By Chris Adams

What happens if the species you’re regulating keeps moving?

For officials at NOAA Fisheries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that’s the challenge they now face with a changing climate – and changing fish migration patterns.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, a fisheries expert from the Environmental Defense Fund gave an overview of the nation’s fisheries management law and its current challenges. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was developed in 1976, when foreign fisheries were draining the world’s oceans of fish.

The law was reauthorized 20 years later when U.S. fishermen were the culprits and were decimating some species. Lawmakers tinkered with the law in 2018 but didn’t make substantial changes to it.

“From the perspective of fisheries managers and scientists, we think it’s a robust piece of legislation,” said Kristin Kleisner of the Environmental Defense Fund. There are some shortcomings, and not all the law’s constituents are fans – particularly the recreational fishing industry. But the law has generally sustained bipartisan support and has been credited with helping revive some fish species that had been decimated.

Kleisner said one of the key issues for regulators is how climate change has caused some species to migrate away from their traditional waters – and therefore away from their minders at NOAA or other nations’ fisheries managers.

“It’s not something that is going to happen – we’ve seen it happen,” Kleisner said.

The law gives regional fisheries councils authority to set catch limits, and those regulators are often responsible for specific species.

But as fish move from warming waters to cooler ones, they leave the jurisdictions of the regulators responsible for them. The Environmental Defense Fund found that roughly half of species they examined will shift across national boundaries.