Environmental Issues > Oceans Main Page > All Oceans Documents

Conservation Makes Economic Sense

Depletion of America's fisheries not only threatens ecosystem health, but also the livelihoods and recreational opportunities of millions of Americans. According to NOAA studies, commercial and recreational fishing currently generates $183 billion per year to the U.S. economy and supports more than 1.5 million full and part-time jobs, and rebuilding U.S. fish populations would provide an additional $31 billion in annual sales and support 500,000 new U.S. jobs.[1]

Reduced catch levels are frequently necessary to stop the continued decline of depleted fisheries and to start their recovery. Such reductions in the short term ensure that catch doesn't continue to decrease and enable higher catches as populations recover. Sustainably managed fisheries can also provide enhanced predictability and consistency for fishermen from year to year, which can help business planning.

Simply put, chronic overfishing and serial depletion of valuable fish species is unsustainable. Without science-based catch limits, more stocks will become overfished and already-depleted fish stocks will fail to rebuild to healthy levels or even continue to decline. In the end, sustainable fishing will help keep the fish we love in the water -- and us catching them -- for years to come.

Summer Flounder Case Study

Summer flounder, or fluke as it's frequently called, is one of the most important recreational and commercial fish species in the mid-Atlantic. However, its popularity led to chronic overfishing and severe decline. Average annual catch from 1982 to 1988 was over 48 million pounds, well above the overfishing level. These unsustainably high catch levels were the result of significant increases in fishing effort (i.e., more boats and more fishermen pursuing a dwindling number of fish) and an expansion of the commercial trawl fishery targeting fluke's winter spawning grounds. In 1988, fishery managers established the first federal plan for summer flounder, including requiring a modest increase in the minimum size of fish permitted to be landed. But by 1989, summer flounder biomass had plummeted to just 12% of a healthy population. And a year later, fishermen were catching about one-third of what they had been hauling in seven years before.

Clearly something needed to be done. The first step toward recovery, albeit modest, came in 1993 with the establishment of "soft" (i.e., non-binding) fishing mortality targets and associated catch levels. Two years later, a formal rebuilding plan was established with a deadline of a rebuilt population by 2005. Despite these steps, the actual fishing mortality rate continued to exceed the sustainable rate by 4 to 7 times.

The rebuilding plan was again amended in 1999, extending the deadline to 2010. However, that same year, fisheries managers decided to set a catch level with a mere 18% chance of success in ending overfishing. NRDC, EDF, National Audubon Society and the Center for Marine Conservation (now the Ocean Conservancy) took the National Marine Fisheries Service to court. In 2000, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found in our favor, writing:

"Only in Superman Comics' Bizarro world, where reality is turned upside down, could the [Fisheries] Service reasonably conclude that a measure that is at least four times as likely to fail as to succeed offers a 'fairly high level of confidence'" of preventing overfishing.

The court decision led to reductions in catch that has helped restore summer flounder populations to healthy levels after decades of overfishing. The reasons for this success: disciplined restrictions on fishing in recent years, as required by the nation's marine fisheries law.


  1. NOAA, "Annual NOAA report shows a record number of rebuilt fisheries," May 14, 2012, available at http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2012/20120514_statusofstocks.html.

last revised 7/20/2012

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

Donate to NRDC

Oceans on Switchboard

NRDC experts write about the growing risks to the health of our oceans on the NRDC blog.

Recent Oceans Posts

Expert Report Can Guide Northeast in Fighting Climate Change Impact on Oceans
posted by Lisa Suatoni, 1/21/16
Keep It Under the Sea
posted by Niel Lawrence, 11/17/15
California Bans Plastic Microbeads: A Key Step in Reducing Marine Plastic Pollution
posted by Elizabeth Murdock, 11/13/15

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on