Changes Proposed for U.S. Fisheries Management: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

This past Tuesday, the draft bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act was released by the U.S. House.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act is a big deal because this is the law that lays out how fisheries management works in the United States.  This time, a number of changes have been proposed by Representative Doc Hastings, some of which could fundamentally change fisheries management and fisheries science in U.S. waters.  The proposed changes immediately became controversial, garnering overwhelming support from witnesses to the House Natural Resources Committee hearing of the bill (witnesses included representatives from the recreational and commercial fishing industries as well as the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council) while the Pew Charitable Trust strongly opposed the bill, calling it the “Empty Oceans Act” (translated into GIFs by Upwell for your viewing pleasure).

How might the Hastings bill affect your favorite marine species (both in the water and on your dinner plate)?  Read on to see the good, bad, and ugly aspects of these proposed changes, at least according to this particular fisheries scientist.

I should stress that these are my opinions as a scientist, conservationist, and seafood lover, and not necessarily those of my fellow writers or any of you readers.  That’s what the comments section is for.

The Good

Despite the negative press that some aspects of the Hastings bill have gotten, I don’t think the whole thing is a non-starter.  Also, not everything in this category is completely praiseworthy, but might have the potential to fix some current issues in fisheries management.  Perhaps a better title would be “The Potentially Good.”

– The Hastings bill requires that management council meetings be streamed live to allow the public to view the proceedings.  In my opinion this is the best idea in the whole thing.  Few people, even those concerned with fisheries or marine conservation issues, really grasp the amount of back-and-forth politicking that goes into fisheries management.  This would allow interested members of the public (and fishers and scientists unable to make it to the meetings) to view management policy being made in real time, and would also create an extra layer of accountability for the councils.  Whatever ends up happening to this bill, I hope this part stays in.

– The bill would prevent establishment of catch share management plans without approval by a majority of permit holders (including currently non-active permits).  Though catch shares can and do work well in some fisheries, problems can arise when a handful of fishers or organizations buy up a lot of shares.  It’s a big jump from Total Allowable Catch (TAC)-based management to catch shares, and this would allow more opportunity for local fishers to decide whether they want to make that transition.  On the other hand, it does allow permit holders to kill attempts to establish a catch share program by simply not showing up for the vote.  I try to be an optimist (possibly a naive one) when it comes to attempts to bring fishermen to the table when setting management policies, so I’ll keep this in the “Good” category.

– Though the more sweeping wording on rebuilding plans and total allowable catch is problematic (keep reading), efforts to explicitly account for predator/prey relationships, movement across international boundaries, and economic needs are commendable.

The Bad

– One of the biggest complaints by Pew involves a three-year delay in implementing a rebuilding plan on top of the two years managers currently have to develop the plan.  This would essentially mean that policies to rebuild depleted fish stocks would not be allowed to even get started for five years.  This “phase-in” period would be put in place for what the bill refers to as “dynamic fisheries.”  Personally, I have yet to find a fishery that isn’t “dynamic” in some way, and the lack of a legal definition for the term basically leaves it up to the management councils (and whatever mix of industry, scientific, and NGO representatives are members).  This is supposedly to allow fishing communities extra time to adapt to management policies.  Rather than simply strengthen the requirement that a rebuilding plan account for the health of fishing communities, the bill gives a three-year period to continue fishing as normal (likely at the same rate that caused the stock to become depleted in the first place) before conservation measures finally set in.  I think this part of the bill’s heart is in the right place (minimizing impact on fishing communities) but in practice it will only prolong depletion of the stock in exchange for allowing fishers to “get ’em while they can” in the short term.

The Ugly

– Total allowable catch (or catch quotas) are a cornerstone of current fisheries management.  The Hastings bill would completely eliminate quotas for two types of species: short-lived species and what the bill refers to as “ecosystem component species.”  The justification for eliminating quotas on short-lived species is that populations of these species are usually affected more by environmental factors than fishing pressure.  Working in North Carolina, the best example I can think of is the shrimp fishery.  Shrimp stocks fluctuate based on the prevailing conditions of that year, and populations are usually pretty robust regardless of landings.  The big problem with the shrimp fishery is bycatch, which brings up those “ecosystem component species.”  Ecosystem component species are defined as non-target, incidentally harvested species, better known as, you guessed it, bycatch.  The bill does state that species will not be classified as ecosystem components if they are currently classified as overfished or might be without conservation efforts, but this policy will absolutely declare open season on juveniles of species with currently healthy stocks.  To give a worst-case scenario, right now what limits the shrimp fishery is not necessarily quotas on the shrimp themselves, but catch limits on bycatch species.  Redefine bycatch as “ecosystem component species” and eliminate catch limits on them, and suddenly you have a virtually unregulated shrimp fishery, one that would only be checked by incidental catch of endangered species.  If shrimp fishermen could manage to avoid sea turtles and marine mammals, they could theoretically fish as much as they wanted.  It’s hard to read these proposed changes as anything but an attempt to eliminate regulation of shrimp and krill fisheries altogether.

