Making sense of the Magnuson-Stevens Act

Much has been made of the pending reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), which manages commercial and recreational saltwater fisheries in the United States. It’s a contentious bill that, recreational marine interests suggest, is too heavily weighted toward the commercial fishing industry while giving short shrift to the nation’s recreational fishing and boating interests.

Similarly, much has also been made of the crippling partisan logjam in Washington, yet two recreational and marine industry experts we spoke to are optimistic that bipartisan action can result in a significant modification and reauthorization of MSA that could place more attention on recreational anglers. Like many items of legislative consequence, its passage just might have to wait until after the next election.

So far, mixed reviews

Jeff Angers of the Center for Coastal Conservation

Jeff Angers of the Center for Coastal Conservation

The recreational fishing and boating community is seeking changes to saltwater fisheries management that adhere to six general concepts put forth by Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, and Scott Deal, president of Maverick Boats.

The so-called Morris-Deal Commission, also joined by the American Sportfishing Association, Congressional Sportsmens Foundation, Center for Coastal Conservation, National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, have recommended that legislators include these six principles in the next MFCMA iteration:

  1. Establishing a national policy for recreational fishing
  2. Adopting a revised approach to saltwater recreational fisheries management
  3. Allocating marine fisheries for the greatest benefit to the nation
  4. Creating reasonable latitude in stock rebuilding timelines
  5. Codifying a process for cooperative management
  6. Managing for the forage base

So far, as the bill to reauthorize the Act, H.R. 4742 — the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” which is currently awaiting passage in the House of Representatives, has received mixed reviews from the recreational and boating industries.

“While we appreciate Chairman Doc Hasting’s (House Natural Resources Committee Chair, R-WA) interest and efforts in Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization, we would like to have seen more done in this bill to address the needs of the recreational fishing community,” said Mike Nussman, president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association. “This bill includes several provisions that we support, such as easing the strict implementation of annual catch limits and improving stock assessments for data-poor fisheries, but unfortunately our top priorities are not meaningfully addressed.”

Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation echoed the thought, saying, “Since its inception, the Magnuson-Stevens Act has focused primarily on commercial fisheries to the detriment of the nation’s 11 million recreational fishermen and the nearly half a million jobs they support,” he said. “Revising the law in a way that incorporates the goals and needs of anglers is long overdue. Our community has put forward the policy changes that will set the foundation for an effective saltwater fisheries management system, but we needs Congress’ help by enacting these common-sense and non-partisan policies.”

After the House committee passed its version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Mercury Marine president John Pfeifer said, “We share in the disappointment of the entire marine industry. Improving saltwater recreational fisheries management is a serious issue for our industry and for the livelihood of the angling community across the country.”

A balanced management plan

In an exclusive interview with Boating Industry, the Center for Coastal Conservation’s Angers said the MSA reauthorization is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to tweak the management for saltwater fishing to better conserve the resources and give appropriate weight to the recreational saltwater fishing industry, which his organization estimates generates $70 billion in annual economic activity, mirroring the size of the saltwater commercial fishing industry.

One major difference between commercial and recreational saltwater fishing in America, he said, is that commercial interests use sophisticated equipment to harvest 98 percent of the fish in American saltwater, while recreational anglers are harvesting only 2 to 3 percent.

“That is the mom & pop bait and tackle shops, that is the marinas, the marine dealers, the hotels and motels on the coast in the small fishing villages, the restaurants, the engine manufacturers, the boat builders — a uniquely American industry really,” Angers said. “The tackle manufacturers, all of the various concomitant industries that support the recreational fishery; $70 billion is a lot.”

Angers acknowledges that coming up with a balanced management plan isn’t easy, and used the example of estimating fish harvested from recreational anglers.

“Literally, recreational fishermen land their fish at innumerable places and so it’s much harder to count the fish or the pounds of fish that are landed, because we’re so many landing so few fish at so many different places,” he said.

