Conservation news

Modern Fish Act: boon to recreational fishing or risk to U.S. fishery?

  • The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act sets strict, scientifically adjusted, annual catch limits on U.S. commercial, charter and recreational fisheries in order to sustain saltwater fish stocks, and is seen as a model of fishery management globally.
  • The Modern Fish Act (MFA), a bill introduced in the U.S. House in April, would do away with limits on recreational fishermen, who argue they have no impact on fishery stocks. Environmentalists, however, say the MFA introduces legal loopholes that would allow for uncontrolled fishing at potentially unsustainable levels that could cause stocks to crash.
  • Critics also say that the MFA muddies the waters between federal and state management, and allows political and economic considerations to override science in management decisions. The bill is still moving through Congress, and its chances for passage are presently unknown.
  • The Trump administration has already made moves to undermine scientifically arrived at recreational fishing limits. Its Commerce Department overruled a NOAA limit on the red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, a ruling experts say could delay the fishery’s recovery.
Many Americans enjoy the thrill of saltwater recreational fishing, a multi-billion dollar annual business important to the U.S. economy. Photo by Wikieditor2000man under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

A bird soaring above U.S. coastal waters in the 1950s and 60s would have spied dozens of foreign fishing trawlers below. Back then, international waters began a mere 12 nautical miles offshore and could be fished by fleets from all the world’s nations, a situation that led to the decline of those U.S. commercial fisheries, and in some cases to the demise of fish stocks.

Congress responded in 1976 by passing the first version of a bill known today as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). This law aimed to rebuild fish stocks by extending U.S. jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles and by establishing national fisheries management standards.

But overfishing didn’t stop, and many important fish stocks, such as Atlantic cod collapsed.

Congress responded in 1996 and again in 2007, when the law was amended to strengthen U.S. regulated fisheries by ensuring sustainable, science-based management practices. Today, those fisheries have annual catch limits set at levels to prevent overfishing, while depleted populations require management plans to rebuild them to healthy levels.

But a new bill, the Modern Fish Act (MFA), now moving through the House of Representatives could challenge current laws governing federal saltwater fisheries. Officially known as the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 (HR 2023), the bill was introduced in April, and would deregulate recreational saltwater fishing to a large degree. While praised by some sportsmen, boating and outdoor organizations, it has also drawn strong opposition by conservationists and some commercial and charter fishermen.

“The Modern Fish Act inserts too much uncertainty into the fisheries management process by adversely changing catch limits and how they are applied, muddies the waters between state and federal management, and allows political and economic considerations to override science in management decisions,” says the Marine Fisheries Conservation Network, an NGO.

To date, no one knows how the MFA, if implemented, would impact U.S. fish stocks, or how it might affect the fisheries of neighbors Mexico and Canada.

A commercial fishing trawler at work. NOAA is tasked with preventing the crash of fishing stocks due to the combined catches of commercial, charter and recreational fishermen. NOAA’s latest report to Congress at the end of 2016 states that the U.S. overfishing list included 30 stocks, but that 444 stocks or complexes are not presently being overfished. Photo courtesy of NOAA News April 15, 2015, Attribution 2.0 Generic

The commercial vs. recreational fishing debate

Mike Leonard, Director of Conservation of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), believes the new bill is needed because even though the old MSA has been successful, he claims it was written to regulate commercial fisheries, but was unjustifiably applied to managing recreational fishing as well. In actuality, the MSA was written to address all aspects of fisheries, spelling out rules for commercial, charter and recreational fishing in order to preserve sustainable fish stocks.

Leonard argued in an email to Mongabay that “Much like gardening in one’s backyard is different than large scale agriculture practices, recreational and commercial fishing are very different activities.” He contends that, while commercial fishermen have a single goal (to efficiently catch as many fish as possible), recreational anglers have other motivations, such as enjoying the outdoors with family and friends, catching and often releasing trophy fish, and occasionally catching dinner.

Meredith Moore, Director of the fish conservation program for the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental NGO, agrees that the management challenges posed by recreational and commercial fishing are different. However, she also notes that while the Modern Fish Act is advertised as providing solutions for recreational fishermen, it would fundamentally undermine the management system for all sectors of the U.S. fishery.

“At its core, sustainable fisheries are about catching an amount of fish that a population can sustain and remain healthy over the long term, no matter who catches the fish,” she told Mongabay. “This ensures recreational fishermen have the opportunity to catch a big one, and commercial fishermen can run a stable business and deliver fish to the dinner tables of Americans that don’t have the chance to fish themselves.”

A recreational angler displays an amberjack. Many recreational fishermen support passage of the Modern Fish Act. Photo by Bryan Fluech attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

The relaxation of limits

Today, annual catch limits (ACLs) are the main tool used to prevent overfishing in both commercial and recreational U.S. fisheries, and those limits ensure long-term biological and economic sustainability. An ACL is the amount of fish that can be caught by a particular fisherman over one year. These limits are determined by fishery scientists together with federal managers who, using current research, fix the maximum amount of fish that can be caught without harming stock.

However, under the proposed Modern Fish Act, a loophole would be introduced: annual recreational catch limits would no longer be required for stocks whose fishing rates were being maintained below their federal target, and ACLs would be removed for fisheries in which overfishing is not occurring.

“We’re in a chicken-and-egg problem here,” says Moore. Fisheries management, she explains, is essentially like weight loss. If you’re obese, you need to change your diet and exercise. But if after your weight comes down, you simply go back to old habits, the weight comes back. Same goes for fish: if a population is at an unhealthy low level, authorities must set limits on how much fishermen can catch until populations recover. Then ongoing sustainable catch levels need to be set so the fish population stays healthy.

“If you stop setting those levels just because the fish are doing better, you’re going to end up back where you were [with a depleted fishery]. The Modern Fish Act is basically saying ‘hey, the diet worked, problem solved, let’s go back to eating pizza every day’.”

But ASA’s Leonard contends that Congress should allow managers the flexibility to employ other recreational fisheries management approaches when no signs exist that a fishery is in trouble, rather than forcing recreational fishing into the fisheries management ACLs approach.

The status of U.S. fisheries is annually assessed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which tracks 474 stocks and stock complexes (fish species grouped for management). NOAA’s latest report to Congress at the end of 2016 states that the overfishing list included 30 stocks, but that 444 stocks or complexes are not presently being overfished.

Under the Modern Fish Act, those 444 stocks or complexes would lose their current requirement for science-based, sustainable annual limits on catch for recreational fishing.

Recreational fishing boats at harbor. While recreational anglers claim to not catch many fish individually, the large number of boats and people involved in sport fishing do impact U.S. fishery stocks, say scientists. Photo by jad99 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Reliable data

According to Leonard, a lack of reliable data on recreational fisheries is what prevents ACLs from working well. “While managers have a good sense of what commercial fishermen are harvesting in close to real time, the U.S. system for estimating recreational harvest is unable to produce harvest estimates with the level of accuracy and timeliness to manage many recreational fisheries to annual catch limits.”

NOAA acknowledges this issue. Its Status of Stocks 2016 report states that: “ACLs are effective in preventing overfishing, but some challenges remain. For data poor and rarely-sampled stocks, for example, fisheries managers are still learning how to accurately account for catch and [how to] determine effective mechanisms to address overfishing.”

Seafood Harvesters of America Executive Director Kevin Wheeler told Mongabay that he supports the Modern Fish Act’s proposed provisions for improving the quality of fisheries data. He notes that sharing best practices on recreational data collection, and identifying and incorporating reliable data from multiple sources could prove beneficial for the whole sector. The commercial fisheries sector, he explains, has embraced accountability and transparency, and the industry is increasingly using electronic monitoring to reduce the cost of compliance, while improving the quality, quantity and timeliness of the data.