– If you thought that was bad, the Hastings bill would explicitly allow for abuse in fisheries management by changing the way Magnuson-Stevens works with other environmental laws.  The bill would basically exempt fisheries management polices from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which means, among other things, that no environmental impact assessments would be required for fisheries management.  While management policies are inherently supposed to be pro-environment, this does open up the potential for abuse (especially with the policy described above that all but eliminates bycatch management for some fisheries).  This bill also states that any conflicts between Magnuson-Stevens and the National Marine Sanctuaries, Antiquities, and Endangered Species Acts would be controlled by Magnuson-Stevens.  Again, this raises the potential for abuse, especially if any one stakeholder group holds a majority in management councils.

On the balance, the Hastings bill has a handful good ideas and so-so ideas with likely good intentions that are overshadowed by complete overhauls of current (and successful) fishery management policies that leave U.S. fisheries wide open for abuse.  While others who oppose the bill have focused on changes in implementing rebuilding plans, to me the passages on quotas for short-lived and bycatch species were so shocking that I had to re-read them to make sure they were really in the bill.  I generally sympathize with fishermen and have an unabashed love of local seafood, but the big-picture changes proposed by Representative Hastings seem to counter the whole point of fisheries management, and counter policies that have actually been working.  That’s just one person’s opinion though, and I’m curious to see what you readers think.  Don’t be shy in the comments on this one.



  1. Joel Hovanesian · February 10, 2014

    Your comments are a welcome change, being that you are from the scientific community. At least you recognize that in it’s current state the law is flawed. However I must take exception to you implying that fishermen cannot manage themselves and that all they care about is short term gain over long term health of a fishery. Perhaps 10 or 20 years ago this argument could have been made. However thoughts and perceptions have changed over the years. All fishermen are looking for is change that will allow flexibility in the law that will make for a more fair and equitable management process. This current as it stands now has been hijacked by many within the ENGO crowd and we have management by lawsuit written by lawyer with no regard to the overall law itself. The government who seems these days to be run by many of these same ENGO people seems to pick and choose which parts of the law they want to enforce. Safeguards were written into the law to prevent this sort of thing from happening yet the government seems to convieniently disregard these portions of the law.

    National standards 8,9 and 10 are first to come to mind, which state,

    8) consider the needs of fishing communities, encourage community participation, and “minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities”; (9) “to the extent practicable,” minimize by catch and the mortality of unavoidable by catch; and (10) “to the extent practicable . . . promote the safety of human life at sea.

    In the case of by catch, I can tell you that many provisions of the law have created more by catch. The overwhelming problem with by catch today is regulatory by catch, which forces fishermen to discard perfectly good sellable product therefore taking away profitability. When fuel is $4.00 per gallon this loss of profitability needs to be made up for with more of the species that you can keep, therefore perpetuating and creating even more by catch. If an allowance of some sort was given to fishermen in this regard to retain a portion of this regulatory discard it would allow them to return to profitability and let them vacate the grounds sooner and put an end to the senseless waste of our precious resource. ALL FISHERMEN DESPISE this senseless practice.

    • Chuck Bangley · February 10, 2014

      Thanks for the comment Joel. I’ve worked a lot of fishermen and agree that the vast majority are decent people who want the resource there for the next generation. In my opinion fishery management would be better served by having standards 8-10 more strongly enforced during the 2-year process of creating the rebuilding plan. The proposed changes to TAC and rebuilding plans proposed by this bill seem like way too hard a swing in the other direction. I would support allowing some landings of bycatch, but the wording behind short-lived and ecosystem component species seems to be more interested in allowing some fisheries to just ignore TAC and bycatch issues. There are sensible steps that can be taken to advance and fix fishery management for both fish and fishermen, but this bill just leaps right over them.

  2. David Shiffman · February 10, 2014

    I think live-streaming fisheries management meetings would be a great idea. CITES did that this year, and it helped improve public engagement and understanding.

