How important is the role of science in managing U.S. fisheries?

Jeremy Sterk / istockphoto

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is proud to sponsor a panel this week at the annual meeting of the American Fisheries Society (AFS) – the nation’s preeminent organization advancing fisheries science – that examines the role of science in federal fisheries management. Ten years ago, Congress gave science a stronger role in fisheries management. Today, overfishing has dropped significantly in U.S. waters and we have seen a number of fish stocks successfully rebuilt. Coincidence? Unlikely.

This week’s panel will examine what part the strong scientific provisions of the law have played in rebuilding fisheries, new scientific innovations needed to address remaining challenges, and whether any additional changes to the law could further strengthen management success.

For context, the federal statute that governs ocean fisheries – the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) – was first passed in 1976 and last reauthorized in 2007. The statute delegates responsibility for fishery management to regional councils and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The 2007 amendments mandated that managers impose catch limits based on the advice of science and statistical committees (SSCs), and implement measures to ensure accountability with those limits while accounting for scientific uncertainty.

We believe placing science at the root of fishery management decisions has resulted in the successful rebuilding of many fisheries. As of June 2017, NMFS has declared 43 fisheries rebuilt from a previously overfished status, 36 of which have been declared rebuilt since 2007.  Yet some policymakers question the validity of the science on which some decisions are based, including how scientists prioritize data and how decision makers respond to scientific input.

This session, Congress is showing a growing interest in another MSA reauthorization effort, perhaps because ten years have now passed since the last reauthorization and the pattern (although not a requirement) has been to reauthorize the MSA every ten years. In the House, several bills have already been introduced to amend and reauthorize the MSA. And in the Senate a hearing to begin the MSA reauthorization process was recently conducted in the Senate Commerce Committee.

Although some of the introduced bills take a constructive look at the role of science in the fishery management process and seek to improve fisheries data collection, there is real concern that MSA reauthorization could weaken the vital role science plays in U.S. fisheries management. In particular, the House majority’s reauthorization proposal, H.R. 200, contains provisions that would interfere in the scientific process, specifying which sources of data scientists should use instead of letting scientists use the scientific information they deem most reliable.

Under these circumstances, the AFS symposium will examine how fisheries management has changed since the 2007 MSA amendments and whether adjustments should be made. The symposium will include presentations by scientists, council members, and fishermen on topics such as the effectiveness of fish stock rebuilding plans and how to manage fisheries where data is limited.

We look forward to hearing how science has affected fishery management work in their experience, and to sharing lessons learned that can inform MSA legislation while ensuring that science maintains its critical role in fisheries management.

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