As a Star Wars movie, the title might be: Return of the Anglers, Net Fishermen Fight Back.

Catching fish and saving fish are real-life pursuits, however, not a movie. The people who catch fish had the nation’s premier federal fishing law on their side until reauthorizations of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1996 and 2006.

Those reauthorizations of a law originally enacted in 1976 to kick foreign fishermen off the coast and boost the U.S. fishing industry were heavily influenced by environmental groups trying to save fish stocks. The effort has produced some success stories, but it has also put a lot of fishermen out of business.

A Magnuson Act reauthorization is underway again, with congressional committees already holding hearings. It is expected to become one of the biggest fishing issues of 2014.

“It’s up for reauthorization every 10 years. By 2016 it will be reauthorized, but they’re starting to work on it now,” said Adam Nowalsky, of the New Gretna, Burlington County-based Recreational Fishing Alliance.

RFA officials already testified at a Senate hearing in November to fight rigid catch limits designed to rebuild fisheries in 10-year time frames. This has even led to the closing of some fisheries. The fishermen want more flexibility built into the reauthorization. Since 2006 there have been at least eight legislative attempts by the fishing industry to change the act, but none was approved. The reauthorization appears to be the best shot at major changes.

“It’s taken seven years to get to this point, but RFA’s message of management reform has collected the overwhelming support of the fishing community and management officials alike,” RFA Executive Director Jim Donofrio said.

While Donofrio represents anglers, commercial fishing interests have the same concerns. Nils Stolpe, a spokesman for the commercial industry, said if a 15-year rebuilding schedule will keep fishermen in business, then it makes more sense than a 10-year schedule. He also questions the goal of getting every fish species to its highest levels, called maximum sustainable yield,” or MSY, at once.

“We need more flexibility, more ability for the managers to manage without being bound by unrealistic requirements, sometimes silly and damaging requirements. You can’t get everything to MSY at once. You have a bunch of fish species in the same ecological niche. They eat the same stuff, when they aren’t eating each other,” Stolpe said.

Stolpe cited the dogfish shark as one example. Regulations brought them to such high levels that they were blamed for eating everything else.

Stolpe expects Congress to be more receptive this time. The 2006 revision put strict limits on ground-fish in New England, and fishing was curtailed so much that fishermen went out of business. It still didn’t help stocks recover.

“They kept reducing, and ground-fish kept disappearing. It became obvious it wasn’t overfishing but changing ocean conditions driving the fish out,” Stolpe said.

Saving fish

While New England faces a continuing crisis of depleted ground-fish stocks, and the 2006 reauthorization is blamed for putting up to half the Gulf of Mexico charter boats out of business by closing key fisheries such as red snapper, there are some clear success stories. Stocks of every commercially important fish species in the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes New Jersey, are classified as rebuilt.

“We’re hearing a lot of talk about greater flexibility and we’re very concerned about that. We see it as derailing a process we’ve worked on for eight or nine years. We don’t want to return to the old ways of doing fisheries management,” said Ted Morton, director of U.S. Oceans, Federal Fisheries for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Morton said stocks of 34 species have been rebuilt since 2000. He said the main success stories have been in the Mid-Atlantic and Pacific regions. He noted New England fisheries were so severely depleted they will take longer to rebuild, though he acknowledged climate changes are partly to blame.

Science is at the heart of the debate. The 2006 reauthorization created scientifically based biological catch limits that the regional fish councils could not override.

“Prior to 2006 the councils could ignore the SSC’s (Science and Statistical Committees). Prior to 2006 there was a lot of political pressure and advice was ignored. It happened in New England and the Gulf. In my perspective, the Mid-Atlantic success was probably because science was ingrained,” said Morton.

Not enough money

The Cape May-based Garden State Seafood Association argues the 2006 revisions created too many scientific demands without the necessary funding to agencies like NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries.

Of the 528 stocks of fish the federal government manages, the GSSA says roughly 114 have adequate assessment data. When there isn’t enough data, the most conservative management measures seem to kick in. This sometimes creates a situation where stocks are growing but fishermen can’t catch them.

“There is not enough money for science. If they don’t know, they go to the minimum. Meanwhile, environmental groups chew up a big chunk of the NOAA budget every year with lawsuits,” said Stolpe.

Jeff Kaelin, of Lund’s Fisheries in the Port of Cape May, said the 2006 revision created too many scientific demands.

“The law has outstripped the scientists’ ability to give us good information, to answer questions on fisheries,” said Kaelin.

Original intent

Before the law was passed in 1976 there were as many as 19 different foreign nations fishing off America’s coasts. They fished on vessels that were larger and much more efficient than anything the Americans had.

The Russians came here with 300-foot factory trawlers that would sweep up schools of fish, process them and freeze them at sea before heading home. A report in 1973 revealed that 86 percent of the fish caught in the North Atlantic were caught by foreigners.

The first Magnuson Act — also called the 200-Mile Limit Law — created an “exclusive economic zone,” or EEZ, that restricted foreign fishing within 200 miles of the coast.

“In ’76 it was basically an economic development law to replace foreign fishermen with domestic fishermen with a big emphasis on developing markets,” said Stolpe.

The law set up regional fish councils made up mostly of people in the fishing industry.

“They realized scientists didn’t have all the answers,” said Stolpe.

But some say the industry had too much flexibility back then. Lee Crockett, Director of U.S. Oceans at Pew Charitable Trusts, said the system allowed economics to trump overfishing and this often depleted stocks and delayed action to rebuild them. Crockett argues the short-term economic hardships of rebuilding stocks are overcome by more revenue and jobs when they are rebuilt. Crockett cites a 2011 NOAA report that estimated at additional $31 billion in sales and 500,000 jobs if all stocks were rebuilt. Crockett said the 1996 and 2006 revisions are working.

“We are turning the corner on preventing overfishing, recovering depleted populations, and moving towards a fishing industry that is both sustainable and profitable. The act’s focus on scientifically based fisheries management has made U.S. fisheries some of the best-managed in the world,” Crockett said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711