Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization: An Opportunity to Strengthen Federal Fisheries Management

Big news from Capitol Hill: This afternoon, Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA-2) and Congressman Ed Case (D-HI-1) introduced the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), which governs fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. Click here for a one-pager describing the bill and here for a section-by-section description of the bill’s provisions. This legislation has a lot of supporters behind it, including us (more on that below); to see what they’re saying, click here.

You might remember our mentioning MSA reauthorization in a blog last winter, after Congressmen Huffman and Case released a discussion draft of the bill in December to solicit feedback. That discussion draft was the culmination of an eight-session listening tour that Congressman Huffman—Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife—conducted in 2019 and 2020 to learn about fisheries management priorities from stakeholders around the country.

A quick refresher: MSA was first enacted into law in 1976 and was then reauthorized in 1996 and 2006. Both of those reauthorizations added additional conservation provisions to the law such as catch limits and habitat protections, and we’ve seen those efforts pay off: Since 2000, 47 federally managed stocks have been rebuilt under MSA’s guidelines.

Even so, there are several areas where we see room for improvement in the law as it currently stands, which we’ve previously laid out in our MSA Policy Platform (you can also check out a two-page summary of the platform or our short video below).

Fortunately, we see many of our priorities for enhancing MSA addressed in the reauthorization bill. We describe some (but not all) of the key improvements below.

Climate-Ready Fisheries

Title I of the bill acknowledges the ongoing and increasing impacts of climate change on our marine fisheries, such as shifting stocks and habitat loss/degradation, and provides several avenues to address them. It mandates managers to include climate change considerations in fishery management plans, instructs NOAA Fisheries to regularly assess the vulnerability of fisheries to climate impacts, and establishes a research and grant program, called the “Climate-Ready Fisheries Innovation Program,” to better help both managers and fishermen adapt to the effects of changing ocean conditions. The bill also provides guidance for how to coordinate management of species whose range extends across the jurisdictions of multiple regional fishery management councils (think black sea bass).

Modernizing Fisheries Science and Data

Good management depends on good data, and Title IV of the bill makes numerous strides toward improving the quality and quantity of data used to inform decision-making. It expands the role of electronic data collection and monitoring in both commercial and recreational fisheries. Many folks are aware of ASGA’s focus on improving data collection within the recreational sector, and the bill takes significant action here as well. It instructs the Secretary of Commerce to establish guidelines—along with a strategic plan—to improve recreational catch data, as well as to implement measures to integrate data from different sources (e.g., state and federal) to maintain consistency in methodology. In other words, managers can’t just pick and choose which data to use; all sources need to be considered together to ensure the most accurate and precise estimates.

Improving Habitat Protections

Section 502 in the bill’s Title V strengthens current requirements to protect Essential Fish Habitat from non-fishing activities and requires additional monitoring for any possible negative impacts on Habitat Areas of Particular Concern—specific parts of Essential Fish Habitat that are particularly important but also vulnerable.

Strengthening Rebuilding Requirements and Accountability

Section 504 ups the stakes for ensuring positive outcomes for fisheries that are under rebuilding plans. For example, for stocks that are in bad shape or moving in that direction, managers must end overfishing immediately. This section also helps to ensure rebuilding plans make good progress toward bringing stocks back to a healthy place, and mandates that subsequent rebuilding plans be even more conservation-oriented should a current plan fail.

Conserving Forage Fish

Lastly, Section 508 seeks to protect the forage species that so many predatory fish, marine mammals, and seabirds rely on. It prevents the development of new directed fisheries for these species before there’s a management plan in place, and requires that managers account for their ecosystem role as prey when setting fishery catch limits.

Next Steps

This MSA reauthorization effort is sorely needed and provides numerous critical updates for how we manage our federal fisheries, picking up where the last reauthorization left off 15 years ago. While the path to getting this bill through Congress may be long, we’re grateful for leadership from Congressmen Huffman and Case to help move the needle toward conservation for the long-term benefit of both fish and fishermen. We’ll be sure to keep you all posted as this effort moves through the Congressional machinery in the coming months.

3 Responses

  1. So glad the impact of your good, hard work is starting to show—keep it up and thanks for all you do!

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