Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Marine Fisheries and the Magnuson-Stevens Act:
Reauthorization and Implementation

Prepared by Eugene H. Buck,

Senior Analyst in Natural Resources Policy,
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division.

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

In 1995, U.S. commercial fish harvesters landed more than 10.3 billion pounds of fish and shellfish. Of this total, more than half was caught from federal waters beyond state jurisdiction. NMFS has responded to depleted fishery conditions off New England and the Pacific Northwest by severely curtailing certain harvests in federal waters. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MFCMA) of 1976, as amended, governs federal management of fisheries outside coastal state waters to 200 miles offshore. This Act was reauthorized by the 104th Congress, including passage of an extensive package of amendments to the parent law.

Background and Analysis

The enactment of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act (FCMA) of 1976 (later renamed the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MFCMA) for the late Senator Warren G. Magnuson) ushered in a new era of marine fishery management for the United States. The FCMA was signed into law on April 13, 1976, after several years of debate on extending fishery jurisdiction. On March 1, 1977, fishery resources within 200 miles of all U.S. coasts came under federal jurisdiction, and an entirely new multifaceted regional management system began allocating harvestable quotas, with priority given to domestic enterprises. Exclusive federal management authority was vested in the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the Department of Commerce. The 200-mile fishery conservation zone was superseded by an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), proclaimed by President Reagan on March 10, 1983 (Presidential Proclamation 5030).

Under provisions of the FCMA, eight Regional Fishery Management Councils were established for the New England, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific, Western Pacific, and North Pacific regions. The eight Councils prepare fishery management plans (FMPs) for those fisheries, both commercial and recreational, which they determine to require active federal management. An environmental assessment or environmental impact statement is prepared for every FMP. After public hearings on these plans, revised FMPs are submitted to the Secretary of Commerce for approval. In addition to Council-prepared FMPs, plans for highly migratory species (e.g., Atlantic sharks) are prepared by the Department of Commerce. Implementing regulations are published in the Federal Register. Completed plans may be amended and revised through similar procedures. Together these Councils have implemented more than 35 FMPs for various fish and shellfish resources, with additional plans being developed. Some plans are created for individual or a few closely related species (e.g., FMPs for northern anchovy by the Pacific Council and for shrimp by the Gulf of Mexico Council). Others are developed for unrelated species in similar habitats (e.g., FMPs for Gulf of Alaska groundfish by the North Pacific Council and for reef fish by the Gulf of Mexico Council). Many of the implemented plans have undergone subsequent amendment (one has been amended more than 25 times), and four plans have been developed and implemented jointly by two or more Councils.

Initially under MFCMA authority, a substantial portion of fishery resources in offshore waters under federal jurisdiction was allocated for foreign harvest. However, foreign allocations were reduced as domestic fish harvesting and processing industries expanded. Under the MFCMA, foreign harvests from the U.S. EEZ declined from about 3.8 billion pounds in 1977, to none in 1992. At the same time as foreign harvest declined, domestic offshore catch increased from about 1.56 billion pounds (1977) to almost 6.32 billion pounds (1993). Thus, the percent of fish harvested by foreign nations from the U.S. EEZ declined from 71% in 1977 to nothing in 1992.

Since 1977, total offshore fishery harvest from the U.S. EEZ increased to a peak of 6.65 billion pounds annually in 1986-1988, but subsequently declined to 5.32 billion pounds in 1995. Currently, the largest offshore fishery, in terms of volume landed, is Alaska pollock, with almost 2.7 billion pounds harvested in 1995. By value, Alaska pollock (more than $244 million), Gulf of Mexico shrimp (almost $218 million) and Alaska snow crab (almost $194 million) were the leading fisheries in 1995. Of 201 species groups of U.S. fish assessed by NMFS in 1995, 56 (28%) were deemed overutilized, and another 70 (35%) were considered to be fully utilized.

In New England, the Regional Council proposed several alternatives to reduce groundfish landings by 50% over a 5- to 7-year period in response to a 1991 consent decree. The approved alternative required permits for all vessel operators and dealers, placed a moratorium on vessel permits, instituted an effort reduction program requiring declared time out of groundfishing as well as layover days during fishing, increased minimum net mesh size to six inches, began a program for gillnet vessels to reduce effort and bycatch of harbor porpoise, required mandatory reporting, instituted a possession limit for haddock, and began a variety of area closures and gear prohibitions to reduce catch. Fishermen protested that the stringent regulations would force many to cease fishing and could bankrupt many boat owners. To address these concerns, the Department of Commerce has undertaken a variety of measures, including a federal buyout of excess fishing vessel capacity, to assist the fishing industry and affected coastal communities.

