Fixing the Magnuson-Stevens Act

Posted on August 01, 2016

By Matthew Paxton
CCA Federal Lobbyist

We are currently in the second Session of the 114th Congress.  Every Congress is made up of two years, hence, the second Session or second year of this Congress.  It is in this second Session that all the bills that were introduced by the Congress either get passed and signed into law by the President, or “die on the vine” when the Congress ends at the end of the year.  Those bills that die at the end of the Congress must be reintroduced at the beginning of the next Congress (next January) or are rewritten to have a better chance of passage the next time around. 

With that in mind, what has been done during this Congress with the primary marine fisheries law known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act (MSA)?  Let’s review the work that took place over the last year and a half on MSA and what the expectations are for the remainder of 114th Congress. 

First, it is important to understand that reauthorizing a large environmental law like the MSA is, simply put, a slog.  It is hard work.  There are hundreds of interest groups that have a huge stake in the reauthorization of MSA and large lobbying factions that represent the various user groups outlined in the Act – commercial, recreational, and charter.  And let’s not forget the largest and most well-funded of the lobbying factions – the environmental groups – who have created curious alliances with certain commercial fishing and charter for-hire operators essentially advocating a “do no harm” or “do nothing at all” approach to MSA.  All this adds up to an enormously complex landscape within Congress to effectively advocate for a coherent set of policies and provisions to reform our federal fishery laws.  

Within the first month of the 114th Congress, the CCA advocacy team coordinated a “MSA Working Group” that brought together all the recreational fishing interest groups to work together on that coherent set of policies and provisions to revise the MSA to better manage the recreational sector.  This was a first.  Never before in the last two major reauthorizations of the MSA or over the 40 years of the Act’s existence has the entire recreational fishing community come together to speak with one voice.  The MSA Working Group met in person, by phone and with Congressional staff numerous times over the first few months of 2015 to pull together a draft bill consisting of consensus positions on provisions that the recreational fishing community wanted to see in a bill to reauthorize MSA.  Those consensus positions were informed and influenced by the excellent work done by the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, chaired by Johnny Morris, Founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, and Scott Deal, President and Co-founder of Maverick Boats.  The “Morris-Deal Commission Report” as it became known around Congress, assisted our coalition immensely in outlining the critical need for our federal fishery laws to be revised and updated to properly manage the growing fishing public. 

Our draft bill was sent to House and Senate staff and a coordinated lobbying effort began with the various recreational fishing groups that participated in the MSA Working Group, meeting with key Members of Congress and their staffs to advocate for the necessary revisions to the MSA for the recreational fishing sector.  As I mentioned earlier, the process of reauthorizing a complex law such as the MSA is difficult work.  Add in the unique circumstance of commercial fishing groups and environmental groups both advocating to Congress that federal fishery laws are working just fine and nothing needs to be done, and it becomes much more complicated. 

However, the House Natural Resources Committee proceeded to debate its bill to reauthorize MSA, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (H.R. 1335) on March 4, 2015. The full U.S. House passed the bill overwhelmingly and sent it over to the Senate on June 1, 2015.  Several of the provisions our coalition advocated were included in the bill, such as:

  • providing for a transparent and science-based review of fishery allocations in the Gulf and South Atlantic regions;
  • providing certain exceptions for establishing annual catch limits to help ensure healthy fisheries are not unnecessarily closed, and
  • improving recreational data collection through greater participation of states fishery management data.     

Far from a perfect bill, HR 1335, does incorporate some of the needed changes that will allow for more effective management of recreational fisheries and reflects the vision of a united recreational fishing community. 

Things have been less clear in the Senate.  Senator Rubio re-introduced a bill that “died” last Congress, S. 1403, the Florida Fisheries Improvement Act, which is largely a regional bill and thus has not received a great deal of support from Members of the Senate beyond Florida.  The Senate Commerce Committee, the committee responsible for developing legislation to reauthorize MSA, continues to meet with the various interest groups, including the recreational community, to receive inputs on what needs to done in a bill to reauthorize MSA. 

Work on a potential draft MSA bill will continue by committee staff over the summer months, however, time will be limited for Congressional action because of the Presidential conventions and campaigning for elections this fall.  Nonetheless, anything can happen and our recreational coalition will continue to be present in the halls of Congress fighting for needed reforms to the MSA.