In an effort to improve fisheries data, the new bill would shift money away from the federal Marine Recreational Information Program, that collects data on fish stock, and turn that task over to individual states instead.

But, as Ocean Conservancy’s Moore points out, fish do not respect state boundaries. She also notes that not all states count their fish in the same way, and believes that taking money away from the federal program that brings all this data together is the wrong approach. Even if science is not always perfect, she says, the U.S. Fisheries management system is already designed to work using the best science available.

Black sea bass (Centropristis striata), a recreational game fish, hovering over a reef at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary in Georgia. Photo courtesy of Greg McFall, Gray’s Reef NMS, NOS, NOAA, Attribution 2.0 Generic

Another important point: states often don’t have the funding or expertise for large scale monitoring programs. And some coastal states, such as Alabama, have been accused for years by critics of a regulatory race to the bottom that encourages business by reducing environmental oversight. In a March 2017 letter, 18 conservative states — including coastal Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama — asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “end federal overreach” by getting rid of regulations that are the “product of political and social ideology.” This strong opposition by some seaside states to federal regulation doesn’t likely bode well for federal-state fisheries management partnerships, even though such relationships wouldn’t involve the EPA.

Economic arguments

U.S. saltwater fishing is not only an environmental issue; it is a big business issue as well. According to NOAA’s latest Fisheries Economics of the United States report in 2015, U.S. commercial and recreational fishing annually generates $208 billion in sales, and supports 1.6 million full- and part-time jobs.

There are approximately 8.9 million saltwater anglers in the United States, and they are an integral part of life in coastal communities and a major economic force, as they support 439,000 jobs and generate $63 billion in local sales.

Leonard asserts that recreational fishermen and boaters lead the way in conserving U.S. waterways, and that they contribute about $1.5 billion annually to conservation efforts through excise taxes on equipment and fuel, fishing license fees and direct donations. “Building and conserving healthy fish stocks is in the best interest of all Americans, especially our nation’s anglers,” he says.

The Modern Fish Act, say its supporters, would take this financial contribution into account by allowing economics to be closely considered when setting ACLs.

A commercial fishing boat in Wrangell, Alaska. The commercial fishing industry competes for fish with charter and recreational fishermen, so commercial fishermen are understandably leery about removing recreational fishing limits via the MFA. Photo by James Crippen under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

SHA’s Wheeler agrees that economics is a reasonable consideration, but cautions that fishing limits need to be set with an eye on the future because “overfishing now creates economic hardship later,” something the U.S. has already experienced with the collapse of cod and other fisheries.

“We have seen that short-term [economic] sacrifices have turned into long-term gains in those stocks that have been rebuilt. Since the 2007 Re-authorization of the MSA, which implemented real accountability measures for the first time, U.S. fisheries stocks have simultaneously rebuilt many stocks while increasing the economic value of landings in U.S. fisheries. This in turn has increased U.S. jobs, GDP, and stability in the fishing industries,” says Wheeler.

Those opposed to passage of the Modern Fish Act point out that economics is already considered in the setting of ACLs. In fact, in 2016, NOAA Fisheries revised the National Standard 1 Guidelines to help managers determine how best to achieve certain statutory requirements within the MSA such as preventing overfishing, rebuilding overfished stocks, and achieving Optimum Yield.

MSA defines a fishery’s Optimum Yield “as the amount of fish that will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems.” To be clear, Optimum Yield is prescribed on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor. Therefore, this legal framework already allows managers to consider economic factors when setting catch levels. For instance, if a local economy is extremely vulnerable to stock collapse, then regulators can set ACLs lower than what scientists recommend.

“Since economics is already built into setting annual catch limits, I’m frankly confused as to what this part of HR 2023 would accomplish,” says Moore. “But I’m very opposed to allowing short-term economic considerations to allow annual catch limits to be set higher than sustainable levels. Overfishing damages fish populations, and healthy fish populations are what allow for stable businesses and fishing opportunities.”

