Who Wants to Bring Back Overfishing?

Misguided provisions in new fisheries legislation would sacrifice the sustainability of short-term gains.

Fishing boats are seen at the Commercial Fishing Pier in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, February 1, 2012. (AP/Jim Cole)
Fishing boats are seen at the Commercial Fishing Pier in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, February 1, 2012. (AP/Jim Cole)

Reading headlines about the declining state of the world’s fisheries is enough to turn any carnivore to a steady diet of beef, pork, and chicken. But the reality is, particularly here in America, regulators and fishermen have done an admirable job ending the practice of overfishing and made great progress toward sustainability for our nation’s fish stocks. Unfortunately, legislation recently released by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) would gut many of the key provisions of the law that have begun to bring our fisheries back from the brink. The bill would cause fisheries to take longer to rebuild and, in some cases, allow overfishing to continue for up to seven years after it’s first identified.

On February 4, the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources will officially kick off its effort to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act with a hearing on Rep. Hastings’s legislation. If passed, it would lead to devastating rollbacks of critical conservation gains made in the last reauthorization of the act in 2006.

In support of his bill, Rep. Hastings will likely point to a September 2013 study by the National Academy of Sciences, requested by former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) to determine the scientific viability of one of the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s signature provisions: the requirement to rebuild overfished fish populations within 10 years.

The study praised the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s, or NOAA’s, efforts to implement its provisions that require all federally managed fisheries to have annual catch limits that cannot exceed the levels recommended by NOAA scientists. These efforts were highlighted in the National Academy of Sciences’s press release about the report, which noted that, “Federal efforts to rebuild depleted fish populations have been successful at reducing fishing pressure on many overfished stocks, and fish stocks have generally increased under reduced harvesting.”

However, in addition to their praise for the law’s success in driving fisheries toward sustainability, the study’s authors also came to some unflattering conclusions about the decadal rebuilding timeline. In the end, they could not establish much scientific justification for the 10-year mandate. In fact, they found evidence that in some cases, the requirement “eliminates certain management options from consideration that could lead to greater social and economic benefits while still supporting stock recovery in the long run.”

Still, this does not mean timelines should be abandoned. The study goes on to say that “setting rebuilding times is useful for specifying target fishing mortality rates for rebuilding and for avoiding delays in initiating rebuilding plans, which would otherwise require more severe management responses.” In other words, when overfishing is discovered, rebuilding plans should be implemented as quickly as possible and include a clear target date by which the goal should be achieved.

Rep. Hastings and his allies might like to paint the 10-year timeline as an arbitrary bit of overreach on the part of their more conservation-minded colleagues. After all, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, first passed in 1976, has undergone several major reauthorizations, and each one has resulted in increasingly strict conservation mandates. But before Congress acts too quickly to cast aside a fundamental tenet of the law, it must also consider history and the reason the timeline was included in the first place.

Prior to the law’s implementation, fishery managers were too often unwilling to listen to scientists’ recommendations about how many fish could reasonably be taken from dwindling populations. Managers frequently set catch limits with a low probability of leading to sustainable population levels, effectively gambling with a fishery’s future. And more often than not, they lost.

The New England groundfishery—which targets cod, haddock, and flounders—is perhaps the poster child for this failed management tactic. Overfishing was rampant in the Northeast for decades until managers slowly began to impose tougher catch restrictions in the 1990s. But without a legal mandate to respect scientific recommendations and under pressure from the industry to keep catch limits elevated, regulators did not clamp down enough. In 2013, following an unexpectedly pessimistic stock assessment, regulators were forced to impose a cut of 78 percent from the total allowable catch of Gulf of Maine cod in 2013.

As the National Academy of Sciences study points out, there is often “a mismatch between policy makers’ expectations for scientific precision and the inherent limits of science.” Although science cannot give managers an exact picture of fish population status—simply because it’s really hard to count all the fish in the sea when they are underwater and spread across massive areas of the ocean, they do not stand still to be counted, and they eat each other—we have no better system upon which to base catch limits. And the law still properly requires management decisions to be based on the “best scientific information available.”

Rep. Hastings’s proposed legislation is based on the notion that the requirement to adhere to scientific advice in setting catch limits means the 10-year timeline is not needed. If we are ending overfishing and making progress toward rebuilding fish stocks, this argument goes, shouldn’t that be enough?

Perhaps. But it’s important to keep in mind that the existing law already has quite a bit of leeway to extend rebuilding timelines. In its analysis of the National Academy of Sciences report, the conservation group Oceana pointed out that “of the 43 stocks under active rebuilding plans, 53 percent of these have rebuilding periods that exceed 10 years—some of them are as long as 32, 71, or even 96 years.”

But while it’s far from ideal, the additional flexibility in rebuilding timelines is not the most troubling aspect of Rep. Hastings’s bill. That honor goes to a provision that would allow overfishing to continue for up to seven years after it’s identified. This not only flunks the straight-face test, but it also flies in the face of the academy’s findings that a fishery’s best chance for success in rebuilding is to end overfishing as quickly as possible. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences backs up this concept with its finding that overfishing can push a fish population past a “tipping point”—a point after which rebuilding becomes virtually impossible.

Rep. Hastings’s legislation also demonstrates the congressman’s longtime anti-environmental bias—he has a 3 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters—by including several needless provisions that undermine sound federal environmental law and science-based management. It would waive any review of management plans under the National Environmental Policy Act; arbitrarily extend the boundary of state fishery management in the Gulf of Mexico out to nine miles from shore; and undercut the mandate for strict reliance on scientific data in setting catch limits.

Of course, today’s Magnuson-Stevens Act is not perfect. And neither is the science of assessing fish stocks. As long as we maintain the requirement to set catch limits no higher than scientists allow, there may be some room to soften a hard 10-year rebuilding cap in certain circumstances. For example, if a rebuilding plan starts with a 10-year timeline, and five years in, data show that even with fishermen adhering to their catch limits the fish population is still not rebounding as anticipated, then some additional time for rebuilding could be warranted.

But allowing overfishing to continue for longer periods of time and setting harvest levels closer and closer to the blurry boundary of “How many fish is too many fish?” will not lead to sustained, long-term health of fish stocks or the commercial and recreational fisheries that depend on them.

Regulators can control many aspects of a fishery, but they cannot mandate the existence of more fish. The math of biology is simple: If you catch more fish, fewer of them are left to reproduce. Fewer baby fish mean fewer big fish to catch when they eventually grow up.

All fishery stakeholders—fishermen, regulators, scientists, politicians, and environmentalists—must recognize the need to maintain a balance between keeping industries afloat now and ensuring that they can endure. Finding that fulcrum means accepting a degree of pain today and relying on sacrifices to provide a brighter tomorrow.

Enactment of the legislation proposed by Rep. Hastings will ultimately prove to be a giant step toward killing the goosefish that lays the golden eggs.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

*Correction, February 4, 2014: This column initially stated that Rep. Hastings’s legislation had been introduced in the House of Representatives. It has been corrected to reflect that a discussion draft of the bill has been released, but it has not been formally introduced.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy