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On the reauthorization of the Magnuson Act
By Nils E. Stolpe
GSSA Communications Director
from Vol. 3 of Seafood Matters
published by Garden State Seafood Association

The Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (now the Magnuson-Stevens Act) was originally drafted in 1976 and was the primary tool allowing the United States to regain control of the fisheries off our coasts. It established the Exclusive Economic Zone (the EEZ), encompassing the territory from the limits of the state’s control (generally beyond three miles from the coastline) out to 200 miles. It also established the fisheries management system still in place today; a series of regional Fisheries Management Councils empowered to create fishery management plans for the fisheries within their geographic jurisdictions. During the last reauthorization in 1976 the Act was amended via the Sustainable Fisheries Act.

In communicating with fishing industry leaders from around the country I’ve seen a surprising consensus – particularly surprising for an industry that’s not known for getting together on issues – concerning a number of aspects of the Magnuson Act in its current form and the implementation of some of its provisions. Among these are:

· Too rigid biological “performance” standards
· Lack of standards for the science that supports management decisions.
· Use of language that unnecessarily skews public – and legislative – opinion against commercial harvesting.
· Habitat provisions based on poorly or undefined concepts and used as a weapon against fishing rather than a tool for the fish.
· Requirements that prevent the consideration of the cumulative social and economic impacts of restrictive management actions.

Biological “performance” standards

Starting with performance standards, we have a requirement that all fisheries must be at the level of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) simultaneously. MSY isn’t defined in the Act. It’s determination is supposed to be a judgment call of the appropriate Council for each fishery being managed. But at whatever level it’s set, it represents a lot of fish, generally approaching the level of maximum production for the particular species.

If we take the complex of fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic as an example, what this means is that restrictions are required to be imposed on recreational and commercial fishing until the populations of all of the species being managed reach some theoretical level of abundance simultaneously. But several of these species – striped bass, bluefish, weakfish and fluke – can be considered to be in “competition” with each other; occupying about the same areas at about the same time and feeding on the same prey organisms. From an ecological perspective it would appears as if these competing species couldn’t all be present in the waters of the New York Bight at high populations simultaneously, and catch records bear this out. The ecosystem simply can’t support it.

But, in spite of this, the managers are prepared to cut back on fishing in an effort to allow each of these species to simultaneously reach these theoretical abundance levels, probably an unattainable goal.

Then we have dogfish, very efficient competitors with each of the above species as well as with New England’s groundfish. A recent survey conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the EEZ from Cape Hatteras to Maine found that over 40% by weight of all of the fish in this tremendous area were dogfish. Out of every two and a half pounds of fish caught by the survey gear, over one pound was dogfish. There’s a huge amount of dogfish out there, and they’re competing (obviously successfully) with other species like cod and flounder and weakfish that are much more valuable to both the recreational and commercial fishing industries. Yet, according to the Mid-Atlantic Council, because they’re not at the MSY level, there aren’t enough dogfish. So the council is attempting to close down the dogfish fishery. More dogfish means less of all those competing species, means less income for the commercial fleet, and means less game- or foodfish for the recreational fleet. But the Magnuson Act requires that the production of dogfish be maximized, regardless of the impact that so many dogfish will have on far more valuable fisheries. The other fisheries, and the other fish, are going to have to suffer.

The quality of science supporting management decisions is at times woefully inadequate. As set forth in one of the 8 National Standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, “Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.” What does this mean? In many instances, not very much.

Scientific standards

One of the most glaring examples of the inadequacy of the science supporting management decisions that has surfaced in recent years is that on monkfish. Monkfish are found just about everywhere where there’s salt water from Cape Hatteras to Nova Scotia. While a significant bycatch in many other fisheries, they were never sought by directed fishing efforts until Julia Childs popularized them in the 1980s. Since then, because they are among the best tasting fish available off the East coast, because of declines in other fisheries, and because the federal government actively encouraged commercial fishermen to harvest them, the monkfish fishery has grown to the point where $50 million of them are landed by commercial fishermen each year in ports from Maine to North Carolina. This level of landings generates at least a quarter of a billion dollars worth of economic activity, definitely a “big deal” as fisheries are measured, and making monkfish the most valuable finfish fishery in the Northeast.

