U.S. Senate Examining Federal Marine Fisheries Management

A dearth of marine fisheries data is on a collision course with the primary federal law that oversees federal marine fisheries management. To address this impending train wreck, the U.S. Senate's Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard held an oversight hearing regarding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service's (NOAA Fisheries) management of the nation's federal marine fisheries. More and more federal marine fisheries are being closed to recreational fishing, including black sea bass in the South Atlantic and gag grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, as a result of amendments made to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act during its 2006 reauthorization. Key provisions in the reauthorization include measures to end overfishing and set annual catch limits and accountability measures for all stocks by 2011.

"The 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act included important provisions that were intended to drive NOAA Fisheries towards more effective marine fisheries management and stock rebuilding," said Mike Leonard, Ocean Resource Policy director for the American Sportfishing Association. "However, the recreational fishing community should not be made to pay for NOAA Fisheries' failure to collect the necessary data with massive fisheries closures and the attendant job losses."

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) in particular expressed deep concern with NOAA Fisheries' lack of adequate data on which to base decisions that can have significant economic impacts on the businesses and communities that depend on recreational fishing.

"When Congress passed the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens in 2006, it was with the assumption that data was complete, accurate and up-to-date," Senator Nelson noted during the hearing. "I believe (NOAA Fisheries) is interpreting the Act in a way that was not intended."

"The nation's 13 million recreational anglers and sportfishing industry support rebuilding fish stocks in a way that is balanced with public access and economic impacts," said ASA President and CEO Mike Nussman. "The sportfishing industry stands squarely behind the precept that sound fisheries management is key to sustainable fisheries and the recreational fishing experience. In fact, in 1950, at the sportfishing industry's request, the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act levied an excise tax on fishing equipment and motorboat fuel, which has contributed over $6 billion for fish conservation and habitat restoration."

Last year, Senators Nelson and David Vitter (R-LA) introduced the Fishery Conservation Transition Act to give NOAA Fisheries the time, resources and guidance to reprioritize its responsibilities in order to properly implement the Magnuson-Stevens Act in the manner in which it was originally envisioned by Congress in 2006. Neither this bill, nor its House of Representatives companion bill, came to a vote to before the 111th Congress adjourned. ASA and others in the recreational fishing community are continuing to pursue comprehensive legislation to address the federal marine fisheries management crisis.

In addition to the threat of massive multispecies closures, such as the 5,000 square mile bottom fishing closure that was proposed the South Atlantic in 2010 to address problems with red snapper, both the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council are currently developing annual catch limit proposals for numerous important recreational fisheries that may result in severe limitations due to a lack of data. Because the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires that annual catch limits, which are hard limits to the amount of fish that can be caught in a year, be developed for all fisheries, the Councils are currently pursuing options on species such as dolphin, wahoo and cobia that have no up-to-date stock assessments, and for which the only data from which to base decisions is landings.

Leonard further said, "The Councils are currently developing precautionary and overly restrictive annual catch limits for these fisheries even though there is no indication that any of these species are in trouble."

"The recreational fishing community fully supports ending overfishing, but believes it must be done in a thoughtful, science-based manner that balances socioeconomic considerations with conservation principles," explained Nussman. "Ending overfishing, maintaining reasonable access and sustaining economic activity are not mutually exclusive."

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