Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Act: In Pursuit of Tight Lines and Full Nets.

Author:Powell, John K.

The ocean is one of Earth's most treasured assets. From the deep and frigid waters of the Arctic to the warmth of the Florida Keys, it is awe-inspiring, capable of both sustaining and taking life. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) (1) was enacted to protect this natural resource and prevent it from exploitation. Signed into law in 1976, the MSA is the primary law governing marine fisheries management in federal waters, and by all accounts a tremendous success. However, with significant growth in recreational fishing, adverse changes in our environment, and improvements in technology, many believe the MSA is long overdue for its next major reauthorization. This article briefly explores the history of the MSA and recent efforts to amend the law, the tension between competing stakeholder interests, and the challenge of scientific uncertainty, an issue that plagues not just the MSA, but law and policy as a whole.

History of Exploitation

Mankind is connected to the sea. We build communities around it, vacation near it, and tell stories about it. (2) It surrounds us, yet in many ways we know less about it than our solar system. While thousands have scaled Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth, no human has ever set foot on the deepest part of the ocean, not even close. (3) The water column above the Mariana Trench, for example, is about seven miles deep and exerts a crushing eight tons per square inch of pressure. (4)

More than two-thirds of the earth's surface is covered with oceans holding almost 97 percent of it. (5) According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an astounding 91% of ocean species have yet to be classified, (6) with 95% of the ocean remaining unexplored. (7) It is almost inconceivable that mankind could noticeably impact such a large and seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish and the marine ecosystem. (8) Through pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and overfishing, nature, although relentlessly adaptive, is now under threat.

Prior to the 1970s, U.S. federal oversight of marine fisheries was almost nonexistent with states assuming primary responsibility within their jurisdiction, generally only out to three miles from shore. (9) This management approach resulted in the over exploitation of marine resources by foreign fleets that were becoming more adept at fishing, employing advanced techniques to land high volumes of fish often within sight of U.S. land, and without regard to sustainability or the consequences of unintended bycatch. With few restrictions and a lack of enforcement, by 1975, there were thousands of foreign vessels fishing off U.S. shores essentially catching any species and in any quantity possible. (10) In response, Congress passed the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. (11)

MSA Passage

Signed into law by President Ford on April 13, 1976, and later renamed to honor Senators Warren Magnuson and Ted Stevens who helped draft the landmark law, (12) the MSA ushered in monumental changes regarding the scope and jurisdiction over fisheries management.13 The MSA was passed during a decade responsible for creating the very foundation of environmental law and policy as we know it today. From the Clean Air Act to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, the MSA is surrounded by titans, but no doubt holds its own as far as impact and importance.

The MSA extended U.S. jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles, later referred to as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), requiring foreign vessels to comply with strict conservation and management regulations, including monitoring and enforcement. (14) Management of continental shelf stocks and the recovery of depleted stocks were also now within U.S. control. (15) The beneficial impact of the MSA was almost immediate. In 1976, just prior to its effective date, the catch by domestic fishermen in the fishery conservation zone was around 289,000 metric tons while foreign catch was estimated to be almost 10 times greater. (16) However, by the end of 1977, 40 new fishing vessels were under construction in New England, 400 in the South Atlantic and Gulf States, and more than 20 on the West Coast, and by 1992, in a dramatic reversal, the entire catch was being harvested by U.S. vessels. (17)

Regional Councils

The MSA created an entirely new way of managing fisheries. Like nature, wildlife is wholly unconcerned with the imaginary lines drawn by governments and politicians. Salmon migrate between fresh and saltwater, swimming upstream, dodging predators, and racing against time to spawn. Tuna, swordfish, and other highly migratory species travel thousands of miles each year between states, countries, and even continents. Katharine, the great white shark, for example, who seems to enjoy swimming off the Florida Coast and has enough followers to warrant her own Twitter and Facebook pages, was originally tagged in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and has traveled more than 30,000 miles since 2013, all the way to Newfoundland, Canada, and as far south as the Bahamas. (18)

If the heart of its effectiveness lies in the extension of federal...

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