The National Marine Fisheries Service invites MORE OF THE SAME in failed fisheries management

The key to rebuilding our nation's depleted fisheries is - in principle - simple.  We need to stop 'overfishing' (for real). 

This was NRDC's principal message in their comments submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service last week after reviewing their proposed National Standard 1 Guidelines on how to implement the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act.

Stopping overfishing has proved to be more difficult than it looks.

In 1996, following the fishing bonanza of the 1970s and 1980s (and the subsequent stock collapses), congress strengthened the nation's principal fishery management law - the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act with the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act.  The essential elements of the law required fisheries managers to 1) end overfishing and 2) rebuild overfished fish populations in a timely manner.

The decline of important west coast fisheries during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s clearly show the consequences of overfishing (Figure from NMFS).


However, more than a decade later, only three of the 74 stocks requiring recovery, are rebuilt to healthy and productive levels.  And, today, overfishing persists in 17% of stocks whose status is known (note: so little is known about approximately half of the stocks that experts can not determine whether overfishing is occurring, or not).

For example, the recently released evaluation of New England groundfish management shows 11 of the 19 ground fish in the worst possible state by experiencing 'overfishing' while being in an 'overfished' condition (see the PURPLE quadrant).  Furthermore, two additional fisheries are headed to that state by continued overfishing (see the YELLOW quadrant).  You can see that the goal of Magnuson - to get all fisheries in the GREEN quadrant - has not been met (Figure modified from Northeast Fisheries Science Center GARM review 2008).


In 2006, in response to this limited progress, congress tightened up loopholes, clarified language, and renewed Magnuson's mandate to bring an immediate end to overfishing.  In addition, the reauthorized law required the annual determination of science-based fishing quotas (i.e., a count of how many fish they can take each year) and mechanisms to hold fisheries management councils accountable to those numbers, such as fisheries closures when the quota is achieved or overage deductions from the following year's quota. 

These changes represented a significant achievement by congress and provided reason to be optimistic about the future of our fisheries resources.  That optimism was doused last month with the release of the National Marine Fisheries Service's National Standard Guidelines on 'how to' implement the law. 

Despite a substantial effort by the agency to provide sound and detailed guidance on how to end overfishing and hold fisheries managers accountable, the guidelines fall short - and fail to satisfy Congress' clear recent directive - by allowing all  recommended management measures to be voluntary.  In addition, the agency introduces a major loophole into the law by allowing overfishing on any stock that accidentally gets caught while fishing for the 'targeted' stock (a common occurrence).

If history is any indication, a likely result of the guideline's weak language is, more of the same in failed management practices - and therefore, more overfishing.  As the graph above shows, without mandatory laws and follow-through with enforcement, many of Americans' favorite fish remain at dangerously low populations due to overfishing. For instance, winter flounder - a popular commercial and recreational fish - has been overfished and dwindling since the mid 1980s without recovery, because there isn't enough real protection.

The necessary changes to the guidelines are simple:  NMFS needs to remove the loopholes and stand by their sound recommendations by making them mandatory - not voluntary.

To See fisheries currently overfished or experiencing overfishing go to:

About the Authors

Lisa Suatoni

Senior Scientist, Oceans program

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