Maximizing the Value of America’s Fisheries

Many U.S. fisheries have gone from overfishing to underfishing in just a few years, writes Michael Conathan. We need to strike the right balance with regulations.

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Joe McKinnon processes herring using a salt machine at the Jodrey State Fish Pier,  in Gloucester, Massachusetts. (AP/Lisa Poole)
Joe McKinnon processes herring using a salt machine at the Jodrey State Fish Pier, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. (AP/Lisa Poole)

Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.

— National Standard (1) of the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act

Two weeks ago, Fish on Fridays focused on an announcement by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, that we have effectively declared an end to overfishing in America. The first of the 10 National Standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that governs our fisheries establishes this goal as a fundamental principle.

Yet the law doesn’t stop there. It further mandates achieving “optimum yield,” which is defined as the amount of fish that “will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation” while maintaining sustainable populations. This dual requirement implores managers to seek a careful balance between catching too many fish and catching too few.

Many of our fisheries are struggling to find this balance. But perhaps the New England groundfishery, arguably the most historic industry in the nation, is the best example. The fishery consists of 16 different species, including four different flounders, haddock, and the iconic cod. Overfishing was rampant in the 1980s and early 1990s in the groundfishery, technically known as the Northeast multispecies fishery. Now, with overfishing ended, one of the biggest problems facing today’s groundfishery is—wait for it—underfishing.

The Magnuson Stevens Act was first enacted in 1976. Its primary goal was simply to force foreign fishermen out of U.S. waters. It wasn’t until 1996 that Congress got serious about including conservation measures as part of our domestic fisheries regime with passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which required all overfished fisheries to be rebuilt within 10 years.

By that time, it was too late for the New England groundfishery, which had already seen a precipitous decline in catch. The peak of the harvest came in the early 1980s, with an annual catch averaging slightly more than 173,000 metric tons from 1980 to 1983. But when Congress amended the law to impose rebuilding requirements in 1996 the catch amounted to just 47,000 metric tons, slightly over a quarter of what it had been 13 years prior.

fisheries map

As a result, fishery managers in New England imposed increasingly strict measures forcing fishermen to tighten their belts. While they resulted in only modest gains in many of the fish stocks, populations of a few fish, such as haddock and redfish, rebounded remarkably. Sure, this was great for the haddock, but the rapid growth raised questions about whether the ecosystem could be kept in balance. Would there be enough food or habitat for the rest of the species in a system with high quantities of haddock? Is it even biologically feasible to engineer the reconstruction of a natural order?

With these questions hanging in the balance, battles intensified among fishermen, regulators, and environmental groups—including multiple lawsuits. Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of fishery managers and the best hopes of the industry, overfishing on many species continued, even as fishermen couldn’t come close to catching their legally allowed limit on healthier stocks, like haddock and redfish, because of limitations designed to protect the weaker species. Finally, in 2006 regulators and fishermen began developing a completely new management system.

After three and a half years of deliberations and debate, that system, known as “sector management,” took effect in May 2010. Sector management is akin to a cap-and-trade system in which fishermen are allocated a percentage of the total allowable catch of each fish stock in the fishery. They are then permitted to trade their percentage with other permit holders. One key wrinkle is that instead of receiving this allocation as an individual quota, fishermen must first form cooperative organizations known as “sectors.” A given sector then controls the sum of the allocation granted to each of its members.

Depending on who you ask, this development is either the death knell for America’s first fishery, or its last, best hope. As fishermen approach the end of the first year of sector management, many feel they are being squeezed out, particularly in the traditional fishing ports of New Bedford and Gloucester.

New Bedford’s Mayor Scott Lang has been one of the most vocal critics of sectors. Just this week he brought his New Bedford Fisheries Council to Washington to meet with lawmakers and describe the hardships he feels the system has imposed on the coastal economy of his city. According to his council, far fewer boats are fishing this year under sectors as effort is traded to a smaller number of vessels. And a fishery consolidated in fewer hands means fewer jobs.

Others, including sectors fishing from Cape Cod to Portland and Port Clyde, Maine, have seen benefits from the system. They believe it will provide a much stronger foundation for the future of their fishery. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) captured the feelings of many of her constituents in an op-ed piece in the Portland Press Herald in which she stated that initial data from the sector system is “promising” but for the system to work, “We must streamline regulations, because the fact is that cumbersome federal policies are costing thousands of jobs.”

The clear bright side is that overfishing has ended in this fishery after decades of trying to staunch the trend. With less than a month remaining in the fishing year, none of the stocks managed under sectors is in danger of exceeding its annual catch limit.

As the problem of overfishing recedes, however, it is replaced by a new dilemma. Recall the words of National Standard (1) requiring both prevention of overfishing and achievement of the optimum yield. As the first goal is achieved, regulators must now turn their attention to the second by ensuring restrictions go as far as they possibly can to ensure fishermen are capable of catching they fish the law allows them to harvest.

New England groundfishermen caught barely a quarter of the total amount of fish they were legally able to harvest in 2008. A back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the value of fish actually brought to market means catching all the fish to which they were entitled would have equated to roughly an additional $300 million in value. At the same time, in 2009, the United States imported $13.1 billion worth of seafood or 84 percent of the total amount we consume—in nearly all cases from countries with less stringent environmental safeguards.

This year’s early data shows that sector management has made some improvement in this area. But still, as of March 26, with just over a month left in the fishing year that ends on April 30, the only stock even close to its allowable harvest for the year was Gulf of Maine cod. Fishermen in sectors have caught about 80 percent of their allowable amount, according to NMFS’s own data. Meanwhile, they have caught just 17 percent of their Georges Bank haddock—the single stock that accounts for more than half of the total available groundfish catch.

Fishermen have a legitimate beef when they complain that regulations are preventing them from catching fish that scientists say they should be able to catch. The law is clear on this point: Regulators must act as swiftly and decisively now to help fishermen catch more of the fish they are allowed to land as they did to impose restrictions when harvest levels were too high.

Sector management, like many fishery management plans, is a work in progress, and by allowing fishermen to trade their quota among groups, the hope is it will allow harvest of more of the healthier fish populations. As it evolves, it will be critical for regulators, industry members, and other stakeholders to understand that failure to strive for optimum yield from our fisheries is failure to adhere to the law. At a time when our economy is struggling to rebound, and every job is counted, regulators must minimize the waste in our system and stop leaving money at the bottom of the ocean.

Read more articles from the “Fish on Fridays” series.

Michael Conathan is Director of Ocean Programs at American Progress

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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