top of page
  • Writer's pictureBen Martens

Making the rules for fisheries: The Magnuson-Stevens Act

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, often called the Magnuson-Stevens Act or MSA for short, is the piece of federal legislation that sets the standards for marine fisheries management in the United States. These rules apply in federal waters, from 3 to 200 nautical miles offshore. Even in the fishing world, most of us probably don’t spend too much time thinking about the Magnuson-Stevens Act. But we should—it has an enormous amount of influence over the way almost all fisheries are run. Here’s some background information on the law that has set the stage for nearly all fishery management in the United States, and why you should care about its future.

History of the MSA

Passed by Congress in 1976, the first Magnuson-Stevens Act prohibited foreign fishing vessels from operating in federal waters. It established eight regional Councils to make local rules with input from stakeholders. The law also set out the first National Standards, a set of guidelines which each region must meet.

In 1996, the MSA was re-authorized, or updated, to include the Sustainable Fisheries Act. This added additional guidelines to promote conservation, prevent overfishing, and rebuild overfished stocks. Three new National Standards were also added to improve vessel safety, reduce bycatch, and support fishing communities.

More recently, in 2006, the MSA was re-authorized again with new rules stating that councils must set annual catch limits and accountability measures for managed stocks. The 2006 MSA also promoted catch share programs and, perhaps most importantly, strengthened the role of science in fisheries management by requiring that all management decisions be made using the best available science.

The MSA was due for another re-authorization in 2016, and we’re still waiting for the next updates to be added to the law. People from all corners of the fishing industry are working hard to make sure that their interests are reflected in the new law. At MCFA, we want ensure that any changes made to the Magnuson-Stevens Act will ensure responsible stewardship of our marine resources and help small-boat fishing businesses and coastal communities to prosper.

What does the MSA mean for state waters fishermen?

The MSA does not technically apply to state waters fisheries. However, what happens in federal waters has a direct impact on state waters fisheries: the three nautical mile boundary matters to us, but not to the fish! Even state-waters fishermen should pay close attention to what happens in federal waters.

The MSA also matters in another way: control over certain fisheries can easily fall into dispute between federal and state authorities. Jurisdiction rights are based on where most of the stock is caught, and that can vary between state and federal waters depending on harvesting trends and environmental factors. If a state-managed stock were to suddenly fall under the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service, fishermen and managers would then be bound by the rules in the MSA. For this reason, state waters fishermen should keep a close eye on any changes made to the legislation.

Why small-boat fishing businesses need the MSA

Federal laws with strong protections for marine resources, such as the MSA rules that have been in place since 2006, create opportunities for small, traditional fishing business to thrive by prioritizing the long-term health of our fisheries over short-term profits. One of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association’s top goals is to promote fleet diversity in the fishing industry. We believe that this is the best way to create fleet resiliency, or the ability to withstand and bounce back from tough times.

Small-boat fleets can typically sustain more diverse fishing businesses. This is because the captains of these vessels are far more likely to catch what is seasonally available and respond dynamically to changing ocean conditions with adaptable business models when compared to large, industrial-scale fishing businesses. Large industrial vessels are typically “locked in” to fishing certain species in certain ways by virtue of their huge investments in specialized equipment. With the ocean changing so quickly and unpredictably, the fishing industry simply cannot afford to be “locked in” to anything. A resilient, agile fishing industry based on the small-boat model is our best bet as we move into the future. We must make sure that small fishing businesses can survive and thrive, and we can do this by supporting a strong MSA.

The future of our fisheries

Without the current legal requirements laid out in the MSA, regional councils would have no reason to manage our marine resources according to the recognized best practices that have allowed many of our threatened fish stocks to make impressive recoveries in recent years. Some of these vital components of MSA include: making management decisions using the best available science, taking an ecosystem-based approach, managing forage species, setting annual catch limits, and taking strong actions to end and prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks.

Only Congress has the power to amend the MSA. If protections in the MSA were to be rolled back, it would almost certainly allow special interests to exploit our fishery resources for short-term economic profit at the expense of responsible long-term stewardship. Keeping these strong legal protections for our fisheries is vital to ensuring that Maine, and every other state, has a resilient and diverse fishing industry for generations to come.

bottom of page