The End of Overfishing in America

A key step toward sustainable marine life — but many more remain

By Michael Conathan, CAP’s Director of Ocean Programs.

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, 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.

And yet, lest we allow fish aficionados to get too complacent, we can’t lose sight of the myriad challenges that still face our marine resources. As climate change warms and acidifies our oceans, we are already seeing dramatic changes at an ecosystem level. In Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean off southern New England, lobster populations have crashed to the point where last summer, fishery managers nearly shut down the fishery for five years in those waters.

Oyster farmers in the Pacific northwest are losing entire crops because the ocean has become more acidic than it has been for over 200 million years, meaning oysters’ shells simply cannot develop without dissolving in seawater. More frightening is that acidification threatens the growth of phytoplankton which not only forms the foundation of the oceanic food web but also facilitates the ocean’s role as a carbon sink.

Reefs at Risk Revisited” a report released last month by the World Resources Institute, lays out a gloomy future for coral reefs, often referred to as the rainforests or nurseries of the ocean.  The world’s reefs are home to the vast majority of the world’s fish species, yet the combination of acidification and warming ocean temperatures means that 75% of the world’s coral reefs are currently under threat of bleaching and death, and that figure will expand to 90 percent by 2030 and nearly 100% by 2050.

Ending overfishing is a tremendous accomplishment, and the first and best step we must take to bring our fisheries back from the brink, but without immediate, meaningful attention to the problem of climate change, the writing remains on the wall.

Michael Conathan, CAP’s Director of Ocean Programs.

Related Posts:


9 Responses to The End of Overfishing in America

  1. Treehugger1955 says:

    Good, the US is questionably the best when it comes to managing it fishing population

  2. Andy says:

    Excellent post. It provides me with a link to an article that finally solves the riddle of why reports on fisheries declines don’t jive with what’s occurring in real life on the Gulf coast where most catches are occurring at sustainable levels.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It is good to see a success story, but it is only a year or two, occurs in the context of rapid oceanic acidification, stratification into warm and cold layers, spread of anoxic ‘dead-zones’ etc, so I believe it is just the first step of a one hundred mile tramp. Let’s not get too enthusiastic, while acknowledging the good work.

  4. adelady says:

    Shame such good news doesn’t get better publicity.

    Yes we can? When we think about it and get on with it, it’s true.

    Most importantly, this is one example to keep in the top drawer when proposals involve initial pain for longer term gain. If it worked for fisheries, good planning can make it work for other things.

  5. Chris says:

    Is sector mgmt the same as catch shares? Because my understanding is many small-scale fishers regard Catch Shares as a program that benefits large commercial fisheries at the expense of local fisheries by granting catch quotas in line with historic catches, crowding out the small fishers the way subsidies and gov’t benefits to Big Ag crowded out local farmers. Would love to hear you address this in your next post.

  6. Vic says:

    So refreshing to see a glimmer of sanity at the end of the tunnel of madness. Well done and thankyou to all those who worked to bring about this result. Continued vigilance is now required as although “Big Seafood” doesn’t wield quite the same power as “Big Oil”, that doesn’t stop them from using the same diversionary tactics of big tobacco and big oil in their attempts to increase profits.

    Take the Southern Bluefin Tuna for example. Critically endangered from overfishing it’s flesh is considered the best eating raw fish in the world, rendering it so valuable that armed guards are employed to watch over pens of the captured fish as they reach maturity. Although the fish don’t breed until 9-12 years old, most of the current billion dollar global bluefin trade is in fish aged around two years old.

    In spite of the bleedingly obvious, Australian fishermen are now claiming that the scientists have made a “very grave error” and that “quota cuts should be reversed”. “The school of fish was enormous. I’ve never seen anything like it in my 42 years fishing”.
    They even brought back a video that supposedly shows “never before seen” schools of the fish. “Unbelievable! Unbelievable!” they cry as they point to a flock of birds. Yes, birds.
    If you look really, really hard you can (perhaps, just maybe) make out one single solitary fish in the entire six minute video. Unbelievable alright.

  7. Lewis C says:

    Here in Europe the lack of an effective federal authority has meant that individual states’ self-interested competition for their fleets prosperity has greatly delayed the adoption of effective sustainable management criteria across European fisheries.

    Yet even with this shortcoming, the impacts of such regulation as we have are not confined to the overfishing of EU stocks. Even the deficient constraints on their harvesting have been enough to push large fishing concerns into distant waters, particularly to Africa, where their depradations are unconstrained and very damaging. A very large fraction of illegal immigration to EU from West Africa is reportedly due to the collapse of inshore fisheries as a result of foreign factory ships’ catches. And that’s on a coast that used to support over 200,000 very large fishing canoes.

    This dynamic is not limited to fishing of course. In the ’90s I lived near the small rural town of Kington that used to have three tanneries for local sheepskins, along with a host of value-adding trades. Then came the hygene laws and the environmental protection laws which (despite excellent local fish numbers in the River Arrow) put the tanneries out of business.

    These days the sheepsking are trucked raw to Turkey (about 1,500 miles) where they are chemically cured with little of no regulation on environmental or social impact. They are then trucked back into Europe at a price that reflects the near absence of home-produced sheepskins. And over a third of the Kington’s shops are today empty or used by charities.

    The parallel with the fisheries issue is that conservation within national boundaries is of little or no global benefit without effective tariff constaints on the import of replacement goods with inferior production regulations. That is, exporting our ecological impacts is no answer at all to a lack of sustainable practice at home. It comes back to bite us, as with the growing boatloads of destitute African immigrants.

    From this perspective, the conservation movement’s decades-long failure to address trade as an essential component of environmental regulation has actively assisted corporations’ transfer of operations to low-labour-cost nations by providing the excuse of increased environmental regulation.

    So what I wonder does a graph of US seafood imports look like compared with the US adoption of sustainable fisheries practices at home ?



  8. kjjkkjkk says:


  9. Dan says:

    Glad to see the Biggie v. Tupac reference here.