America's Fishing Law On the Line

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Guest commentator Debbie Salamone is a communications manager at the Pew Environment Group.

Enjoyed some tasty New England scallops lately? Reeled in a Gulf of Mexico red snapper? Feasted on some mid-Atlantic summer flounder?

Aside from your fishing talents or culinary prowess, you have federal fishery law to thank. Like many other fish, these species, which were once at dangerously low levels, are in better shape today because of protections designed to prevent and stop overfishing—taking fish faster than they can reproduce.

Wednesday, April 13, marks the 35th anniversary of the nation’s first comprehensive fishing law, most recently named the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. It has helped promote America’s fishing industry and saved dwindling species, but is now at the center of debate.

To give some declining species a chance to repopulate, fishing is either off limits or catch is severely restricted in certain areas. Some fishermen complain those measures are hurting them economically, and they believe the law is too strict. Others believe safeguards for certain species need to be carried out better to successfully rebuild fish populations. The Pew Environment Group supports this position. In the midst of this debate, Congress convened an oversight hearing last month to discuss how the law is working.

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The MSA was originally enacted in 1976 to eliminate rampant foreign fishing off the U.S. coast and promote the domestic fishing industry. It was reauthorized in 1996 to change focus from promoting fishing to conserving fish. And in 2006 it was strengthened to set deadlines for fishery managers to approve scientifically sound limits on catches that do not allow overfishing. When properly implemented, the MSA can deliver robust fish populations.

Take Gulf of Mexico red snapper, for example: one of many MSA success stories. Science-based fishing limits that do not allow overfishing have helped the species grow older and reach its best spawning years. Early evidence shows that red snapper are more plentiful and spreading over a wider area. Allowable catch has been increased, and that trend is expected to continue as the species further recovers.

During the last 20 years, the amount of fishing has skyrocketed, boosted in part by federal programs and technology that help fishermen easily find their targets. These decades of unsustainable fishing in some parts of the country have caused certain populations to collapse and dozens of others to plummet to dangerously low levels, causing enormous losses for fishermen, coastal communities and the ocean ecosystem.

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The MSA is designed to get all of this under control by requiring fishery managers to set scientifically sound limits on catch. But some fishermen say they don’t believe in the data behind those restrictions. Scientists have made progress on the difficult process of studying fish, and we must act on the information at hand or risk further depleting our oceans of valuable species.

Congress should maintain its commitment to manage our ocean fish wisely. Now is the time to stay the course because the long-term reward is around the corner.

IMAGE: Red Snapper. Credit: Greg McFall, Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA.