Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee – “Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act: Oversight of Fisheries Management Successes and Challenges”

Most of the witnesses at a Sept. 12 Senate subcommittee hearing called for “more flexibility” in fishery management practices when the Congress reauthorizes the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act (MSA). Two witnesses supported the regulatory status quo that they said had made the U.S. highly successful in protecting and sustaining its offshore fisheries resources.

Eight individuals affiliated with the seafood industry, both commercial and recreational, testified before the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, chaired by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK). The hearing was part of series—in both the Senate and House—that lawmakers hope will lead to a successful updating and reauthorization of the law governing the management of fisheries in federal waters within the U.S. 200-mile limit (the exclusive economic zone).

MSA was last reauthorized in 2006-07.  Legislative attempts to reauthorize since then have stalled in the congressional process because of fisheries issue complexity and controversy, and lack of time to resolve the identified problems.

Besides the conflict between flexibility and strict conservation, another area of disagreement that surfaced at the hearing was over the management practices for recreational fishing and commercial fishing.

The following is a summary of the witnesses’ prepared testimony.

Phil Faulkner, President, NauticStar Boats – Amory, Mississippi

Faulkner supported a different system of management for recreational fishing in federal waters.  “Federal fisheries policies do not reflect the depth and breadth of the recreational fishing industry and the need for more public access for anglers,” he said. He added that “unreasonably short seasons, abrupt fishing closures and inconsistency in setting seasons from year to year” have limited the recreational industry’s true economic potential.

Jim Donofrio, Executive Director, Recreational Fishing Alliance – New Gretna, New Jersey

Donofrio proposed small changes to the pending S.1520–Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act, and then its incorporation into MSA reauthorization. He said S.1520’s provisions would address recreational fishing needs and allow this sector to “enjoy the benefits of rebuilt fish stocks” in a system that, historically, “has focused on commercial fishing and has mandated a commercial style management approach for the management of the nation’s marine fisheries.” He opposed annual catch limits for recreational fishing.

Chris Horton, Senior Director, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation

Horton supported MSA changes that would “truly recognize the value and significance of recreational fisheries, and provide more tools for optimizing recreational fisheries management, while still maintaining and supporting the conservation goals of the existing law.” Specifically, he endorsed alternative management to free the recreational sector from the commercial sector’s annual catch limit technique, periodic recreational/commercial allocation reviews in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and better data collection modeled after state agency programs.

Anthony Friedrich, Recreational Fisherman and Former Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association–Maryland – Eastern Shore, Maryland

Friedrich supported a more robust MSA that could “secure healthy marine environments for generations to come.” To accomplish this, he said, annual catch limits need to stay in place, angler-led innovation could be encouraged, scientific research should be improved and funded, and critical habitat areas—such as the Louisiana marsh, Chesapeake Bay, and the Everglades—need to be protected. He charged that “flexibility” is an euphemism for overharvest and that shared state management would remove many conservation safeguards “and open the door to overfishing.” He added, “As fisheries around the world collapse, 89 percent of our domestic federal fisheries are not overfished. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working. But we can make it even better.”

Lori Steele, Executive Director, West Coast Seafood Processors Association – Portland, Oregon

Steele was a proponent of “more flexibility” in MSA so that regional fishery management councils would not be held to strict and arbitrary 10-year stock rebuilding plans and could instead “address the unique and often-changing circumstances that arise between fish stocks, fishing sectors, fishing communities, and regional ecosystems.” She said the 2006 reauthorization had ambitious goals, yet insufficient data and scientific uncertainty resulted in “robust precautionary buffers and yields well below optimum yield, oftentimes as the expense of our seafood industry, our fishing communities and our nation.” Steele supported replacing the 10-year plans with “a biologically-based foundation,” the use of “alternative rebuilding strategies,” giving the councils the authority to terminate rebuilding plans on the basis of updated science, requiring plans to be “practicable” instead of “as short as possible,” allowing incremental harvests during species rebuilding periods, allowing modifications to annual catch limits, and changing the word “overfished” in the act to “depleted” as a more accurate description. She also asked that the Secretary of Commerce be required to make fishery disaster determinations within 90-days of receiving the full requests and estimated economic impacts.

