The Fight for Healthy Fisheries Resurfaces in Congress

House Oversight Hearing Signals Return of “Empty Oceans Act” and New Efforts to Roll Back Federal Fisheries Law

This afternoon, the House Natural Resources Committee’s Oceans Subcommittee held an oversight hearing on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the law that governs our nation’s fisheries in federal waters. The hearing presented an opportunity for decision makers to discuss the law’s remarkable achievements—including successfully rebuilding 43 once-depleted stocks and supporting 1.6 million jobs—and strategies to further these successes. While some of that happened, at other points, the hearing devolved into an unproductive exercise in finger-pointing and a platform for members to advocate for what has been a growing list of proposals to undermine the core tenets of sustainable fisheries management.

America’s ocean fisheries are some of the best managed in the world, and our success is owed to the MSA’s science-based management framework. 

In the 1980s and 90s, fish populations across the country were in decline due to overfishing, and some of our nation’s most iconic stocks (such as cod, flounder, and haddock in New England) had crashed. But lawmakers and fishermen rose to the occasion, and the health of our nation’s fisheries and coastal economies improved as a result. Thanks to requirements that fishery managers end overfishing through science-based catch limits and rebuild overfished stocks in as short a time as possible not to exceed ten years (with certain limited exceptions), many of our fish populations have come back from the brink after decades of chronic overfishing. (For more on this, see our report evaluating the rebuilding requirement’s effectiveness, “Bringing Back the Fish.”)

Pacific Lingcod, successfully rebuilt under the MSA in 2005

Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Through previous reauthorizations of the law in 1996 and 2006, Congress has consistently moved the ball forward on sustainable fisheries management, with broad bipartisan support. The late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was a leader of these reforms, working to ensure a legacy of healthy U.S. fisheries and fishing economies. That legacy was evident today. While each of the hearing witnesses came with different perspectives—these included one state fisheries manager, one recreational angler, and two members of the commercial fishing industry—they all expressly recognized the law's significant achievements in reducing overfishing and rebuilding depleted stocks. Charles Witek, a recreational fisherman from New York who has been closely involved in management decisions at both the federal and state level, described the MSA as "the only framework for fisheries management that has [been] met with consistent success."

But recent legislative proposals threaten to move us backwards. Lurking not so far in the background of today’s hearing was a growing array of bills that would weaken the MSA by de-emphasizing the role of science, diminishing transparency and accountability, and generally watering down legal standards.

One offender is H.R. 200, Congressman Don Young of Alaska’s latest effort to dismantle the MSA in the name of “flexible” fisheries management. H.R. 200 would, among other things, weaken the law’s rebuilding requirement by riddling it with loopholes, and exempt potentially hundreds of species from science-based catch limits. It also takes a swipe at bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Antiquities Act, and National Marine Sanctuaries Act.  Far from a minor tune-up of the law, Congressman Young’s “Empty Oceans Act” is a full-on attack of the very parts of the MSA that have successfully brought back depleted fisheries.

If you are thinking this all sounds familiar, that’s because we have been here before. H.R. 200 marks the third iteration of the Empty Oceans Act. As my colleague Alex Adams wrote then, these efforts to dismantle the MSA are longstanding and often perplexing. But each time, they have failed. Recognizing that the MSA has produced real benefits to our oceans and coastal communities, over 500 organizations and individuals, representing fishermen, business owners, chefs, and community leaders, joined letters opposing the Empty Oceans Act (then H.R. 1335) in 2015.

This Congress, H.R. 200 is flanked by a number of other bills that prioritize short-term economic gain and partisan political volleying over the health of our ocean fisheries. One of them is H.R. 2023, the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act.” Introduced by Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana, H.R. 2023 seeks to benefit the recreational fishing sector specifically, but shares many similar provisions with H.R. 200 and would have wide-reaching impacts that weaken science-based management in both the recreational and commercial sectors. 

Another theme of discussion at today's hearing had to do with how the Department of Commerce (through NOAA Fisheries) and the regional fishery management councils implement statutory mandates. Recent decisions by the Department of Commerce—including decisions to allow relaxed management of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, and to validate New Jersey's risky decision to opt out of necessary conservation measures for summer flounder—show an alarming trend of political officials intervening to undermine science-based fisheries management, and effectively sanctioning overfishing of sensitive populations that require careful management by scientists and managers at the regional level. (Thankfully, the ocean conservation community is holding the agency accountable—on Monday, Ocean Conservancy, EDF, and Earthjustice sued the Department of Commerce for failure to comply with the MSA and other federal laws in issuing the red snapper rule.)

The MSA’s unique system of stakeholder-driven, science-based fishery management has shown that putting long-term sustainability first works. While there’s still work to be done—over three dozen stocks (out of 235 stocks with known status) still remain overfished—the MSA has a proven track record of success, and American fisheries are well along the path to recovery thanks to two decades of hard work.

We hope that Congress and the Administration will continue to support the MSA and safeguard its hard-won gains. The future of our oceans depends on it. We will be providing updates throughout the MSA reauthorization process, so be sure to stay tuned.

Point Judith, Rhode Island

Credit: NOAA Fisheries 

About the Authors

Molly Masterton

Project Attorney, Oceans Program

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