The Bottom Line: Rebuilding Plans Work for U.S. Fisheries

A congressional hearing today on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act examined a new report from the National Academies on the law’s effectiveness in rebuilding depleted fish populations. As a member of the peer-review panel for the report, I can attest to the amount of work that went into this study, which clearly recognizes our nation’s overall success in restoring fish stocks. But I also have serious concerns that some of its findings could lead some members of Congress to support new loopholes that could weaken our nation’s primary fisheries management law.

Released last week, the report reviews U.S. fisheries management since 2006. It rightly states that the current legal requirements have, “resulted in demonstrated successes in identifying and rebuilding overfished stocks.” The study also affirms that we need to prevent fish populations from becoming depleted in the first place. Such careful management would require fisheries managers to monitor the health of these fish stocks and decrease the amount of fishing if numbers decline below healthy levels. This approach would avert situations in which rebuilding is needed.

The progress noted in the report reinforces what many policymakers already know. Changes made to the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1996 and 2006—including establishment of timelines to rebuild depleted fish populations and requirements to set annual science-based catch limits that prevent overfishing—are working. Thanks to these policy tools, 33 depleted fish species have been restored to healthy levels since 2000. Northwestern Atlantic sea scallops, Gulf of Mexico red grouper, and Pacific lingcod are among those that have rebounded under the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s rebuilding requirements.

Such prudent fisheries management is good not only for these fisheries but also for the communities that rely on fishing for their livelihoods. Economists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service estimated in 2011 that rebuilding all depleted U.S. fish stocks that year would have generated an additional $31 billion in sales, supported an additional 500,000 jobs, and increased the revenue that fishermen receive at the dock by $2.2 billion. The financial benefits of healthy fisheries for coastal communities are huge.

Just ask Captain John McMurray of Oceanside, NY. One of thousands of anglers who can speak to the effectiveness of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, McMurray is the owner and operator of “One More Cast” Charters and a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. At a July 23 hearing he told members of the Senate Commerce Committee that the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s fish rebuilding requirements are working for both his business and his community. McMurray added that recreational fishermen operating along the mid-Atlantic coast caught 21 million pounds of summer flounder in 2011, up from 2.7 million pounds in 1989. That’s nearly a 700 percent increase.

The new National Academies report makes the same case, but unfortunately several areas of the report are problematic. For one, it places short-term economics above potential long-term damage to marine ecosystems, arguing that forgoing efforts to restore depleted species would be an acceptable trade-off for greater access to healthier ones. In other words, the report suggests more flexibility to allow overfishing of a severely depleted population such as Georges Bank cod in order to ensure that commercial fishermen can catch more of healthier fish stocks in the same area such as haddock and pollock in New England. This is akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Moreover, despite the proven success of the rebuilding requirements, the report suggests retreating from the mandatory rebuilding timelines and targets that have restored fish populations. This would be a return to the short-term thinking that has plagued U.S. fisheries management for decades where everything was negotiable.

The combination of these shortsighted approaches is likely to result in depleted fish populations and degraded marine ecosystems that will eventually be unable to support the fish that coastal communities depend on.

Fisheries around the nation are rebounding, thanks to the rebuilding requirements of 1996 and the annual catch limit requirements of 2006. Congressional leaders should keep those successes in mind as they look to amend the law. Any changes should build on those accomplishments, not undercut them.


  1. Xavier Schipani
    Towson, MD
    October 2, 2013, 1:48 pm

    Thanks for the information Lee. In the midst of the government shudown when Congress can’t seem to agree on anything. The MSA is a non-partisan, sensible policy that has already proven itself effective. Let’s keep it up.

  2. David Walsh
    September 27, 2013, 12:08 pm

    One of the only things W ever did that I approve of was re-authorize the Magnuson Stevens Act. Its hard to argue with the role it played in rebuilding our nation’s fisheries. Stay the course!

  3. Toby Hewson
    Nottingham, England
    September 27, 2013, 8:25 am

    I think Karan Satia has hit the nail on the head there. There needs to be strong, clearly defined parameters in order that loopholes or ‘grey areas’ don’t render the whole thing ineffective. Let’s make progress.

