U.S. Retreats on Fish Conservation for 1st Time in 40 Years

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act turned 40 this year. And NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that administers that law, reported coincidentally on Wednesday that forty ocean fish populations or “stocks” have now been rebuilt from depleted levels.

The prudent thing for NOAA fisheries to do at this point, one would think, is to stay the course. You would not expect that the agency would take this opportunity to weaken the guidance it gives to regional fishery management councils on making conservation and management decisions, like setting catch limits, right? But this is what happened yesterday. The agency announced that it had revised its “National Standard One” guidelines in order to give more “flexibility” to the councils.

To translate: flexibility means weakening in this context. It means allowing councils to set higher catch limits, thereby increasing the risk of overfishing and, in instances when a stock is depleted, slowing and possibly jeopardizing recovery. For example, the revised guidance allows catch level reductions to be phased in over several years, even if a stock is already overfished and the science indicates delaying catch reductions will increase the risk of overfishing. The revised guidance also provides more “flexibility” to undercount catch, to reduce conservation of individual species by grouping them with others, or to simply not manage species at all. And the agency confoundingly refused to define “adequate progress” in rebuilding a depleted stock—a finding that would trigger a revisiting of recovery efforts under the law—as including actually rebuilding the population level of the stock. This will allow stocks to linger at depleted levels, rather than requiring steps to be taken to ensure recovery.

This is the first time in forty years, since Magnuson was enacted in 1976, that the U.S. has weakened its fisheries conservation policy. Congress strengthened the conservation requirements in the law in 1996, adding requirements to rebuild depleted fisheries, because in too many instances, fishery managers used flexibility in the law to accede to pressure to allow unsustainable fishing. In 2006, Congress again strengthened the law to require catch limits to prevent overfishing. Most recently, in 2009, the Bush Administration strengthened the National Standard One guidelines to help implement the 2006 statutory amendments.

The stronger conservation requirements have paid off.

As NRDC’s 2013 “Bringing Back the Fish” report showed, nearly two-thirds of fish stocks placed in rebuilding plans had been rebuilt to healthy population levels or had made significant progress. Not only have 40 previously depleted fisheries been rebuilt to healthy levels, but the percentage of federal stocks known to be subject to overfishing has also dropped by more than half since 2006, from 20% to less than 10%.

The ecological recovery means economic recovery. In 2011, NOAA Fisheries estimated that rebuilding all U.S. fish stocks that year would have generated $31 billion more in sales, supported 500,000 more jobs, and increased the fishermen’s revenue at the dock by $2.2 billion.

Don’t get me wrong:  there remains much work to be done. More than three dozen fish stocks (out of 233 tracked by NOAA Fisheries) remain overfished. Certain regions, like New England, the South Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico, have more than their fair share of these still-beleaguered fisheries. Hundreds of fish species that are less economically-important but still ecologically-important remain poorly or not managed. Habitat damage that impairs recovery of fish populations and harms ecosystems, discarding or bycatch of unwanted fish and other marine life, and ensuring sufficient forage fish for larger fish and marine wildlife like whales, sea birds, and sea turtles are just several of the other fishing-related problems still awaiting adequate solutions. And climate change is already making its impacts felt in the nation’s oceans, with waters off New England warming faster than virtually any other monitored marine water body in the world.  

The revision of the National Standard One guidelines is a missed opportunity to help address these challenges and to maintain continued progress in the evolution of the nation’s fisheries management policy. At a bare minimum, the agency should have done no harm, given the existing policy’s overall success in recovering many of our nation’s most economically important fish populations and the sacrifice that this has entailed for many fishing communities.

Instead, NOAA Fisheries has retrenched. This is a distressing signal for the future of U.S. fisheries, for the communities that depend on them, and for ocean health.