The United States stands as a global leader in fisheries management thanks to one law that every ocean and seafood lover should know about: the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). This law took our nation’s fisheries in hand and ended harmful practices that would otherwise have long since wiped out iconic species.
Four decades after it was passed, we look back and celebrate the milestones of the MSA that made so many of our fisheries what they are today: sustainable, well-managed and productive.
That didn’t come easily. It took every one of those forty years and the work of uncounted thousands to craft the MSA into what it is today—a law that encompasses critical food supply, billions of dollars and millions of jobs took decades to reach its full potential.
The MSA was and still is guided by the fishermen who see firsthand what’s happening in the ocean, by the carefully collected knowledge of marine scientists and fisheries managers, and by the commitment and determination of legislators and ocean advocates.
After World War II, the American fishing industry was booming. The nation was full of mouths to feed, and fish were plentiful. New technology was making commercial fishing more profitable and easier than it had ever been before. There were no federal regulations on fishing and most states only held jurisdiction over the first three miles from the shore. Beyond that marker, it was all up for grabs.
For a time, that worked for everyone: it seemed there was plenty of fish in the sea for those willing to brave its waters, and federal and state governments saw no reason to intervene.
However, by the 1950s, fishermen in some parts of the country were starting to see their catches dwindle. In Alaska the unmitigated and irresponsible use of salmon traps by canneries had decimated the salmon runs. Fishermen reached out to the government for help, and in 1953 President Eisenhower designated some parts of the Alaskan coast a federal disaster area in response. But it took more than that to fix the Alaskan salmon runs, and it would be quite a few more years before fishermen across the nation raised an outcry sufficient to forever change the way America regulated the precious public resources that swim off our shores.
What prompted that change was the arrival in force of vast fleets of foreign factory ships fishing just off our coasts.
Arriving from the former Soviet Union and Asia, these ships were bigger and faster than American vessels, and more importantly they were designed and operated to take as many fish as they could as quickly as they could. With a virtual free-for-all seafood banquet starting three miles offshore, these foreign armadas were pulling in vast quantities of fish, methodically and mercilessly leaving emptied tracts of ocean behind them.
In 1966, with fishermen’s wives leading the charge, the U.S. added an additional nine miles to the existing three, creating an exclusive fishing zone with limited enforcement measures. While the new “twelve-mile limit” created a little more breathing room, it didn’t put an end to the depredations of the foreign fleets, which some Alaskans referred to as “cities on the sea;” both for their size and their bright lights at night.
U.S. fishermen watched their traditional fishing grounds be scoured clean. Even those who had once happily espoused the lack of regulation could no longer ignore the problem as their very livelihoods hung in the balance. Fisheries across the nation were rapidly depleting, and some had already collapsed.
Fishermen sought the help of Congress to extend the offshore regulated boundary and thereby exclude foreign vessels. Debate ensued among legislators, scientists, and fishermen who each had their own ideas about how fisheries should be regulated and managed.
In 1976, Senators Warren Magnuson (D-WA) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) led what was then called the Fishery Conservation and Management Act into victory. In one fell swoop, the jurisdiction of the U.S. extended from twelve miles offshore to two hundred miles. The U.S. took charge of 3.4 million square miles of open ocean and the precious bounty of life it contained. It would take another three decades before the MSA truly evolved into the law we know today, one that made the U.S. a leader in marine resource management.
Ending overfishing and rebuilding stocks sounded excellent in theory, but what did it actually mean in practice? How to get the job done?
The challenge fell to the eight regional management councils established under the MSA in the North Pacific, Pacific, Western Pacific, New England, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The councils were made up of individuals representing diverse communities and sectors nominated by state governors. Each council was responsible for planning and recommending fishery management measures to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
But with no defined set of tools for achieving those goals, well-intentioned policies to promote the domestic industry still led to fishing surpassing the productivity of the stocks. The councils floundered and overfishing continued unabated for another twenty years. Many struggling fisheries were at a crisis. Key fish stocks like New England cod, swordfish, and Gulf of Mexico red snapper dipped into record lows.
The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 is the MSA milestone that grappled with America’s chronic overfishing problems. It required fishery management councils to include an objective definition of overfishing in each fishery management plan, establish a deadline for rebuilding stocks and called for annual reports on the status of stocks to track progress.
But alas, even these well-grounded expansions to the MSA did little to curtail overfishing. Without a requirement for specific catch limits and few consequences for exceeding any limits, there was no accountability for failure. Short-sighted decision-makers on the councils were often unwilling to set limits or even accept scientific advice. As a result, overfishing remained entrenched in many regions.
It took another ten years for the crowning achievement that made the MSA what is today. Two blue ribbon panels were convened to assess the state of U.S. fisheries, and pressure from ocean advocates, key industry leaders and recommendations from those panels convinced Congress to decisively act to end overfishing.
When the MSA came up for reauthorization in 2006, its defining objective was to set and enforce catch limits on all federally managed fisheries—finally ensuring accountability for exceeding limits. Additionally, it required councils to accept the guidance of scientific advisors and to end overfishing within two years.
With science-based management and consequences for ignoring limits, fishery management councils had the tools they needed to turn things around.
Bill Hogarth, former director of NOAA’s Fisheries Service, said, “I consider the 2006 reforms, which resulted in requirements for science-based catch limits to restore and maintain fish populations at healthy levels, to be one of the crown jewels of our fishery management system.”
The last ten years have proven the efficacy of those methods. In the Status of Stocks 2015 report to Congress, NOAA Fisheries Service announced that overfishing and overfished stocks remains near an all-time low. The 2015 report provides a welcome contrast to the turn of the century when 72 fish stocks were subject to overfishing. Today, that number stands at 28 or just 9% of assessed fish populations. Since 2000, 39 stocks that were once overfished have been rebuilt – returned to the abundance that supports a sustainable yield. At the same time, nearly $200 billion and 1.7 million jobs are attributed to U.S. fisheries.
The MSA also drives scientific innovation. Tasked with providing sound guidance for all federally managed fisheries, scientists have risen to the challenge, inventing dozens of new methods for collecting and utilizing fisheries data, from statistical methods to remote sensing technologies. And as climate change presents new challenges that threaten the health of our oceans, NOAA is at the forefront in modeling and detecting changes in ocean conditions.
On the 40th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, ocean and seafood lovers applaud the law that helped to chart America’s journey to sustainable fisheries.
We are grateful to the men and women without whom many dramatic recoveries could not be achieved. Fisheries leaders played a strong role in enacting the catch limits that put an end to overfishing and make stock rebuilding possible. Many thousands accepted and honored the severe cuts in their catch (and their income) that were required for the tenets of the law to work. They sought new and imaginative ways to thrive from direct marketing to exploring new products and markets, and even finding income off the water as they waited for stocks to rebuild.
With the emergence of new threats, particularly the impacts of changing ocean conditions, the same ingenuity and resolve will be necessary to ensure we are prepared to tackle those challenges. We salute the sacrifices and determination of the communities and stakeholders across America that support this law, rally to improve it and remain committed to securing sustainable fisheries for generations to come.
Join Ocean Conservancy and be a voice for the ocean.Donate today!