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MSA's evolution

Alaska, the top U.S. seafood source, is a blueprint for fisheries management

By James Wright
February 01, 2007

Well past midnight on an otherwise quiet Saturday in December, the House of Representatives passed a long-awaited bill that reauthorized and strengthened U.S. fishery-management laws. To surprised seafood skeptics from Cape Cod to the Aleutian Islands, the lame-duck action was literally an "act of Congress."

Talk of augmenting the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) had been anything but quiet over the past several years. The law, enacted in 1976, hadn't been amended since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and had become outdated thanks to scientific and technological advances. Despite their differences, commercial fishermen, seafood professionals and environmentalists for once could agree that strict harvest limits and a deeper commitment to science-based management were long overdue.

While the latest MSA reauthorization isn't perfect, U.S. seafood suppliers and buyers say it's better late than never because several storied domestic fisheries are skating on thin ice. New England's once-plentiful groundfish stocks are depleted. It's become a chore for buyers to source true American red snapper.

Domestic stocks of large pelagic species like swordfish and bluefin tuna have dwindled. About 19 percent of U.S. stocks are considered overfished or depleted, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service; the hope is that new regulations can help these fisheries rebound.

Seafood sustainability concerns extend well beyond the United States. But will the world's fisheries collapse by the year 2048, as predicted in the Nov. 3 issue of the journal Science (see SFB Dec. '06, p. 1)? Although scientists worldwide roundly panned the study, the subsequent media coverage of the doomsday forecast may have given Congress the impetus to pass meaningful measures quickly.

The eco-buying movement is gaining momentum in the seafood industry, fueled by consumers' growing awareness of not only where their food comes from, but also how it was raised or harvested. Retailers are choosing value-added seafood products with eco-labels to attract knowledgeable customers, while restaurants are plugging their seafood's origins and catch methods on their menus.

More than ever, purveyors are required to prove the fish they sell is sustainably harvested. Stronger enforcement of catch limits and other science-based decisions called for in the latest MSA reauthorization will be necessary with consumer confidence in seafood at stake.

The MSA is critical to the economic health of U.S. fisheries as well: Domestic landings account for only about 10 percent of U.S. seafood consumption. Without a stronger regulatory framework to sustain marine resources, buyers may have to rely even more on sourcing seafood overseas.

"The main goal [of stronger legislation] is to increase domestic production by rebuilding stocks. As they're rebuilt, there's less need to import seafood," says Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "It's also incredibly important because of the growing awareness of the [health] value of eating seafood."

Lifetime achievement

Theodore Fulton Stevens is not only the longest-tenured Republican in the U.S. Senate, where he's served since 1968, he may be the foremost steward the seafood industry has ever known. Representing Alaska, which is synonymous with wild seafood, it's always been in Stevens' best interest to champion the industry's cause.

"We have half the [U.S.] coastline and half the fish, after all," Stevens says.

In 1976, Stevens and Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, a Washington state Democrat, penned the MSA, the most significant piece of fisheries-management legislation in the nation's history: The law established eight regional fishery management councils and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that prohibits foreign vessels from fishing within 200 miles of the nation's coastline.

With the EEZ, the United States claimed the largest ocean territory in the world - and the tremendous responsibility to protect it.

Three decades and countless debates about the health of U.S. marine resources later, Stevens and Sen. Daniel Inouye (R-Hawaii) last year authored an amended bill that bridged gaps between economic and environmental concerns.

Rarely does fishery legislation satisfy NGOs, but Environmental Defense, National Environmental Trust and the Natural Resources Defense Council each endorsed to varying degrees the bill's aggressive stance to end overfishing, rebuild depleted fisheries and end illegal fishing in international waters. Nonetheless, Oceana was quick to question Stevens' agenda.

"Senator Stevens has again demonstrated his uncanny ability to make snowballs out of fog by passing this legislation," says Dr. Michael Hirschfield, Oceana's chief scientist and senior VP. "This legislation seems to be more about who gets to catch the fish in the ocean, not about how we can make sure that there will always be enough fish for them to catch."

Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of the new law is a shift toward dedicated access privileges, or individual fishing quotas (IFQs), a controversial technique adopted by Alaska to manage its halibut, sablefish and king crab fisheries, to name a few. In short, a fishery's total allowable catch (TAC), which is established by a regional council's scientific committee, is divided and allocated to fishermen based on historical participation; some fisheries allot quotas to processors as well. These quotas can then be leased or sold. Other fishery-management techniques include gear restrictions, closed fishing areas and limited days-at-sea, all of which have found measures of success.

