Congressional Fisheries Hearings This Week

The future of the nation’s fishery law is up for debate this week as Congress continues a series of hearings to consider how well the law has worked and what changes might be needed. What Congress decides could have far-ranging effects nationwide. Thursday’s hearing, streamed live on the internet from Washington D.C., will focus on the Southeast and U.S Caribbean.

Lee Crockett, director of U.S. Oceans for The Pew Charitable Trusts, is among witnesses who will testify about the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The law has resulted in science-based catch limits on hundreds of species and required strong measures to rebuild dwindling fish populations, including a nearly year-round red snapper fishing moratorium from North Carolina to Florida.

Leaders from the Gulf, Caribbean, and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils, the National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator plus Florida-based fishermen from St. Augustine, Dunedin, the Destin area and the Keys also are listed as witnesses for the 10:30 a.m. hearing before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The hearings are part of the groundwork for the act’s reauthorization – a process that could result in major changes to how fish and fishing are managed nationwide.

“We need to build on the success of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.,” said Crockett, who worked to shape the law when it was reauthorized in 2006. “We are ending overfishing and helping depleted species recover, both of which deliver jobs and income to fishermen and their communities. While some challenges remain, we cannot let shortsighted interests derail this progress and return us to practices of decades past when poor management allowed chronic overfishing which led to significant economic hardships in coastal communities.”

The Magnuson-Stevens Act has helped 34 fish stocks recover from severe depletion nationwide, including the South Atlantic black sea bass. With a more robust population, managers in May more than doubled black sea bass fishing quotas from North Carolina to Florida.

Nationwide, half of rebuilt stocks with available data now produce at least 50 percent more revenue than they did when they were at unsustainably low levels. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimated in 2011 that rebuilding all depleted fish stocks that year would have generated an additional $31 billion in sales impacts, supported an additional 500,000 jobs and increased the revenue that fishermen receive at the dock by $2.2 billion.

Pew will ask Congress to build upon the law’s successes by shifting fishery management from addressing one species at a time toward a system that promotes the health of ocean ecosystems. Such a system would protect habitat and marine food webs while reducing deaths of fish and other animals that are accidentally caught as bycatch when fishermen target other species. Another key element is conserving forage fish – small fish that are a critical food source for marine life ranging from larger fish to whales to seabirds. Finally, managers must develop fishery ecosystem plans and specify how ecosystem-based conservation measures will be incorporated into fishery management plans.

This transition toward ecosystem-based fisheries management comes at a crucial juncture. Wildlife populations and marine ecosystems will need to be more resilient in the face of increasing threats from global climate change, ocean acidification, invasive species, oil and shipping contaminants and degraded water quality from pollution sources on land.

Thursday’s hearing is the second in the Congressional series. The first was held in July and addressed issues in New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions. More hearings are anticipated in coming months.