Everyone Who Fishes Should Be Accountable

But Modern Fish Act in Congress opens the door to an “alternative” management scheme that would reduce accountability and threaten healthy fisheries

Both the commercial fishing industry and the recreational saltwater fishing sector have an immense impact on the number of fish in our oceans.

Lest you associate saltwater angling only with the bucolic scene of a meditative angler casting from a small boat, it’s important to note that sport fishing is actually a huge industry in the U.S. [1] Recreational anglers caught an estimated 371 million fish in 2016, and approximately half of the catch of popular species such as red snapper and black sea bass is allocated to the recreational sector. [2]

According to NOAA Fisheries, “marine recreational fishing significantly impacts the stocks of many finfish species, and recreational catches surpass commercial landings of some species.” [3] For conservation purposes, it ultimately doesn’t matter who catches the fish: if “a rose is a rose is a rose” . . . then a caught fish is a caught fish.

Statistics for saltwater recreational fishing in 2016

NOAA Fisheries, Fisheries of the United States, 2016

The future of healthy fisheries depends heavily on one word: accountability.  

If we want to ensure abundant fish in our oceans for generations to come, then we need all sectors—commercial and recreational—to play by the same rules. 

Unfortunately, the Senate Commerce Committee recently approved a fisheries management bill, S. 1520, known as the “Modern Fish Act.” This bill would open the door for weaker management of recreational fisheries, create disparities in how commercial and recreational ocean fisheries are managed, and restrict management tools that are working to keep fish stocks strong and oceans healthy.

Some issues with S. 1520 were addressed, at least in part, through substitute language added prior to the markup. But the Modern Fish Act is still a step backwards for conservation of our nation’s fisheries under our federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Many in the conservation community as well as in the commercial and recreational fishing communities oppose S. 1520, and opposition was reflected during markup on February 28, when five senators on the Commerce Committee voted against the bill.

Much of the concern centered on accountability.  Accountability simply means an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. (See, e.g., Merriam-Webster.)

In fisheries management, here is how accountability works:

  • Fishery management councils set a total catch limit for a particular fish population based on the best available science about the stock and recommendations from scientists. This is known under the MSA as an annual catch limit or “ACL.”
  • Then, the councils set management measures for the fishery to reach a catch level that is below the limit. These measures might include season lengths, individual quotas, bag limits, gear controls, or minimum size limits for fish caught.
  • Both during and at the end of the season, fishery managers gather data to evaluate how many fish are ultimately caught and determine whether the catch falls above or below the ACL.
  • If a fishery exceeds the catch limit, managers consider whether to reduce the following season to make up for overages (known as “payback”), and whether to set measures more conservatively the next time around.  Such management adjustments are called “accountability measures,” and they are required under the MSA as a key tool to prevent overfishing. 

(For those interested in learning more, NOAA has a handy high-level summary of the ACL-setting process available here.)  

In other words, the requirement to prevent overfishing through the use of science-based catch limits, which has been required for all fisheries managed under the MSA since 2006, is all about holding everyone accountable for what they catch.

Catch limits do not, however, dictate what specific management measures or allocations must be put in place, and councils have a great deal of flexibility under the MSA to tailor management measures to diverse fisheries and regions. Accordingly, science-based ACLs have been used successfully in both the commercial and recreational sectors.  After centuries of boom-and-bust fisheries management and chronic overfishing, this catch limits system is the only one that has really worked. At the end of 2017, only 30 fish stocks out of 316 assessed stocks were still subject to overfishing, and 44 stocks have been successfully rebuilt back from overfished levels.

Given this success, one wonders why the proponents of the Modern Fish Act have been pushing for an amendment to the MSA that would create disparities in how commercial and recreational ocean fisheries are managed.

Specifically, the Modern Fish Act would provide councils the authority to use certain management measures in the recreational sector, such as extraction rates and fishing mortality targets. To be clear, these sorts of management measures are already allowed under the MSA, provided they are used with ACLs and accountability measures as a backstop to prevent overfishing, as I described above.  The Modern Fish Act would also require another National Academy of Sciences study on the main source of catch data for the recreational sector, the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), just on the heels of a similar study completed in 2017. This new study, however, would be with an eye toward finding “alternative management approaches” that could be applied to the recreational sector.

As it turns out, the groups supporting the Modern Fish Act have made no secret of their intent to use the bill as a means of eliminating the application of ACLs to the recreational sector, at least in certain fisheries. Other statements suggest these groups are seeking statutory changes so that the requirements apply in a less restrictive way to recreational fisheries as compared to commercial fisheries.

In a 2016 report that served as a basis for the Modern Fish Act, the authors draw a clear distinction between the accountability framework above and the harvest rate-based management they seek, pointing to Atlantic striped bass (which do not utilize ACLs) and other state-managed fisheries as a model. [4] But this “soft” version of catch limits, i.e., fishing with less accountability, is what existed for many of our fisheries prior to the 2006 MSA amendments, and history has shown that it was frequently the recipe for failure.

The bottom line? When these groups say they are looking to increase access or to get more anglers out on the water, this is code for more recreational fishing but less accountability.

As the recreational sector continues to grow, it will be increasingly important to prioritize sustainable management and accurate data collection. As long as the oceans are a public resource, there will always be someone trying to take more than their fair share, no matter the sector or species of fish. (This was made painstakingly clear last year with the prosecution of commercial fishing tycoon Carlos Rafael, New England’s infamous “Codfather,” who made millions through systemic misreporting of catch.)

Accountability will always be critical to ensuring healthy fisheries, and it should apply to everyone who fishes in our oceans.

Saltwater anglers on Cape Cod

NOAA

The need to improve recreational sector management and data collection is a real issue deserving of the attention of fishery managers and other decision makers. But for the regions struggling with recreational fisheries management, the way forward is to address challenges like imprecise catch data, slow reporting, and data-poor species head-on, by continuing to update our data collection platforms, scientific models, and methodologies. Evolving data and science, which is at the heart of fisheries management, should not be used to justify certain sectors or fisheries opting out of rigorous, science-based management and accountability. Such “alternative” management would increase the risk of overfishing and stock depletion.

As discussions around reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act continue in Congress, we hope that they will center on building on the law’s successes in innovative ways. (See my latest update on this here.) We look forward to continuing to work with Congressional leaders to strengthen catch accountability for all fisheries and move the ball forward on conservation for our fisheries, marine ecosystems, and the coastal communities that rely on them.


[1] NOAA Fisheries, Fisheries Economics of the Unites States, 2015 (2017), at 11.
[2] NOAA Fisheries, Fisheries of the United States, 2016 (2017) at 38.
[3] Id.
[4] This white paper was a follow-up to a 2014 report initiated by a group called the “Morris-Deal Commission,” named for the founder of Bass Pro Shops and the president of Maverick Boat Group.

About the Authors

Molly Masterton

Staff Attorney, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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