Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act Turns 40

by / Newsroom Ink on April 4, 2016
Deadliest Catch

Without the historic passage of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, later to become the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, television reality fishing shows like the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch would more likely be featuring foreign fisherman as their stars. Photo: Discovery Channel

­ by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

It has been four decades since Congress first passed sweeping legislation that changed the landscape of the American seafood industry from Bristol Bay to Beaumont to Boston.  In 1976, the Fishery Conservation and Management Act (FCMA) later to become the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, became the first legislation establishing a comprehensive framework for governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters.

Russian

Before the Fishery Conservation and Management Act large foreign fishing fleets from Japan, Poland, Russia, Spain, East Germany and Korea were within eyesight of the U.S. coast. Russian fishing vessels were also often used as spy ships. Photo: U.S. Government

To this day the Magnuson Stevens Act continues to govern all U.S. federal fisheries. The law is often credited with balancing the need to preserve our nation’s marine resources with the need to preserve the livelihoods of those who depend on them. The original legislation was the brainchild of former U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson of Washington state (a Democrat) and former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (a Republican), with former Massachusetts liberal Democratic Representative Gerry Studds and Alaska conservative Republican Don Young spearheading the House version.

“To hear him tell it, Alaska fishermen were living in the office of Rep. Young for three weeks while the legislation successfully moved through the House,” said Dave Whaley, who worked on Capitol Hill for over 30 years, and spent much of that time managing fisheries and oceans issues for Rep. Don Young and the House Natural Resources Committee before retiring last year. “Young always told everyone that Magnuson and Stevens received way to much credit, and the legislation should have been called the ‘Young Studds Act’ because it was the House version that eventually became law.”

200 Miles

The original legislation was designed to Americanize fisheries by controlling or eliminating foreign fishing and then restoring and conserving the fish. It officially gave the federal government the authority to manage fisheries and claimed more 4.4 million square miles between three and 200 miles from shore as a Fishery Conservation Zone. The area, largest in the world, was later renamed the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Rod Moore

“I first heard of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act in an Alaskan fishing village listening to KNOM radio,” said Rod Moore, Senior Policy Advisor for the West Coast Seafood Processors Association. Photo: West Coast Seafood Processors Association

“I first heard of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act in an Alaskan fishing village listening to KNOM radio,” said Rod Moore, Senior Policy Advisor for the West Coast Seafood Processors Association located in Portland, OR. “I had just graduated college and was working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The program was discussing the proposed 200 mile Fishery Conservation Zone legislation. I can’t remember the details, but at the time it definitely had my attention.”

Expanding territorial jurisdiction to 200 miles was not new, with a number of bills being introduced starting as early as 1972.

“In early 1975, there were various bills introduced in the House which allowed the Secretary of Commerce to promulgate regulations on the 200 mile limit,” said Joe Plesha, Chief Legal and Regulatory Officer for Trident Seafoods. “Many of those bills also proposed ‘advisory councils’ which had no management authority.  There was concern expressed by industry representatives about the Secretary having the complete authority to promulgate management regulations.”

Plesha, a student at the University of Washington in 1976 and working summers at an Alaska salmon cannery, joined the staff of Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski in 1983 to handle fishery issues. Two years later he went to the Senate Commerce Committee to handle oceans and fisheries matters. During his time on the Committee, he became an expert on Magnuson Stevens, reading all hearing and floor testimony, as well as various drafts of the bill.

Joe Plesha01

“In early 1975, there were various bills introduced in the House which allowed the Secretary of Commerce to promulgate regulations on the 200 mile limit,” said Joe Plesha, Chief Legal and Regulatory Officer for Trident Seafoods. Photo: Trident Seafoods

According to Plesha, Senate bill, S. 961 was introduced on March 5, 1975 with Magnuson as the sponsor and Senators Stevens and Gravel as some of the co-sponsors.  Gravel later became one of the bill’s most vocal opponents because of his concern of taking unilateral action on extension of fisheries jurisdiction.

In testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife, William Mustard, the Executive Director of the National Federation of Fishermen testified the problem was unregulated foreign fishing off our coasts.

