Proposed Policies Could Make America Overfished Again

A new “fish bill” could weaken regulations that have helped fisheries recover across the United States.

Published February 22, 2017

The United States is one month into its 115th Congress and it has already earned a reputation for dismantling environmental laws. Rules governing methane flaring and stream protection have already bitten the dust; a bill to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency is floating around the House of Representatives; and the Senate is holding hearings to overhaul the Endangered Species Act. And while Congress has so far kept its focus terrestrial, it may soon set its sights on the nation’s main marine fisheries law: the Magnuson-Stevens Act, often referred to as the “fish bill.”

A new bill, introduced by Representative Don Young, a Republican from Alaska, doesn’t gut Magnuson-Stevens, but it does slacken the law’s firmest requirements.

The original fish bill swam into existence in 1976, a time when the United States’ coastlines were practically as lawless as the high seas. Trawlers from Russia and Japan commonly drew within five kilometers of shore, plundering fish and outcompeting American small-boat fishermen. The first version of the act, which pushed foreign vessels 200 miles (321 kilometers) offshore, was an across-the-aisle affair, coauthored by Senator Warren Magnuson, a Democrat from Washington State, and Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican.

Over the years, the law grew increasingly conservation minded, even as it remained bipartisan. The 1996 reauthorization required all overfished stocks to be placed on rebuilding timelines, and a 2006 update—passed by a Republican president and Congress—mandated hard caps on total allowable catch.

Those tough stipulations have helped the United States rebuild 39 once-overfished stocks since 2000. Lingcod, a snaky Pacific coast bottom-dweller with flaky white meat, makes for a good case study. By 1999, decades of trawling, longlining, and trap fishing had depleted lingcod to less than 10 percent of historical levels. In response, the federal government instituted a 10-year rebuilding plan, cutting catches, protecting juveniles, and securing habitat. Lingcod populations surged, surpassing targets in 2005—four years ahead of schedule.

“We’ve made some really significant improvements that are helping us move toward a more sustainable management system,” says Ted Morton, director of US oceans for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

But those gains could soon be undone.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act’s strength stems from its ability to impose rebuilding timelines and catch limits on both commercial fishing and saltwater angling. By contrast, the new bill, H.R. 200, would allow regional fishery management councils to relax timelines in cases when quickly rehabilitating stocks would inflict “significant economic harm” on fishermen.

The bill also permits managers to slow down recovery when “environmental conditions” or even vaguely defined “unusual events”—say, an El Niño or an oil spill—interfere with bringing fish back. By stretching out rebuilding timelines, the new provisions could allow fishermen to catch more Gulf of Maine cod and Gulf of Mexico red snapper, overfished stocks that are currently subject to tight limits.

Some fishermen are eager to see the fish bill loosened. John DePersenaire, a fisheries policy and science researcher for the Recreational Fishing Alliance, says the law has been particularly “unfair” to anglers. As an example, DePersenaire points to pending federal cuts to the allowable catch of summer flounder, which he says are based on flawed science and will devastate fishermen in New Jersey and New York.

“To manage us in such a rigid way doesn’t make too much sense,” DePersenaire argues. “This is a case where we’d want some flexibility with imposing these cuts.”

But the proposed changes concern some biologists, who fear “flexibility” is a euphemism for “deregulation.” Clauses that allow managers to postpone recovery for nebulous reasons, says Trevor Branch, at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, represent “get out of jail free cards” that allow the continued depletion of troubled stocks.

“US fisheries management has generally been based on the core principle that we shouldn’t be overfishing anything, and if we are, we should rebuild it,” Branch says. “I think that’s being weakened quite a bit here.”

Although increased flexibility is the bill’s headliner, it is packed with other tweaks—some of which Branch applauds. One clause would require putting the creation of new east coast catch share programs (controversial management schemes that essentially privatize fisheries) to a vote among commercial fishermen and, in some cases, crew members. Allowing fishermen to approve catch shares through direct democracy, says Branch, “makes total sense.”

The bill also loosens restrictions around harvesting short-lived forage fish; requires scientists to more frequently assess stocks; and gives the Magnuson-Stevens Act priority when it clashes with other federal laws, such as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. The latter stipulation worries Morton, who fears it could jeopardize the protection of sensitive ocean habitats.

H.R. 200 isn’t Young’s first crack at revamping the fish bill. The new version closely resembles H.R. 1335, a Young-sponsored bill that sailed through the House in 2015. But while Young’s last reauthorization attempt stalled out—in part because then president Barack Obama threatened to veto it—Republican control of the White House could give H.R. 200 a better chance than its predecessor.

With Young’s bill likely to pass the House again, the fish bill’s future could hinge on the Senate. Shannon Carroll, fisheries policy director at the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and a former commercial salmon fisherman, suggests keeping an eye on another Alaskan: Senator Dan Sullivan. The Republican was recently named chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, a pulpit he could use to introduce his own revisions to Magnuson-Stevens as early as March. Whether that’s a close companion to Young’s version, or an entirely different set of provisions, remains to be seen.

“We’re hoping that’s going to be something a little more progressive and representative of the history of [the Magnuson-Stevens Act], where each reauthorization has been an opportunity to solicit bipartisan support and raise the bar,” Carroll says.

And what will happen when a new fish bill reaches the Oval Office? Although President Donald Trump has so far proved a reliable proponent of slashing environmental protections, he’s been conspicuously silent on ocean issues. Says Carroll: “Trump adds a layer of underlying uncertainty to everything.”