Better Manage Data-Limited Fisheries

After decades of overfishing had decimated many U.S. fish populations, Congress voted in 2006 to require science-based annual catch limits for all federally managed species. These catch limits have been a big success. More than two-thirds of fish stocks with rebuilding plans have recovered or shown major improvement. Yet many important species remain vulnerable because scientists don’t have enough data to set accurate catch limits.

Fishermen haul in tuna that they have trapped in a maze of nets Brian J. Skerry/National Geographic Creative/Alamy Stock Photo

NRDC works to improve the science and management of these so-called data-limited fisheries. With partners at leading research institutions, we develop assessment tools that help officials determine the health and sustainability of historically under-measured fish populations.

Most traditional fishery stock assessments have focused on high-value stocks, such as cod, scallops, tuna, and other commercially significant species. Meanwhile, 80 percent of all fisheries lack data to conduct a traditional stock assessment. These include species that support smaller commercial fisheries, sustain recreational fishing and tourism industries, and provide ecological services like forage for heavily targeted species. Without more information, it’s hard to determine how much fishing pressure these populations can withstand.

NRDC is helping fill the gap. In 2014, we convened a group of experts from the National Marine Fisheries Service, state agencies, academic institutions, and other groups for a workshop designed to improve methods for managing data-limited fisheries. The discussion focused on the Pacific and southeastern regions of the United States, since they are home to the vast majority of data-limited stocks.

After analyzing current methods, NRDC partnered with the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre and other scientists to develop software called the Data-Limited Fisheries Toolkit. This allows researchers to do simulation testing to identify and apply optimal management strategies given the limited data currently available.

NRDC has shared the toolkit with the National Marine Fisheries Service, state agencies, and others to assess its functionality, and we continue to refine and expand it based on real-world applications. We are working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to build a software package tailored to the state’s fish stocks. And we encourage Congress to uphold sustainable management policies for all fish stocks—including those with limited data.