In spite of the value and the importance of the fishery, the monkfish resource has never been directly surveyed. In the early 1990s, the growth in the fishery brought it to the attention of the managers, who collectively decided that a monkfish management plan was needed. Not having any monkfish survey data available to base a management plan upon, however, the managers decided to use the results of the Northeast Science Center’s bottom trawl survey. This survey, which has been done twice a year since 1963, was designed to sample a particular group of fish, a group that  doesn’t include monkfish. However, it does catch some monkfish, so it was decided that it met the requirement of being “the best scientific information available” and now forms the basis of a management plan that is in the process of closing the fishery down. So we have a fishery that brings $50 million dollars a year to the fishermen in almost a dozen states and that generates another $200 million in economic activity that is being shut down because of data from a survey designed to measure some other – and behaviorally very different – fish species. And in the almost 10 years since monkfish management was first envisioned, no attempt has been made by the managers to gather any other information specific to either the fishery or to the fish. It’s difficult to imagine how NMFS and/or the Councils can justify management measures costing the fishing communities in the Mid-Atlantic and New England a quarter of a billion dollars a year that are based on the results of surveys for some other fish. But that’s all the Magnuson Act requires, and that’s all that is being done.

Loaded language

The most obvious and, we hope, inadvertent use of loaded language is that which requires that a fishery be classified as “overfished” if it’s determined that the population isn’t large enough. This term is applied regardless of the reason. It should be obvious to just about anyone that there are a complex of factors that can impact on the size of a fish stock. While fishing is one of those factors, it is by no means the only one that’s significant. Natural factors like weather and climate and other anthropogenic factors like pollution and wetlands loss all take their toll, yet when there aren’t enough fish it’s automatically attributed to “overfishing” and the fishing industry gets another black eye. This isn’t good for fishermen or fishing businesses, particularly because it’s used by the anti-fishing forces as a reason for even more restrictions on fishing. It isn’t good for our fisheries resources either. It very effectively draws attention away from other problem areas (coastal development, for example). So we continue to ratchet down on our seafood harvesters, and we continue to ignore other factors that we should be controlling, because all of those fish stocks are being “overfished.”


It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the intent of Congress in crafting the habitat provisions of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, to provide healthier marine habitat to increase seafood production of our coastal waters, is being subverted by various anti-fishing groups. These groups, camouflaging themselves as “conservation” organizations, are attempting to use these habitat provisions as a weapon against the commercial fishing industry, and they’ve been doing this with the apparent approval and cooperation of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Areas that have been fished with the same gear for generations, and that have consistently produced high levels of fish or shellfish since they’ve been fished, are now being termed “Essential Fish Habitat” and the managers, pushed by anti-fishing “conservation” groups, are threatening to close them to that very same gear. At the same time that this is going on other, probably far more injurious human activities are being studiously overlooked.
(For more on this issue see G.S.S.A. Board Member Kevin Wark’s testimony to the House Resources Committee on Habitat in this edition.)

Cumulative impacts

There are few commercial fishing communities that are dependent on a single species or a single fishery. There probably aren’t any at all in the Mid-Atlantic or New England. Most commercial fishermen today must rely on more than one fishery to remain economically viable. Almost every commercial dock that we’re familiar with handles fish and shellfish from at least several different fisheries. But when the social or economic impacts of management restrictions are evaluated, as is required by law, they’re evaluated individually. Thus, a further restriction on fluke fishing, for example, that entails another 15% reduction in landings for all of the participants in the fishery is presented as not particularly devastating to the boat owner or crew member or dock operator. A 15% cut in pay, after all, isn’t that significant (particularly if it’s someone else’s pay). But couple that cut in fluke landings with a 25% reduction in winter flounder harvest and a closure of the monkfish fishery and you can have serious and/or devastating effects visited on the involved boats or businesses. While the cumulative impacts of management measures are the ones that the families, the businesses and the communities actually feel, the requirement is to only consider the individual impacts. This distorts the perception of the amount of real damage being done to real people, effectively disguising a management system that is well on the way to becoming blind to the human impacts of its actions.

Are there other areas of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that should be addressed? Of course. In fact, the basic premise of the Act and of the management system that it established - that fisheries can be managed by managing fishing – needs a serious reexamination. But the issues presented here need immediate attention, and they can be addressed without major revisions to what is already a too complex law. The economic survival of thousands of fishing and related businesses and the future of the domestic commercial fishing industry depends on how well they are revised.