Another issue he sees is that many governmental power brokers are unaware of the economic impact of the recreational fishing industry, making the industry’s case harder to make to those new to the industry and its concerns.

“It sounds like we are only having fun and not impacting the economy,” he added. “The reality is we’re impacting the economy in a big way because anglers and boaters spend a ton of money to enjoy America’s public resources and have access to America’s public resources. We think it’s time that not only the federal government through the agencies, but also the Congress, gets with it and starts focusing on managing us with tools appropriate for managing a recreational fishery, not the same tools that are used to manage a commercial fishery.”

Sitting at the table

On the front lines of the legislative lobbying effort in Washington D.C., Jeffrey Gabriel, legislative council at the NMMA, said that while the issue pits commercial and recreational issues against each other to a degree, he said that both sides agree on 80 to 90 percent of what’s at stake and are stronger advocates when working together.

Gabriel said the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens — and making changes that take into account recreational concerns — is a 10 out of 10 in terms of importance for the industry.

He added that, while it may sound simple, reaching a favorable conclusion is a complex process whose duration is measured in years, not months.

“We’re still a long, long way in this process in my opinion … we’re just starting this process, we’re a long way from it being finished, but we’re at a crucial moment. Even if this takes a whole other year to work itself out before we actually see legitimate bills going before the full House for their approval, and the same in the Senate. We may be a year, we may be a year and a half, we may be almost two years away from these bills getting to the point where we’re close to seeing something passed by the President — this is a crucial time for us to be involved.”

With many interests at the table, from environmental groups, boat builders and to large commercial fishing operations, Gabriel said it’s vitally important that the community is at the table and heavily engaged. He feels recreational and boating concerns have done a much better job in recent years of getting the attention of public policymakers.

“If you’re not sitting at the table, you’re on top of the table being eaten,” he said.

Gabriel rejects claims by environmental groups involved in the matter, as well as some of their claims that ocean fish stocks, in general, are struggling.

“There’s good business for their business to say the oceans are depleted there’s nothing left in the oceans. Nothing could be further from the truth; this nation has done a darn good job,” he said. “Do we have places, ways to go? Sure. Can we make improvements? Of course. Do we need to be vigilant? Absolutely. But this nation has done a damn good job making sure the fish stocks in this country are as healthy as they’ve ever been, or at least we know where they are and what we need to do to get them back.”

While he has specific goals in mine, and is working to spread the marine industry’s messages, Gabriel added that the current situation with the Magnuson-Stevens Act is nobody’s fault, but rather a recognition for how much things have changed since the first version of the Act was passed in 1976.

“It’s never been more accessible to the common man to be able to get off shore and enjoy the natural resources,” he said. “An entire industry has exploded around this, and so you have a law that was in place that didn’t have an industry when it was set.”

Gabriel said it’s unclear, at this point, what will actually be passed into law, and that his constituency is OK with changes that don’t necessarily benefit recreational anglers in every case.

“In some instances, we’re fairly certain … we’re going to go from 51 percent commercial/49 percent recreational to at least 50/50, if not 51 recreational/49 commercial,” he said. “But if it happens to go 52/48 against us, fine, that’s fine. The issue is just do the process and get off the duff and do it.”

Moving forward

From this point forward, H.R. 4742 awaits a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives, while the Senate Commerce Committee is also expected to unveil its version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization in the near future.

With mid-term elections looming in November, it has become increasingly likely that full reauthorization may not occur until the next session of Congress.

“We understand that Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization likely has a long road ahead before a final bill gets signed into law, so we are hopeful that working with our friends in Congress, we can get the recreational fishing and boating community’s priorities addressed,” Angers said. “We’ve been waiting a long time to bring focus toward improving saltwater recreational fisheries management, and there’s too much at stake to let this reauthorization pass without making the necessary changes that will establish a management system that works for — not against — recreational fishermen.”

More information about the recreational and boating industries’ stance on the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization, can be found at


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