  4. Jackie Hutchings
    United Kingdom
    September 27, 2013, 6:27 am

    So many different stakesholders to please in this debate but the evidence is clear. It’s not about the now, it’s about building a future where fishing is managed in a way to keep the industry thriving for generations to come. The basic facts never change. Nature has an astounding way of rebounding back, even in the face of extreme human exploitation. If we work with nature, she will reward us. It’s time to stop selling the seed corn.

  5. Laurie
    September 27, 2013, 6:19 am

    The restoration of US fish stocks due to the MSA is heartening but let’s exercise caution. The NA’s findings should NOT prompt Congress to take steps backwards based on this success. Thank you, Mr. Crockett, for advocating on this very important issue. MSA is smart lesgislation that is working. Let’s not do anything to weaken these marine ecosystems that remain fragile at this time.

  6. Karan Satia
    New York, NY
    September 26, 2013, 3:55 pm

    Lee Crockett touches on the point that certain aspects of fishery management policies should be non-negotiable; this is crucial in efforts to restore stocks to sustainable levels. With any amount of flexibility involved, each fishery will then need its own level of review regarding restoration deadlines and catch limits; this is certain to draw resources away from areas of concern that need the most attention.

    With the progress that’s been made in recent years, it seems foolhardy to allow for such actions that would detract from the amount of success that’s been reached. Hardened policies and rigid enforcement of catch limits and restoration deadlines have proven to work, and will continue to work, as long as the focus shifts away from short-term economics.

  7. Edward Cheston
    Annapolis, MD
    September 26, 2013, 2:52 pm

    Thank you, Lee, for advocating sensible, scientific, solutions to fisheries restoration. I couldn’t agree more. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working and we should let it continue to do so. Any changes to the law could set vulnerable fish populations back years. We have to resist the temptation of loosening restrictions for short term economic gains. In the long run, healthy fish stocks mean more jobs for fishermen and stronger fishing communities. Let’s stay the course on the MSA.

  8. Zack Bronson
    New York
    September 26, 2013, 11:53 am

    As an avid sport fisherman (and someone who occasionally hires a guide/charter boat and likes sushi every once and a while), i certainly agree with Crockett’s article. It unfortunate but we do need pay attention to our fisheries – that we don’t have unlimited supply. Its fortunate that we have had the Magnuson Stevens act that’s helped to rebuild fisheries. I’d like to think that what i enjoy doing, my boy will be able to continue when he’s my age.

    Magnuson Steven’s act is smart legislation that works towards protecting/preserving our fisheries for so everyone will have a chance to enjoy. It’s investing in the future of what my son and i are passionate about, and we want to continue to enjoy.

  9. Colin Arstein
    Atlanta, GA
    September 25, 2013, 6:12 pm

    I grew up fishing in the Gulf off of Siesta Key and in the Atlantic out of Port St. Lucie. My dad would tow our 26 foot Scarab back and forth across the peninsula and we would fish at least 40 days a year from the time I was 2 years old until I moved away in 1997. We’d catch so many fish it wasn’t funny. Today’s South Atlantic and Gulf fisheries are a far cry from what they were in the good old days. Why? Overfishing. The same folks who are calling for “flexibility” in Magnuson are the ones who overfished it in the first place.

    We are lucky MSA was reauthorized under Bush. Otherwise MSA would be held hostage by a dysfunctional Congress just like the Farm Bill.

  10. Charlie Mack
    Rockport, TX
    September 25, 2013, 4:57 pm

    For almost five decades, there has been significant progress toward rebuilding depleted fishing populations under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Under no circumstance should the federal government intervene and harm the successful MSA practices implemented which has benefited the communities with a strong fishing industry.
    Thank you Mr. Crockett for your article.

  11. Larry Adams
    Houston, TX
    September 25, 2013, 4:27 pm

    Here is the reality as most charter and recreational fishermen know: when you over fish it has a negative impact on the economy. Working toward rebuilding healthy fishing populations benefits the industry as a whole. The better success in restoring healthy fish stocks, then the better opportunity to generate more income money for fishermen. When the both recreational and charter fishermen do well, it means more jobs in the fishing arena, which will create more income for coastal businesses.

