Animal Rights

A Deeper Dive into the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Management Act, and the Bill That Seeks to Amend It

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Management Act was originally enacted in 1976 to conserve and manage fisheries.  In 1996, the Act was amended in response to the large number of overfished and depleted fisheries.  It was reauthorized in 2006, to include requirements to establish annual catch limits and accountability measures.  From a conservation point of view, the Act has been a major success. In 2017, the number of overfished stocks, the population of a species of fish in a geographic area, dropped to its lowest on record.  

On January 3, 2017, Representative Don Young, a Republican from Arkansas, introduced H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.  This proposed Bill focuses largely on amending the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Representative Young has touted the Bill as an effort to maintain healthy fisheries and support the communities that rely upon those fisheries.  However, a deeper look into the Bill reveals that it is focused more on weakening the mechanisms that have made Magnuson-Stevens Act as successful as it has been.  These changes primarily seek to modify annual catch limits and change how overfished stocks are handled.

Severals components of the Bill aim to weaken the protection of fisheries.  Section 204 of the Bill allows for communities’ economic needs to be considered when determining annual catch limits and exempts entire groups of certain species from the limit’s requirements.  While accounting for economic impacts may seem like a holistic approach to fisheries management, it allows economic policy to cloud scientific judgment as to how many fish can be sustainably taken in a given year.  The exemption of certain species is a means of eschewing potential fishing restrictions that may result in unintended consequences on ecosystem and the health of other fish stocks, including the regional ecosystem. Additionally, section 209 of the Bill eliminates the consideration of fish mortality from other sources in determining whether a maximum allowable catch has been reached.  Section 302 goes so far as to allow the waiver of the stock assessment requirement. In sum, these efforts reflect an attempt to limit the role of science in fishery management in order to circumvent potential restrictions that limit fishing.

When a fishery is declared overfished, the Magnuson-Stevens Act allows for considerable action to be taken in order to rebuild the stock as soon as possible.  However, Representative Young’s proposal would provide the Secretary of Commerce with a much more expanded timetable to rebuild a stock. Under Section 303 of the Bill, several proposals are driven by economic considerations.  This is another area in which the role of science in fishery management is put second to economic considerations.  

Sadly, H.R. 200 is not the environmentally-minded modernization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that its drafter claims it is.  Rather, the Bill allows short-term economic gain to be prioritized over the long-term health of fisheries, which will ultimately have a long-term detrimental economic effect on those who rely upon the fisheries for their livelihoods.  Over 1,000 organizations, scientists, and fishermen have publicly opposed the adoption of this Bill because it would be a setback to the country’s progress in fisheries management. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is not without valid criticism, but H. R. 200 is not a sustainable solution.

By: Jack Agosta