Understanding the Magnuson-Stevens Act

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

As the debate around the act’s reauthorization rages, it’s important anglers have an understanding of the law’s provisions

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) is, simply, the law that governs how marine resources are managed in federal waters. It was implemented back in the late 70s to keep foreign fleets from wiping out fish stocks in U.S. waters. Once that was accomplished, the U.S. fleet proceeded to capitalize to the point where we started wiping out those fish stocks on our own. And so it’s been reauthorized/tweaked several times since then to address such issues.

The most notable tweak came in 1996 when the Sustainable Fisheries Act was passed. This was an incredibly important piece of legislation, as it required the federal fishery managers to rebuild stocks in a timeframe that was as “short as possible” and generally not to exceed 10 years (except in cases where the biology of the stock, other environmental conditions or international agreements dictated otherwise).

Such a requirement was an attempt to address a management system that had perpetually allowed overfishing, almost exclusively because managers had the flexibility to prioritize economic considerations when setting allowable catch. Because of political pressure originating from a well-established fishing industry, this almost always resulted in lax regulations that gave overfished stocks little chance of recovery. As a result, just about every fishery managed by the federal fishery management councils prior to 1996 was badly depleted.

Then, in 2006, under the George W. Bush administration, the MSA was reauthorized again. First and foremost, it upheld the rebuilding timeframes despite efforts by the commercial fishing industry as well as a part of the recreational fishing industry to push us back to the old days of allowing overfishing and badly depleted stocks. After all, if there’s a buck to be made this year, why worry about having healthy, sustainable fisheries in the long term?

In the end, it became pretty clear to Congress that the overwhelming majority of the American people and certainly a good portion of the fishing public wanted rebuilt stocks … not in some unforeseeable future but in the shortest amount of time possible. Congress and the Bush administration ultimately did the right thing.

In addition to upholding those critical timeframes and rebuilding goals, the 2006 reauthorization added some important provisions that would ensure such rebuilding  took place. The most notable was that it added requirements for annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures (AMs). It also took the ultimate decision on the upper limit of fish that could be caught out of the hands of the councils (which often are composed of people with an economic interest in how those fisheries are managed) and put it in the hands of scientists on the councils’ science and statistical committees (SSCs). This was important because it isolated the councils from political pressure to make bad decisions on annual harvest levels and gave ultimate responsibility for such decisions to those who were likely to make them based on the science alone.

Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

NOW, WAIT … DON’T LEAVE! I know this stuff might sound complicated, which is of course an immediate turnoff to those of us who, well, just want to enjoy the act of fishing and not be bothered with any of this stuff, but it’s not really. And mark my words: this is very important if you want to keep catching fish on a regular basis. Because we are coming up on yet another Magnuson reauthorization, and the same cast of characters we had in 2006 (as well as a bunch of new ones) are currently working hard to emasculate these important conservation provisions that have, for the most part, worked well to give us the sort of abundance and opportunity we need if we are to have successful recreational fisheries. SO STAY WITH ME … I will do my best to explain how all of this works in a way that’s hopefully understandable. Here goes:

Under the 2006 reauthorization’s provisions, the SSCs must develop an overfishing limit (OL) for each managed stock based on the best available science. That overfishing limit is basically maximum sustainable yield (MSY), which is just a fancy term for the upper limit of fish that can be taken out of the water while still allowing the stock to replenish itself.

Then the SSC must take into account “scientific uncertainty.” The committee considers how good the data is for that species and how much confidence they have in the stock assessment. Such uncertainty then has to be accounted for with a scientific uncertainty buffer. So … you have an initial estimate of how many fish can be removed without causing harm to the stock, then you subtract that “scientific uncertainty buffer,” which will of course vary depending on the confidence in the science. The end product is the acceptable biological catch (ABC) which also is considered the ACL. (Note: Keep in mind that the way things were done before is that we managed on the estimated MSY (or OY) without any buffers for error or uncertainty, which was of course risky and often resulted in overharvest.)


