Viewpoints: Why mess up a successful fisheries law?

Our nation’s fisheries are recovering, in stark contrast to much of the rest of the world, where fish stocks are overfished and continue to dwindle, science on sustainable catch levels – if it even exists – is ignored, and illegal fishing runs rampant.

But that success is in jeopardy because some want to backslide on a law that has worked well.

Since 2000, 34 of our nation’s fish stocks have been rebuilt. Between 2012 and 2013, the total number of fish stocks listed as overfished or depleted fell from 19 to 17 percent. During that time, the National Marine Fisheries Service added South Atlantic black sea bass to the list of rebuilt stocks. Because of this success, managers were able to double the annual catch for black sea bass last year.

Sacramento River fall-run king (Chinook) salmon also rebounded, although they were never overfished, but had suffered due to low flows in their spawning streams and water diversions that killed baby salmon before they could reach the ocean.

Why then is the U.S. succeeding in bringing back its fisheries – and the jobs and food production that those fish represent – when fish stocks in much of the world are headed for the abyss of economic or actual extinction?

In 1976, Congress passed a law extending U.S. jurisdiction for fishing to 200 miles offshore, phasing out foreign fishing, and setting up a management system based on recommendations from eight regional fishery councils. That statute, the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, is also intended to prevent overfishing and ensure the “optimum yield” from its fish resources.

Although foreign fishing ended in the 200-mile zone within a decade, increased efforts by our domestic fleet led to overfishing and depleted fish stocks by the early 1990s. In some instances, we had not invested in the science needed to set sustainable catch limits; in others, science was simply ignored.

Sensing the need for a sea change, a coalition of conservation groups, together with forward-thinking commercial and recreational fishing organizations, worked to pass a set of amendments to the fishery law – now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act – in 1996 and again in 2006, to explicitly end overfishing, establish annual catch limits, require the rebuilding of overfished stocks and to mandate that fishery management be science-based. The changes requested by this fish conservation network were mostly adopted with strong congressional bipartisan support.

A disciplined adherence to those changes in the law has made all the difference. Our fisheries are coming back, and with them jobs, food production, better recreational fishing opportunities and economic renewal for many coastal communities.

But this turnabout has not come without pain. And that’s the rub. Some want to avoid the pain, in the name of “flexibility,” looking to return to the old ways of doing things – fishing as hard as possible with no regard for the future. In this case, “flexibility” is merely code for fudging – fudging on catch limits, fudging on rebuilding, fudging on the science.

Congress is now looking to renew, or reauthorize and amend, our nation’s primary fishery law. The House has started to advance a bill, HR 4742, introduced by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., which would undermine years of hard-earned progress. The changes proposed in that bill would fudge on the current strong statutory language and could set our course back to overfishing and depletion. This is something the public and fishing communities must resist. There’s also a draft bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act circulating in the Senate.

Some changes to the law would be welcome. These include making management more ecosystem-based, establishing a stable funding source for fishery science, promoting more cost-effective catch monitoring and observation, easing development of more selective fishing gear and enabling the creation of community fishing associations.

Most importantly, however, we must maintain what is working in the law – stopping overfishing, setting annual catch limits, and rebuilding fish stocks, all with a strict adherence to science. Now is no time to fudge on success.