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The Road to End Overfishing: 35 Years of Magnuson Act

Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Talks about the Cornerstone of Sustainable Fisheries

As we look toward Earth Day next week, I want to acknowledge and highlight the 35 th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Simply called “the Magnuson Act”, this law, its regional framework and goal of sustainability, has proven to be a visionary force in natural resource management - both domestically and internationally. The Magnuson Act is, and will continue to be a key driver for NOAA as we deliver on our nation’s commitment to ocean stewardship, sustainable fisheries, and healthy marine ecosystems

Because of the Magnuson Act, the U.S. is on track to end overfishing in federally-managed fisheries, rebuild stocks, and ensure conservation and sustainable use of our ocean resources. Fisheries harvested in the United States are scientifically monitored, regionally managed and legally enforced under 10 strict national standards of sustainability. This anniversary year marks a critical turning point in the Act’s history. By the end of 2011, we are on track to have an annual catch limit and accountability measures in place for all 528 federally-managed fish stocks and complexes. The dynamic, science-based management process envisioned by Congress is now in place, the rebuilding of our fisheries is underway, and we are beginning to see real benefits for fishermen, fishing communities and our commercial and recreational fishing industries.

But, we did not get here overnight. Our nation’s journey toward sustainable fisheries has evolved over the course of 35 years. At this particular moment it is important to take time and reflect back on where we have been to understand where we are and fully appreciate the historic visions and strategic investments that got us here, particularly by the Act’s principal architects, the late U.S. Senators Warren G. Magnuson of Washington State and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

To appreciate the history of Magnuson Act is to appreciate the history of environmental stewardship in the United States and the progress made in conservation over the last three decades. The Magnuson Act was ushered in during the era of environmental consciousness that still defines our nation’s stewardship ethic today. Signed into law on April 13, 1976, the Magnuson Act followed passage of other laws dedicated to addressing the environmental damage incurred after decades of unfettered industrialization. These laws include the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Air (1970) and Clean Water (1972) acts, and the Marine Mammal Protection (1972) and Endangered Species (1973) acts. Along with newly established agencies to implement them -- the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was the beginning of a new era.

In 1976, federal management of marine fisheries was virtually non-existent. With the exception of state managed waters, federal activities were limited to supporting a patchwork of fishery-specific treaties governing international waters, which at that time existed only 12 miles off our nation’s coasts. A primary impetus of the Magnuson Act was to extend the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) out to 200 miles and eliminate competition from the foreign fishing fleets off our coasts.

However, even in its initial form, Senator Magnuson saw fit to focus on conservationas a centerpiece of the new law. Modeled on the basic principles of scientific management, including the notion of standards and catch limits, the law also included an innovative regional public-private management framework – creating the fishery management council system. The Magnuson Act laid the foundation for what has matured into the regional, science-based, and transparent fishery management process which exists in the U.S. today.

We all know too well the initial victory for conservation was short lived. Without effective regulatory restraints in place, by the late 1980s Americanization of the fleet and advancements in fishing technologies over ran the slower-growing science and management infrastructures, exploding the rate of domestic driven overfishing and quickly leading to the depletion of some of our nation’s most iconic fisheries – perhaps the most painful being the historic collapse of our nation’s oldest fishery, the New England groundfish fishery. The Magnuson Act was at a turning point. The 1996 amendments to the Act provided needed adjustments, including a new focus on habitat and the requirement for a 10 year rebuilding timeline.

Since that time, the Magnuson Act has undergone several reauthorizations – each one building upon and strengthening the previous. The most recent and transformative change was in 2007, under the leadership of Senator Stevens whose commitment to sustainable use - and growing concern over unsustainable fishing practices internationally - helped galvanize the earlier vision of Senator Magnuson. In 2007, Congress gave NOAA and the regional fishery management councils a clear mandate, new authority, and new tools to achieve the goal of sustainable fisheries within measureable timeframes. Notable among these were the requirements for annual catch limits, and accountability measures to prevent, respond to, and end overfishing – real game changers in our national journey toward sustainable fisheries, and ones that are rapidly delivering results.

Today, many stocks that were overfished are rebuilt or actively rebuilding. Successes include summer flounder, monkfish, scallops, ling cod, sablefish, North Atlantic swordfish, vermillion snapper, and gag grouper to name a few. Even the iconic Northeast groundfish fishery is turning the corner with anticipated higher catch levels allowed for 12 of the 20 groundfish stocks in the 2011 fishing season – the first time this has happened in over a decade.

Much of this progress has been due to the collaborative involvement of our U.S. commercial and recreational fishing fleets and their commitment to science based management, improving gear-technologies, and application of best-stewardship practices. Supported by the hard work of the regional fishery management councils whose innovative, management strategies have allowed fishermen to grow with stocks. One notable new development, emphasized in the 2007 reauthorization, was a focus on consideration of catch share programs. Catch share programs promote fishing based on good business decisions and stewardship practices rather than on the earlier years of ‘race-to-fish’ or ‘days-at-sea’ strategies that were often as dangerous for crews as they were unsustainable for the resource.

The success of the regional fishery management framework – and its ability to reflect the ecological and socio-economic needs unique to each region – is also influencing growth and improvement in management of international fisheries that now organize as ‘regional fishery management organizations’.

Today, the Magnuson Act – at 35 years of age - is at another turning point in its journey – one involving a more inclusive collaboration between fishing industries, conservationists, consumers and the broader seafood supply chain. At this point, we are turning the corner toward a future when ending overfishing can be a concern of the past, and where maintaining sustainable fisheries is a shared commitment to our future. And, as we turn this corner, we can turn more of our collective energies to more effectively address the far more difficult challenges of habitat degradation and international illegal fishing practices that are undermining the health and abundance of our global ocean resources. The success of the Magnuson Act and the visions of its architects have placed us on solid ground for this continuing journey. But we need to continue to work together to get there.

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