Although the policy has attracted scant attention outside the community of those who fish in America and the officials who regulate them, it marks an important shift in a pursuit that has helped define the country since its founding.
“It’s something that’s arguably first in the world,” said Eric Schwaab, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s assistant administrator for fisheries. “It’s a huge accomplishment for the country.”
Five years ago, Bush signed a reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which dates to the mid-1970s and governs all fishing in U.S. waters. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers joined environmental groups, some fishing interests and scientists to insert language in the law requiring each fishery to have annual catch limits in place by the end of 2011 to end overfishing.
Although NOAA didn’t meet the law’s Dec. 31 deadline — it has finalized 40 of the 46 fishery management plans that cover all federally managed stocks — officials said they are confident that they will have annual catch limits in place by the time the 2012 fishing year begins for all species. (The timing varies depending on the fish, with some seasons starting May 1 or later.) Some fish, such as mahi-mahi and the prize game fish wahoo in the southeast Atlantic, will have catch limits for the first time.
Until recently the nation’s regional management councils, which write the rules for the 528 fish stocks under the federal government’s jurisdiction, regularly flouted scientific advice and authorized more fishing than could could be sustained, according to scientists.
Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, said the law’s ban on overfishing forced fishery managers to impose limits that some commercial and recreational fishers had resisted for years.
“This simple but enormously powerful provision had eluded lawmakers for years and is probably the most important conservation statute ever enacted into America’s fisheries law,” Reichert said.
And unlike many environmental regulations, which are written and enforced by Washington officials, the fishing limits were established by regional councils representing a mix of local interests.
“Because the final decisions were left on the local level, you have a higher assurance of success,” said James L. Connaughton, who helped prepare the reauthorization bill while chairing the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “If it had been imposed in Washington, we’d still be stuck in 10 years of litigation.”
But the changes have not come without a fight, and an array of critics are seeking to undo them. Some commercial and recreational operators, along with their congressional allies, argue that regulators lack the scientific data to justify the restrictions. And they suggest that the ambitious goals the law prescribes, including a mandate to rebuild any depleted fish stock within a decade, are arbitrary and rigid.