How a Proposed Update to the Nation’s Fisheries Law Will Keep Our Oceans Healthy

This bill takes the commonsense approach of “leave what’s not broken, and fix what is.”

Today, a key committee in Congress took an important and inspiring step to ensure there will be more fish in the sea for future generations. The House Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee held a legislative hearing on a bill that contains the best ideas from fishermen, scientists, fisheries managers, and conservationists about how to restore our nation’s fisheries. Our oceans and the wildlife that fill them are a public resource, and this bill would benefit all Americans, regardless of how far from the coast you live.

The Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act of 2021 (H.R. 4690), introduced by Representatives Jared Huffman (CA) and Ed Case (HI), would reauthorize and exponentially improve America’s primary federal fisheries law — the Magnuson Stevens Act (MSA) — but the ideas in the bill are anything but revolutionary. Instead, they are the product of years of observation and experience of what’s working — and what needs a little help — in our current fishery management system. The MSA has always been a work in progress, benefiting from new science and discoveries, and this time is no different. Congressman Huffman consulted thousands of stakeholders in every region of the country and painstakingly drafted the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act with those contributions in mind. The resulting bill would invest in resilient ocean wildlife, fisheries, and coastal communities and would benefit all of us by managing our public resources with the best science, technology, and practices available. That’s why this legislation has received so much support from conservation and fishing organizations already.

This bill takes the commonsense approach of “leave what’s not broken, and fix what is.” This means taking what we know works for keeping fisheries healthy — like setting and enforcing annual catch limits; minimizing bycatch; preventing overfishing; rebuilding overfished stocks; and protecting essential fish habitat — and making sure these important objectives continue to be achieved, despite the challenges of changing ocean conditions, extreme weather events, and increasing industrial activity. It also means acknowledging where we have room for improvement — like the lack of transparency and diversity in our Regional Fishery Management Councils — and making targeted, strategic changes to get where we need to go.

Here’s a shortlist of our 10 favorite things this bill does to keep our oceans teeming with fish and wildlife:

  • Incorporates climate sciences: The MSA, first passed decades ago, doesn’t even mention climate. This bill would ensure that climate science is not only available, but is a key part of fishery management plans. Requiring managers to analyze the expected impacts of climate change on stocks equips them with the science and tools they need to confront the challenges of changing waters.
  • Reduces bycatch: Over 800 million pounds of accidentally caught and killed marine wildlife are discarded in the United States every year — a tremendous loss and waste of life. Bycatch is also an environmental justice issue; small-scale fisheries that directly target a species can be forced out by industrial fleets whose excessive levels of bycatch reduce populations too severely to sustain directed fishing. This bill would ensure that every viable option to reduce bycatch, such as changing gear types or avoiding areas that are hotspots of non-target species, is put into use. The MSA presently only requires Councils to minimize bycatch to “the extent practicable.” By removing this qualifier, the bill raises the bar on bycatch reduction.
  • Measures bycatch effectively: You can’t manage what you can’t count. The MSA technically already requires standardized bycatch reporting, but what we have at the moment is a decidedly non-standardized disaster, with non-standardized measurements leading to errors in calculating bycatch. This bill ensures that bycatch reporting and assessment finally will be standardized at a nationwide level.
  • Actually rebuilds fisheries: A substantial number of stocks remain overfished, and the number has been increasing in recent years. While the MSA requires these stocks to be put on rebuilding plans, these plans only need a 50% chance of succeeding — a literal coin toss — and some of them don’t aim to rebuild the stock for 100 years. If a plan fails, subsequent plans don’t need to be any stronger or have a higher chance of succeeding — the clock can just be reset and the stock left overfished. This bill ensures that rebuilding plans actually achieve their purported goals by creating accountability and requiring a higher likelihood of success.
  • Protects the base of the food chain: Forage fish are the foundation of marine food webs, serving as prey for a wide range of fish and other marine life. Despite their cornerstone role in ocean biodiversity, forage fish management ranges from inconsistent to nonexistent, which this bill would address by implementing a consistent forage fish management policy across Councils.
  • Treats essential fish habitat like it’s essential: An ever-growing number of activities threaten fish habitat, from offshore energy and aquaculture to cables and fishing gear itself, such as bottom-tending gear. The MSA currently lacks teeth to ensure these activities avoid impacting fish habitat. This bill strengthens National Marine Fisheries Service’s ability to protect the habitat that fishery managers have deemed essential and gives communities an opportunity to express their concerns about potential habitat impacts, as well.
  • Improves representation of Native American Tribes: Tribes have deep and longstanding ties to the fisheries they steward, and their understanding of fisheries is invaluable for adapting fisheries management to environmental change and mitigating negative environmental impacts. However, there is not always tribal representation in the councils whose decisions directly impact them. This bill adds two designated Tribal representatives to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — an essential step to respect the sovereignty and knowledge of Tribes in Alaska.
  • Lets the public know how our public fisheries are being managed: At a time when more Americans than ever are interested in where their seafood comes from and how our oceans are managed, it is essential to promote transparency, accountability, and integrity in federal fishery management. This bill would:
    • Ensure there is no improper lobbying of Congress or the Administration by Fishery Management Councils
    • Require publication of Council meeting materials online for public access
    • Apply the full suite of federal sexual harassment rules to Councils and ensure accountability for offenders to create a more safe and equitable workplace
  • Makes sure the agency can step in when necessary: While Councils are the primary managers of the vast majority of fisheries, the buck ultimately stops with the Secretary of Commerce, who is responsible for ensuring that the MSA is fully implemented. However, if both the Council and the Secretary fail to take an action required by the MSA, a dangerous dead zone can result in which no one is technically accountable for this “inaction,” and the fisheries pay the price. This bill would prevent this illogical limbo by requiring the Secretary to step in when a Council has failed to carry out a legal duty in a certain amount of time.
  • Significantly increases resources for implementation: Good management costs money. This bill would authorize the funding needed to truly invest in a strong and effective fisheries management regime.

Based in Washington, D.C., Danny Folds serves as Earthjustice’s oceans lobbyist and contributes to the overall work of the Lands, Wildlife, and Oceans team.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.