Mustard stated, “Legislative proposals of four different types are advanced to resolve this problem.  They are the blanket 200-mile extension of the exclusive fishing zone by the United States; the extension of our fisheries zone to 200 miles until such time as adequate arrangements are made for international control, presumably as a result from negotiations pertaining to the law of the sea; a 200-mile fishery extension with statutory authorization for a fisheries management system; and finally a resolution of the problem by application of the 1958 Geneva Convention on the use of seabed resources.  In our view, authority for a management system must be an integral part of any legislation dealing with the problem of conservation of the Nation’s marine fishery resources.”

As reported by the Commerce Committee on October 7, 1975, the Magnuson Stevens bill created seven regional fishery management councils.  It required the Secretary to approve council-generated fishery management plans if they were consistent with national fishery conservation and management standards as outlined in the Act, and other applicable laws.  This remains the standard today.

Historic Legislation

Senators Magnuson, Stevens and others drafting the historic legislation in both Houses addressed a multitude of issues raised by Mustard and others in the seafood community:

  • Conservation and management of the fishery resources found off the coasts of the United States;
  • Implementation and enforcement of international fishery agreements governing conservation and management of highly migratory species;
  • Promotion of domestic commercial and recreational fishing;
  • Preparation and implementation of fishery management plans that could achieve and maintain optimum yields from each fishery;
  • Establishment of a regionally-based management program that emphasized both conservation and economic growth and provided for participation by the States, the fishing industry, consumers, environmentalists, and the public;
  • Development of underutilized fisheries and establishment of a zone contiguous to the territorial sea of the United States out to 200 nautical miles, to be known as the fishery conservation zone.

While all these issues would be addressed in the final legislation, those who witnessed the Congressional debate at the time recall that the international relations impacts of the bill were the most contentious. As Congress began consideration of this legislation to protect the American fishing industry from the effects of overfishing by foreign interests, the Ford administration expressed opposition to the idea, especially to the extension of fishery management authority out to 200 miles.

Margaret_Snapper

The Fishery Conservation and Management Act promoted both recreational and commercial fishing. Photo: Gulf Seafood Institute

“The White House, the State Department and many on Capitol Hill viewed the Fishery Act as a foreign policy issue,” explained Dennis Phelan, a former Congressional staff member who now lobbies for the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “Members of Congress saw the bill as affecting defense, navigation, as well as trade.  A lot of Congressmen didn’t want to go down that road.”

The Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the Ford Administration, favored waiting for a treaty by the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference to protect American fisheries and fishermen. They feared that legislation might result in retaliatory actions by many of the countries affected.

Magnuson, Stevens, Studds and Young did not want to wait out a prolonged treaty negotiation process and instead initiated committee action in both the House and Senate.

Congressional Passage

At the time the FCMA moved through Congress, Warren Magnuson was known as a whiskey-and-poker companion to Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. A six-term senator, he had authored the Civil Rights Act, championed consumer protection legislation, pushed for federal aid to education, established the National Institutes of Health, all the while holding down Pentagon budgets.

Magnuson_Johnson

At the time the FCMA moved through Congress, Warren Magnuson () was known as a whiskey-and-poker companion to Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Lyndon B Johnson (r). Photo: White House

Alaska’s Senator Ted Stevens was in his second term on the Hill when he signed on as co-sponsor of the bill. Early in his career, he served in the Eisenhower Administration’s Interior Department where he played an important role in bringing statehood to Alaska. As a Senator, he played key roles in legislation shaping Alaska’s economic and social development, including the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act.

A Yale educated Representative from Massachusetts, Congressman Studds represented the district where he grew up, covering Cape Cod and the barnacled old fishing towns near the coast.  Early in his career he served on the Kennedy White House staff and was eventually elected to the House of representatives six times, fighting for environmental and maritime issues.

A native of California, Congressman Don Young began his political career in 1964 when he was elected Mayor of Fort Yukon. He is currently the third most-senior U.S. Representative and the most-senior Republican Representative. Due to Young’s long tenure in the House, and the late Ted Stevens’ in the Senate, Alaska has gained clout in national politics far beyond its small population.

Studds

A Yale educated Representative from Massachusetts, Congressman Studds represented the district where he grew up, covering Cape Cod and the barnacled old fishing towns near the coast. Photo: U.S. House of Representatives

In August 1975, the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee favorably reported out the legislation by a vote of 36-3, clearing the way for a floor vote on the bill. On October 9th the House voted on H.R. 200, easily passing it by a margin of 208-101.

Although foreign fleets did not impact the Gulf to the extent of either coast, House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee members Trent Lott, from Mississippi, and John Breaux, from Louisiana, saw it as being important to their constituents because of potential shipbuilding opportunities.

