By the Numbers: How Are U.S. Fisheries Doing?

Here is our breakdown of NOAA’s 2023 Status of Stocks report, which shows more progress is needed to ensure healthy and resilient fisheries.

Just in time for National Ocean Month, NOAA Fisheries recently released its annual Status of Stocks report to Congress, offering athn opportunity to check the pulse of domestic fisheries in the United States. The report provides a glimpse into whether fishery management approaches are meeting the sustainability goals laid out in our federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which requires fishery managers to prevent overfishing of U.S. ocean fish populations with science-based catch limits and to expeditiously rebuild depleted fish populations to help ensure their long-term health.

Healthy fish populations are the building blocks of a healthy ocean. They support marine ecosystems, including other wildlife like whales and seabirds. They are also the engines of our coastal economies and the communities that rely on them, with fisheries in the United States supporting an estimated 2.3 million jobs.

While NOAA’s latest report demonstrates some recent progress, the numbers show that we still have a lot of work to do to prevent backsliding of fisheries conservation. 

A graphic breaks down the overfishing status of the 506 fish stocks managed by NOAA

Status of Stocks 2023


NOAA Fisheries

Although each fishery and each region has its own story to tell, here are some of the key trends in looking at 506 federally managed fish stocks and stock complexes: 

  • 47 fish stocks (18 percent of known fish stocks) remain overfished, which means the populations are too low to support long-term sustainable fishing. This includes iconic stocks like Atlantic cod in New England that are still struggling to recover from historical, chronic overfishing. Several other important forage species remain on the overfished list, including Atlantic mackerel and Pacific sardine, as do several sharks and other highly migratory species.
  • One stock was rebuilt in the last year, but rebuilding progress overall has stalled. NOAA announced the rebuilding of Snohomish coho salmon, which marks the milestone of the 50th stock that’s been rebuilt since 2000. However, much of this rebuilding progress occurred prior to 2017, after which the overfished list has stayed relatively stagnant. Also troubling is that 11 of the 50 rebuilt stocks have since become overfished again. 
  • Two fish stocks were added to the overfished list. Chinook salmon (Queets, Washington, spring/summer) and quillback rockfish (California) were determined to be overfished. The latter stock previously lacked a status determination.
  • Overfishing continues despite legal requirements to prevent it. While overfishing, or fishing at an unsustainable harvest rate, is near all-time lows, 6 percent of known stocks are still experiencing overfishing. And relatively little progress has been made to reduce the number of fish stocks experiencing overfishing in the last decade. For the lane snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, the listing is the result of a catch overage. Among the stocks back on the overfishing list is summer flounder, a recreationally and commercially important fishery off the Atlantic coast. 
  • There is a lot that we still don’t know. Overfishing status is only known for 72 percent of stocks, and the overfished status for just 52 percent. That means hundreds of fish stocks have an unknown status. NOAA recognizes the importance of improving data collection, and in this year’s report, it noted the addition of nine new stock assessments for American Samoa bottomfish and first-time status determinations for six Pacific Coast groundfish stocks.

As NOAA recognizes in its report, climate change is significantly complicating fisheries management. Our ocean is undergoing rapid transformations, including rising acidity levels, shifting currents, and warming waters as well as more frequent extreme events like marine heat waves. 

A school of Atlantic mackerel swims just below the ocean surface

Atlantic mackerel


Stephan Kerkhofs/Adobe Stock

Successful fisheries management in the face of climate change will require a renewed focus on sustainable catch levels and strong rebuilding measures. It is critically important that NOAA meet its commitment under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and, as stated in the report, develop “appropriate stock-specific measures that will end overfishing immediately and rebuild overfished stocks.”

In addition to recommitting to rebuilding overfished stocks and preventing overfishing, NRDC and partners have joined members of Congress in calling on NOAA Fisheries to take bold action to scale up “climate-ready” fisheries management approaches. With the historic passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress has provided critical funds to accelerate our adaptive approaches, including funds intended to help fisheries and coastal communities adapt to climate impacts. These funds are just beginning to support management on the water, with NOAA recently announcing the award of $20 million to support multiple regional fishery management council projects to tackle the impacts of climate change. 

Rebounding fish populations are a proud legacy of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, supporting marine ecosystems and coastal communities and improving ocean resilience to climate change. The Status of Stocks report provides a helpful snapshot to show that we still have a long road ahead to ensure progress in ending and preventing overfishing.

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