitalizing U.S fisheries.  We are on the right track.