The Cleanest Line


Kingfish are an MSA rebuilding success story for both commercial and recreational fishing interests. Photo: Brandon Shuler
Kingfish are an MSA rebuilding success story for both commercial and recreational fishing interests. Photo: Brandon Shuler

Boom & Bust: Healthy Fisheries Demand Strong Conservation

By Dr. Brandon D. Shuler   |   Jun 26, 2018 June 26, 2018

As luck would have it, I was born into one of those families that has a healthy addiction: fishing. When asked, “When did you start fishing?” I have no answer. It’s always been there. Like most fly anglers, I cut my teeth on conventional gear, throwing artificials while sitting in my grandfather’s or father’s lap. As I learned the joys of sightcasting and watching the pink-and-red drum cruising the shallows of the lower Laguna Madre, I wanted to up the challenge and see if I could get them to eat a fly. I now throw flies exclusively, from cutthroat on the Elk River in British Columbia to yellowfin tuna and king mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico, all while trying to pass on my family’s fishing legacy to my daughter and sons, and remembering the first time I finally watched a red drum flare engulf my fly.

I have stories: some true, some the stereotypical angler’s stretches of the truth. It’s all relative, right? But I also have four generations of family photos from the same place in the Gulf of Mexico that illustrate a sad story of smaller fish and fewer of them over the decades. It is this story that has done more than anything to bolster my sense of responsibility to fight overfishing. It’s about the eat, but it’s also about having enough fish to target and respecting the effort that our massive cerebral cortex employs to trick a creature with the brain size of our thumbnail.

In freshwaters, there is a conservation ethos that derives from looking at the body of water with the inherent realization that this thing can be overfished. It is finite. Hell, most places rate the quality of the stream based upon the number of fish per mile. In marine spaces, this doesn’t hold true. Whether blue water or in the estuary, most anglers look across the huge expanses of water and see the ocean as a vastly replenishable incubating machine that is so huge that the human animal could never fish it out.

This isn’t true.

Marine fisheries can most definitely be overfished and many have been at some point in their history, and I have the pictures and family lore to prove it. Over the last decade, though, overfishing has been largely curtailed in federal ocean waters thanks to the strong conservation provisions included in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, otherwise known as the MSA. The MSA is the primary U.S. law governing marine fisheries. This law is considered the global gold-standard of fisheries management by virtue of its success in ending overfishing and recovering fisheries that were once on the brink.

Flipping through my family photo books, looking at lost uncles and old friends, the trip through time illustrates how bad things were. As old faces disappeared, memories crawled back, but the fish got smaller. Getting to the newer photos though, especially those since 2007, the fish numbers started to increase and get bigger, especially the red snapper and grouper and the occasional trolling schools of Atlantic bluefish that roam in on later-summer warm water upwells. It reminded me of how far we have come.

Three generations of Shulers, the author is the towhead. Photo: Shuler Collection
Three generations of Shulers, the author is the towhead. Photo: Shuler Collection

Off the Atlantic coast, popular recreational fisheries plummeted in the 1990s. Bluefish were declared overfished in 1999, and scup hit an all-time low of 4% of its population in 1995. In the Gulf of Mexico, red snapper were fished so extensively through the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s that only 3% of their population’s entirety remained in the mid-1990s. Nation-wide, 98 managed marine species were considered overfished or subject to overfishing in 1999.

I made trips to the Hill to discuss the stresses on my family business and the industry as fisheries declined. It was sad as we watched commercial, guide and recreational businesses fold under the lack of fish. Something had to give. It did, especially in 2007, when the MSA was reauthorized to include tenets that incorporated annual catch limits and science-based rebuilding timelines.

Today, after continued strengthening of the MSA by Congress, we have landed on a piece of legislation that sustainably manages our marine fisheries for recreational anglers, guide businesses, and the commercial fleet that provides fresh and sustainably sourced wild seafood for the tourism industry and flyover states. Overfishing is at a historic low: only 16% of managed species are overfished—still not perfect, but considerably better. Since 2000, more than 40 fish populations that were overfished have been fully rebuilt, meaning more fish in the water to support more recreational opportunities. The red snapper population has steadily grown from a yearly annual catch limit of 5 million pounds, to over 17 million annually. That’s a success by any measurement of numbers, and in just one decade, no less. These positive trends for marine fisheries are entirely attributable to a strong law that demands fishery managers use science to determine annual catch limits that work to ensure there are enough fish left in the population each year to support the fishery in perpetuity.

Unfortunately, and following a distinctively American boom-and-bust mentality, as overfished populations start to recover and more fish are being found where only years ago there were very few, there are myopic individuals who would throw caution to the wind in an effort to reap the harvest that the discipline of strong management measures have sown. They seek to roll back the MSA’s strong conservation measures that are currently in place. Were this to occur, we would inevitably return to the bad old days of overfishing, with small fish and limited recreational opportunity.

American red snappers are slow-growing easily caught fish that have huge commercial and recreational fisheries, often leading to legislative showdowns. Photo: Brandon Shuler
American red snappers are slow-growing easily caught fish that have huge commercial and recreational fisheries, often leading to legislative showdowns. Photo: Brandon Shuler

Congressman Don Young’s (R-AK) H.R. 200, Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act would amend the current MSA by remanding the conservation tools that have made this Act so successful in rebuilding our nation’s fisheries. This bill has been called the Empty Oceans Act by fishery policy experts and the media because it leads us right back into a boom-and-bust cycle.

The benefits of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in its current iteration stand for themselves. By requiring science to set catch limits that end and prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, the Magnuson-Stevens Act is increasing fish abundance for recreational anglers and providing a predictable business model for the commercial fleet that provides wild-sourced seafood for the nation.

We are so close to making our fisheries great again. We do not need short-term gains outweighing the long-term costs we’ll be paying for generations to come. We can’t let the Magnuson-Stevens Act be weakened and our fisheries threatened under our watch.

Protect Our Fisheries

Send a letter to your Representatives in Congress today and voice your opposition to H.R. 200.

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