  12. Daniel Highborn
    Point Pleasant, New Jersey
    September 25, 2013, 10:32 am

    Lee Crockett makes an good point in his blog. The MSA has been around since the mid-1970s and while we’ve made a great deal of progress in building many fish stocks, more work absolutely needs to be done. Much of the progress that came from the MSA has been in thanks to the legal requirements that have ended overfishing of certain stocks and helped rebuild them over the last 3 or so decades.

    If the federal government weakens the MSA or adds flexibility to current legal requirements, we’ll be in trouble and we’ll see healthy fish stocks drop to dangerously low levels yet again. Instead of reversing course, let’s ensure the MSA remains strong, as history shows rebuilding plans do work for our fisheries.

  13. Laura Sanmartino
    Egg Harbor Twp., NJ
    September 23, 2013, 3:31 pm

    As someone who grew up on the beach and as a masters- level student focusing on marine science, I have a special interest in the MSA, and I agree with the author. A strong MSA, with no loopholes, is needed, and Congress should keep this in mind.

    Rebuilding fish stocks in an incredibly important part of creating a strong coastal economy. Good, healthy, fish stocks bring fishermen to our area. These recreational fishermen stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants, and shop in our local stores. Quite frankly, they keep me, a good deal of my family, and many of my childhood friends away from the unemployment line.

    Additionally, healthy fish stocks keep commercial fishermen, like my cousins, on the docks and on local boats.

    Like the author of this piece says, progress has been made, but we need to ensure a strong, loophole free, MSA to ensure the strength of our local economy.

  14. Dan Hood
    Gulfport, MS
    September 23, 2013, 1:04 pm

    Living off of the land is the way of life on the Gulf Coast. Even if your profession isn’t fishing, you do it for fun and get to spend valuable family time cooking and eating your catch. Aside from helping to keep our fish stocks healthy, The Magnuson-Stevens Act has pushed large amounts of money through our economy by rebuilding important stocks and ending overfishing with strict legal regulations. People have to understand that when a fish stock is rebuilt, the money that it puts in our economy is exponential because it isn’t just going into the fishermen and seafood processor’s pockets. It is going into local groceries, gas, entertainment, etc – everything flows back into the communities that need it. This is especially the case with the Gulf Coast after Katrina and the oil spill. It has given us more jobs and more revenue. Weakening The Magnuson-Stevens Act is only going to cancel out all of the good work that it has already done. We’ve made progress; don’t backtrack now.

  15. Dustin Starnes
    Pearl, MS
    September 23, 2013, 12:45 pm

    Being an avid recreational fisherman, I agree with Lee Crockett that The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working well. We should be sure that any changes made to the act will not cancel out the success that it has had in rebuilding fish stocks and ending overfishing. It was only with tough requirements that we have made any of that progress. There’s nothing I look forward to more than fishing on the long and hot southern summer days, but I want to make sure that the ecosystem and fishery stocks stay healthy in order for my fishing trips to be continued successes.

  16. Ray Hilborn
    Seattle Washington
    September 14, 2013, 1:36 pm

    Implicit in Lee Crockett’s commentary and in what appears to his world view is that the purpose of fisheries management is to rebuild stocks as rapidly as possible and that such rebuilding will deliver the most benefits to the people of the U.S.

    As I pointed out in my testimony to the Congressional hearing, rebuilding stocks is not the objective, it is a means to the objectives of generating benefits.

    The NRC report makes very clear that they believe that the existing rebuilding requirements are not the best way to achieve maximum benefits and that moving away from biomass based reference points and timelines to exploitation rate reference points would deliver more sustainable benefits to the people of the U.S.

    The science is very clear, that if you lower exploitation rates to those to levels at or below the rates that produce MSY, the benefits of rebuilding will come with much less loss of catch, revenue and jobs than the current approach.

    There is very little relationship between stock biomass and sustainable harvest from fish stocks and the idea that rebuilding stocks rapidly leads to a rapid increase in sustainable benefits simply is not supported by the data.

    Lets focus on getting the harvest rates right and the fish stocks will deliver the benefits.