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The End of Overfishing in America

This feature is part of a new series from CAP dealing with fisheries management issues. The series will publish biweekly on Fridays. It is a joint column with Science Progress.

Eric Schwaab, the administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, stood before a crowd of fisheries experts on Monday at the Boston Seafood Show. Schwaab had made many forays to New England—home of some of the squeakiest wheels in our nation’s fishing industry—since taking over the job about a year ago. But this time was different. He came bearing a remarkable message: We are witnessing the end of overfishing in U.S. waters.

One of the biggest changes to fisheries law in the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was the imposition of strict annual catch limits, or ACLs, in fisheries experiencing overfishing beginning in 2010, and for all other fisheries in 2011, “at a level such that overfishing does not occur.” Schwaab said the 2010 target of putting ACLs in place for all overfished fisheries was achieved, and “We are on track to meet this year’s deadline of having [ACLs] in place, as required, for all 528 managed stocks and complexes comprising U.S. harvest.”

Schwaab went on to call this accomplishment an “enormous milestone.” Quite frankly, that is an even more enormous understatement.

The end of overfishing should be shouted from rooftops from New England to the Carolinas to the Gulf Coast to Alaska to the Pacific Island territories and back to NMFS’s Silver Spring, Maryland headquarters. This is the biggest national news story our fisheries have seen in years.

So where are the headlines? A few stories trickled onto the pages of local New England newspapers. But even the Boston Globe didn’t spare so much as a column inch. Prophetically, Schwaab alluded to the likelihood of radio silence during the second half of his remarks, in which he suggested the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should “do a better job of getting out the word on the progress made.”

Fisheries doomsayers have certainly been more successful at garnering attention. Dr. Boris Worm, a scientist at Dallhousie University in Canada, published a study in November 2006 that splashed across major media outlets worldwide. His study, “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” contained a message far more digestible than its title: Continuing the world’s current rate of fishing would lead to the “global collapse” of fish populations by 2048.

Now that’s a headline.

As panic ensued about the possibility of empty seafood menus, Dr. Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington penned “Faith-Based Fisheries.” It was a sharp rebuke of not just Worm, but the entire scientific publishing community, which he accused of accepting “articles on fisheries not for their scientific merit, but for their publicity value.”

This all sounds esoteric on the surface. In the elevated discourse of academia, however, Hilborn’s words should have sparked nothing short of a Biggie-versus-Tupac-level throwdown.

Yet instead of Worm or Hilborn upping the ante with the academic journal iteration of “Hit ‘Em Up”—Tupac’s vitriolic rap widely credited with escalating the east coast/west coast hip-hop conflagration—a funny thing happened. The two scientists decided they had more in common than in opposition, so they sat down to work on a collaborative assessment of world fisheries.

Science published the result of their efforts, “Rebuilding Global Fisheries,” in July 2009. It is a comprehensive assessment of 10 large ocean ecosystems with the most comprehensive catch data. The findings showed that fishing in half of the areas they studied was either already sustainable or showing significant progress toward sustainability and that “combined fisheries and conservation objectives can be achieved by merging diverse management actions, including catch restrictions, gear modification, and closed areas.”

Not coincidentally, all of these practices are in place in the United States today to varying degrees.

Of course, an important distinction to draw here is the difference between the act of “overfishing” and the fact that some fish populations remain “overfished.” Overfishing means taking more fish out of the ocean than natural reproduction rates can replace—think of it as withdrawing principal from an endowment instead of just the interest. A fish stock that is overfished is defined as being below an optimal population level. While the two conditions can be and often are interrelated, one can also exist without the other.

In effect, this is the difference between a household’s budget and debt. Exceeding an annual budget is overspending. Overspending for multiple years will accumulate debt, which can be referred to as being in an “overspent” state. Even when overspending stops, the red ink doesn’t magically turn black. The deficit remains. Many of our fisheries are still overfished (or overspent), but the first step in resolving that dilemma is halting overfishing.

We balance our fisheries budget by ending overfishing. Then we can deal with the deficit. NMFS’s rebuilding plans establish catch limits that pay down the principal on the fishy debt we have accrued because in addition to ending overfishing, the law also requires that such limits rebuild fish populations to more productive levels within 10 years. Simultaneously, fishermen are already seeing some returns as a result of their sacrifices as fish stocks recover toward their rebuilding targets.

Schwaab touted Exhibit A in his statement: NMFS will increase catch limits for 12 of the 20 fish populations managed in the historic New England groundfishery for the new fishing year that begins on May 1. This includes haddock, flounders, and the iconic cod. This announcement follows decades of mismanagement that saw fishermen’s opportunity to fish cut deeper and deeper until by 2009 the average groundfisherman was allowed to operate for fewer than three weeks a year.

As an independent indicator of New England’s nascent success, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program shifted several groundfish species, including haddock and pollock, from the red “avoid” list to the yellow “good alternatives” list. And it even added line-caught haddock to the green “best choices” list.

Meanwhile, controversy continues to roil in New England ports about the implementation of a new regulatory system known as sector management that took effect in 2010. The next column in this series will delve deeper into the details of that saga. We must acknowledge, too, that reductions under the previous system, referred to as Days-at-Sea, took steps to begin reducing the overfishing that plagued the industry in the early 1990s.

After decades of decline—and thousands of pages of apocalyptic rhetoric—it’s time to give our fishermen and our fisheries managers a little credit. They are making the difficult choices. They have endured tremendous hardships. And they are turning a critical corner to ensure a healthy, sustainable future for America’s most historic profession.

This feature is part of a new series from CAP dealing with fisheries management issues. The series will publish biweekly on Fridays. It is a joint column with Science Progress.

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

Michael Conathan is Director of Ocean Programs at American Progress.