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U.S. Commercial Fisheries – Controversy Between Coasts Over Magunuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization

In 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was passed in response to the large number of non-U.S. fishing vessels in our waters, and the seriously reduced, threatened fish stock resulting from years of overfishing by non-U.S. and U.S. vessels alike. From the passage of this Act onward, the U.S. claimed a 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) wherein only U.S. vessels can fish. The Act also gave the U.S. government the power to make and enforce regulations and laws to protect fish and other sea life, and thus the livelihoods of those working in our commercial fishing industry.

The Act has been reauthorized with new amendments twice so far since 1976, once in 1996 and again in 2006, but expired as of this past September. In keeping with the general state of factionalism in the U.S., there are two conflicting versions of bills offered in order to reauthorize the Act this fourth time. The lines are split between the Democrats and Republican bill committees, which just happens to mark the differing needs and ideologies between the U.S. Pacific Ocean fisheries and the U.S. Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico fisheries.

Fisheries in all of these seas suffer with varying degrees of stock depletion and even threats of extinction for some species. As global climate change continues to affect entire ecosystems, some fishing grounds have shifted or are disappearing, and here and there there is competition with other sea creatures who eat fish. A case in point is the previously endangered, still protected harbor and gray seals, who are finally making a rebound and enjoying meals of Atlantic cod. North Atlantic fishers say they are feeling the bite when they can’t fish for this same cod, which is now shipped in from Scandinavian waters because we just don’t have enough of it anymore.

On the one hand, continued conservatism and protection measures in the Act are substantiated by science. According to the 2010 Status of Fisheries of the United States report to Congress, submitted by NOAA, fishery stock depletions are widespread. As of that time, in parts of the Pacific Ocean, eight species are overfished, including blue king crab, petrale sole, coho salmon, and chinook salmon. In areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, eight species are overfished, including red snapper, gray triggerfish, and the queen conch. The Atlantic Ocean fisheries, between the north, mid, and south, have the most widespread depletions, totaling 30, which include Atlantic cod, Atlantic Halibut, Atlantic salmon, yellowtail flounder, white hake, butterfish, pink shrimp, red snapper, and black sea bass.

On the other hand, since the 2006 amendment to the Act, fishing stock has improved overall. That same science which delineates our overfishing also indicates that the danger has passed on some of our fish stock, thanks to successful previous conservation efforts. For example, in that same NOAA report, we see that 84% of stock is not currently subject to the dangers of overfishing, while only 16% are subject. We see that 23% of fishing stock is overfished, meaning 77% is not overfished. These successes are cited by proponents of increasing fishery quotas through local management.

So do we continue with the same broad, national scope of the Act to enforce fishing quotas, address the effects of climate change on sensitive ecosystems as relates to our seafood consumption, and to continue attempts to reduce bycatch and preserve healthy stock for a sustainable future, as the Pacific Ocean side of our fisheries would assert, or do we allow more freedom to localized committees to make decisions over their own waters, in hopes of more financial security for those regional fishers who have been struggling to make ends meet with the reduced quotas, as our Atlantic and Gulf fisheries call for? In the end, will the Act seem to benefit one area of the country while it’s considered unbalanced by the other, or will it be amended to accommodate local requisites, while preserving what progress we have made? The arguments for both sides continue, and we shall be paying attention to how this all unfolds.