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This is the Executive Summary of the February 1997 report by NRDC documenting the plight of marine fisheries worldwide, with particular emphasis on United States waters. The report gives detailed information about the status of fish populations in the U.S., evaluates the factors contributing to fish depletion both domestically and internationally, and concludes with recommendations to reverse the decline. To order a print copy of the complete report see our Publications List.

Principal Findings

For most marine fish populations, overfishing poses the most immediate threat. Over the long term, however, the loss and pollution of crucial fish habitat looms as the greatest danger to the sustainability of fish populations worldwide.

In New England, the groundfish fishery -- once among the richest in the world -- collapsed under the weight of a grossly bloated fleet controlled by tardy and ineffective regulations. Recent measures to restore groundfish are beginning to show positive results for some species in some areas: however further restrictions are necessary. Concern about the destructive effects of bottom trawling on crucial seabed habitats is growing.

In the Mid and South Atlantic, the spectacular success in restoring striped bass is tempered by failures to protect other fisheries from overfishing, and pollution and destruction of important coastal fish habitats pose long term threats to the health of fish populations. Coastal habitat is of particular concern in the South Atlantic, where most of the valuable fisheries are estuarine-dependent. As in new England, many popular species are overfished in the Mid-Atlantic region.

In the Gulf of Mexico, bycatch of marine turtles and numerous commercially important fish species by shrimp trawlers remains a major problem. About 35 million red snapper and 13 billion Atlantic croaker -- both considered overfished -- are caught, killed and discarded by shrimp trawlers each year, as are many sea turtles and other marine creatures.

In the Pacific, far fewer fish populations are overfished, but the influx of vessels from declining fisheries in the Atlantic (particularly for large ocean predators like swordfish, sharks and some species of tuna), combined with our scant knowledge about many populations, is cause for concern, as is excess fishing power, high bycatch, and overfishing of some Pacific groundfish. The extraordinarily productive fisheries off Alaska, which account for more than half the fish landed commercially in the United States, are beginning to bump up against the limits of sustainability, and declines in populations of Stellar sea lions, seals, and seabirds have been linked to localized depletion of fish resulting from overfishing. The unintended catch of albatross and other seabirds as well as marine turtles and juveniles of commercially important fish on longlines in the Western Pacific region is of growing concern.

Internationally, the problems facing fisheries in the United States are replicated around the world. From 1950 to 1989, global marine fish catches increased by over 300 percent. Since then, overall catch levels have stagnated, and in many regions have declined substantially as the result of overfishing. As the world's second largest importer of fish (more than half of our tuna, 75 percent of our shrimp, and 43 percent of all edible fish is imported), the United States has a major stake in maintaining the health of the world's fisheries.

Principal Recommendations

  1. The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Regional Fisheries Management Councils in each region must move quickly to implement the Sustainable Fisheries Act, signed into law on October 11, 1996. The Act requires fishery managers at NMFS and the Councils to take action to restore overfished populations and prevent those on the brink from becoming overfished. It also requires fishery managers to identify and take steps to protect essential fish habitat. While this law provides a significant opportunity for improvement, there is a real risk of business as usual unless the public demands an end to overfishing and habitat destruction.
  2. Citizens can make a difference by writing President Clinton, asking that he aggressively implement the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 to stop overfishing and protect fish habitat. Consumers can exercise their power by requesting a choice of species that are not overfished in restaurants and stores. This report identifies overfished fish in each region of the U.S. When consumers shop for fish or order it in restaurants, they can use this list as a guide. Ask where the fish was caught (this is important -- the same species can be overfished in one region but not in another).
  3. The United States must take a leadership role in securing prompt and effective implementation of the new global treaty governing international fishing. This groundbreaking treaty, ratified by the U.S. just last year, can help protect fish important to this country but caught beyond our waters, including tuna, swordfish, and some populations of cod and other groundfish.
  4. The U.S. should call for an international summit to establish timetables and targets for shifting the $54 billion annual subsidy to the global fishing industry away from activities such as vessel construction that contribute to overcapacity and toward job retraining, boat buybacks and other capacity reducing activities.
  5. Congress should reauthorize and strengthen the Clean Water Act and its controls on polluted runoff and destruction of wetlands; EPA, the Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies should aggressively implement protections already in the law.
  6. International standards should be set for environmentally sound aquaculture which, if properly conducted, could help relieve pressure on wild fish populations. Unfortunately, current marine aquaculture practices in many parts of the world weaken wild fish populations when they destroy or pollute vital habitat or when escaped farmed fish outcompete or spread disease to native sea life.

Marine fisheries are a vital economic, ecological, and food resource. The good news is that most depleted fish populations will bounce back if fishing pressure on them is reduced and habitat protected. Restoring marine fisheries to sustainability will help meet the food needs of billions of people worldwide and will protect a key component of the complex ocean ecosystems that sustain life on earth.

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