The MSA reauthorization underscores "greater use of market-based systems for fisheries management," or dedicated access programs like IFQs. Seafood buyers may encounter interruptions in supply but the goal is more consistent availability as stocks rebuild.

The major knock against transferable quotas is the possibility that big corporations will only get bigger and that fewer boats on the water means fewer fishermen at work. Consolidation is reshaping the seafood supply chain; for example, the rationalized crab fisheries in Alaska are now controlled by as few as six major corporations, several of them owned by Japanese conglomerates ( SFB Sept. '06 Top Story, p. 1). However, a Dec. 13 report from the Alaska Department of Labor says that fish-harvesting jobs increased in 2005, the first year of the crab rationalization program. Not only that, but occupational hazards in the old "derby-style" fisheries were greatly reduced. "In 2005 there were fewer crabbers working, but they were employed for more months harvesting the king crab quota," the report said.

IFQs make enforcing catch limits much simpler, says David Benton, director of the Marine Conservation Alliance in Juneau, who adds that input from the regional councils' scientific committees "must be at the forefront" of how catch levels are determined.

"To make it work you need good science and you need good monitoring and enforcement on the other end," says Benton. "Limited entries, IFQs - one size does not fit all. Those are good management tools that work in a lot of instances. But each [plan] needs to be designed and tailored for each individual fishery."

Help on the way?

The 1960s were salad days for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico; average landings of 12.5 million pounds each year earned the species national appeal. But the coveted fish, which can live to age 50 and require several years to reach reproductive potential, simply couldn't keep up with the heavy mortality rate imposed by commercial and recreational fishing.

"Once you overfish a stock like that it takes a long, long time to rebuild all the year-classes that have been reduced," says Wayne Swingle, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council in Tampa, Fla.

After decades of steady decline, red snapper landings fell to about 4.3 million pounds annually from 1990 to 2004 and for the past two years the annual quota has gone unmet. This January, the Gulf Council implemented a limited-access program for red snapper, similar to ones employed in Alaska. Swingle says the plan, which meets new MSA guidelines, will facilitate a gradual comeback.

"[IFQs are] designed to reduce overcapitalization of the fishery," Swingle says. "We expect some participants will buy out other participants and it will be a smarter, more efficient fishery." The Gulf Council also cut the 2007 commercial red snapper quota from 4.65 million pounds to 3.5 million pounds.

For years, commercial red snapper fishermen could only fish during the first 10 days of each month until the annual quota was met. Thus, a flawed pattern of inconsistent pricing emerged for buyers: Prices started high as each month began, only to come down after four or five days. After the 10th day of the month there would often be an oversupply of cheap fish available at questionable quality.

Jeff Freeman, president of Sea Source in Morristown, N.J., buys "many thousands of pounds" of snapper each week, both domestic and imported. Although the old system had its quirks, he says nobody knows how availability will play out under the new rules that govern the fishery. There could be interruptions in supply and harvesters could get "buried in paperwork" instead of fishing, he says.

"We're in virgin territory here. But the quota system should hopefully provide a more level buying opportunity for everybody," Freeman says. "One [potential] difficulty is collusion, which leads to restraint of trade. As importers, we can't get together and say 'we're not going to buy snappers for two weeks' to drive prices down. That's illegal."

Swingle and others in the Gulf have high hopes for the recovery of red snappers. Far up the East Coast, however, where Atlantic cod landings pale in comparison to past levels, the situation isn't quite as hopeful.

The New England groundfish industry - traditionally a hot source for cod, haddock and flounder - has gotten so bad in recent years that the head of Maine's Portland Fish Exchange says the display auction may not survive past 2007. Groundfish landings through October last year at the nation's only publicly owned nonprofit seafood auction were the lowest on record.

"Going back 10 or 15 years, we didn't do a good job of putting regulations into place and [fishermen] resisted some of the techniques and restrictions," says PFE President Thomas Valleau. And, because so many fishery council members have commercial interests in the fisheries, "in a way it was like asking somebody to remove their own appendix. Even after we realized [the necessity], we weren't able to come to a consensus," he says.