During hearings Congressman Breaux expressed concern to the Deputy Administrator of NOAA about the impact of extending the fishery zone in the US out to 200-miles, because Gulf shrimpers regularly fished within 15 miles of the coastline of Mexico.

John Breaux 1

During hearings Rep. John Breaux expressed concern to the Deputy Administrator of NOAA about the impact of extending the fishery zone in the US out to 200-miles. Photo: U.S. House of Representatives

On the Senate side the road to passage proved more difficult, with Magnuson and Stevens at times “holding off the rest of the world.”

Two days before H.R. 200 passed in the House, the Senate Commerce Committee favorably reported out the bill. Rather than going directly to the floor for consideration as in the House, S. 961 was referred to the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the Armed Services Committee, each having 21 days to consider and report.

“The Senate battle to get the bill passed was kind of insane,” explained Moore, who later worked for Alaska Congressman Don Young. “Senator Stevens of Alaska, a Republican, had aligned with the Democrat Magnuson to get the legislation passed, while the Democratic senior Senator from his own state, Mike Gravel, had formed an alliance with the Republican White House of Gerald Ford to defeat the measure.”

Like the administration, the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee feared the possible diplomatic and trade repercussions of the bill and favored waiting for the U.N. Conference to reach a treaty.  It reported the bill unfavorably by a vote of 6-7.

“Back then I didn’t understand all the issues, I didn’t know anything about fish,” said Phelan, who worked for Oregon Senator Bob Packwood when the legislation was signed into law. “In reality, at the time, foreign fleets from Japan, Poland, Russia, Spain, East Germany and Korea were harvesting the majority of seafood taken from U.S. waters. We were just giving our fish away.  The foreign fleets came, they harvested, they processed and then they took it all back home; some being resold back to the U.S. for a profit.”

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President Gerald Ford with Alaska’s Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens. Photo: White House

Before Stevens joined with Magnuson to create the sustainable federal fisheries legislation, foreign fleets, coming within eyesight of our shores, did the majority of harvesting fish along both the East and West Coasts. The ships were so numerous, so large, that Alaska residents would often comment on their lights at night, referring to them as “cities on the sea.”

“From the New Jersey Coast to Canada, and from California to Alaska, large foreign fishing trawlers would harvest pollock, flounder, crabs, mackerel, salmon and other species as close as 3.1 miles from our shoreline,” said Moore. “The legislation was needed to preserve and conserve a sustainable natural resource for future generations.”

Magnuson and Stevens, working as a bi-partisan team behind the scenes, managed to overcome the hurdle of the Armed Services Committee having jurisdiction because of the legislation’s implications for naval activity within U.S. waters. The Committee favorably reported out the bill by a vote of 9-7.

On January 28, 1976, by a vote of 77-19. S. 961 passed on the floor of the Senate and was then sent to a House and Senate Conference Committee to have differences between the two bills resolved.

Flying

Days after the passage, Rep. Young (l) was on Air Force One with President Ford (r), who was headed to the Far East, according to Young, when he was let off the plane in Anchorage he was not convinced the President would sign the legislation. Photo: White House

“The passage of S. 961 was important, but it was not the legislation that eventually became law,” Moore explained. “It was the Young Studds Act, H.R. 200, with input from the Senate representatives, that was eventually signed by the President.”

After agreement by both chambers on March 17, the Fishery Conservation and Management Act was sent to the White House with no guarantee that the President would sign it.

“Days after the passage, Rep. Young was on Air Force One with President Ford, who was headed to the Far East,” explains Whaley about how close the Act came to not being signed. “According to Young, a rather heated discussion about the legislation took place in front of the President between himself and Secretary Henry Kissinger, who opposed the bill. According to Young, when he was let off the plane in Anchorage he was not convinced the President would sign.”

President Ford did sign and the Fishery Conservation and Management Act (PL 94-265) became the law of the land on April 13, 1976.

Unique Legislation

Today, The Magnuson Stevens Act remains one of the most unique pieces of legislation ever crafted.   No other legislation, previous or since, gives stakeholders such a large voice in the governing of their natural resources.

