National Academy of Sciences Recognizes Success of U.S. Fisheries Rebuilding Law

There’s a playground basketball boast for when you make a basket without touching the net or backboard:  “nothing but net.”  If you were a fisherman chasing summer flounder (a.k.a. fluke) off the Mid-Atlantic coast in 1990, this was how you felt.  Except it wasn’t a good feeling.

Things have sure changed in the region, says recreational fishing boat captain John McMurray.  In July, he gave testimony to the U.S. Senate about how rebuilt fisheries in his region have brought him new clients and provided fresh recreational opportunities for his family. “On the water, I see more fluke than I have ever seen in my 13 years as a Captain, or my 25 years as a saltwater angler,” he said.  After sinking to just 12% of healthy population levels by 1989, summer flounder were designated rebuilt in 2012.

In the February 2013 report Bringing Back the Fish: An Evaluation of U.S. Fisheries Rebuilding Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, NRDC found that the summer flounder fishery and more than two dozen others, including haddock on New England’s Georges Bank, red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, and lingcod off the Pacific coast, had rebounded under rebuilding plans required by 1996 amendments to the federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).

Last Thursday, the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) also released a report on the results of that mandate, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Stock Rebuilding Plans of the 2006 Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act.

The report confirms NRDC’s findings: the MSA’s rebuilding requirements have been shown to work and are largely responsible for a remarkable turn-around in the health of U.S. fisheries over the last decade and a half.

The NRDC report found:

  • Nearly two-thirds of fish stocks put in rebuilding plans since 1996 have either rebuilt to healthy population levels, or have made significant rebuilding progress.
  • This rebuilding success was responsible for an increase in estimated gross commercial revenues of $585 million—92 percent higher (54 percent when adjusted for inflation) than revenues at the start of rebuilding.

The MSA has resulted in one of the signature accomplishments in modern era management of our country’s public resources, including dozens of revived fisheries in our coastal waters, economic growth and improved ocean health.  And deadlines and population targets for rebuilding have been essential components of the current successful rebuilding approach.  (You can find more details about the report in my previous blog.)

The NAS report recognizes this clear track record of success and the reasons for it. As the report on page 10 makes clear:

  • Our current rebuilding approach has “resulted in demonstrated successes in identifying and rebuilding overfished stocks.”
  • “fishing mortality has generally been reduced, and stock biomass has generally increased, for stocks that were placed in a rebuilding plan”
  • “the long-term net economic benefits” have been “positive”
  • “the legal and prescriptive nature of rebuilding mandates forces difficult decisions to be made, ensures a relatively high level of accountability, and can help prevent protracted debate over whether and how stocks should be rebuilt.”
  • “setting rebuilding times is useful for specifying target fishing mortality rates for rebuilding and for avoiding delays in initiating rebuilding plans.”

Unfortunately, even as the NAS report confirms the well documented and unprecedented success in rebuilding America’s fisheries, it paradoxically suggests that officials consider policy shifts, although not changes to the law itself.  Such shifts in direction, most notably moving away from deadlines and biomass targets, could very quickly undermine that success.  We believe abandoning an approach that has clear accountability for results and, most importantly, has been shown to work in the real world to restore fish populations and fishing economies would be a grave mistake. 

NOAA Fisheries, in its most recent Status of the Stocks Report to Congress, highlighted “the continued, significant progress that, collectively, NOAA Fisheries, the Regional Fishery Management Councils, and our stakeholders have made to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks.”  NRDC agrees.  We are well on the way to restoring America’s fisheries and should stay the course, not unnecessarily change direction.  Our ocean fish populations and the coastal economies that depend on them are too important to put at such a risk.