Op-Ed: Keep our oceans fishy; defend the Magnuson-Stevens Act

Orlando Sentinel Op-Ed

By Alexandra Cousteau 

This week, Orlando will welcome attendees from all over the world to the annual Diving Equipment and Marketing Association show. I get excited any time people in the diving community gather to share their love of the world they get to experience underwater. It’s gratifying to see my grandfather’s legacy play out in such a tangible way.

But the location and timing of this year’s DEMA conference are especially serendipitous. Florida is a special place for divers — and this year, we have thousands of leaders in the dive industry returning to an area represented by two lawmakers who are in key positions to help protect the abundance and diversity that we know and love.

Sen. Bill Nelson is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee; and Congressman Daniel Webster is the vice chair of the House oceans subcommittee. These two lawmakers can act as gatekeepers to any new legislation that aims to alter laws that currently conserve our marine resources. And strong protection is urgently needed.

The diversity and abundance divers today enjoy in U.S. waters are thanks in part to laws that have protected our ocean resources for decades — laws that are now under threat in this Congress. Especially important has been the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — the primary law governing marine fisheries management in U.S. waters.

Some divers may remember a time when snapper and grouper would have rarely been seen on Florida reefs. But because of conditions in the Magnuson-Stevens Act aimed at rebuilding these populations, today these fish are a common sight. The Magnuson-Stevens Act ensures that many divers’ favorite animals to encounter, like sharks, dolphins and whales, have plenty of fish to eat.

Few can see firsthand the importance of the Magnuson-Stevens Act like divers. We of course love marine creatures of all shapes, colors and sizes, from the tiniest sea slug to the largest whale. But fish are the glue that connect every corner of the ocean’s web of life. Fish large and small affect the health and balance of every ecosystem — from the white sandy beaches born of a parrot fish’s digestion, to the ebb and flow of predator and prey: Herring populations boom, followed by a surge of tuna devouring the bounty, which in turn decline after the herring are depleted. The cycle continues, but its continuation is far from guaranteed.

The law has been working, and we have been enjoying its results, but attempts to gut the Magnuson-Stevens Act are underway. The most pressing threat comes in the form of H.R. 200 — a bill that would gut the protections the U.S. has enacted and strengthened over the years. Not only would the bill allow for loopholes to overfish, but it also attacks other bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The bill also undermines marine sanctuaries that allow ocean animals to safely reproduce and rebuild their populations.

We’re on the verge of reversing decades of progress, opening the doors to overfishing that will have repercussions throughout marine ecosystems, but we don’t have to go down this road. Divers should be the loudest and fiercest champions for protecting our precious resources, and we should make sure these Florida lawmakers hear our voices. Especially important are the leaders gathered this week at DEMA — businessmen, gear distributors, equipment manufacturers — these voices hold particular weight, as they understand better than most the economic value of a healthy ocean.

I urge every member of the dive industry who is visiting this state to call Webster’s and Nelson’s offices. I urge every Floridian reading this who relies on the tourism dollars that divers bring to this great state to call Webster’s and Nelson’s offices. I urge every Floridian who likes to eat seafood, who likes to fish, who loves sea turtles, who works in the hospitality industry — anyone who benefits from an abundant and diverse ocean — to contact Webster’s and Nelson’s offices and tell them to commit to being advocates for our cherished marine resources. Tell them to oppose H.R. 200.

More bills like this will come. But we can demand that our representatives stop this bill, and any others like it in the future. Let’s protect what we love. Let’s keep the Magnuson-Stevens Act strong, and our oceans full of fish. As divers, we know what’s at stake.