REPORT: Federal Law is Recovering Fish Stocks

A decade and a half after a fisheries crisis led the U.S. Congress to enact landmark requirements for the rebuilding of fish stocks, two-thirds of the stocks subjected to the requirements have been rebuilt or are making significant rebuilding progress, according to a new report released today by NRDC.

Under the rebuilding requirements added to the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1996, 64 percent of once-struggling, monitored fish stocks nationwide have fully recovered or are well on their way. From haddock on New England’s Georges Bank, summer flounder in the Mid-Atlantic to lingcod off the Pacific coast, many fish populations are at levels not seen for two decades. And that’s not only great news for the ocean ecosystem, but also for all of us who depend on or look to healthy fisheries for our food, jobs, and recreation.

Many fishermen in New England remember it well. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of the region’s most iconic fish stocks—including cod, haddock, and flounder—had crashed. With catch levels set too high, and fishing fleets more efficient with every passing year, 20 out of the region’s 36 managed fish stocks eventually became overfished. For fishermen and coastal communities, this was a disaster, with economic losses in the hundreds of millions annually.

The fisheries crisis was not limited to New England. In the Mid-Atlantic, half of the region’s 12 managed stocks were overfished by 1997 (spiny dogfish was added to the list the following year). The popular sport fish summer flounder dipped to just 15% of target levels in the early 1990s. Another recreational target, scup (also known as porgy), was at 4% in 1995. On the West Coast, a half-dozen species of slow-growing, late-maturing rockfish were similarly in trouble by the late 1990s.

Recognizing the enormous economic and ecologic risk at hand, Congress stepped in, passing the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) in 1996 amending the nation’s federal fisheries law (the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act or MSA for short) to add new requirements that overfished ocean fish stocks be rebuilt as quickly as possible.

NRDC’s report, Bringing Back the Fish: An Evaluation of U.S. Fisheries Rebuilding Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, examines the last decade and a half of implementation of the 1996 amendments and makes clear just how significant these amendments have proved to be. Out of the 44 federally managed fish stocks identified as overfished since 1996 by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), put in rebuilding plans pursuant to the SFA, and with sufficient information to evaluate rebuilding progress, 27 stocks stand out as rebuilding success stories. 20 of these stocks have been rebuilt to healthy levels, while the other 7 are showing significant progress (defined in the report as achieving at least 50% of the rebuilding target and at least a 25% increase in abundance since implementation of the rebuilding plan).

Healthier fish stocks means healthier fishing industries

The rebound in many U.S. ocean fish populations has translated into an economic boost to segments of the fishing industry.  According to Bringing Back the Fish, gross commercial revenues for the 27 “success story” stocks are up 92 percent (54 percent when adjusted for inflation) from the start of rebuilding, for a total value of approximately $585 million per year (average for 2008-2010 period). Recreational anglers have also benefited—according to NMFS, angler trips along the Atlantic seaboard in the past two decades increased 41 percent, helped along by the recovery of important sportfish populations like summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass.

Take the Mid-Atlantic region, for example, where some of the most important recreational fisheries in the country are found.  The number of recreational angler trips in the Mid-Atlantic increased by nearly one-third (from 15 million to nearly 20 million trips) from the average from 1990-1999 to the average 2000-2010. By 2011, catch of summer flounder had climbed by 700%, from 2.7 million fish in 1989 to 21.6 million. A similar trend exists for scup: recreational anglers caught just under 3.8 million fish per year from 1995 to 1999, but since 2000 they have averaged over 10 million fish per year as the stock recovered. The growth in recreational fishing spurred by healthier fish populations in the region is proving a strong economic driver.  The increased number of angler trips from the 1990s to the 2000s in the Mid-Atlantic amounted to an additional $1.4 billion in economic activity and 18,660 jobs, according to estimates made by NMFS. Without rebuilding, these economic benefits likely would not have been realized – fewer fishermen will choose to go out for a day on the water when stocks are depleted and catches are weak. 

Recreational fishing boat captain John McMurray knows this well. When he started running charters out of lower New York Harbor 11 years ago, he says he didn’t bother targeting depleted bottom fish like black sea bass and summer flounder. The fish were far too scarce to excite his clients. Today, however, those species that have been successfully rebuilt under the Magnuson-Stevens Act account for around a third of McMurray’s business. The success in rebuilding depleted Mid-Atlantic stocks proves that careful management is capable of bringing back the fish, he says. And it’s the best argument for staying the course and avoiding mistakes of the past. As he puts it: “The overall impact is that there are more fish around than ever.” “Some people still don’t understand why they can’t keep more and more,” he said. “If you do that, and open it back up, it’s just going to go back to the way it was.”

This recent success is particularly notable in light of the fact that many global fisheries are in decline—and as a result, their fishing industries are suffering economically. In 2009, the World Bank estimated that international commercial fisheries are losing $50 billion annually. By contrast, in 2011 U.S. commercial fisherman saw their highest landings since 1994, worth more than $5 billion, according to NMFS. The agency estimates that rebuilding all U.S. fish stocks could generate as much as $31 billion and 500,000 new jobs for our economy.

Room for improvement & resisting rollbacks of the success

While the majority of the stocks we evaluated proved to be rebuilding successes, eight of the 44 stocks evaluated have made limited rebuilding progress and another eight stocks have shown very little progress at all. These were disproportionately found in New England, South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. The main reason for poor or limited rebuilding success in our report was continued overfishing of a stock while it was undergoing a rebuilding plan. The report also notes that many stocks have not received rebuilding plans at all, even though they may need them, or have received plans that do not need to satisfy SFA standards. These include stocks lacking recent formal population assessments, stocks not under federal management plans, and stocks managed under international agreements. Finally, in addition to ending overfishing and rebuilding fish populations, ocean ecosystem health also depends on protecting and restoring important habitat, minimizing the amount of unwanted species that are caught in fishing nets (bycatch), and ensuring an adequate food supply for marine life, including marine mammals.

Over the last few years, a handful of legislators have repeatedly introduced bills in Congress aimed at weakening the federal rebuilding requirements. NRDC hopes the increasing understanding of how successful and important the 1996 amendments have been will dampen future support for such legislation. We will need to continue to build on rebuilding efforts to date if we want to realize the full economic and ecologic benefits of healthy fisheries. Only with thriving fish stocks can we continue to guarantee delicious seafood on our plates hardworking fishermen out at sea, and healthy marine ecosystems for generations to come.

Find out more about how various regions of the country each fared in our “Bringing Back the Fish” report by checking out the regional fact sheets available here: New England; Mid-Atlantic; South Atlantic & Gulf Coast; Pacific Coast.

Related Issues
Agriculture & Food

Related Blogs