By Mike Leonard | American Sportfishing Association

Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA) during hearings on the 200-mile fisheries legislation (later the Magnuson-Stevens Act) before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans and Atmosphere in Washington D.C., on December 6, 1973. Photo courtesy of Stevens Foundation.

Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Senator Warren Magnuson (D-WA) during hearings on the 200-mile fisheries legislation (later the Magnuson-Stevens Act) before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans and Atmosphere in Washington D.C., on December 6, 1973.
Photo courtesy of Stevens Foundation.

Most anglers don’t spend a ton of time dwelling on fishing regulations, much less the underlying regulatory process and statutes that lead to them. We know the season dates, bag and size limits and any other potential regulations, and we go!

After all, fishing is a way to get away from the more tedious and mentally-taxing parts of life. Trying to understand the complicated scientific, legal, and political factors that go into determining when and how you can go fishing isn’t exactly a relaxing pastime.

But for those of us who do spend a lot of time focused on fisheries policy—an admittedly small group—we’re in the middle of an extremely important and exciting time, particularly for the future of how offshore fisheries are managed.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), named after influential Senators Warren Magnuson from Washington and Ted Stevens from Alaska, is going through the process of being reauthorized by Congress. Originally passed in 1976, MSA is the primary statute governing how federal marine fisheries are managed.

For the first time in its history, the topic of how MSA addresses recreational fishing is leading the debate. This is encouraging news for the millions of anglers and recreational fishing-dependent businesses who have felt like recreational fishing was an afterthought in a law and management system that has, for decades, focused almost entirely on commercial fishing.

The History of MSA

The world in 1976 was very different than the one we live in today (no cell phones or texting!), and marine fisheries management is no exception. Overfishing off the U.S. coast was rampant, particularly from foreign commercial vessels, resulting in U.S. fisheries that were in pretty poor shape. In response, U.S. territorial waters were expanded out to 200 miles and a framework was created for managing the domestic fishing fleet. Eight regional fishery management councils, comprised largely of fishermen, were created to develop fishing regulations.

While the original MSA was successful in kicking foreign vessels out of U.S. waters, it wasn’t as successful in sustainably managing our own. As a result, overfishing remained a significant problem for fisheries throughout the nation, hurting not only the health of fish stocks and habitat but also many coastal communities.

Major changes to the law were made in 1996, with a significant focus on preventing overfishing and setting firm deadlines for rebuilding overfished fisheries. The next major reauthorization took place in 2006, in which further efforts to promote resource sustainability, including the requirement that all federally-managed fish stocks have an annual catch limit, were added.

The good news is that, thanks to MSA and the changes that have been made to it over time, the U.S. has arguably the best managed commercial fisheries in the world. Overfishing is now at an all-time low. However, because MSA’s focus has been almost entirely on managing commercial fishing, which is a very different activity than recreational fishing, in many cases, recreational fishermen have not reaped the benefits of MSA’s biological successes.

The commercial fishing-oriented management approaches prescribed by MSA require precise and up-to-date biological and harvest data, both of which are lacking for many recreational fisheries. As a result, anglers pursuing stocks like summer flounder, cobia, black sea bass, triggerfish, amberjack, red snapper and others have faced access restrictions that change wildly from year-to-year and don’t seem to reflect what anglers are experiencing on the water. Despite overfishing being at an all-time low, angler frustration with federal fisheries management has reached an all-time high.

As Congress once against looks to reauthorize MSA, the recreational fishing community has made it a top priority to ensure that this MSA reauthorization is finally the time in which recreational fisheries management issues are sufficiently addressed separately from that of commercial fishing.

The Modern Fish Act

In July, 2017, six U.S. Senators led by Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced S. 1520, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (Modern Fish Act). This bipartisan bill addresses the recreational fishing community’s priorities for improving MSA in a way that finally accounts for the importance and uniqueness of saltwater recreational fishing. A similar bill, H.R. 2023, was introduced in the House earlier in the year by Representatives Garret Graves (R-La.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.).

The Modern Fish Act is essentially a bundle of various management and data collection reforms that cumulatively will adapt the federal marine fisheries management system to better align with the nature of recreational fishing. Most of the provisions stem from a landmark report released in 2014 by the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management (also known as the Morris-Deal Commission after co-chairs Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, and Scott Deal, president of Maverick Boats) titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries.”

Some of the most notable provisions of the Modern Fish Act include:

  • Improving angler harvest data by requiring federal managers to explore other data sources that have tremendous potential to improve the accuracy and timeliness of harvest estimates, such as state-led programs and electronic reporting (e.g., through smartphone apps).
  • Requiring fisheries managers to finally provide a long-overdue review of how fishing quotas for individual species are divided between the recreational and commercial sectors. Rather than being based on decades-old decisions, the Modern Fish Act would establish clear, objective criteria upon which these decisions could be based, and require periodic review to ensure these allocations are working.
  • Recognizing that recreational fishing needs to be managed differently than commercial fishing. Even though recreational and commercial fishing are fundamentally different, they are basically managed the same way at the federal level. The Modern Fish Act will authorize NOAA to use management strategies that have been successful at the state level for managing recreational fishing.

A Broad Coalition of Support

Anyone who has spent much time working with recreational fishermen knows that if you ask a group of ten anglers their opinion on something, you’ll get 20 different responses. But in the case of the Modern Fish Act, the recreational fishing and boating community is pretty well united. Every major national recreational fishing and boating organization working on saltwater fisheries issues support this bill.

The coalition of groups supporting the Modern Fish Act includes the American Sportfishing Association, Center for Sportfishing Policy, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, International Game Fish Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Recreational Fishing Alliance, The Billfish Foundation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Between the broad support for the Modern Fish Act within Congress and among the recreational fishing and boating community, the prospects are promising that this bill will move forward either as a standalone bill or as part of a broader MSA reauthorization. However, it’s important that anglers continue to weigh in with their members of Congress and urge their support. You can visit www.KeepAmericaFishing.org to learn more about the Modern Fish Act, get involved and stay up to date on this and other issues affecting the future of our sport.

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