Don’t weaken America’s fisheries law

Congress is debating an amendment to America’s core fisheries legislation – the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The act sets the groundwork for the nation’s federal fisheries regulations and includes strict requirements for rebuilding all overfished, federally managed fish stocks

Much of the current debate in Congress centers on whether goals and timetables for rebuilding our nation’s fisheries should be made more flexible – code for less strict, longer and less burdensome to fishermen. They should not.

Thanks to the ambitious fisheries rebuilding goals in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, we have turned the corner in new fisheries management. For the first time, overfishing has been eliminated in 90 percent of the nation’s fish stocks, the number of stocks known to be overfished has declined and 37 stocks have been rebuilt since 2000. In 2012, the red snapper stock in the Gulf of Mexico – once iconic as an overfished species – was finally taken off of the list of “overfishing” stocks – a list it was on since 2000. Similar stories abound for fisheries in other parts of the country.

We are on a path to restoring all of our stocks to the point where they will be sustainable, productive and profitable. Of course, reducing fish harvest has required tremendous sacrifices by the fishing community. Jobs have been lost and revenues have shrunk during these rebuilding years. Nevertheless, these sacrifices have been essential to reversing decades of overharvesting. Through lower fishing quotas we have reduced the rate of withdrawal from our fisheries “savings” accounts and have started to rebuild our fishing capital, but many in Congress want to allow for higher catch levels – eating into fisheries interest that could be better reinvested by growing larger stocks.

Prematurely raising catch limits is bad economic policy. Across the country, efforts to rebuild fish stocks will mean that future fishermen will catch more fish in the long run. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that rebuilt stocks will add $2 billion annually to the value of fish at the dock, an additional $31 billion each year in sales, and 500,000 new jobs for the economy on fishing boats, at processors and in the seafood industry.

Rebuilt fish stocks also mean more fish in the sea, which helps to lower the cost of fishing. Today, too much money is spent on fuel to chase fewer and fewer fish.

Commercial and recreational fishing are critical parts of many coastal economies. Coastal communities need healthy and sustainable commercial fisheries to remain economically productive and resilient. They also need healthy recreational fisheries.

Rebuilt fish stocks improve the economics of commercial fisheries and, by increasing fish stocks overall, recreational fishing benefits too. That means more jobs in the charter fishing industry, more spending on recreational fishing gear, bait, tackle, ice and food.

While the sting of stricter fishing regulations is real, if we don’t stay on the current path to stock rebuilding, the pain may only be greater and last much longer.

Linwood Pendleton is a senior scholar at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.