A Milestone in Marine Fishery Conservation

crockett head shot

Lee Crockett ’83 (CLAS), ’89 MS, Director of U.S. Oceans at the Pew Charitable Trust. (Photo courtesy of Lee Crockett)

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law governing marine fisheries in the United States. Passed in 1976 to promote the U.S. fishing industry, the law over time has expanded to encourage conservation of U.S. marine fish and habitat. As Congress currently discusses the bill’s reauthorization, conservationists are advocating for expansions that require fishery managers to consider the impact of fishing, ocean acidification, and climate change on coastal ecosystems.

To learn more about the history and future of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, CLAS spoke with alumni expert Lee Crockett ’83 (CLAS), ’89 MS, Director of U.S. Oceans at the Pew Charitable Trust.

First, how did you become interested in marine biology?
After high school I read an article in National Geographic about the U.S. Coast Guard, and it sounded pretty cool. I come from northwestern Connecticut and had never been out on the ocean. I signed up a day or two after reading the article. It was definitely impulsive! But I loved it, and it pointed me in the direction of going to college and studying biological sciences and oceanography.

What was your experience like at UConn?

I came to Storrs using the GI bill. I ended up doing an independent study with the marine science department head Bob Whitlatch, helping one of his Ph.D. students collect data at the Avery Point campus. It involved going out to Fishers Island and diving in a wetsuit in the middle of winter. That demonstrated to Bob that I was really interested in marine sciences, and that I could handle myself in the field. When I graduated, Bob hired me to work as a research assistant before I applied for graduate school. He had a grant from Sea Grant through NOAA to study clam ecology. My work focused on the population ecology of shellfish, specifically hard clams.

crockett in wet suit

Crockett prepares to dive for a graduate research project during his time at UConn in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Lee Crockett)

How did you transition to working on the policy side of marine biology?

I had always been interested in politics. I remember hearing in college that you can use your training to pile bricks onto a particular body of knowledge, or you can use it to support change in national policy.

In graduate school I learned about the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship program, which at the time took 20 applicants from across the country to spend a year in Washington, D.C. as advisors to Congress and federal programs like NOAA. I applied and got in, and ended up advising a congressional committee that worked on ocean transportation and environmental legislation. From there I was hired as an advisor for the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Then I spent four years as the NOAA Fishery Service, and then went to the Marine Fish Conservation Network, where I worked on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006.

What was the original purpose of the Magnuson-Stevens Act?

It aimed to promote U.S. commercial and recreational fishing by declaring a 200-mile exclusive fishing zone off the U.S. coast. When the law was first passed in 1976, I was in the Coast Guard. We would see foreign fishermen from Russia, Bulgaria, Spain, and Japan come just 12 miles off our shores, staying 8 to 10 months to process and freeze huge amounts fish. So the bill was meant to phase out foreign fishing and promote the U.S. fishing industry, and it was a tremendous success at that. But by the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had built up our fishing industry so well that we were depleting our own stocks. That is when conservationists became involved in trying to update the law.

How has the Act changed since its inception?

It now addresses the health of fish populations by saying that fishery managers have to take actions to prevent overfishing, rebuild depleted fish populations, and protect essential fish habitats. It also says that they have to minimize bycatch, or when fishermen capture marine life other than the species that they intended to catch. These changes resulted from amendments made to the act in 1996 and 2006.

How are you currently involved with the Act?

My role is to push for conservation by implementing these legislative changes. I lead a team that works with eight regional fishery management councils to take national regulations and turn them into management measures that directly affect fishing. UConn Professor of History Matthew McKenzie is a member of the New England Fisheries Management Council.

crockett holding striped bass

Crockett with a striped bass caught off the coast of Montauk, New York, in the fall of 2014. (Photo courtesy of Lee Crockett)

Right now we’re focusing on transitioning fishery management from a single species approach to one that is more comprehensive. In the past we talked about how much fish you catch from a fish population without depleting it. But we didn’t think about how fishing changes the larger ecosystem, and how changes to the ecosystem and the climate impact fish.

Why is it important to factor in climate change?  

New England is ground zero for the impacts of climate change on oceans, with the Gulf of Maine warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. New England is also the southern-most point for the range of cod. When the water warms, fish like cod move north or into deeper water to get back into their temperature range. So we’ve overfished cod for decades and damaged their habitat, then on top of that, the water is warming beyond their temperature tolerance.

It’s a triple whammy that affects every player in the U.S. seafood supply chain. The fishermen and fish processing industries feel the most direct impact. The size of the fishing fleets in New England has declined dramatically in the past decades. So right now we’re working on getting fishery managers to consider these factors when they establish management measures such as catch limits. It’s an important philosophical shift that will help us better manage our ocean fish and the communities that rely on them.

By: Bri Diaz, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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