National Marine Fisheries Service Proposes Weakening Magnuson-Stevens Act Regulations

I'm not an expert sailor, but I'm pretty sure when the breeze finally fills your sails, you don't change course.

A new proposed rule change to U.S. fisheries regulations by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is a lot like veering off course, when holding steady is so clearly the sensible path.

The proposed change would revise the National Standard 1 (NS1) guidelines of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). The MSA ensures that U.S. fisheries management is science-based, and that commercially and recreationally important fish stocks are managed to prevent overfishing and, if such overfishing nevertheless occurs, to end it immediately and quickly rebuild the depleted fishery. By providing more fish in the water and ultimately on our plates, better fishing opportunities, and healthier oceans, the MSA is recognized as one of our most effective natural resource management laws. Since 2000, 37 different fish populations have been recovered under the law. Improved conservation has boosted seafood sales, which set a record in 2012, and led to a thriving recreational fishing industry that generated $58 billion in sales impacts in 2012.

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Summer flounder, one of the once-depleted fish populations that has been rebuilt by the MSA. (Photo credit: NEFSC/NOAA)

However, there is more work to do. Atlantic cod, Gulf of Mexico greater amberjack, and a number of other fish populations remain subject to overfishing or still require rebuilding plans to restore them to healthy levels. In addition, the oceans face new and growing pressures from habitat destruction, climate change, and expanded exploitation of marine resources, all of which will make it more difficult to maintain progress.

The revised NS1 guidelines proposed by NMFS would weaken rules that provide direction to regional managers on how to ensure healthy fish populations and healthy fisheries before we have a chance to finish the job. The proposal promotes strategies that would increase the risk of overfishing and would allow managers to leave populations at low levels rather than rebuild them quickly and to forgo management of fish stocks in need of conservation.

Specifically the proposal would:

  • Delay lowering catch limits in response to scientific information, increasing the risk of overfishing. Putting off needed catch reductions jeopardizes the health of fish populations already in decline.[i][ii]
  • Obscure information about overfishing. By averaging several years of fishery data to determine the health of a population, managers could ignore individual years in which unsustainable fishing occurs and fail to take immediate action to set sustainable levels. This increases the risk that overfishing will continue.
  • Exclude important fish species from management under the law. Deciding which populations should be managed under the MSA is a fundamental step toward ensuring that science-based rules are put in place to prevent overfishing. Under the proposal's new criteria for determining when regional fishery council management is needed, short-term political or economic factors, the existence of weaker state management, or industry self-regulation could trump scientific considerations and block appropriate conservation measures.
  • Allows for use of deficient plans for rebuilding overfished stocks to healthy levels. The current guidelines provide for rebuilding plans to stretch out decades in some instances. The proposed changes perpetuates this problem, including by allowing managers to keep using rebuilding plans that did not meet their goals and to extend timelines for rebuilding overfished stocks for years beyond what would be allowed currently. Fish populations would remain at low levels longer than necessary, risking further collapse and providing little value to fishermen.
  • More easily group healthy and unhealthy stocks together for management purposes, increasing the risk of chronic overfishing of weaker stocks. The proposal would let managers combine dissimilar fish populations and manage them jointly, without considering the health of individual populations. When managers know that a population is subject to or vulnerable to overfishing, they must prevent unsustainable catch of those species.
  • Raise fishing quotas by carrying over the uncaught fish from a previous year without determining whether the population is healthy. Sometimes, fishermen do not catch the full quota simply because they did not fish enough. But unused quota could also be a sign that the health of the population is worse than estimated and there are not enough fish in the water to meet the authorized catch level. Allowing uncaught fishing quotas to roll over without determining the potential impact is risky and could easily damage the health of a fish population, particularly one that is already overfished.

In early June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a truly horrible bill, H.R. 1335, to reauthorize and amend the MSA. H.R. 1335 would roll back core tenets of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and weaken other key environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

This begs the question: why is the Administration, in proposing to weaken the key MSA regulations, following the House's bad idea to roll back our fisheries successes?

Our oceans have been a source of food, income, exploration and even solace for generations. To ensure they can continue to support us into the future, we need to hold steady, looking for opportunities to improve, not roll back, the federal management system that has allowed many U.S. fisheries to recover, and provide for current and future generations. Let's not give up now that we've got some wind in our sails.

What you can do:

NMFS is accepting public comments on the proposed rollbacks to U.S. fisheries regulations through June 30th, NEXT TUESDAY. Please urge them to reject proposed changes that would weaken our proven fishery management system.

Send a message, before the June 30th comment deadline, urging NMFS not to weaken U.S. fisheries regulations, known as the "National Standard 1 Guidelines."

Contact information:

You can send an official comment in the following ways:

Online: via the Federal eRulemaking Portal; click the "Comment Now" icon, then enter your comments and contact information.

Mail:

Mr. Wes Patrick
National Marine Fisheries Service
Office of Sustainable Fisheries
1315 East-West Highway, Room 13357
Silver Spring, MD 20910


[i] Steven A. Murawski, "Rebuilding depleted fish stocks: the good, the bad, and, mostly, the ugly," ICES Journal of Marine Science 67 (2010): 1830-40.

[ii] Peter A. Shelton et al, "Fishing under low productivity conditions is further delaying recovery of Northwest Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua)," Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 63, no. 2 (2006): 235-8.

About the Authors

Brad Sewell

Director, Fisheries and U.S. Atlantic, Oceans Program

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