The Modern Fish Act was signed into law on December 31st, 2018, by President Donald Trump.
Over 11 million Americans partake in recreational saltwater fishing—with the activity being heavily concentrated in the southeastern U.S.
In what is being celebrated as a victory for recreational fishing and boating, this law will be bring much-needed clarification and reforms to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. While the bill is not entirely perfect, various stakeholders agree this new law will clarify any confusion previously inset in the law and bring recreational fishing management into the 21st century.
The Modern Fish Act was passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate on December 17th, and by overwhelming approval in the House (350-11) on December 19th, 2018.
In a press release issued by the Center for Sportfishing Policy and various stakeholders, they heralded the new law as a fix to the problem of regulating recreational fishing like commercial fishing. Anglers, boaters, and others vested in these industries long argued for distinctions to be made between between recreational and commercial fishing, especially in how they are regulated.
The law adds “more appropriate management tools for policymakers to use in managing federal recreational fisheries.”
“Millions of American families take part in saltwater recreational fishing and boating activities and support multi-billion dollar industries that generate hundreds of thousands of jobs in our country,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. “Today, we are thankful for this important milestone for federal fisheries management and marine conservation, and we look forward to continuing to improve public access to our nation’s healthy fisheries.”
“This is historic for the recreational boating and fishing community, capping years of hard work to responsibly modernize recreational saltwater fisheries management,” said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “The Modern Fish Act is a critical first-step solution towards establishing a framework for expanding access to recreational saltwater fishing, while ensuring conservation and sustainability remain top priorities in fisheries management. We thank President Trump and Congress for making the Modern Fish Act the law of the land and look forward to working with them in the coming years to advance policies that protect and promote recreational saltwater fishing.”
“The recreational fishing industry is grateful to see this legislation enacted,” said Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “We look forward to continuing to work with Congress, as well as NOAA Fisheries and the regional fishery management councils, to improve the management and conservation of our marine fisheries.”
“The Modern Fish Act signed by the President provides an opportunity for significant, positive change on behalf of millions of recreational anglers who enjoy fishing in federal waters,” said Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “We look forward to working with NOAA Fisheries, the regional fishery management councils and the states to fully implement the provisions of the bill and improve federal fisheries management for America’s saltwater anglers.”
“CCA is proud to be a part of this important coalition, and we are grateful to our champions in Congress who stood by us during the intense, sometimes contentious negotiations on this legislation,” said Patrick Murray, president of Coastal Conservation Association. “There is still work to be done, but this is a valuable first step. We are hopeful this opens the door to an ongoing discussion of tools and processes that can be developed to better manage recreational fisheries in federal waters in all regions of the United States.”
What is the Modern Fish Act?
Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2018, or Modern Fish Act, is a bill that would accomplish the following if passed. Now that it’s law, it’ll set out to accomplish the following per Center for Sportfishing Policy’s press release:
- Providing authority and direction to NOAA Fisheries to apply additional management tools more appropriate for recreational fishing, many of which are successfully implemented by state fisheries agencies (e.g., extraction rates, fishing mortality targets, harvest control rules, or traditional or cultural practices of native communities);
- Improving recreational harvest data collection by requiring federal managers to explore other data sources that have tremendous potential to improve the accuracy and timeliness of harvest estimates, such as state-driven programs and electronic reporting (e.g., through smartphone apps);
- Requiring the Comptroller General of the United States to conduct a study on the process of mixed-use fishery allocation review by the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Regional Fishery Management Councils and report findings to Congress within one year of enactment of the Modern Fish Act, and
- Requiring the National Academies of Sciences to complete a study and provide recommendations within two years of the enactment of the Modern Fish Act on limited access privilege programs (catch shares) including an assessment of the social, economic, and ecological effects of the program, considering each sector of a mixed-use fishery and related businesses, coastal communities, and the environment and an assessment of any impacts to stakeholders in a mixed-use fishery caused by a limited access privilege program. This study excludes the Pacific and North Pacific Regional Fishery Management Councils.
Prior to the Modern Fish Act being passed, data collection methods of saltwater fishing catches were Byzantine at best. For example, those who partook in the data collection process in sync with federal managers had to rely on landline phone surveys. Moreover, Draconian standards that harmed recreational fishing interests like cancelled seasons, reduced bag limits, and unnecessary restrictions were commonplace. This led to economic upheaval, job uncertainty, and endless headaches.
Anglers and boaters are optimistic the new law will prevent this from happening again.
Why was this needed?
This law was needed for several reasons.
The first being the need to recognize the impact recreational fishing has on our country economically and with respect to conservation efforts.
