ASA Intervenes in Lawsuit, Seeks to Ensure Successful Implementation of Modern Fish Act

In late July, the American Sportfishing Association’s motion to intervene as a defendant in a federal court lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council was granted. The lawsuit, which is pending in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, challenges a revised process for managing the recreational fisheries for summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass which took several years to develop and was approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service for implementation in 2023.

“By intervening in this lawsuit, ASA can respond to the claims of NRDC and help to safeguard the interests of our members that are threatened in this case,” said Glenn Hughes, ASA president. “If NRDC obtains the relief that it seeks in its lawsuit, it will take away economically valuable recreational fishing access to these sustainably managed fisheries, and likely stifle consideration of similar innovative management approaches in other federally managed fisheries across the country.”

The NRDC lawsuit arose out of the Recreational Reform Initiative, an open collaboration between the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council that aims to address the chronic challenges stemming from the limitations of recreational catch data that often led to overly precautionary and restrictive regulations. The initiative is a follow-through of the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2018 (Modern Fish Act), which was supported by ASA and signed into law to help improve recreational fisheries data and management.

One of the key tenants of the Modern Fish Act was allowing for “alternative management” approaches that differ from the traditional system that is based on commercial fishing, while adhering to federal requirements to prevent overfishing.

To that end, the Recreational Reform Initiative produced an adjusted fishery management plan for summer flounder, scup and black sea bass, known as Framework 17. The prior plan often led to significant angler dissatisfaction, as catch limits would be higher in one year and lower in another year not because there was any true need for the radical changes to avoid overfishing, but instead because management measures were chasing the highs and lows of unreliable catch estimates.

Framework 17 was adopted to address these problems. By using confidence intervals instead of a single point estimate, and scaling the magnitude of the management change with stock status so that the change in measures is commensurate with the health of the resource, the goals of the federal fisheries management law of avoiding overfishing are maintained while at the same time potential overcorrection to annual variability in the catch estimates is minimized.

NRDC asserts that Framework 17 conflicts with the federal requirement of annual catch limits. But annual catch limits are merely a tool and not an ultimate goal. And while one goal of federal law is to prevent overfishing, overfishing occurs only when a fishery is unable to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis. Thus, there is nothing sacrosanct about the tool of annual catch limits. If there is another way to manage recreational fishing that also avoids overfishing, such as the approach taken in Framework 17, it can be used.

The court will soon establish a briefing schedule in this lawsuit, and ASA looks forward to providing the court with the perspective of the recreational fishing industry and our nation’s anglers.