The Top 3 Reasons Why Congress Shouldn’t Legalize Overfishing

People are seen fishing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Congress will soon vote on House Resolution 200, a bill that proponents optimistically argue will benefit recreational saltwater anglers and commercial fishermen, with minimal costs. However, a close read of the bill’s provisions reveals that it would undermine the very components of America’s federal fisheries policy that have restored stocks to abundance levels that make them both economically viable and ecologically sustainable. The bill is a threat to the bipartisan-built progress achieved in restoring U.S. fish stocks and sustaining American fishing jobs.

Magnuson-Stevens works: Don’t mess with success

American fisheries are the best-managed in the world, and it’s no accident. Thanks to a legacy of bipartisan cooperation to pass the original Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSA) and a succession of reauthorizations—especially the 2006 law that prohibited overfishing and set strict rules requiring the use of best available science in stock management—American fisheries are healthier than they have been in a decade. Under the MSA and the 2006 anti-overfishing reforms, the United States has rebuilt a record 44 previously overfished stocks; substantially reversed downward trends in fishing jobs and income; and substantially grown sales, value added and total revenue in the U.S. seafood industry.

Today, commercial and recreational fishing in America’s oceans generates $208 billion in sales and supports 1.62 million jobs, and the number of overfished species is at an all-time low. H.R. 200 puts all this at risk by stealthily attacking the very components of the law on which these gains are built. Here are the top three reasons why Congress should vote “no” on the bill—and keep the economic and environmental trends in American fisheries pointed upward.

1. H.R. 200 would create loopholes that bring back unscientific management

When politics, rather than science, drives fisheries management decisions, every stakeholder ultimately loses. Yet in the name of “flexibility,” H.R. 200 would deprioritize scientific data in management decisions, such as quota-setting. For example, the bill proposes changing the current requirement that overfished stocks be rebuilt as soon as possible, to a rebuilding schedule that is as “short as practicable.” (see H.R. 200 Sec. 303(a)(1)(A)) Adding this loophole to a demonstrably successful, science-driven process provides significant new opportunity for management decisions that sacrifice long-term economic and environmental gains for short-term rewards.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that $32 billion and 500,000 jobs could be added to the economy if all fish stocks were rebuilt. Delaying stock rebuilding timelines by overriding the science forces fishermen to leave money on the table—or in this case, out in the sea.

2. H.R. 200 would risk the return of overfishing

A core component of the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization was the establishment of strict, scientifically established catch limits and accountability measures for every species, approved and upheld by the regional fishery management councils. Since passage of the law, overfishing has declined dramatically, while the proportion of fish stocks that are healthy and fishable continues to grow.

Weakening accountability measures and exempting species from the law’s requirement for science-based catch limits will push fisheries management backward, in the direction of the boom-and-bust fishery cycles of the past, endangering coastal economies and marine ecosystems.

3. H.R. 200 would make bycatch harder to measure and manage

In what would be a blow to efforts to reduce the economic and environmental waste of unintended fish mortality, H.R. 200 would change the definition of bycatch within the current law to exclude recreational off-season, non-sanctioned fishing from bycatch data collection requirements. Managers use these data to sharpen their estimates of overall fish mortality, a crucial piece of the puzzle for sound stock management. NOAA and regional fishery management councils have found that more accurate fish release mortality data yield more accurate fishery stock assessments, whereas the failure to account accurately for fishing mortality will restrict managers’ ability to track fishery stock statuses and could even delay recovery of overfished populations.

Fisheries management has followed the strict guidance of best available science to great success in fishery recovery. There is no reason for Congress to turn a blind eye to any data source that can help better manage fisheries now and more quickly recover overfished populations in the future.

Conclusion: H.R. 200 would erode the long-term health of American fisheries

Recreational fishing is a great American activity that helps connect families to the ocean and the great outdoors, builds support for clean water and healthy marine ecosystems, and provides a source of healthy food for many fishermen.

The history of fisheries management in America shows that a successful, profitable, and sustainable fishery must have a balance of access and abundance. If fisheries policy fails to adequately protect fish abundance, there will be little left to which to protect access.

H.R. 200’s goal of expanding access for recreational anglers is a solution in search of a problem. Recreational fishing participation* and harvest amounts have risen and fallen over the years, likely due to an array of natural and socio-economic causes, but today, they are similar to what they were 20 years ago.**

Significant evidence suggests that many of the bill’s core backers are much more interested in near-term sales of recreational gear than in the long-term health and productivity of American fish stocks, which have been rebuilt thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of politicians working across the aisle; scientists; environmental advocates; and most importantly, American fishermen.

The best way to ensure continued improvement in fish abundance, the prosperity of American fishermen, and access for all to thriving fish stocks is to preserve the successful, science-based, bipartisan-built laws now in place.

Alexandra Carter is the research associate for Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Shiva Polefka is the associate director for Ocean Policy at the Center.

Authors’ notes:

* The National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation reports results from interviews with U.S. residents about their fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching every five years. All reports are maintained online within the U.S. Census Bureau library.

** NOAA’s Marine Recreational Information Program gathers and provides catch and fishing effort data to state, regional, and federal fisheries scientists and managers to maintain healthy and sustainable fish stocks. The authors accessed the data here and queried the total U.S. recreational harvest, 1996–2017.