Does the Magnuson-Stevens Act Need More Regional Flexibility?

In discussions with a number of fishers following my blog entry about  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northeast Administrator John Bullard’s letter in yesterday’s Gloucester Times, several consistent talking points have emerged. The one I’ve been thinking a lot about today–and one that is being discussed in Washington right now at the third Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries Conference–is the desire to write more regional flexibility into the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Some critics of the Act in its current iteration argue regional flexibility for rebuilding timelines for stocks identified as overfished is an essential revision in the upcoming re-authorization of the Act.

One of the fundamental revisions in the 2007 re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act was a mandate that regional councils set catch limits each year that could not be adjusted to levels inconsistent with committee recommendations based on the “best scientific information available.” When it comes to rebuilding overfished stocks, regional councils are required by law to implement management and conservation measures to rebuild those stocks. Further, the council in question must, again by law, make the rebuilding timeframe for the overfished stock as short as possible but not longer than 10 years. The Act also states “the needs of fishing communities” must be taken into account when setting a rebuilding timeline and that any restrictions implemented as part of the rebuilding timeline must be spread equitably among all sectors of the fishery.

Balancing the legally binding rebuilding timelines with the need to avoid “disastrous short-term consequences for fishing communities” is a difficult challenge, especially in the case of long-lived species and in the face of game-changing stressors like global climate change. As one New England fisherman told me last night in an email, “A one size fits all approach isn’t working here in New England. We need Magnuson to be more flexible so the Council doesn’t have its hands tied when it comes to doing the right thing for New England.”

“I think the most important thing is building more flexibility [into the law],” said Terry Alexander in Portland Press Herald article published today. “The arbitrary, 10-year rebuilding time frame is not realistic for us.” Alexander is a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. According to some reports coming out of the Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries Conference, the eight regional fishery management councils went on record supporting flexibility for rebuilding timelines. On the other side of the debate are those who feel as if too much flexibility will hinder long-term stock recovery.

Unfortunately, I am headed out the door to a speaking engagement and a series of interviews for an upcoming piece, so instead of delving into any sort of analysis today, I’m going to simply leave you with the 11 “trigger questions” that were up for discussion at the Improving Fishery Management Essentials; Rebuilding Program Requirements and Timelines” session yesterday at the Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries Conference. These are some excellent questions that really help to frame the debate.

  1. Is 10 years a reasonable time span for a rebuilding requirement? If not, what should the time span be, and why?
  2. How does one properly evaluate stock rebuilding effects many decades into the future?
  3. What is the best way to address factors to extend rebuilding times beyond the shortest time possible?
  4. Is there a better scientific approach to setting and modifying rebuilding targets for long-lived stocks, when it is expected that stock assessments will show a great deal of variability and methodological change over the course of the rebuilding plan?
  5. What type of environmental conditions should be presumed when calculating the minimum time to rebuild and setting a rebuilding date target? How should rebuilding parameters be adjusted if an environmental regime shift occurs during the course of the rebuilding plan?
  6. Should the MSA be amended to add clarity to a “disaster” criterion, as described above in litigation case history, in balancing impacts to fishing communities with speed of rebuilding?
  7. Should there be more situational flexibility for Councils to rebuild stocks at an optimum rate for fishermen, communities, and the ecosystem?
  8. Can longer rebuilding times be adopted without sacrificing essential elements of a fully sustainable approach?
  9. Would it be more appropriate to emphasize control of the fishing rate in rebuilding, rather than focusing on achieving rebuilding by a specific date?
  10. How can cooperative research, and information besides full stock assessments, be used to monitor whether stocks are making adequate progress in rebuilding?
  11. Should the overfished designation be redefined as depleted to acknowledge habitat and environmental effects?



About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Global Climate Change, Groundfishing, Legislation, Northeast Fisheries and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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