Fishery Management:

Problems Remain With National Marine Fisheries Service's Implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act

RCED-00-69: Published: Apr 6, 2000. Publicly Released: Apr 6, 2000.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO provided information on the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) compliance with three provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, focusing on the requirements for NMFS to: (1) use the best available scientific information for fishery management; (2) take into account the economic importance of fishery resources to fishing communities as it adopts measures to manage fishery resources; and (3) identify essential fish habitat, the adverse impacts on that habitat, and the actions needed to conserve and enhance that habitat and also develop a consultation process designed to protect that habitat from adverse impacts.

GAO noted that: (1) NMFS appears to be using the best available scientific information to determine the condition and abundance of fish and other marine species, but improvements to include more current and complete data could be made; (2) according to the National Research Council, NMFS' current process provides a valid scientific context for evaluating the status of fish populations and other marine species; (3) at the same time, the Council and others have pointed out that some of this information is not current or complete; (4) the need to rely on such information has led to criticism by fisherman and others who have been adversely affected by fishery management decisions; (5) until NMFS can overcome the weaknesses associated with the information it uses, more consistently involve others in its research activities, and improve communications with fishing communities and the industry, the criticism is likely to continue; (6) NMFS considers the economic impacts of conservation and management measures on fishing communities; (7) however, this consideration concentrates on identifying how communities will be affected by these measures and not necessarily on how to minimize their effects to sustain the communities' participation in a fishery; (8) in addition, the data necessary to identify adverse effects are often unavailable and the usefulness of the analyses is limited by how they are used in the decisionmaking process; (9) the failure to use economic analyses to develop alternatives that minimize adverse impacts to fishing communities will result in continuing questions about why the information is even collected to satisfy this requirement; (10) NMFS has technically met the act's requirements by identifying essential fish habitat and developing a consultation process for addressing potential adverse impacts to that habitat; (11) however, lack of information and tight time frames have caused NMFS to make essential fish habitat designations that, when aggregated for each species, include virtually the entire portion of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that the United States controls; (12) individuals with commercial interests expressed concern that such broad designations could result in consultations that adversely affect their planned construction or development projects; (13) so far, however, there is little evidence to indicate that the new consultation process has resulted in delayed or cancelled projects; and (14) since completing the habitat designations, NMFS has increased its efforts to identify the adverse impacts to habitat and the actions needed to conserve and enhance it.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the acceptance of conservation and management decisions and to minimize the adverse economic impacts of those decisions to fishing communities, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Director of NMFS to determine what resources NMFS might redirect to help ensure that the full range of economic alternatives are considered early enough in the decisionmaking process to be useful in minimizing the adverse economic impacts of fishery conservation and management decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NMFS has conducted a needs assessment and is slowly making progress in redirecting resources to ensure full consideration of economic alternatives in fishery management decisions. For example, in fiscal year 2002, NMFS added $500,000 to augment its $3 million social science program, approved hiring six FTEs for its Fisheries' Science Centers, and a chief social scientist at its headquarters Office of Science and Technology. These additional staff and funds are used to analyze and review the impacts of proposed management alternatives on the fishing industry and associated communities. Program funding remained at $3.5 million in fiscal year 2003, and will increase to $4.2 million in fiscal year 2004. In addition, the Office of Science and Technology is restructuring to include a Division of Economic and Social Analysis, which will elevate the visibility of the agency's social science program.

    Recommendation: To improve the data upon which fishery conservation and management decisions are based and to improve the communications between the regulators and those who are regulated, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Director of NMFS to review data collection procedures for fisheries where the recreational sector constitutes a major portion of the fish caught to minimize the inconsistent treatment of commercial and recreational fishermen.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the Spring of 2001, NMFS reviewed its major data collection procedures for the recreational sector in preparing the OMB renewal package for the Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Survey. No unwarranted differential treatment of recreational versus commercial fishermen was identified. Significant differences in scale of respondent population and choice of management control warrant some differential treatments.

    Recommendation: To improve the data upon which fishery conservation and management decisions are based and to improve the communications between the regulators and those who are regulated, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Director of NMFS to review data collection requirements placed on fishermen to limit requested information to what is needed for conservation and management, regulatory, and scientific purposes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The review of data collection requirements is an ongoing process within NOAA. The Paperwork Reduction Act requires that each approved data collection be periodically reviewed, generally every 3 years. This involves considering the need for and usefulness of the data, analyzing the burden placed on the industry, and considering alternative methods of collection. The Magnuson-Stevens Act also requires that data collection needs to be reviewed. In complying with the Paperwork Reduction Act and Magnuson-Stevens Act requirements, NOAA satisfied the intent of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the data upon which fishery conservation and management decisions are based and to improve the communications between the regulators and those who are regulated, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Director of NMFS to increase the involvement of the fishing industry, its expertise, and its vessels in fishery research activities in order to expand the frequency and scope of NMFS' data collection efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NMFS officials said that NMFS benefits tremendously by partnering with the recreational and commercial fishing industry to support the science underlying fishery management. In this regard, they spent nearly $13 million on cooperative research in fiscal year 2003, and will spend over $19 million in fiscal year 2004. Specific research projects include surveys using industry vessels, gear modifications studies, tagging/stock structure studies, cooperative statistics data collection, habitat studies, and studies of selected species groups. These projects, an integral part of NMFS overall data collection efforts, provide a vital communication link with the industry.

    Recommendation: To more accurately assess the impacts of essential fish habitat provisions on the nation's fisheries and NMFS' budget, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Director of NMFS to provide Congress with information on the costs of: (1) identifying habitats that contribute most directly to fishery production; (2) identifying priority threats to essential fish habitat; and (3) habitat from priority fishing and nonfishing threats. The above cost estimates should be compared with estimates of the cost for all species without first establishing priorities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2001, NMFS estimated that it needed an additional $16 million to identify habitats, $14 million to identify priority threats, and $5 million to identify techniques and methods. This $35 million would be phased in over 5 fiscal years beginning with $7 million in 2004, and continuing through 2007.

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