How the Magnuson-Stevens Act shaped the Hawaiian fishing industry


In the 1960s, huge foreign trawlers scoured the ocean floor in search of fish just a few miles from the American coast, destroying the seabed with their weighted nets and depleting the once abundant stocks of pollock and perch, hake and herring, cod and haddock.

At the same time, Asian longline fleets were rapidly expanding their tuna fishing grounds by developing methods to deliver more frozen fish for canneries and fresh fish for sashimi markets.

The commercial fishing industry boomed in the 1970s, fueled by a global thirst for cheap protein. The Soviets soon had hundreds of factory ships in the Atlantic and Pacific, from Boston to the Bering Sea. The Japanese embarked more than 24 billion pounds of sea creatures in 1975 alone, half of which were captured a few hundred miles from the coast of another country.

The United States issued 36 citations against Soviet vessels illegally fishing in American waters in the first two months of the Magnuson-Stevens Act coming into force.

The Yapai rulers of the Micronesian islands between Guam and Palau felt so threatened that they budgeted $ 16,000 to buy a cannon and place it on top of Yap’s highest mountain “to command a little respect on what they considered illegal fishermen working in the waters of their islands, ”UPI reported. in a May 1978 article in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

The United States had seen enough. It was time to give the American fishermen some breathing space, even as some similarly plundered the recently staked waters of Mexico. So Congress drew up a bipartisan law, now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, to create exclusive economic zones in the waters around the United States, including its Pacific territories and Hawaii.

The law, signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, pushed foreign fleets 200 miles offshore, with few exceptions, and established eight regional fisheries management councils to develop plans that promote sustainable fishing. The councils were the first of their kind to manage natural resources in the United States, each consisting of about a dozen politically appointed members confirmed by the Secretary of Commerce.

By design, advice responsible for members representing fisheries interests. They knew who should benefit from the new federal policy.

“In many of our fisheries, there are just too few fish and too many fishermen. – 1977 speech by US Senator Dan Inouye

The late US Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who worked with Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and Democratic Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington to pass the law, foresaw problems. Fisheries managers should face a fundamental challenge early on in achieving any semblance of sustainability.

“Managing foreign fisheries may not be as thorny an issue under the new law as managing our own fishermen,” Inouye said. in a 1977 speech at the Hilton Hawaiian Village to the nation’s largest seafood trade association. “In many of our fisheries, there are just too few fish and too many fishermen. “

Congress was successful in fending off foreign fleets, but failed to predict how many fish US fleets would catch. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

The problem of foreign fleets catching too many fish too close to the United States has improved under the MSA. The application was tricky given the vast expanses to be patrolled, but tthere were 76 citations in less than two months of the law coming into force; 36 were Soviets illegally fishing in the exclusive zones.

But a free-for-all among Americans had emerged after the law pushed most of their competitors back into international waters. The new ships couldn’t be built fast enough. Hundreds were under construction each year. More and more American fishermen wanted to join in the action.

However, resources quickly began to dry up in some areas, leaving them in search of untapped places, such as the mid-Pacific Ocean.

Anglers from the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and the West Coast have headed west in search of better opportunities to make more money. And holding a welcome sign to Honolulu was the new one Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council, with jurisdiction over 1.5 million square miles of ocean straddling both sides of the equator and the date line.

The first members of the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Board, including its first president, Wadsworth Yee, front row center, circa 1977. Wespac

A headline in a 1976 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser described how the MSA was creating a “budding and uncertain giant”, referring to how Hawaii grew from 6,450 square miles of land to over 600,000 square miles of land. ocean – four times the size of California.

Over the next half century, Wespac handled the boom and bust of a lucrative lobster fishery in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands which, 40 years later, has still not recovered, even if the area is now protected as a national monument.

The council has overseen the rise and fall of bottom fishing around the main Hawaiian Islands, another rapidly depleted fishery that is only just beginning to reopen.

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Bigeye tuna, the beloved fresh ahi found in poke bowls and sashimi platters, has been overfished for almost 20 years and still needs careful management as the most lucrative fish in the world. local industry since the 1990s.

Observers have compared the development of fishing in Hawaii to a gold rush. Commercial fishing has exploded in Hawaii for lobsters and lobsters, for groundfish like opakapaka and onaga, for migratory species like tuna and swordfish. And some burst. Endangered seals and seabirds, turtles and sharks were collateral damage.

Port of Honolulu with Mighty Joe Lady of the Sea II commercial fishing boats.
Hawaii’s commercial longline industry has influenced Wespac’s policies for decades. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2018

During the last generation, Wespac has focused on the management of bigeye tuna, one of the two types of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii. The other is yellowfin, which, along with mahi-mahi and swordfish, rounds out the top four fish in terms of economic value to Hawaii.

Andrea Treece, lawyer for Earthjustice, described the “unique” influence of the fishing industry on regional councils.

“Sure, behind the scenes, auto industry CEOs have influence, but they don’t write the rules for their own industry,” she said.

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