A flow chart to help understand fluke regulations – thanks to Greg DiDomenico  (click to enlarge)

Still following? Good. So that ABC gets kicked to the full council, where we have to develop a total allowable catch (TAC). In that TAC, we are supposed to account for management uncertainty. So, if there isn’t confidence in our management measures (e.g., the measures we take to constrain both the recreational and commercial fishery, size/bag limits/seasons, etc.) or the monitoring or enforceability of such measures, we are supposed to add a buffer for that (although we haven’t really done much of that to my knowledge). Then we have to account for discards (those fish that get thrown back dead) and we have total allowable landings (TAL). Of course that TAL is split between commercial and recreational sectors by the allocation percentages, which are different for every species (e.g., for summer flounder it’s 60 percent commercial vs. 40 percent recreational) and which for the most part are based on historical landings in those fisheries.

And that is a somewhat simplified version of how we get to our commercial and recreational quotas under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Now let’s briefly discuss AMs, as they are relevant to the discussion. AMs are simply active and reactive tools to make sure we stay on track rebuilding or to make sure stocks stay rebuilt. The simple way of explaining this is that if it looks like we are overfishing our quota, reactive AMs such as a mid-season closure may kick in (e.g., black sea bass a few years ago), although with some species NMFS no longer has that authority to do that based on estimates (long story). Reactive AMs include things such as “paybacks”; in other words, if you go over quota, you just have to pay whatever the amount you went over in the following season. Or a reactive AM may simply mean that season, size and bag limits are adjusted so that such overfishing doesn’t occur the following year.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Both active and reactive AMs thus far have been somewhat problematic in recreational fisheries because the data on recreational fishing is neither timely nor terribly accurate on a year-by-year basis, especially when you compare it to commercial data. The Mid Atlantic Council has, at least in my opinion, sufficiently addressed this through our recent recreational omnibus amendment, but that’s an entirely separate blog.

For the most part, AMs have appeared to be effective as a deterrent to keep both the recreational and commercial sectors within quota, and that’s important if we want to maintain rebuilt/abundant stocks.

So … when you look at it from the 10,000 foot level, what does all this mean?

It really depends on perspective. If you are pro-harvest and simply interested on how many fish you can kill, and you don’t think much of “abundance” or of future sustainability, you probably don’t like the rebuilding goals and associated timelines. You likely think they are “arbitrary” and too rigid because they greatly constrain your catch. You also probably believe that there are too many constraining levels of precaution (e.g., the uncertainty buffers now required by the 2006 reauthorization). Such buffers mean you can’t kill as many fish as you probably could if you were just fishing at MSY (or OFL) and that, yes, a few fish may be left in the water that actually may die of natural causes rather than fishing. (Note: In my book, that’s not so terrible, although I understand that there are a lot of people who disagree with me.)

But if you are a responsible angler, or hell, even a conservation-minded commercial fisherman, you see such levels of precaution as ensuring not just sustainability but abundance.  And that is absolutely critical to recreational fishing. Without abundance, we don’t have opportunity. In other words, if the fish aren’t there in good, catchable numbers, then few people bother fishing. Subsequently, the less money gets spent and the fewer engaged advocates we have protecting marine resources. Sure there’s all that talk about how lovely it is just being on the water, but make no mistake about it: Anglers wanna catch fish. And so the levels of precaution, which pretty much ensure we don’t overfish and, yes, leave fish in the water, make good sense to me and a lot of other fishers. And so do the rebuilding timelines and goals. Because most anglers want such abundant rebuilt fisheries  – and during their lifetimes so that we can enjoy them now … not 20, 30 or 50 years down the road, assuming managers ever did actually meet those goals.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, any flexibility to extend those timelines generally results in perpetual delay or, in other words, perpetual overfishing. I know this; I’ve been there. And I can say with some certainty that we simply wouldn’t have rebuilt  summer flounder, for example, to the levels we have today if there was “flexibility” to put it off. I’ve said it before, and I’m gonna keep saying it: Managers, faced with a ton of pressure from their constituents, just don’t have the guts to rebuild. … We have to force them to do so to with statutory goals and deadlines.