The Trump administration made a controversial decision to overrule NOAA science this year and extended the red snapper recreational fishing season in the Gulf of Mexico from 3 days to 39 days. While anglers are delighted, scientists say the decision could hurt the fishery long term. Photo courtesy of NOAA FishWatch

The red snapper controversy

Being that the Modern Fish Act has only recently been introduced in the House, and considering the legislative deadlock seen in Congress so far this year, it is hard to predict at this stage when or whether the MFA will receive congressional approval. However, it does seem likely that if the bill passes both the House and Senate that President Trump — with his overarching commitment to environmental deregulation — would sign it into law.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), the self-declared “only sport fishing organization in the country that supported and publicly endorsed Mr. Trump right from the beginning,” argues strongly that the administration will back and benefit the recreational fishing industry wherever possible.

“The days of the environmental zealots running the show are, for the most part, over,” said a celebratory press statement from RFA Executive Director Jim Donofrio when the news broke that Trump had been elected president.

Though barely 6 months old, the administration has already made moves to begin deregulating ocean fishing. When NOAA set the shortest recreational snapper season ever in the Gulf of Mexico — just three days in June — recreational fishermen lobbied the Trump administration to intervene, which it did. The Commerce Department and Gulf states both agreed to extend the recreational season to 39 days, opening it every weekend and holiday through Labor Day of this year.

While some recreational fishermen called NOAA’s three-day season “ridiculous,” others, including commercial fishermen and environmentalists, say it was necessary to prevent overfishing, and call the federal and state agreement to extend the season an unwise precedent based on politics not sound science.

Trump’s “Commerce Department issued a rule… that permits overfishing of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico by private anglers, while acknowledging that it will delay the [stock] rebuilding schedule for the species by six years,” says Wheeler.

A scuba diver swims amid a school of fish at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by G.P. Schmahl, Sanctuary Superintendent courtesy of NOAA/NOS/NMS/FGBNMS; National Marine Sanctuaries Media Library, Attribution 2.0 Generic

The red snapper season extension especially worries the Ocean Conservancy. Moore labels it as “an incredibly damaging decision,” and in July the NGO decided to challenge the Commerce Department in court.

“We are deeply concerned that the [Trump] administration has chosen to overrule good science, and issue a regulation that is likely illegal and ultimately hurts fishermen. Overfishing by the private recreational sector will harm the health of the stock, and could reduce fishing opportunities for for-hire and commercial fishermen,” says Moore.

Sweeping aside such concerns, ASA’s Leonard applauds the red snapper season extension. He also urges that Congress listen to millions of saltwater anglers and thousands of coastal businesses that depend on saltwater recreational fishing, and pass the MFA. “The federal fisheries management system has never established a system that fits what recreational fishing is all about; and that is what we are hoping to achieve with the Modern Fish Act,” he says.

Wheeler says that the commercial fishing sector opposes the MFA because it removes accountability by the recreational sector, with which it competes for fish. But there are things he likes about the bill. The new law, he says, would support efforts to innovate and improve the use, and incorporation of, new data sources into the sustainable fishery management regimes.

He concedes that it is difficult to assess the overall impact the MFA could have on global fisheries, as it would depend on how specific stocks would ultimately be managed. Among the variables: some fisheries are predominately commercial, such as Pollock; while others are dominated by sport fishing, such as marlin; while still others are mixed, such as red snapper. But because fish know no bounds, it’s likely that any change in U.S. law would also impact the fishery stocks of Mexico, Canada and perhaps other nations.

If Congress really wants to improve fisheries, Moore says, it should not be deregulating, but rather addressing looming threats that are already affecting fish stock, including warming waters due to climate change and ocean acidification. Ocean Conservancy opposes the MFA, it says, because the legislation would change a fisheries management system that is widely regarded as a model for the world thanks to the science-based limits it sets every year.

“Should we remove those [limits], we’ll lose our best tool for conservation,” Moore says, “and we could see the return of the bad times when fishing businesses were failing, coastal communities were struggling, and the health of our oceans was in precipitous decline.”

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