CLEARWATER, Fla. — As the ungainly charter boat cut through the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Captain Chad Haggert was unusually optimistic for a fisherman, especially about government regulations.
Less than two months before, after years of strict quotas, federal regulators had removed red snapper — one of the region’s most coveted and lucrative catches — from the list of overfished species.
For Haggert, it was a sign the nation’s landmark fishing law, one that other countries have emulated to promote sustainable fishing, is working — revitalizing decimated species and allowing fishermen to maintain their livelihoods.
“Twenty years ago, if you caught a red snapper off Clearwater, you were a hero; you were getting cigars lit by everybody,” said Haggert, general manager of Double Eagle Deep Sea Fishing, one of the region’s many charter companies. “Now, it’s the primary fish you catch.”
But Haggert, who also serves on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, and others worry that Republicans in Congress are trying to gut the law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which has regulated US fisheries since 1976.
On the same day he took a group fishing this month, the House passed a bill that could open loopholes in the law, potentially affecting the recovery of species from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Maine.
The law, passed with support from both parties at a time when fisheries throughout the country were exploited by foreign vessels, initially created an “economic exclusion zone” that barred foreigners from fishing within 200 miles of US shores.
Congress updated the law in the 1990s and 2000s, also with bipartisan support, to give it more power to curb overfishing. The law established regional councils around the country that were authorized to use surveys and scientific population estimates to set catch limits for species in their regions.
While council decisions have often been controversial, environmental advocates credit the law with helping to rebuild 44 stocks, including 14 species that inhabit the waters off New England, such as haddock, winter flounder, and spiny dogfish.
In the Gulf of Mexico, the law has been credited with helping to rebuild the red snapper population by six times since it plunged to historic lows in the 1980s.
“The requirements to end overfishing and rebuild the stocks were key to leading to the resurgence of the species,” said Roy Crabtree, NOAA’s regional administrator in the Southeast, referring to red snapper. “If those requirements weren’t there, I don’t think it would have happened.”
But Republicans say the law needs to be updated again, arguing on behalf of recreational and commercial fishermen that the councils should be allowed more leeway in rebuilding overfished stocks.
The law now requires that they rebuild most stocks within 10 years, often requiring painful catch limits or closures. Their bill, which passed the House this month mainly on partisan lines, would allow the councils more time to rebuild certain stocks, depending on the biology of the fish.
Representative Don Young, an Alaska Republican who sponsored the original law as well as the most recent bill, said the changes allow for “a proper balance between the biological needs of fish stocks and the economic needs of fishermen.”
“We know that each region works within their unique conditions, which is why I fought to ensure the management process will be improved by allowing regional fisheries to develop plans that meet their local needs,” Young said.
The bill was pushed by powerful groups that represent the fishing industry, which in 2015 generated more than $200 billion in sales and supported some 1.6 million jobs around the country.
“The recreational boating industry calls on the US Senate to pick up the baton, and immediately take up and pass” the bill, said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Chicago. “Millions of Americans are counting on it.”
It’s unclear what will happen in the Senate, but environmental groups have urged senators to reject the legislation.
“This bill increases the risk of overfishing in ocean waters, delays the rebuilding of depleted fish populations, and undercuts the important role science plays in management decisions,” said Ted Morton, director of federal ocean policy for Pew Charitable Trusts. “We hope the Senate will take a different tack.”
In New England, where there are more overfished stocks than in any other region, the stakes are high.
After years of overfishing, cod, yellowtail flounder, red hake, and mackerel are among 15 species that remain in peril, according to NOAA.
Environmental advocates said they worry that commercial interests in New England would seek to delay rebuilding plans for those and other species if the Senate passes the bill,.
“The New England council has a long history of doing everything that it can to avoid taking tough action,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst for Oceana, a Washington-based advocacy group. The bill would “give the council a new set of possible levers to avoid necessary action.”
Priscilla Brooks, director of ocean conservation at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, noted how cod — the region’s iconic species — has remained at a fraction of what would be considered a healthy fishery.
“By creating loopholes around science-based catch limits and weakening the requirements to meet rebuilding timelines, this bill will jeopardize the chances of recovery for cod and other overfished species, and the long-term vitality of New England’s fishing industry,” she said.
In the calm waters off the coast of Clearwater, Captain Haggert said he worried that some fishermen might get greedy as species stage comebacks.
It was only two years ago that the catch limits allowed him to fish just three days a year for red snapper. Now, as the species approaches a fully rebuilt fishery, he’s allowed to fish for them 52 days a year.
This season, his two large charter boats are on track to land about 3,000 red snapper, a record for him.
“Nobody wants us going back to where there’s no red snapper available,” Haggert said. “We want a sustainable and robust fishery, and the regulations in place now have made a big difference in rebuilding the stock.”