U.S. Historic Success in Sustainable Fisheries Management Backsliding?

by Hiwot Shaw

In 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishers Conservation and Management Act (MSA) became the primary law governing marine fishery management in U.S. federal waters. This significant policy aims to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, and ensure a sustainable seafood supply while protecting vital fish habitats [1]. Its overarching goal is to foster diversity in U.S. fisheries, covering domestic, commercial, and recreational sectors, under sound conservation and management principles [2]. Despite amendments, including a bipartisan effort in 2006 to combat overfishing, the MSA hasn’t been updated in 18 years [3]. With the recent failure of the reauthorization in the 117th Congress, concerns about future regulations, sustainability, and economic stability within the fishing industry resonate nationwide [4].

Will the U.S. hold its title as a global leader in fishery management? Or will it fall to management backsliding? As policy reform and environmental adaptation are navigated, one thing remains clear: Reauthorization and new approaches are needed, and the inclusion of provisions to address climate change is crucial in maintaining the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry.

Several major issues with the MSA include flexibility in rebuilding overfished fisheries, annual catch limits, uncertainty, and data needs [5]. Specific guidelines from NOAA identify two types of uncertainty – management and scientific [6]. Addressing these concerns, updating provisions related to climate change adaptation and ecosystem management is crucial. Incorporating these changes has the potential to initiate positive outcomes. With rising temperatures due to climate change, fish populations are shifting towards cooler waters, disrupting ecosystems and decreasing fisheries’ productivity [7]. Additionally, warming oceans contribute to more frequent extreme events like marine heatwaves, which can devastate marine life [8]. By integrating climate change considerations into the MSA, such as altering terms like “overfished” to “overfished or otherwise depleted,” legislation can better address critical factors in overfishing. Furthermore, NOAA Fisheries’ new tool to track marine species movements underscores the need to reauthorize the act to reflect these changes [9]. This integration exemplifies how addressing environmental challenges can lead to more effective and sustainable outcomes.

For instance, the inclusion of provisions addressing climate change impacts in the Magnuson-Stevens Act could lead to positive changes similar to those seen in the Water Resources Development Act of 2022. This legislation invests in water infrastructure by allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to play a critical role in protecting, enhancing, and restoring coastal and riverine areas from climate impacted flooding and storms [10]. By incorporating provisions related to climate change, the act enables investment in coastal resilience and prioritizes environmental justice initiatives, ensuring that vulnerable communities are better protected from the impacts of climate change [11]. 

It is important to recognize historic successes in sustainable fisheries due to the MSA. By the end of 2020, out of a total of 460 managed fish populations, only 26 were being excessively harvested (overfishing), and 49 were depleted (overfished). Since 2000, the U.S has successfully rebuilt 47 fish stocks and significantly curbed overfishing [12]. But most recent trends are not positive. Rebuilding progress has slowed, only three stocks were rebuilt in 2017, and eight of the 47 stocks declared rebuilt in 2000 have since become overfished again [13]. 

Overfishing persists despite efforts to prevent it by law. The continued prevalence of overfishing can be attributed to various factors. Inadequate enforcement of fishing regulations leads to compliance gaps, while economic incentives, like high demand for certain fish species and limited alternative livelihood options, drive ongoing overfishing. Additionally, difficulties in monitoring fishing activities and enforcing regulations across vast marine areas worsen the problem. Certain fish stocks may also be especially susceptible to overfishing due to their inherent biological characteristics or habitat degradation.

While the Magnuson-Stevens Fishers Conservation and Management Act has made significant strides in fishery management, the future remains uncertain as the U.S. grapples with updating the MSA. The pivotal question now is whether we will maintain our leadership in sustainable fisheries or succumb to complacency. Adapting to the evolving landscape is imperative, and integrating provisions to address climate change could hold the key to our continued leadership. Will the U.S. seize the opportunity to chart a course for a resilient and sustainable future, or will we fall behind?


[1] Fisheries, N. (2023, December 6). Laws & Policies: Magnuson-Stevens Act | NOAA Fisheries(National). NOAA. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/laws-policies

[2]. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE, Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. pdf

[3] Gilden, J. (2021, January 19). Fact Sheet: The Magnuson-Stevens Act. Pacific Fishery 

Management Council. https://www.pcouncil.org/fact-sheet-the-magnuson-stevens-act/

[4] Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (2021—H.R. 59). (n.d.). GovTrack.Us. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/117/hr595

[5] Reauthorization Issues for the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. (n.d.). https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R43565.html 

[6] US fisheries are overfishing, again | GreenBiz. (n.d.).https://www.greenbiz.com/article/us-isheries-are-overfishing-again

[7] Rep. Young, D. [R-A.-A. L. (2021, November 16). Text – H.R.59 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (2021-01-04) [Legislation]. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/59/text

[8] [13] Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization steams on amid partisan shoals. (n.d.). https://www.nationalfisherman.com/national-international/magnuson-stevens-reauthorization-steams-on-amid-partisan-shoals

[9] U.S. fish stocks continue era of rebuilding and recovery | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2022, May 12). https://www.noaa.gov/news-release/us-fish-stocks-continue-era-of-rebuilding-and-recovery

[10] Henshaw, S. (2023, April 26). How new provisions in the Water Resources Development Act are building climate resilience | Growing Returns. https://blogs.edf.org/growingreturns/2023/04/26/how-new-provisions-in-the-water-resources-development-act-are-building-climate-resilience/, https://blogs.edf.org/growingreturns/2023/04/26/how-new-provisions-in-the-water-resources-development-act-are-building-climate-resilience/

[11] Water Resources Development Act of 2022 | The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. (n.d.). Retrieved March 6, 2024, from https://democrats-transportation.house.gov/committee-activity/issue/water-resources-development-act-of-2022

[12] US EPA, O. (2022, October 19). Climate Change Impacts on the Ocean and Marine Resources [Overviews and Factsheets]. https://www.epa.gov/climateimpacts/climate-change-impacts-ocean-and-marine-resources

[13] Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization steams on amid partisan shoals. (n.d.). https://www.nationalfisherman.com/national-international/magnuson-stevens-reauthorization-steams-on-amid-partisan-shoals

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