    • Chuck Bangley · February 10, 2014

      According to @fisherynation on Twitter, most of the councils already do this, but this bill would make it required. Definitely my favorite part of the whole thing.

    • David Shiffman · February 10, 2014

      I saw that comment on twitter. I’m skeptical. It’s hard enough to find out when the meetings are going to be and getting transcripts of what was said. Maybe some do, I don’t think most do. I could be wrong.

    • David Shiffman · February 10, 2014

      Since I made this comment I have been privately assured that it is true for many councils by contacts in the know. Huh. I learned something today.

  3. Bore Head · February 10, 2014

    David, you had every right to be skeptical. However, I can assure you, I try to be as accurate as I possibly can be. You may not agree with my views, but they have been shaped by years of combat, fighting for fishermen, and I cannot tolerate lie’s from those outside the industry. A blatant lie being told is labeling the Doc Hasting Bill, “the Empty Oceans Act”. But it is nothing more than another example continuous ecofabrication. I post notifications of these meetings so the people that visit see them, and have the opportunity to access them. Attending in one form or another is important to understand the ever changing issues. If that’s possible!

  4. Bore Head · February 10, 2014

    I would like to see ALL Council meetings including SSC meetings and work shops involving fishery management be webinar broadcast. They spend copious amounts of money to hold these council meetings in 5 star hotels. They can afford to pay for more webinars.

  5. Bore Head · February 11, 2014

    MAFMC Meeting February 11- 13, 2014 Kicks off with workshop on Climate Change and Fisheries Science – Listen Live February 11, 2014 Mid Atlantic
    We are kicking off our February meeting today with a workshop on Climate Change and Fisheries Science. Agenda items can be found here Listen live@adobe connect

    • Chuck Bangley · February 11, 2014

      Thanks for the heads-up.

    • Bore Head · February 11, 2014

      You’re welcome, Chuck, and I agree with Joel. You did a public service with a well balanced article. A rarity these days. There are too many agenda driven articles slanting public opinion, based on emotional ecofabrication of the ENGO ecoevangelicals. I’ve read quite a few SF Science articles, and have found them to be well written, and objective. I’ve posted them at, like this one. My goal is to get my viewers to come here and read it. I look forward to reading more. Thank you, BH

  6. Joel Hovanesian · February 11, 2014

    While the for profit eco conservangalist people are spreading out and out lies about the re writing of the Magnuson act I suggest you get some truth and facts before you just decide because you hear it on the web it must be true.
    What is being asked for is an opportunity to allow fishing communities who have been in business for hundreds of years to have an opportunity to survive. Not by stripping away needed conservation measures but by allowing some flexibility to be written into the law that will allow for the survival of this important segment of America that provides the nation with the purest form of protein. Free from genetically engineered chemicals and all of the pesticides that are used by giants agribusiness.
    Free of all the antibiotics used in aquaculture and free of the excrement eating fish such as tilapia that swim in pens eating one and others shit.
    The facts are that the US has the strictest fisheries laws on the planet. The facts are that we import 94% of the seafood consumed in America. The facts are that the seafood we import is from countries that practice little or no conservation at all.
    So ask yourself this question. If we already have the most stringent laws on earth, why isn’t the conservation community wreaking the kind of havoc on the nations that have no conservation as they do on the US.?
    The answer is money. This is about demonizing a domestic way of life for profit through lies distortion and fear mongering.
    If you want some truth, (If you can handle the truth). I suggest you visit this website:

    Here you will get truth without distortion. Without anyone seeking a handout.
    And one more question, After the American fishermen are finished off by these eco zealots who is going to provide the American consumer with real seafood free from all of the chemicals we ingest in our daily diets now?
    The answer will be from the same giant agribusiness’s that are poisoning now. They will have the economic power and the political influence to once again destroy the little man, just like they have done to the family farmers.. Wake up people. Your being flim flamed by the best con artist’s in the world. Other than the politicians of course!

  7. Joel Hovanesian · February 12, 2014

    And one more thing about imported seafood. It’s not safe. It’s laced with chemicals such as ammonia and tri poly phosphate. Of the 94% that is imported only 5% is inspected. Of the 5% that is inspected 60% is rejected. Do the math. If you are eating farm raised or imported seafood it’s overwhelmingly likely that it’s uninspected, and if it had been it would have been rejected.
    Think of this when your looking to buy fish. Pay more and get what America’s fishermen have been delivering since we started. Pure fresh unadulterated chemical free protein. And this is also what you will lose when we are put out of business. DEMAND LOCAL SEAFOOD!

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