Much like hunting, fishing bolsters conservation efforts. Why not have laws that better reflect this too? Anglers, hunters, and shooting sports enthusiasts helped fund a minimum of 60 percent of conservation funding through excise taxes under the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937. Excise taxes are taxes paid when purchases are made on a specific good in the form of licenses, firearms, and tackle to be collected by the Interior Department to be distributed to state wildlife agencies for habitat and wildlife conservation efforts. Better management and science-based policies encouraged by the Modern Fish Act will bolster resources and fish species, not see an end to them.
The second reason for the Modern Fish Act was to bring recreational fishing management to the present day. The 1976 Magnuson-Stevens law set out to chart out the course of commercial fishing but never tackled recreational fishing adequately, and arguably, to its detriment.
Recognizing serious deficits in federal recreational fisheries management, a group of stakeholders came together in 2014 in the form of the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, or the Morris-Deal Commission. The co-chairs of this commission were Johnny Morris (founder of Bass Pro Shops) and Scott Deal (president of Maverick Boat Group). They drafted a report titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” that laid the groundwork for many of the provisions and recommendations found in the Modern Fish Act.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noted in a December 2018 report — the 11th Fisheries Economics of the United Statesreport — that in 2016, both commercial and recreational fishing generated over $212 billion in sales and contributed $100 billion to the country’s gross domestic product. It also noted that these two industries supported 1.7 million jobs across the country.
9.8 million saltwater anglers took recreational fishing trips in 2016 — a 9 percent increase in anglers from 2015. Saltwater recreational fishing supported 472,000 jobs, generated $68 billion in sales impacts across the economy, and contributed $39 billion to the GDP, all metrics that increased 7 percent from 2015 measurements.
The commercial fishing and seafood industry — harvesters, processors, dealers, wholesalers, and retailers — supported 1.2 million jobs in 2016, generating $144 billion in sales impacts and adding $61 billion to the GDP. The domestic harvest produced $53 billion in sales, up 2 percent from 2015, and supported 711,000 jobs across the entire American economy. Sea scallops had the largest revenue increase in 2016, bringing in $46 million in landings revenue.
Recreational anglers, much like commercial anglers, play a central role in our economy. It was time the law recognized their contributions and importance too.
How does it help recreational anglers?
While groups like Audobon Society accused this law of going “against all common sense and ignores science by weakening the requirement on how many fish are caught each year” and forecasted overfishing if it were to pass, recreational anglers and boaters don’t see it that way. It’ll empower them to further practice science-based, sustainable fishing practices ever further.
Recreational anglers are conservationists who abide by catch limits, seasons, and practice sustainable fishing methods. To suggest otherwise, like Audobon, radical environmentalists, and some in commercial interests have put it, is simply false. There are bad actors who disrespect fishing rules across the country, but they are in the minority and shouldn’t be lumped in with responsible recreational anglers. The majority of anglers —myself included—are law-abiding and don’t want to see our fisheries decimated. If fish were to be harvested unsustainably and with little regard to conservation methods, all of us — fish and humans — would suffer. No angler wants to see this happen, let alone any recreational angler.
Preservation and overfishing are extremes that should never become the norm in this country. Many anglers believe in catch-and-release and partake in reasonable put-and-take practices that don’t undermine fishing populations. Their contributions, like those in commercial fishing, are important to sustain this country and conservation efforts.
Anglers felt extremely marginalized under the Obama administration as the former president routinely sided with radical environmentalists keen on seeing the end of the fishing industry. One ESPN columnist noted in 2010 that Obama’s ocean policies could kill sport fishing altogether.
During the Obama administration, fisheries management councils heavily placed limits on what recreational saltwater anglers could harvest in the Gulf of Mexico—particularly on red snapper (where seasons went from three days to 46 days under the Trump administration).
In a March 2018 article in USA Today, the author noted how President Trump and his secretaries in Commerce and Interior sought to restore recreational fishing privileges in previously off-limit territories once available to sport fishing. Here are some of the measures passed after the new administration came to power:
- Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross personally approved a plan in June extending the recreational fishing season for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico from three to 42 days even though his own agency warned it would lead to significant overfishing.
- In July, Ross again intervened. This time, he sided with New Jersey to loosen restrictions on the harvest of summer flounder, known as fluke,over the objections of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Commission Chair Douglas Grout said he was “very much concerned about the short and long‐term implications of the Secretary’s decision on interstate fisheries management.”
- In the fall, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, working closely with the Trump administration, allowed recreational snapper fishing from Jupiter Inlet Florida to the North Carolina-Virginia border for the first time since 2014. Kellie Ralston, Florida Fishery Policy Director of the American Sportfishing Association, called it “a victory” for anglers while environmentalists called it a “risky move” given that red snapper in the South Atlantic is still recovering.
As a result of the Modern Fish Act’s passage into law, recreational fishing will get a boost, see increasing participation numbers, and continue to bolster our GDP. It’s encouraging to see Congress and the Trump administration pass landmark legislation that adds to and not subtracts from recreational fishing.