Congress considers Magnuson-Stevens

Note, below are materials for a guest lecture I am giving tomorrow in Dr. Elizabeth Havice‘s Geography 435: Environmental Politics class (at UNC).  

Congress is currently considering reauthorizing (and tweaking) the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  A National Academy of Science report found that the law has worked relatively well (e.g., in reducing the number of “overfished” stocks). So reauthorization is supported by most environmental NGOs like Pew, many scientists and fisheries agencies, and some trade and lobbying groups representing fisheries interests.

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However, there are some in congress that want to weaken the law in the name of (bogusly) enabling flexibility (which already exists): 

For the past half-dozen years, bills with names like the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act have been introduced in Congress. These bills target the MSA’s requirement that depleted fish populations be rebuilt in a time period that is “as short as possible,” not to exceed 10 years (with exceptions to account for biological differences in fish species, international agreements, or environmental factors). The bills’ sponsors claim that the 10-year time period is arbitrary and that the requirement is generally too inflexible. Neither complaint has merit.

With respect to arguments that the 10-year time period is arbitrary, it has been shown that the great majority of marine fish populations have the biological potential to be rebuilt within that period. Moreover, when rebuilding in 10 years is not biologically possible, the MSA provides an explicit exception; it also provides 2 years for plan development and implementation. Our evaluation of rebuilding indicates that the 10-year time frame has, in fact, worked well for rebuilding many stocks. As discussed earlier in the text, 19 of the 21 rebuilt stocks (91%), and 20 of the 28 stocks that are either rebuilt or showing significant rebuilding progress (71%), had time periods for rebuilding of 10 years or less in their plans. By comparison, only 8 of 15 stocks not yet showing significant rebuilding progress (53%) had rebuilding time periods of 10 years or less (this does not include Gulf of Maine haddock, which was rebuilt but subsequently designated as approaching an overfished condition).

Managers have also implemented the rebuilding requirements in a flexible fashion—sometimes to the detriment of the rebuilding process, as this evaluation shows. For many of the 44 stocks we evaluated, managers set rebuilding time periods longer than 10 years, relying on the statutory exception for when it is not biologically possible to rebuild a stock in 10 years. Source

I testified at one of the  natural resources committee hearings on reauthorizing Magnuson-Stevens in the US House last fall. You can read my opening statement here and watch the full hearing here (if you really want to) and see the full “transcript” here (ditto).  

I was invited to testify for the minority (democrats) in part because of my willingness to openly call out the misinformation and shaky science of the lead witness for the majority: UW fisheries scientist Dr Ray Hilborn.  Read Rays’ testimony here.  His main argument is that we are “underfishing” the world’s oceans.  In Ray’s view, any species not being overfished is by definition “underutilized”.   Ray has been arguing we should catch and eat more fish for years.  See my response to this flawed argument here.

Finally, learn about Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY: a key concept and parameter in fisheries science and the Magnuson-Stevens debate) here.

3 Responses to “Congress considers Magnuson-Stevens”

  1. Jessica Scarbeau says:

    It was really great to hear Dr. Bruno speak in our class! A lot of what he talked about tied into our previous class discussions. One of the things I found most interesting is that in order to speak at these hearings it is a mixture of expertise and who you know. While Dr. Bruno clearly has the expertise to speak on this topic extensively, he also needed to know someone to get the connection to go. Furthermore, this was complicated when actually at the hearing because he was mostly called on by Democratic members of the committee rather than asked questions based on his expertise.
    Personally, I wonder how the members of the committee will make their decision. They hear different perspectives from different people, and how are they supposed to know who is right? Do they just base their decisions on what they are told from their staffers, as Dr. Bruno talked about? Do they base it on lobbyists? Is it purely political and divided by Republican vs. Democrats? If so, then these decisions may not be made with concerns for marine life at all. Authority in this case seems to be more related to power rather than looking at expertise. It is very different than what we discussed in our classes.

  2. Suzanne Nelson says:

    Dr. Bruno and Dr. Hilborn’s testimonies both aim to achieve the same outcome, a financially and environmentally responsible fish stock. The two testimonies differ because of data analysis discrepancies. Magnuson-Stevens Act was designed to progressively rebuild the fish stock on US coasts (save for Alaska) while not crashing the fishing economy. Fish stock, beyond ecological concerns, is the primary protein for over half of the world’s population, thus the fishing economy is one that should be very carefully supervised compared to that of a nonessential good market. The struggle lies in the effectiveness of the Act, which, over the course of its implementation, has been relatively successful in gradually replenishing the fish stock. The interpretation of this success is a major divergence between Dr. Hilborn and Dr. Bruno. Dr. Hilborn uses data results to show how effective the Act has been at gradual progress, thus that it has achieved its desired goal of reaching a sustainable and responsible fish stock. Dr. Bruno’s argument, comparatively, not only shows how well the bill has worked, but shows how much is left to achieve and how limited this success is regionally and based on inter-species analysis. Fortunately, Magnuson-Stevens, while not perfect by any means, was well researched, supported by empirical data, and drafted. Dr. Hilborn’s argument is that because of Magnuson-Stevens success, the focus should now shift to rebuilding the prosperous fishing economy. He fails to put into context the success of the bill, which is why he is so quick to assume that his data, which shows gradual progress and success, ensures that responsible fish stock has been achieved. A “magic number” that proves that responsible fish stock has been achieved may never be realized, but Dr. Bruno proves that international and inter-species data supports the need for continued fish stock management and regulation through Magnuson-Stevens. Dr. Hilborn’s argument is best labeled, in my opinion, by “two steps forward, one step back.” Yes, progress has been made, but progress alone is not enough to support that priority should be shifted away from fish stock management to rebuilding the fishing economy.

  3. Taylor Moss says:

    We discussed MSY for a good bit of your lecture, and I think it’s important to talk about the need for this number. In any issue (especially regarding the environment), experts calculate some sort of limit by which policy can be worked around. These limits are used as a boundary for how much humans can exploit the natural environment and its resources until it becomes irreversible. It is not until the endangerment or extinction (if something was off in the calculations or management) of said resource that the good of the economy takes a back seat to the good of the ecosystem. In the case of Magnuson-Stevens, the official limit is MSY. The main problem with this that you mentioned was that sometimes we don’t know we’ve dipped below the MSY until we’re way past it, and then it might be too late. So even if the calculation is changed to MEY instead like Professor Havice mentioned, how would that fix the problem? It seems to me that the inherent flaw with limits comes from the reliance on an algorithm that disregards so many variables (in this case the fact that each fishery’s stock of fish is only a portion of the world’s stock), just so that there can be a clear cut way to decide when to stop fishing. But of course, it’s not even clear cut because there are different definitions of overfished as you said. So is there a better way to go about this? I know you believe a population is technically overfished once the numbers go below its natural presence, but the fishing industry has blown up and there is no denying that it’s here to stay. How can fisheries still be maintained and profitable without depleting 80% of marine wildlife? Is it possible for scientists and economists to come up with a more fool proof limit? Or are limits almost always arbitrary in the fact that the numbers assume too much that may not be realistic.

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