For my dissertation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I researched historical change in marine animal populations and coastalecosystems. Since returning to my native New England to work as a professor at Colby College, I have continued to document declining populations and ecosystem alterations. The effect of these changes has been to reduce ecosystem potential and the potential of coastal communities to benefit from robust, vibrant and diverse fisheries.

Here in Maine, as in many parts of the world, reduction in fisheries affects the people most dependent on those resources: fishermen and coastal communities.

Decades of overfishing have severely depleted Gulf of Maine cod, yellowtail flounder and many other fish that were once staples of our coastal economy. In fact, as of last December, there are a dozen New England fish stocks that are currently classified as “overfished” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Maine’s history was built upon fishing, and for generations the sea was thought to be inexhaustible. Now, with some of our once-plentiful fish populations overfished, this has meant strict management plans and reductions in catch limits to help rebuild the stocks. Both have had tough impacts on fishermen and coastal communities that rely on them.

But if there aren’t enough fish left out there to support a thriving industry, what can we do?

We must rebuild our depleted fisheries to ensure longer-term sustainability of this important resource and long-term benefits to coastal communities.

Conservation measures in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, like science-based rebuilding plans, have helped to successfully return Georges Bank silver hake and pollock to sustainable levels. A 2011 assessment conducted by economists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service estimated that rebuilding all depleted fish stocks nationwide would lead to $31 billion in increased economic revenue and support an additional 500,000 jobs.

Congress is now beginning to consider the re-authorization of the law that governs our nation’s commercial and recreational fishing grounds from three to 200 miles offshore, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. There is an opportunity in this process to strengthen the act, so it can prevent overfishing and continue to help rebuild Maine’s depleted fisheries.

As a first step though, we must ensure that Congress doesn’t take shortsighted steps to strip out or undermine conservation measures in the act that have led to the rebuilding of some of our commercially and recreationally important fisheries. The law is needed in New England, and with common-sense updates we can ensure that fisheries managers have the tools they need to meet 21st century challenges.

To meet these new challenges head on, Congress needs to establish an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management. We need a system that takes rising ocean temperatures and the destruction of fish habitat into account. We need stronger protections for the smaller forage fish, keystone species that provide food for larger fish such as cod.

Fishermen used to talk about menhaden, a forage fish, jumping out of the sea and onto land. Now, these fish are ground up in bulk for cat food and fertilizer. We need to reduce the wasteful bycatch of fish like river herring, as well as seabirds and marine mammals that are collateral damage from destructive fishing gear. With the right approach, the Magnuson-Stevens Act can help make oceans more resilient and benefit generations to come.

With nearly 230 miles of shoreline, the small picture-postcard communities that dot Maine’s coastline need a strong Magnuson-Stevens Act to thrive over the long term. Only with a holistic approach to conservation can we move forward with new fisheries management plans that are truly up to the task of benefiting our fishermen, our coastal communities and our ocean environment.

Loren McClenachan is assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Waterville. She received her doctorate from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.