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We Already Have a Magic Wand to Protect Fish -- Let's Use It

06/11/2015 10:30 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016
ASSOCIATED PRESS

What if there were one thing that we could do to rebuild struggling fish populations, while helping coastal communities, fishermen, and ecosystems, all in one fell swoop? And what if, to make this magic happen, we didn't even need to do anything new -- we just have to maintain some safeguards that have been in place since 1996?

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), currently under attack by a handful of short-sighted interests, is just that: the magic wand, so to speak, that governs how we conserve and use our nation's fisheries.

The MSA requires the rebuilding of depleted fish populations as quickly as possible, generally within 10 years, with certain limited exceptions. The law also requires science-based annual catch limits for all fisheries, so that they don't become overfished in the first place.

The success of the MSA has helped us nurse many overfished stocks back to health and abundance since the 1990s and early 2000s, when they were at their lowest points. A 2013 study showed that nearly two-thirds of fish stocks put in rebuilding plans since 1996 had either been rebuilt to healthy population levels, or had made significant rebuilding progress, resulting in increased gross commercial revenues of $585 million -- 92% higher (54% when adjusted for inflation) than before the rebuilding plans.

In fact, the United States benefits from one of the most sustainable fisheries-management systems in the world. It is a system that is built on sound science and incorporates strong local input from fishermen and others. The number of stocks subject to overfishing (catching fish faster than they can reproduce) has been cut by two-thirds in the last decade and is now at an all-time low.

These successes have resulted in tangible benefits for both local fishing communities and our national economy -- including more fresh and local seafood for consumers and better fishing opportunities for recreational anglers. In 2012, U.S. seafood sales set a record and the recreational-fishing industry generated $58 billion in sales impacts.

The MSA is by no means perfect. It fails to adequately address the ecological effects of fishing, such as habitat damage and prey-base depletion. Nor has its implementation gone smoothly in all regions and fisheries -- New England's fabled cod populations remain collapsed, to name just one example. But the solution here is to improve the law and its implementation, not to roll it back.

To be sure, the MSA has a strong, broad, and bipartisan network of support. It can count commercial and recreational fishermen from Alaska to Florida, and points in between -- many of which recall the "bad old days" of loose regulation and depleted fish populations, as well as scientists, ocean-conservation groups, and political officials of both parties among its cheerleaders.

Yet the MSA is at risk of being seriously weakened, threatening the future of healthy fish populations, sustainable fisheries, and the economic viability of fisherman and economies up and down the coasts.

A House bill (H.R.1335) to reauthorize the law contains amendments that would undermine many of the conservation tools that are at the root of so much of this success. These loopholes include rolling back the MSA's requirements around population-rebuilding time limits and removing the law's requirement for annual catch limits for hundreds of species.

In addition to dismantling fishery protections across the nation, H.R.1335 attacks critical bedrock environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Antiquities Act (by which national monuments are created).

H.R. 1335 passed the House last week. Although the Obama Administration has threatened to veto the legislation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency that manages U.S. fisheries, has not helped the cause by proposing its own rollbacks in fisheries regulations, in a misguided effort to assuage the critics.

Fishermen have invested years of sacrifice and work under the MSA to rebuild our nation's fisheries and ensure that they remain sustainable. And that work has made the U.S a model for fisheries management around the world. The attacks on this successful system seem fueled by collective amnesia, intended to take us back to a time when fishing boats all too frequently came back empty and ecosystems were ravaged. Don't our fishermen and all Americans that enjoy the bounty of the oceans deserve better?

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.