Steele disagreed with the recommendations of the recreational fisheries advocates. She said the undefined alternative management measures they want “could subvert the conservation accountability standards…by exempting certain stakeholders from the important accountability measures associated with federal fisheries management.” She added that giving federal money to states to collect recreational harvest data would only rob the underfunded and over-subscribed Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program for commercial fisheries research and product development, and that the clear intent of the advocates is to reallocate quotas from the commercial to recreational sectors in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic regions.

Peter Andrew Jr., Board Member, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, and a Commercial and Subsistence Fisherman – Dillingham, Alaska

Andrew supported the practice of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to defer the management of Alaska’s salmon fisheries to the State of Alaska, which has now been challenged successfully in federal court. (The state, in its MSA recommendations, has requested the restoration of this authority.) Andrew said the former practice was “a good example of federal-state cooperation in the management of a critical ocean resource” as demonstrated by the “extraordinary results as seen in the strength of Bristol Bay’s salmon run and ability to meet management goals year after year.”

Greg DiDomenico, Executive Director, Garden State Seafood Association – Trenton, New Jersey

DiDomenico described “four main threats” to the domestic fishing industry that could be addressed in MSA reauthorization. They are: (1) An overly precautionary interpretation of the 2006 amendments that limited management flexibility. (2) Environmental efforts to curtail commercial fishing access through the Antiquities Act, National Marine Sanctuary designations, and National Ocean Policy marine planning. (3) The chronic inability to estimate and manage recreational fishing mortality. (4) The potential for unfair implementation of catch shares.

He supported elimination of the 10-year fishery rebuilding time frame, increased flexibility for management councils in setting annual catch limits, substituting “depleted” for “overfished” in the act, the use of the MSA process for protecting sensitive habitat areas, and a prohibition on Marine National Monuments in the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

He also countered the recreational advocates’ requests by saying better recreational fishery data collection is needed because current harvests are probably undercounted. He supported giving federal money to the states for recreational accounting and reporting if the funds were not from Saltonstall-Kennedy. He said alternate management is possible, but only if it’s consistent with current MSA requirements “and clear federal management authority and oversight is maintained.” He opposed resource reallocation from the commercial to recreational sector and recreational exemptions to annual catch limits.

Capt. Willian “Bubba” Cochrane II, President, Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance and a Commercial Fisherman – Galveston, Texas

Cochrane supported the existing MSA as meeting the goals of rebuilding stocks and giving American seafood consumers “year-round access to wild, sustainably-harvested fish and shellfish.” He dismissed claims that the law is failing and said that “flexibility” is “a slippery word” that could mean “an end-run around conservation.”  He added, “extending rebuilding timelines…would be a step away from science.” Cochrane recommended “doubling down on data collection and accountability, and by using the existing flexibility in the Magnuson-Stevens Act to come up with creative solutions.” He said, “taking away quota from the commercial and charter boat sectors won’t solve the problem.” He concluded with a request “to protect the gains we’ve made and the recoveries we’ve experienced under the last 40 years of Magnuson-Stevens.”

The witnesses’ complete written testimony can be found at

The fisheries subcommittee has held two previous hearings on MSA reauthorization. The first hearing on Aug. 1 featured Chris Oliver, chief administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Dr. Jon Quinn, chairman of the Council Coordination Committee and the Northeast Fishery Management Council.

The second hearing was a field hearing in Soldotna, Alaska on Aug. 23. The witnesses included representatives of a cross-section of Alaska fisheries organizations and sectors.

In his opening statement for the Sept. 12 hearing, Sen. Sullivan said he recognized that what works for fisheries management in one region may not work in another. He added that MSA needs updating while maintaining its conservation priority.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the ranking member, said MSA’s success in protecting U.S. fisheries should be remembered in the subcommittee deliberations. The main issue to review is if the current federal fisheries framework is sustainable for the fishing industry, for fisheries-dependent communities, and for fish populations.