Bill Amaru, like many, remembers the harbingers of the Magnuson-Stevens Act: huge foreign factory trawlers vacuuming up millions of pounds of fish just off the coast.
The Orleans resident was thankful when Congress stepped in and passed the act, which many called “the 200-mile limit,” in 1976. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Conservation Act still is the pre-eminent law governing marine fisheries management in U.S. waters.
“We were very excited about having the foreign fishing boats moved offshore,” he said.
He also knows what was introduced as part of the act – regional councils. Amaru, who has fished for close to 40 years, served on one: the New England Fishery Management Council.
“It was the right thing to do, having the fishing industry come together (to help craft rules),” he said. “It seemed like the right kind of democratic representation.”
Now many of those who saw the act ushered in, as well as a younger generation of fishermen, are worried about the future of the act, which is being reauthorized.
Several tenets that drove Amaru to get on the council – and serve on it for eight years - are in danger.
Local fishermen are most worried about additional “flexibility” that could be added into the act. That latitude could undermine work done so far in rebuilding fish stocks. They point to successes -- Atlantic scallops being one - that are vital to the local fleet.
In 1991, annual scallop landings were 36 million pounds. By 1994, they had dropped by almost 70 percent. In response, regulators closed three areas to scallop fishing, temporarily halted new licenses, and began rotating access to fishing grounds. The fishery recovered to its former levels within a decade. Today, the price to fishermen for scallops has nearly doubled since 2002; the shellfishery alone contributes almost $2 billion to local economies each year.
The results highlight the most successful collaboration under the act. Industry members now partner with researchers to fund and contribute directly to stock assessments and environmental research.
Amaru, and others, are worried that stepping away from science-based management, catch limits and strict rebuilding targets will set the fisheries back. They also have concerns about lack of accountability and abandoning ecosystem-based management, which aims to manage for the health of the food web, not individual species.
In the letter to Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, the number of concerns submitted by a national group of community fishing interests called the Fishing Community Coalition was long and varied, but the conclusion was the same.
“Fishermen and fishing communities are wholly dependent on productive fish populations and healthy ecosystems,” said John Pappalardo, the CEO of the Fishermen’s Alliance and a member of the coalition.
Members of the coalition do not think the act is perfect. Although only about 15 percent of the country’s assessed fish stocks are still overfished, New England’s storied groundfishery is among them.
But they do believe that backing off targets and allowing recreational fishermen to operate outside of the auspices of the act will hurt both commercial fishermen and broader communities -- not to mention fish.
“I want to embrace our successes and lean into a management model that demands accurate and timely information. Fisheries management is a data-hungry industry when done correctly, and it is our hope that MSA re-authorization will focus on ensuring that data fishermen rely on for successful businesses continues to improve as the ocean ecosystem changes at an increasingly rapid pace,” said Ben Martens, former policy analyst at the Alliance and now executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
Doreen Leggett is community journalist and communications officer at Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.