That’s why all this talk about tweaking Magnuson and giving managers more flexibility is so irritating to me. Sure, we probably need some flexibility to effectively address things like climate change (e.g., shifting spatial distributions of fish stocks), but that’s not the kind of flexibility proponents of weakening Magnuson are talking about. It seems pretty simple to me. They just want to be able to kill more fish. That’s fine. They have the right to feel that way. But that sort of thing affects me. … it affects my kids. It affects all of us who depend on abundance and opportunity. You simply cannot have flexibility and abundance at the same time. And history (pre-1996 especially) has proven this to be the case. But for some Godforsaken reason, people want to forget that. The flexibility proponents of changing Magnuson are talking about is dangerous. It would set us back decades.

In short, what it all boils down to is whether or not we want to keep the Magnuson-Stevens Act intact and continue to manage with precaution and for abundance or whether we want to manage for max-harvest and max-risk, which will of course ultimately result in diminished stocks. I can certainly understand why the commercial industry would want the latter. Even if we don’t have abundance, they can generally find fish to scoop up via net. But it makes no sense to me why anyone from the recreational community would want this. We have the least range and use the least efficient gear. If there isn’t abundance, there isn’t opportunity. Of course there are parts of the recreational fishing industry, specifically those who cater to meat fishermen, who could benefit financially in the short term from being able to kill more fish, but from a long-term perspective it seems stupid.

Without a doubt, the current political landscape has created a pervasive anti-regulation sentiment. Given recent happenings, that’s understandable. But when you are talking about limited natural resources and an expanding population, we absolutely need such regulation. The tragedy of the commons” is absolutely real. But, these days it seems to be all about “me” and all about “right now”; to hell with what happens 10 or 20 years down the road. And that just sucks.

At any rate, the Magnuson Act isn’t a terrible law. It appears to be working quite well in my region as stocks like summer flounder (aka fluke) are at higher levels than I’ve seen in my lifetime – so much so that I’ve created a business around their abundance. I understand there are some things going on down South with species like red snapper that are driving the debate to weaken the Magnuson Act.  But do we really want to blow everything up because of a few species most anglers don’t even bother with? That’s what a lot of angling groups appear to be suggesting we do. I do not think that’s what the majority of recreational fishermen want. But really, most of them just don’t know any better and are prone to simply agree with the latest headline in their local fishing magazines. And that’s a bummer.

The angling community needs to understand the Magnuson-Stevens Act. We need to be versed in its conservation provisions and why they should remain intact. And certain parts of the industry shouldn’t be able to pull the wool over our eyes and tell us that weakening Magnuson is good for us. Because it isn’t.

So, please distribute this piece. Let others know. Let your congressman know. The conservation provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act should remain intact.


After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

Posted in Conservation
One comment on “Understanding the Magnuson-Stevens Act
  1. avatar Dave Allison says:

    An excellent explanation of the value of maintaining the stability and effectiveness of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. My associates and I have been actively advocating for the conservation and sustainability for 35 years.

    As Senator Ted Stevens repeatedly pointed out: “Take care of the fish and they will take care of the fishermen.”

6 Pings/Trackbacks for "Understanding the Magnuson-Stevens Act"
  1. […] Last week I tried to give a general description of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, how it works once the rubber meets the road, and why it’s actually been quite good for anglers in the Mid Atlantic. You can read that post here:  Understanding the Magnuson Act. […]

  2. […] Last week I tried to give a general description of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, how it works once the rubber meets the road, and why it’s actually been quite good for anglers in the Mid Atlantic. You can read that post here:  Understanding the Magnuson Act. […]

  3. […] demographic. In my eyes, where real marine conservation comes to pass is where laws, like the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act, are made, at the NMFS, and around the council and commission tables where regulations are set and […]

  4. […] I’m the first to admit I’m no Einstein, but I’ve been doing this stuff long enough to where I have a pretty good understanding of the fisheries management system. Yes, people love to bitch about the feds, mostly because they don’t understand complicated management decisions. But despite what you may have heard or read, while it isn’t perfect, when councils stick to their guns and rebuild fish populations like they are supposed to, federal management is actually pretty good for anglers. That’s because it requires councils to rebuild federally managed fish stocks. While we may not be able to kill as many fish as we used to, it’s generally meant more fish in the water. For a good explanation of how and why federal law works, I suggest reading my post from a few months ago: Understanding the Magnuson-Stevens Act. […]

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