On July 26, 2021 Congressmen Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Ed Case (D-HI) introduced the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), America’s primary law governing marine fisheries. In a press release from the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), the trade association for the recreational fishing tackle industry said it “commends Reps. Huffman and Case for their thorough approach to drafting the legislation,” with ASA citing stakeholder roundtables held on each coast over the past 2 years to invite fishermen to provide input on the discussion draft of the bill.
”While MSA has made significant strides in ending overfishing and rebuilding depleted fish stocks, Congress must build upon the progress of the Modern Fish Act to better recognize in MSA the importance of saltwater recreational fishing to the nation,” said Mike Leonard, ASA vice president of government affairs, adding “We thank Reps. Huffman and Case for incorporating much of the input we provided on their earlier discussion draft. We will remain vigilant in advocating for an MSA reauthorization that advances much-needed recreational fisheries management and conservation improvements.”
“We appreciate Congressman Huffman’s thoughtfulness in gathering input from all marine fishing stakeholders when drafting the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy (CSP). “A reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is long overdue, and we look forward to working with members from both sides of the aisle to recognize the contributions of the recreational sector to the Blue Economy and to the conservation of America’s public marine resources.”
According to ASA, a primary focus of the recreational fishing and boating community has been the enforcement of the Modern Fish Act which was enacted in December 2018. “The Modern Fish Act adds more appropriate management tools for policymakers to use in managing federal recreational fisheries,” ASA noted in their press release, adding “The recreational fishing community looks forward to working with bi-partisan Members of Congress to build on the successes of MSA and improve the law where it is weak.”
While both ASA and CSP sounded pretty optimistic about the Huffman bill, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) seems to be taking a more cautious approach to dealing with language contained in the bill. “As the saying goes, the devil is in the details,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio. “This bill was just released, it’s 198 pages long, and the majority of the language here deals with climate change, so our recreational fishing community really needs to do a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of the language before we go signing on the dotted line.”
According to Donofrio, while some of the language written into the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act – like changing the fisheries term “overfished” to “depleted” to recognize population changes unrelated to fishing, while also improving flexibility on rebuilding timelines in certain stocks of fish – seems quite sensible, other legalese could also make rebuilding requirements even more restrictive than they are today, especially with fisheries like summer flounder.
“The bill charges managers to assess and specify maximum sustainable yield values 20 to 30 years out in response to climate change,” Donofrio cited as an example. “Just think about how the fluke rebuilding target changed three times in a 10-year rebuilding plan; this bill would force scientists to make predictions about stock size three decades out. Consider the data needed to run that kind of analysis, it’s simply not possible for NOAA Fisheries and the management councils to meet such goals with the tools they have today.”
According to the National Fisherman, a publication which covers the commercial fishing industry, Congressman Huffman said balancing regional needs and mandating national standards is certain to create problems at the management council level when it comes to rebuilding timelines, as New Jersey anglers experienced first-hand in the early 2000s with ever-tightening restrictions during the last rebuilding period for summer flounder.
“There have been some stakeholders in some regions calling for flexibility, feeling like some of the framework is too rigid or arbitrary,” Huffman told National Fisherman. “But I think there’s also very broad consensus that if you take the scientific rigor and the teeth out of the framework, you’re going to be on the fast track to overfishing. So that’s a tricky balance to strike. And we’ve really tried to hang onto the rigor, that I think is really one of the keys that has made Magnuson successful.”
“What we’ve tried to do is allow for the special circumstances of some species and some fisheries without pulling too many threads out of the framework,” Huffman added.
As noted previously in The Fisherman Magazine, the Magnuson Stevens Act has been a heated topic from the docks at the Jersey Shore to the floors of Congress since it was last reauthorized in 2007, with issues related to rigid annual catch limits, fisheries closures and the introduction of limited-entry catch shares and fish tags into mixed use commercial and recreational fisheries. Of particular concern to New Jersey anglers and members of the state’s recreational fishing and boating industry in recent years is the current state of black sea bass and summer flounder, two species managed federally under Magnuson.
While testifying before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife in 2019, New Jersey’s Nick Cicero of the Folsom Corporation, a wholesale distributor and manufacturer of fishing tackle, told House members “Statistically, we’re losing anglers and recreational fishing businesses,” while pointing out a 40% increase in fluke quota for 2019 where anglers saw “a zero net gain” as prime example of the problem with Magnuson.
“The true intent of Magnuson is clearly not being met,” Cicero said in his congressional testimony, adding “we’re no longer managing for sustainability, we’re managing for abundance and preservation, and it is killing our recreational fishing community.”
New Jersey’s sole representative on the subcommittee at that time, Congressman Jeff Van Drew from Cape May, opened remarks before that subcommittee – which was chaired by Congressman Huffman – by calling for “greater flexibility” in how various provisions in Magnuson are enforced. After first introducing a letter from Congressman Frank Pallone of Monmouth County, Van Drew described the need for more flexibility in Magnuson at the fishery management council level as being generally supported by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the council coordinating committee.
“I think perhaps it’s time that Congress make flexibility a requirement of the Magnuson Stevens Act as well by enacting bipartisan reform that is science-based, and also does achieve fisheries management objectives,” Van Drew added during the subcommittee hearing.
First enacted in 1976 as the primary law that governs marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters, the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was later reauthorized by Congress in 1996 and again in 2006.