On the West Coast, salmon harvests were severely limited by NMFS, resulting in states of emergency being declared in coastal Washington, Oregon, and northern California. When state governors requested federal assistance, the Clinton Administration announced economic assistance for the Pacific North-West commercial salmon fishing industry and coastal communities. A Northwest Emergency Assistance Plan included funding for habitat restoration, data collection, and vessel license retirement.

Numerous bills were introduced to amend and/or reauthorize the Magnu son Act, but action was not completed during the 103rd Congress.

Status of the Issue

In the 104th Congress, two primary reauthorization and amendment bills were introduced -- H.R. 39 and S.39-- including many of the provisions considered during the 103rd Congress. On September 18, 1995, the House conducted general debate on H.R. 39, and on October 18, 1995, the House amended and passed this measure. In the Senate, an extensive series of field hearings has been held on S. 39. The Senate debated and amended S.39 on September 18, 1996, with final passage by a 100-0 vote on September 19, 1996. On September 27, 1996, the House voted 384-30 to accept the Senate-passed version of S. 39. On October 11, 1996, President Clinton signed this measure into law as P.L. 104-297. Ten major issues were addressed by P.L. 104-297--1) individual fishing quota programs; 2) bycatch, discards, and waste; 3) overfishing, capacity reduction, and recovery plans; 4) fees; 5) fishery management plan implementation, 6) fishing gear; 7) Council conflicts of interest; 8) habitat protection; 9) observers; and 10) Council composition. Details of many of the specific provisions included in this enactment are provided in CRS Report IB95036.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

  1. How effective has the MFCMA proven in maintaining and/or restoring healthy fishery resources in U.S. waters? Does the MFCMA adequately balance the competing demands for conservation and development of marine living resources? If not, what modifications to the Act might help achieve this balance?
  2. Some have suggested that the authority to allocate harvesting quotas, but not processing quotas, has substantially shifted market power in many fisheries, and have argued that MFCMA should be amended to authorize the allocation of processing quotas among fish processors. The implications of extending fisheries management authority to fish processing activities --for the harvesters, the processors, the consumers, and the resource base --are not clear.
  3. What lessons were learned from legislating on specific FMPs in previous reauthorizations of the MFCMA? Does congressional involvement in Council management issues indicate a need for modification of Council authority? If so, how should the authority be amended?

Sources and References for Further Information

Holmes, Bob. "Biologists Sort the Lessons of Fisheries Collapse." Science, v. 264, May 27, 1994: 1252-1253.

Huntsman, Gene R. "Endangered Marine Finfish: Neglected Resources or Beasts of Fiction?" Fisheries, v. 19, no.7, July 1994: 8-15.

McHugh, J. L. "Fisheries Management Under the Magnuson Act: Is it Working?" Ocean Development and International Law, 1990. 21(3): 255-261.

Miller, Morton M., et al. "Impressions of Ocean Fisheries Management Under the Magnuson Act." Ocean Development and International Law, 1990. 21(3): 263-287.

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Needs Assessment of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Washington, DC: 1990. 315 p.

National Research Council. Improving the Management of U.S. Marine Fisheries. Committee on Fisheries, Ocean Studies Board, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources. National Academy Press, 1994. 62 p.

U.S. General Accounting Office. Fisheries: Commerce Needs to Improve Fisheries Management in the North Pacific. GAO/RCED-91-96. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., March 1991. 38 p

U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service. Our Living Oceans, Report on the Status of U.S. Living Marine Resources, 1995. NOAA Tech . Memo. NMFS-F/SPO-19. Washington, DC: February 1996. 160 p.

U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Individual Transferable Quotas in Fishery Management. CRS Report for Congress 95-849 ENR. [by Eugene H. Buck.] Washington, DC: Sept.25, 1995.23 p.

---------. Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act Reauthorization. CRS Report for Congress IB95036 (archived). [by Eugene H. Buck.] Washington, DC: Jan.16, 1997. 16 p.

-----------. The Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act: Reauthorization Issues. CRS Report for Congress 93-88 ENR. [by Eugene H. Buck.] Washington, DC: Jan.25, 1993. 47 p.

-----------. Overcapitalization in the U.S. Commercial Fishing Industry. CRS Report for Congress 95-296 ENR. [by Eugene H. Buck.] Washington, DC: Feb.22, 1995. 19 p.

-----------. Social Aspects of Federal Fishery Management. CRS Report for Congress 95-553 ENR. [by Eugene H. Buck.] Washington, DC: Apr.21, 1995.19 p.

---------. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: Living Resource Provisions. CRS Report for Congress 95-4 ENR. [by Eugene H. Buck.] Washington, DC: Dec.19, 1994. 6 p.

Wise, John P. Federal Conservation & Management of Marine Fisheries in the United States. Washington, DC: Center for Marine Conservation, 1991. 278 p.

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