The Modern Fish Act: Know the Facts

September 4, 2018

The Modern Fish Act, awaiting floor action in the U.S. Senate (S.1520), addresses the serious challenges facing America’s recreational anglers. Foremost of those challenges, the federal fisheries management system has severely restricted access for saltwater anglers by using antiquated and unreliable data to manage America’s recreational fisheries.

With some groups spreading misleading and uninformed claims about this landmark legislation, it is important to know the facts about the Modern Fish Act and what it means for America’s 11 million saltwater anglers and the 440,000 jobs that depend on this industry.

FACT #1: The Modern Fish Act will update our nation’s primary marine fisheries law to improve recreational data collection techniques and encourage cooperative data collection.

Opponents of modernizing federal fisheries management speculate that the updates will undercut science and accountability measures. For too long, federal fisheries managers have relied on antiquated data collection techniques (i.e. coastal landline phone surveys) incapable of producing accurate and timely data, which has resulted in unnecessarily restrictive limits for recreational anglers. By contrast, many states, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, have developed complementary angler harvest data collection systems to provide real-time and better harvest data. The Modern Fish Act would transition existing federal funds toward state programs to improve fisheries harvest data. Furthermore, the Modern Fish Act would require the Secretary of Commerce to submit a report to Congress on facilitating greater incorporation of data, analysis, stock assessments and surveys from state agencies and nongovernmental sources such as fishermen, fishing communities and research institutions.

FACT #2: The Modern Fish Act will result in more funding for conservation efforts.

Environmental organizations often dismiss the significance of anglers’ contributions to marine conservation. The fact is that participation by recreational anglers has a direct and positive impact on fisheries conservation. Anglers and boaters contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to conservation and habitat restoration efforts through excise taxes and licensing fees. Appropriately managing the recreational sector will increase participation and in turn increase conservation funding. In addition, it is in every angler’s best interest to keep America’s fisheries healthy and robust. An angler’s success relies on an abundance of fish. Same goes for the recreational fishing industry.

FACT #3: The Modern Fish Act will not exempt the recreational sector from annual catch limits or accountability measures.

The Modern Fish Act would simply allow for more appropriate recreational fisheries management measures when current implementation of the annual catch limit (ACL) requirement of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is not effective. It does not exempt recreational fishermen from adhering to annual harvest constraints. For decades, NOAA Fisheries has tried to use tonnage-based ACLs to manage the recreational fishing sector in real time. This method, designed for commercial fishing, fails to appropriately manage America’s 11 million saltwater anglers, particularly given the limitations in the timeliness and accuracy of recreational fishing data. Meanwhile, states successfully manage recreational catch with accountability measures such as: extraction rates, fishing mortality targets and harvest control rules. Recreational and commercial fishing are fundamentally different activities that require different management approaches, and the Modern Fish Act clarifies this point.

FACT #4: The Modern Fish Act would revise allocation procedures making the process more efficient and less ambiguous.

How public resources are divided between user groups matters to the American people. The current ambiguity around how to divide the fisheries pie has led to a confusing, contentious and rusted-shut system that has resulted in the regional councils generally refusing to review allocations. The Modern Fish Act would establish clear, objective criteria upon which allocation decisions could be based, and require periodic review of allocations in mixed-used fisheries in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Doing so would not divert significant resources from fisheries management, as opponents have falsely asserted. Rather, this provision would force these regional councils to do what they’re supposed to be doing already, which is to allow allocation review to reflect the ways in which fisheries change over time.

FACT #5: The federal fisheries management system has been failing anglers for years. The Modern Fish Act would update federal law to properly distinguish recreational and commercial fishing.

There is no doubt that the Magnuson-Stevens Act has played a crucial role in rebuilding depleted fish stocks for a number of species. There is also no question that the nation’s primary fisheries management law is critically flawed by not recognizing the differences between recreational and commercial fishing. The Magnuson-Stevens Act was designed to manage commercial fishing activities, leaving recreational fishing as an afterthought. The consequence has been draconian limits placed on saltwater anglers and undue harm for those who rely on the recreational fishing economy. Recreational and commercial fishing are two fundamentally different activities, and the Modern Fish Act will make the changes necessary to more fairly represent saltwater recreational fishing in the federal fisheries management process.

FACT #6: Assigning ownership of public resources through catch shares would result in less access for America’s anglers and reduce conservation funding and economic benefits to the nation. The Modern Fish Act offers a better way.

While some in the environmental community promote Limited Access Privilege Programs such as catch shares as a way to improve access and data collection, these privatization schemes really achieve consolidation in the number of participants in a fishery and ultimately a negative impact on conservation funding and the U.S. economy. Instead, the federal government should turn to their state partners to better manage recreational anglers with scientific data and collaboration in recreational fisheries management. The first summer of the 2018-2019 Gulf of Mexico red snapper Exempted Fishing Permit has been one of the most successful red snapper seasons in the Gulf in the last decade, a success achieved by the federal government working closely with the Gulf states and anglers to find the best management approach. The Gulf states were able to offer their anglers longer seasons with reliable data collection systems. None of the five Gulf states suggested privatizing access to fish stocks as a way to improve access and data collection. The collaborative management approach worked this summer in the Gulf in helping resolve conflicts in the always-contentious red snapper fishery, and it can work across the country.