"I think the groundfish industry is in the process of recovering, but it's going to take three to five years for it to return to a reasonably robust and commercially viable state," continues Valleau, adding that the exchange has lost money the past three years. "We see a major recovery," Valleau says. "Our feeling is this is just the beginning."

No pain, no gain

Clem Tillion, a charter member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council after the MSA was ratified in 1976, now enjoys semi-retirement in Halibut Cove, Alaska. The outspoken former commercial fisherman and Alaska legislator knows how politics impact seafood supplies.

Tillion has devoted his life to fishing and fisheries management and follows the industry closely still, taking pride in Alaska's seafood success stories. For example, the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Va., lauded the new MSA for using Alaska as a sustainable-seafood model. "Alaska's fisheries are among the best managed worldwide," said NFI President John Connelly in a Dec. 9 statement. Tillion agrees that Alaska is indeed a blueprint by which many other domestic fisheries can be shaped. But he notes that, in the days before the 
original MSA, radical change and long-term vision weren't widely accepted ideals in communities that depended on fishing.

"When we introduced the first limited-entry program for salmon in 1973, my kids got beat up in the playground, my wife's tires were slashed. I needed a police escort to get to work," Tillion says, alluding to how Alaskans' passion for fishing was a hurdle in the quest for sustainability.

"Our [fishery] resources were so low we had to amend the state constitution," he continues, adding that in 1961 Alaska's fisheries were declared a national disaster, albeit man-made. "And we didn't do anything about halibut until we were down to a two-day season in southeast Alaska. The fishery was unbelievably destructive."

A long-term approach, however, has proven to be what the state and its seafood industry needed, as Alaska is now one of the largest seafood sources in the world: Its 900,000 square miles of ocean territory yield more than 5 billion pounds of seafood annually.

"We have eight times more salmon in Alaska now than in 1959 when we became a state," Tillion says. "It wasn't painless; we closed Cook Inlet for 15 years. We're now 54 percent of all fisheries in the United States. It wasn't an accident."

Tillion says strict adherence to scientific recommendations is key in setting catch limits for all 
fisheries, something the new 
MSA stresses.

"You never solve your political problems by taking more [fish] than the scientists say we have," says Tillion. "The basic job [of commercial fisheries] is to put food on the table. The purpose of fisheries is not to provide jobs. You serve the fishermen best if you keep the resource healthy."

Sustainability is top of mind with major seafood buyers like Wal-Mart, Costco and Whole Foods, which makes conservation within the MSA a key selling point for suppliers. The Marine Stewardship Council of London, created in 1997 by Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund, certifies fisheries around the globe as ecologically sustainable through an auditing process ( SFB Jan. '07 Top Story, p. 1). Any product bearing the MSC eco-label leverages its origin from a well-managed fishery.

And Alaska has certainly proven its mettle on the sustainability front. Of the 22 MSC-certified fisheries worldwide, six are in Alaska: Alaska salmon; pollock in both the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands; BSAI Pacific cod freezer longline; U.S. North Pacific halibut and sablefish.

"If I look at [the MSA] with my Alaska lens, it tells me we've done a good job up here," says Benton. "Looking at it nationally, there will be some growing pains in the fishing industry, hopefully not too great. If indeed we can turn around some of these stocks, we'll see a brighter future."

An eye on supply

The 2006 MSA extends U.S. influence into international waters by authorizing the secretary of commerce to deny port access to countries that engage in destructive, illegal and unreported fishing practices. Additionally, President Bush, as part of his U.S. Ocean Action Plan of 2004, recently joined a global effort to place tighter restrictions on bottom trawling in the open ocean.

But the MSA reauthorization is mostly about keeping the domestic seafood supply viable. With demand for seafood at a record high - Americans consumed 16.6 pounds of seafood in 2004, according to NFI - the opportunity to capitalize is now.

The United States is ramping up aquaculture production to meet growing seafood demand and reduce its dependence on imports (see Newsline this issue, p. 8); nearly 90 percent of the U.S. edible-seafood supply is imported, according to statistics from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Offshore aquaculture is a priority for the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which hope to quintuple production by the year 2025. Still, wild-caught fish are a vital cog in the seafood supply chain. The MSA's goal is to keep it that way.

"There will be conservation challenges, but the system has changed for the better," says Benton. "It will benefit the consumer in the long run."

Assistant Editor James Wright can be 
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

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