2011 was a big year for fisheries. If you’re into fishery legislation and important milestones, you already know that it was the 35th anniversary of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law that first ejected foreign fishing fleets from the United States’ exclusive economic zone and provided the foundation for how we manage our fisheries. It was also the 15th anniversary of the Sustainable Fisheries Act and the fifth anniversary of passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, the last two major updates to our fisheries statute.
But there were also many significant developments this year that will benefit our fishing industries and our marine environment for generations to come. Here’s a quick rundown of the top five stories in fishery management from 2011.
1. Ending overfishing in America
By far the biggest story of the year in fisheries management was the successful implementation of annual catch limits in our fisheries. This effectively ended overfishing in America. In March, National Marine Fisheries Service Administrator Eric Schwaab announced that his agency was on track to implement science-based catch limits on all 528 federally managed species of fish, thereby preventing overfishing—the act of catching more fish than science dictates can be sustainably harvested—from occurring in U.S. fisheries.
Of course, fisheries science remains an elusive discipline, and our estimates of fish stock populations are rife with variables. This means that as more data are collected, our perceptions of the health of fish populations may change, and we may realize that what we thought were sustainable harvest levels may have been overly optimistic.
Still, given that fisheries scientists don’t have a crystal ball showing what the future holds for fish populations, operating within limits that reflect the best science we have still gives the United States worldwide bragging rights to say our fisheries are the most sustainably managed on the planet. And that’s no small feat. So whether you’re putting a piece of Alaskan salmon or Atlantic swordfish on your plate, you can end 2011 with the assurance that if it’s U.S.-caught, it’s sustainable.
2. Cracking down on pirate fishing
Illegal fishing activities, more colorfully known as “pirate fishing,” are carried out by vessels that are either unregulated or operating in direct violation of the laws of their home countries. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, pirate fishermen are responsible for catching as much as 26 million tons of seafood annually with a value possibly as high as $23 billion worldwide. These fishermen represent a significant threat to the future sustainability of global fisheries.
Two important steps were taken this year to rein in this harmful activity. The first was a recent U.S.-EU agreement that Jane Lubchenco, administration of NOAA, referred to as a “down payment” on future efforts to stop pirate fishing.
EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki traveled to the United States in September for a series of meetings. The European Union is developing its Common Fisheries Policy, the governing statute for EU fisheries, which is roughly analogous to our Magnuson-Stevens Act. As the Europeans attempt to hammer out a compromise on the intricate details of fishery management, Commissioner Damanaki joined Lubchenco to announce that the European Union and the United States had established a bilateral cooperation to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
And second, on the domestic front, just last week Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) introduced legislation supported by the Obama administration that would implement an international agreement preventing vessels that engage in pirate fishing from entering their ports.
3. The little fish that could
No smaller fish made bigger headlines in 2011 than the 12-inch-long menhaden, a species that scientists and conservationists say is fundamental to the ocean food web as prey for larger species of fish, such as striped bass, and seabirds like osprey and bald eagles. Menhaden don’t end up in fish markets but are more typically processed into fishmeal and fish oil because they are so rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which have tremendous health benefits. They’re also often used as bait in other fisheries.
In November the Atlantic States Fishery Management Coalition—the interstate body charged with managing fishing that occurs primarily in state waters along the Atlantic coastal—voted 14-3 to reduce the catch limit for menhaden by 37 percent after scientific recommendations and more than 90,000 public comments urged them to take such action.
This action was particularly noteworthy both for the volume of interest it generated from recreational fishermen and the general public, and for the fact that the action was taken despite a stock assessment completed in 2010 that said the resource was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring.
Thus, catch in the menhaden fishery was not limited primarily to benefit the species itself but rather to benefit its predators.
This decision was a prime example of ecosystem-based management, a concept conservationists have been preaching for years: that we should manage a species according to its role in the ecosystem rather than simply looking at each as an individual. The menhaden decision was a step forward for such big-picture analysis.
Besides, a big reduction in its catch limit must have been a welcome consolation prize for a species that in February lost a bid to be named the Virginia state fish. The winner of that vote? Menhaden’s biggest predator: the striped bass. Gulp.
4. The farmer in the delta
Aquaculture, perhaps better known as fish farming, is certain to be a part of our future with the world population on the rise and wild fish stocks under increasing stress from fishing pressure as well as rising ocean temperatures and increasing acidification as a result of global climate change. In June, NOAA announced a new aquaculture policy that recognized the need to develop this industry domestically in a manner that addresses environmental concerns.
Aquaculture certainly has its detractors, however, who fear further industrialization of our ocean space, the potential for increased water pollution from fish food and waste, and that escapes of farmed fish could affect wild populations. In October, for example, some British Colombian scientists reported discovering a highly infectious Atlantic salmon virus in some wild Pacific salmon, which are an entirely different species. To date, Canadian officials have yet to replicate these findings, but a hearing is currently ongoing before a provincial justice of Canada’s Supreme Court to get to the bottom of the allegations.
Still, as I discussed in June, if we take domestic aquaculture off the table, our options for seafood become extremely unpalatable. Foreign farmed fish is filthier than anything we would ever allow here, our domestic wild fisheries are already stressed, and the environmental impacts of additional beef, chicken, and pork production make aquaculture look positively pristine.
Thinking we should eat more vegetables and less fish? Try selling vegetarianism as a wide-scale solution to Americans’ omnivorous ways and see how far you get. Especially with my 4-year-old. NOAA’s policy represents an excellent step toward a future that includes domestic, sustainable seafood.
5. Sharks are friends, not soup
2011 was a banner year for sharks, particularly when it came to combating the practice of shark finning. Because shark fins have such a high market value relative to the value of the meat, some fishermen engage in finning—slashing the fins off sharks and tossing the rest of their carcasses overboard.
The fins are mainly prized as the signature element in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup, which can sell for more than $1,000 per serving in some high-end restaurants despite the insistence by epicures that the fin itself adds nothing to the actual taste of the dish.
In addition to being inherently cruel—a finless shark cannot swim and will die slowly—this practice also allows fishermen to catch far more sharks. And increased harvest can put entire species at risk since sharks are slow to reproduce.
To combat finning, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act in January, which strengthened the law banning the practice in U.S. waters. Then in October, California passed a law banning the sale of shark fins throughout the state, joining Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and Guam. And in November, a high-end chain of hotels in Asia announced it was taking shark fin soup off its menus.
A public service announcement from NBA superstar Yao Ming and a CNN “Planet in Peril” report from TV journalist Lisa Ling may have helped the cause as well.
In the film “Finding Nemo,” Pixar portrayed three frightening sharks claiming “fish are friends not food.” It’s nice to be able to return the sentiment.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.