Last week the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released its annual “Status of Stocks” report to Congress, summarizing the health of our nation’s marine fisheries in 2010. This year’s report is broadly similar to last year’s report, as many stocks remain subject to overfishing and depleted below healthy levels. However, as I will discuss below, there is reason to hope that 2010 will be the last such report. Future years should reflect real progress toward sustainability, so long as we stay the course with strong fisheries management.
Rebuilding Depleted Stocks
The Status of Stocks report identifies 48 overfished stocks, which have biomass levels so low that they fall beneath the “Minimum Stock Size Threshold.” This is almost a quarter of the fisheries nationwide that have biomass estimates. An additional 21 stocks have been fished down to well below target biomass levels, yet not severely enough to be labeled overfished. Together, these 69 depleted stocks represent the legacy of past overfishing—taking more fish out of the sea than can be replenished by nature.
The depleted stocks identified in the Status of Stocks report face an increased risk of collapse and are more vulnerable to environmental change; their low levels also create ecosystem disruptions with impacts felt up and down the food chain. Depleted stocks also bring hard times for fishing communities, as they result in lower catch levels and reduced revenues for fishermen. Readers of the 2010 report would do well to remember that today’s ecological damage and human suffering was caused by yesterday’s overfishing.
With nearly seventy depleted stocks, significant work remains to be done to fix the destructive legacy of past overfishing. Yet viewed positively, the overfished and depleted stocks identified in this year’s report represent a tremendous opportunity for our nation’s economy. As these stocks rebuild, they will support larger catches, higher revenues for commercial fishermen, and more opportunities for recreational anglers. Economic benefits from rebuilding will be significant: the agency states that “Fully rebuilt, U.S fisheries are expected to add $31 billion to the economy and an additional 500,000 jobs.”
In order to achieve these economic benefits as quickly as possible, strong rebuilding programs are necessary, with measures that effectively control fishing mortality. As noted in the “Rebuilding Trends Analysis” section of the report, “The control of fishing mortality (F) is essential to rebuilding stocks that have been overfished.” When this is done, the rewards are substantial, as “[r]ebuilt stocks offer a sustainable and stable seafood supply for fishermen and consumers.” Conversely, weak and ineffective rebuilding programs will only drag things out and delay the rewards from rebuilding.
The Status of Stocks report identifies 40 fish stocks nationwide that were still subject to overfishing as of their most recent assessment—an increase of two stocks over last year’s report. These include commercially-important stocks such as Yellowtail Flounder and Cod in New England, and key recreational stocks like Red Snapper and Red Grouper in the South Atlantic. Readers might find it surprising that overfishing has continued, given how clearly destructive the practice is. Yet for various reasons, including relentless pressure from fishermen toward higher catches, managers have been unable to rein in overfishing in recent years. As a result, Congress stepped in and amended the nation’s fisheries law in 2006 to require firm annual catch limits and accountability measures. The first of these catch limits were implemented in 2010 and the remainder will be put in place this year.
We can all hope that subsequent years’ Status of Stocks reports will reflect the success of annual catch limits, and the number of stocks subject to overfishing will drop to zero. For now, however, the 40 stocks still subject to overfishing stand as a reminder of why firm annual catch limits and accountability measures are necessary. Eric Schwaab, the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, sums this up well in his preface to the 2010 report: “[Annual catch limits] move us away from a management system that too frequently resulted in overfishing. Implementing annual catch limits to end overfishing requires, in many cases, difficult decisions and short-term sacrifices on the part of commercial and recreational fishermen. However, in the long term, ending and preventing overfishing will result in sustainable fisheries that support more stable jobs and recreational opportunities.” Despite these words of wisdom, opponents of sustainable fishing continue to push in Congress to weaken, short-circuit, or delay annual catch limits. Readers should be clear that these legislative efforts—masked by optimistic names and sympathetic press releases—will undercut our best hope at bringing overfishing under control.
Funding for Fisheries Management
The 2010 Status of Stocks report comes at a timely moment, as Congress works on a budget for the upcoming year. Even a cursory look through the Status of Stocks report reveals how crucial adequate funding is for NMFS: the agency has responsibility for managing 528 fish stocks and complexes, spread across more than 2 million square miles of ocean. Yet last week House Republicans passed an appropriations bill through subcommittee that would cut vital funding to NMFS, hampering its ability to manage our nation’s fisheries. Fishermen who are concerned about the data NMFS uses for fisheries management would do well to pay attention here, and notice which politicians are voting for NMFS budget cuts.
 These are stocks that have not been declared overfished, yet whose biomass levels have dropped below the normal range for healthy stocks. In technical terms, this means the ratio of current biomass (B) to biomass at maximum sustainable yield (Bmsy) is lower than 0.80. According to NMFS, “Stocks with a B/Bmsy above 80% are considered to be within the range of natural fluctuation around Bmsy, which is defined as a long-term average.” (2010 Status of Stocks Report, page 8)
 Because the report relies on peer-reviewed stock assessments for determining overfishing and overfished status, the report inevitably lags behind the actual status of a stock on the water. For example, managers may reduce catch levels and actually end overfishing in Year 1, but the catch data for that year will not be processed until early in Year 2, then stock assessment scientists have to plug the data into their models to produce a status determination, and other scientists have to review that determination, so it may be Year 3 or later before the Status of Stocks report reflects an end to overfishing. Readers should bear this in mind when interpreting the data in the Status of Stocks report.
 The report identifies Yellowtail Flounder stocks in the Cape Cod / Gulf of Maine region and the Southern New England / Mid-Atlantic region as subject to overfishing. These two stocks were found to be subject to overfishing in the most recent stock assessment (GARM III, completed in 2008). By contrast, the Yellowtail Flounder stock in the Georges Bank region is not subject to overfishing.
 Atlantic Cod stocks in both the Gulf of Maine and the U.S. portion of Georges Bank are identified in the report as subject to overfishing. The basis for this designation is the GARM III stock assessment from 2008, which found both stocks to be subject to overfishing.
 South Atlantic Red Snapper is identified in the report as subject to overfishing, based on the SEDAR 24 stock assessment conducted in 2010.
 The report classifies Red Grouper as subject to overfishing based on the SEDAR 19 stock assessment completed in 2010.