Skip to content

Marine Conservation Institute Works to Improve Habitat Protection in Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act Reauthorization

As Director of Policy and Legislation at Marine Conservation Institute, I recently (1/30/2014) delivered testimony on reforming the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) to members of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans & Fisheries. It is considered an honor for an organization and its representative to be invited to testify as a witness at these kinds of Congressional hearings, a validation of an organization’s important role in molding legislation.

Our work on habitat conservation in the Magnuson-Stevens Act is tightly related to our work on the Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES) because Magnuson-Stevens controls all US managed oceans, areas that go 200 miles off our coasts including all our possessions in the Pacific.  These constitute over one billion square miles of ocean.  If we can protect some of that ocean with strong, well-enforced protection, it will contribute to the 20% ecosystem goal GLORES has for the many marine biogeographic regions of the world.

The hearing was comprised of two separate panels of experts, a panel of administration witnesses from various parts of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and a panel of private and nonprofit fishery stakeholders. Each expert was given five minutes to deliver testimony regarding priorities for MSA reauthorization to a panel of senators including subcommittee chairman Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), ranking member Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI).

I led off my testimony with an emotional appeal taken from Sylvia Earle, a widely respected ocean explorer and former chief scientist of NMFS who is also a member of Marine Conservation Institute’s board of directors. She has said, “Where there is no water there is no life. Where there is no blue there is no green.”  Too often testimony at these kinds of hearings is dry and boring; I tried to get the listeners emotionally involved in the recommendations that I was about to make, knowing that an emotional connection helps create empathy and memorability.

The recommendations that I made focused on four areas of the Magnuson-Stevens Act:

1. Better protections are needed for sensitive underwater habitats such as deep sea corals and other special places for marine life.

2. Better enforcement and better laws for enforcement against illegal, unreported and unregulated (pirate fishing) are needed to reduce impacts on US fishermen, their communities and marine life.

3. New and more cost-effective technologies need to be employed for marine surveillance and enforcement; existing tools such as Coast Guard cutters and airplanes are expensive to operate, slow to get to remote places, and have limited capabilities compared to newer technologies such as aerial drones, high frequency radar and hydrophones listening for violators.

4. Financing for additional science, surveillance and enforcement on the ocean needs to grow as budgets for NMFS and NOAA are severely constrained; and one way to do that is with relatively small increases in the tariffs on huge volumes of seafood the US imports (90% of our seafood is imported; 10% produced by US fishermen).

Recommendations That Would Protect More Ocean Habitat

  • Put a definition of Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPC) into MSA to help narrow the focus on habitat that really makes a critical difference for improving ocean health.
  • Require that some management measures must accompany HAPC designation.
  • Using a precautionary approach; explicitly allow use of predictive models as the “best available science” to establish important habitat until visual inspection of an area allows better decision making.
  • Mandate that 20% of each type of representative habitat in a region be protected from destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling.
  • Expand the definition of deep sea corals to include deep sea sponges and other unique deep sea organisms.
  • Require regional councils to protect identified concentrations of deep sea corals with HAPC designation and management measures that prohibit bottom-contact fishing gear.

Protecting marine habitat from damaging fishing techniques and other threats with regulations and boundaries on maps is certainly the first step in achieving sustainable fisheries and healthier oceans. But statutes, regulations, and maps do not enforce themselves. The ocean is a big place with lots of opportunity for unobserved illegal behavior. To stop any of it requires resources to find and arrest lawbreakers and the will to prosecute them. Marine Conservation Institute became interested in this field because we believe that setting aside marine protected areas, or other kinds of habitat protections, is just the first step in ocean healing. These places must be well-managed and well-protected from those who flout protection laws.

Recommendations to Improve Marine Law Enforcement and Fight Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

  • Equipment for VMS and/or AIS should be carried on board all commercial fishing vessels and turned on at all times in US waters.
  • Edible fish imports to the US should be required to be accompanied by verification from the producer or exporter that AIS/VMS was used on board when the fish was caught by a vessel(s) accompanied by a specified vessel ID number. There should be stiff penalties for false information.
  • All fishing vessels should be equipped with a unique vessel ID number such as a US vehicle VIN.
  • NOAA, US Coast Guard, and the Departments of State and Justice should develop an improved framework beyond the biennial Black List for reducing IUU fishing.
  • Senate should establish a research, development and pilot program for advanced technologies for marine monitoring, vessel identification and enforcement.
  • Senate should ratify the Ports State Agreement and pass S. 267 to implement this agreement aimed at reducing international IUU fishing by making sales of IUU fish much harder.
  • Senate should pass S.269 to streamline existing fishing enforcement laws and provisions.
  • Senate should require basic information about fishery enforcement activity and case load to be provided to relevant committees and the public on some periodic basis.

NOAA’s budget for marine enforcement, especially remote Pacific and international enforcement efforts is tightly constrained.  The Office of Law Enforcement in the National Marine Fisheries Service which collects evidence for cases, the Office of General Counsel for NOAA which issues violations and summary settlements, and the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division which prosecutes cases, all have limited staff and resources for fisheries and habitat enforcement.

Recommendations to Increase Funding for Surveillance and Enforcement Funding

  • Senate should consider providing additional dollars for these activities from the Saltonstall-Kennedy program that receives 30 percent of US tariffs on imported fish and fish products. The Senate could direct NOAA to take some of this existing money and put it into enforcement.
  • Or they could modestly increase the tariffs on imported fish and fish products to support better international enforcement. Since up to 20% of imported fish are likely to be caught by international pirate fishing, doesn’t it make sense to raise the tariff on fishery imports to try to reduce the amount of pirate fishing worldwide?

Over the coming months, and maybe years, Congress will examine, debate and legislate on ways to improve our primary marine fishery and marine habitat preservation law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act.  Marine Conservation Institute will be at the forefront of trying to improve targeted sections of the law – those that directly and indirectly protect habitat for marine life.


  1. Kevin Laurie (Hong Kong) on March 5, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    Whilst this note is about wildlife crime, I believe the messages are equally applicable to what you are trying to achieve.

    Defining wildlife crime in terms the public can understand

    At the moment, wildlife crime is a remote and abstract concept, because it lacks definition on how it applies in real terms. People are not connecting with it because it is being defined from a conservation perspective. From a law enforcement perspective, I believe ‘the message’ should focus on three key issues:

    Issue 1. In simple terms, it is wrong for someone in one country to benefit from a crime committed in another country. This principle already applies in many areas of law enforcement and in 2011 efforts started to extend it to encompass the growing global problem of ‘wildlife crime’. In terms of application, if a country enacts laws to protect a particular species or category of wildlife, or designates conservation zones or protected areas and these laws are violated, any removal of wildlife in contravention of these laws becomes an illegal act in that country and no one in another country should profit from this.

    Issue 2. According to ‘Article 3: Principle’, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD):

    ‘States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction’.

    The import and sale of illegally obtained goods is arguably the most important link in the wildlife crime supply chain. This being the case, surely signatories to the CBD should take actions to enforce their obligations under the convention. The USA has and uses to good effect the ‘Lacey Act’. What about other countries?

    Issue 3. Where legitimate trade exists in a wildlife product, such as Abalone, honest businessmen cannot compete with organized crime syndicates which are sourcing the same product illegally.

    If wildlife crime is defined in these terms, I believe we will create a better understanding of the problem and will perhaps get better buy-in from individuals, countries and businessmen in providing solutions.