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Language written into the Modern Fish Act to make access 25% more restrictive and “inflexible” has been removed, paving the way for passage of in the Senate and perhaps House this week.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  December 10, 2018
Sen. Roger Wicker (left), the lead sponsor of the Modern Fish Act in the U.S. Senate, sits on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation chaired by Sen. John Thune (right).

After a busy month of horse-trading and compromise on Capitol Hill, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 (Modern Fish Act) could get a vote in the U.S. Senate this week before members head home for the holidays.

Senate bill 1520 (S.1520) sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss) was expected to get heard in the Senate as early as last week, but a procedural glitch following weeks of intense negotiation pushed the planned vote back to the week of December 10.

Widely supported by a national coalition of recreational fishing organizations, S.1520 had actually been held up in the U.S. Senate because of language inserted over the summer which could seriously impact coastal fishermen in the Northeast by reducing management flexibility on certain fish stocks. That particular poison pill amendment was removed from the Senate legislation last week.

While several mainstream media outlets previously reported that a House version of the Modern Fish Act had already been approved on the other side of Congress, the actual House companion bill (H.R. 2023) sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves (R-Louis.) has yet to clear the House Natural Resources committee. The House of Representatives would would need to move ahead their own version as well this week in order for the Modern Fish Act to actually become law.

On July 11, the House voted to approve the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (H.R.200) by a 222-193 vote; while that legislation contained some of the very same language as the Modern Fish Act, procedurally the two bills are not the same.

The new, 116th Congress will convene in Washington DC on January 3, 2019, and any current piece of legislation which doesn’t get signed into law by the president beforehand will have to be resubmitted in the new Congress with the full process starting from scratch.

Modern Fish Act supporters including the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), and Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) have actively supported the Wicker/Graves legislation for helping establish new methods of managing saltwater anglers, while recognizing the inherent differences between recreational fishermen and the commercial sector.

However, because the legislation was written specifically to address ongoing issues experienced by red snapper anglers in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, most of the language in H.R. 2023 and S.1520 does little to really help Northeast anglers or impact coastal fisheries managed by the Mid Atlantic or New England fishery councils.

Adding salt to the wound, a legislative amendment requested by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in July to help move S.1520 out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation could’ve seriously impacted fluke fishermen and impacted seasons, sizes and bag limits for years to come. Under current federal fisheries law (Magnuson Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, or Magnuson) if the new benchmark assessment currently being undertaken for summer flounder or fluke shows the fishery needs to go through another rebuilding plan as it did in the early 2000’s, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council would have to implement regulations and management measures with a 50% chance of meeting the targeted deadline.

The Booker amendment to S.1520 would’ve modified Magnuson to make those rebuilding requirements 25% more restrictive, changing federal law to require councils to implement plans that have a 75% chance of hitting the target and deadline. S.1520 also had language requiring a systematic reallocation of catch from the commercial sector to the recreational sector exclusively in the South Atlantic and Gulf regions, a mandate which would have zero impact in the Northeast but which had commercial fishermen staunchly opposed nationwide.

While angling groups continued pressuring Congress to pass S.1520 - even in its compromised form - powerful, bipartisan members of Congress who represent both commercial and recreational fishing communities in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast had stood fast in opposition due primarily to the bill’s potential impact on coastal constituents and stakeholders. Late negotiations on Capitol Hill last week to remove the 75% requirement while softening the allocation language in South Atlantic and Gulf region essentially helped pave the way for a potential vote on S.1520 this week.

Even greater opposition has come from environmentalists and hardline conservation groups like * Environmental Defense Fund, Ocean Conservancy and the Marine Fish Conservation Network have made claims that the Modern Fish Act will do away with annual catch limits (ACL’s) and accountability measures on recreational fishermen. However, an analysis put out by the U.S. Government Publishing Office following the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation vote on S.1520 stated that “the Committee does not intend for this clarification of Council authority to be interpreted as altering in any way the annual catch limits, accountability measures, national standards, or other sustainable fishing requirements of the MSA (Magnuson).”

In other words, S.1520 language pertaining to pound-for-pound monitoring and payback of recreational catch through annual catch limit (ACL) requirements must still comply with the current mandate within Magnuson. While that exact monitoring might make sense in the commercial sector where every pound of fish sold is accounted for, in the recreational sector where harvest is monitored by random surveys using coastal household sampling and random dockside intercepts, that ACL mandate in Magnuson has led to significant problems with recreational access of black sea bass and summer flounder.

Those particular issues have groups like RFA and the ASA pledging to continue the fight for recreational fishermen in the next Congress.

"The one good thing the Modern Fish Act has done is that it’s gotten us some recognition on Capitol Hill of the millions of jobs sportfishing brings into the U.S. economy,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio. “The bill was weakened by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and we missed an opportunity to fix the rebuilding flexibility and ACL issue that will continue to haunt us.”

“Next Congress we better get with the other user group and together work hard on fixing what is really keeping us away from healthy fish stocks," Donofrio added.

“While it’s not a complete overhaul of federal marine fisheries management, the version of the Modern Fish Act currently being debated in Congress does move the ball forward on addressing the management and data collection problems affecting many fisheries,” said ASA president Glenn Hughes.

“To my knowledge, this would be the first time the U.S. Congress will have passed legislation focused exclusively on the saltwater recreational fishing community – and hopefully it won’t be the last,” Hughes said, adding “That demonstrates that the importance of recreational fishing to the nation is increasingly being recognized by members of Congress.”

Striped bass - which is not affected by Magnuson Stevens, and is instead managed under separate authority by way of the Atlantic Coastal Striped Bass Act of 1984 and Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Act of 1993 – is currently under benchmark assessment review. We’ll have more to report on that fishery at TheFisherman.com during the week of December 18, 2018.

(* In the original version of this story, Pew Environment Group was listed as being one of the organizations opposed to S.1520; but according to Christine Fletcher, Communications Officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, "in fact, Pew did not oppose the bill.")