One might suppose that stakeholders would embrace the simple and ancient wisdom of maintaining golden-egg production by sparing the magic goose. But no. Major elements of the commercial and recreational fishing industries are railing against the Magnuson amendments, depicting them as a plot by fish huggers to put them out of business. Accordingly, they have prevailed on Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) to introduce the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act—“flexibility” being a euphemism for delay. When the legislation was first introduced in 2007 it appeared DOA, but outrage over fisheries closures, particularly in the South Atlantic, has given it new life.
No group has been louder in pushing emasculation of Magnuson than the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). Director James Donofrio proclaims that the amendments resulted from the public swilling the “Kool-Aid of the anti-fishing environmental groups.” On February 24, 2010, fishing organizations, whipped to a froth of paranoia by the RFA and several of its allies, protested the amended Magnuson Act on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, shrieking and waving placards adorned with swastikas and such messages as “Nuke NMFS” and “Fix Magnuson Now.”
Few plans mandated by the strengthened Magnuson Act have elicited more outrage from the sport and commercial fishing industries than the sharp decrease in catch limits for summer flounder. And none has been more successful. Twenty years ago the population had been fished down to 15 percent of sustainable levels. Strict catch limits imposed under Magnuson have created such a population explosion that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council has made the justifiable decision to increase the 2011 limit from 22.13 million to 29.48 million pounds. Now that anglers and commercial fishermen can kill lots more summer flounder, the RFA bleats about not being able to legally plunder other depleted stocks. Dozens of species are recovering because of Magnuson, a desperately needed law that may be gutted by Congress just as it is starting to work. The NMFS estimates that the economic value of rebuilding depleted fish populations is a $31 billion increase in annual sales and support for 500,000 new U.S. jobs.
In 1883 British biologist Thomas Huxley made this declaration: “I still believe that the cod fishery . . . and probably all the great sea-fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we can do seriously affects the number of fish.”
Huxley lacked evidence to the contrary, but the RFA and its allies have no such excuse. Basically their argument comes down to this: “Our current economic ill-health requires us to keep destroying the resources on which our economic health depends.”
Application of Huxley’s approach by the NMFS and councils has led to public boycotts of specific species or genera—hardly the proper way to manage fish but sometimes the only remaining alternative. The most successful boycott (no longer in effect) was Give Swordfish a Break, a response to the hideously mismanaged North Atlantic longline fishery that had knocked down the stock nearly to commercial extinction. Launched in 1998 by Seaweb and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Give Swordfish a Break mobilized thousands of chefs up and down the East Coast. Eventually it also caught the attention of the NMFS and even the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)—the body that supposedly manages highly migratory species (including swordfish) by setting quotas for member nations but which has been so derelict that it’s often referred to as the “International Commission to Catch All the Tunas.” With swordfish demand way down, nursery areas off the Carolinas closed by the NMFS, and better ICCAT quotas, swordfish are close to recovery. Largely because of Give Swordfish a Break, that species is the only big marine fish on the planet doing better than it was a decade ago.
A newer boycott that promises great success is Take Marlin Off the Menu, a project hatched in 2008 by the International Game Fish Association, the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, and The Billfish Foundation. Marlin and their close cousins spearfish and sailfish, collectively known as “billfish,” are critically depressed worldwide. (Swordfish are technically billfish, too, but they’re usually considered separately.) So valuable are billfish to the economy as quarry for anglers that using them for food is economically insane, and anglers almost always release the fish they catch. Marlin are frequently laced with dangerous levels of mercury, and most of the ones offered for sale are bycatch that has soaked dead for days on tuna longlines.
Selling Atlantic billfish is against the law. But legal traffic in Pacific billfish continues. This facilitates a huge black market because there’s no good way to tell what ocean the meat comes from. Hence the United States is the world’s leading billfish importer. Taking marlin off the menu isn’t much of a sacrifice for restaurants or stores, and more and more are profiting from the green image of being billfish free. In 2010 the campaign succeeded in getting The Billfish Conservation Act introduced in both the House and Senate. If enacted, it will ban sale of all Pacific marlin, spearfish, and sailfish.