Gulf Council_Biloxi

The eight regional fishery management councils created by Magnuson and Stevens serve as the front line of fishery management today. The Council system, which includes the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, provides a forum where regionally-specific management measures, such as season lengths, quotas, and closures, are initiated, developed, and ultimately adopted in a fully transparent and public process. Photo: Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News

“By creating eight regional fishery councils to address the regional differences fisheries deal with across the country, Magnuson, Stevens and Studds allowed for regional, participatory governance by knowledgeable industry representatives with a stake in fishery management,” said Moore about the revolutionary law. “This was huge. No other natural resource, forestry or mining or any thing else, has governance allowing for participation by the public.”

The eight regional fishery management councils created by Magnuson and Stevens serve as the front line of fishery management today. The Council system provides a forum where regionally-specific management measures, such as season lengths, quotas, and closures, are initiated, developed, and ultimately adopted in a fully transparent and public process.

At the time of its passage, the Gulf Seafood Institute’s Mississippi Board Member Corky Perret was working as a marine biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “On the day President Ford signed the legislation into law, I was participating at an aquaculture conference in California. Since we had little or no foreign fishing in the Gulf, the feeling in the Gulf was the law was unnecessary,” he said. “Forty years later we know it works.”

Corky5l

According to Perret, a former member of the  Gulf Council, numerous species have been removed from overfishing and tremendous strides have been made in reducing bycatch, all due to Magnuson Stevens. Photo: Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News

According to Perret, numerous species have been removed from overfishing and tremendous strides have been made in reducing bycatch, all due to the heroic efforts of the Republicans and Democrats that came together to author the legislation.

“Magnuson Stevens requires transparency throughout the process; public input is provided by committees, public hearings and public comment periods,” said Perret. “Red snapper is a good example of a Gulf fishery whose allowable catch has doubled in the last several years due to the efforts of the Gulf Council which was formed under the legislation.

Decisions by the councils are subject to rigorous scientific analysis, with scientists and policy analysts evaluating potential regulations for both environmental and socioeconomic impacts. Proposed regulations are vetted by expert panels of scientists, stakeholders, and by the public before a Council makes a final decision. The open process provided by the Council system allows everyone to have a say in the stewardship of the nation’s marine resources.

Today, the United States’ commercial and recreational fisheries have a major economic impact. According to the 2012 National Marine Fisheries Service “Fisheries Economics of the U.S.” report, the U.S. fishing and seafood industries supported 1.7 million jobs, generated $199 billion in sales and added $89 billion to the GDP in 2013. The success of this legislation is clear in the numbers.

Sam_Rauch_NOAA

Two major recent sets of amendments to the law were the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and then 10 years later the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006,” according to Sam Rauch, NOAA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Management Programs. Photo: NOAA

“The Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 has been amended many times over the years. Two major recent sets of amendments to the law were the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and then 10 years later the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006,” according to Sam Rauch, NOAA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Management Programs. “As a result the United States is ending and preventing overfishing in federally-managed fisheries, actively rebuilding stocks, and providing fishing opportunities and economic benefits for both commercial and recreational fishermen as well as fishing communities and shore side businesses that support fishing and use fish products.”

According to the Washington Law Review, a year after passage of the Act, Senator Magnuson told a symposium that although U.S. landings remained relatively static from the postwar period though 1973, overall landings from American waters during that time tripled because of foreign fishing. “Foreign vessels take nearly seventy percent of the commercial catch of United States coastal fisheries,” he said. “The Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the first step toward Improved management of our marine fisheries.”

Forty years ago, Senators Magnuson and Stevens, with Representatives Young and Studds, worked collaboratively to create landmark legislation aimed at protecting a broad range of fisheries both from foreign infringement and general overfishing, with a goal of ensuring the sustainability of a valuable U.S. natural resource.  This lofty goal has been achieved in a way that uniquely engages those most impacted by the legislation in an ongoing, complex process.  The legislation continues to serve as an incredible example of the power of collaboration, science-driven decision-making and public engagement to produce the best possible results in a highly complex environment.

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the former editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. .

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  1. Chris Nelson says:

    Great piece Ed, and impressed that you caught up with so many of the people who played a role in Mag Act passage. Great to hear Whaley, Moore, Plesha, Phelan, et al weigh in. Missing however is the opposing view of what the Act did to Gulf fisheries including snapper and shrimp as EEZ and Mag Act caused Mexico to exclude US fishing off their coast. We lost access to tremendous resources in very short order. Act primarily benefitted the PacNW, Alaska and New England. Gulf and South Atlantic, not so much.

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