What We're Doing

Policy Solution

We work to end overfishing, rebuild depleted fisheries, and promote the long-term sustainability of fisheries both in the United States and internationally.

Policy Solution

Using decades of expertise in fisheries litigation, we enforce and strengthen laws that reduce the threat of bycatch.

Policy Solution

We help develop tools that help determine the health and sustainability of historically under-measured fish populations.

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Experts & Resources

Court Upholds Seafood Traceability Rule
Molly Masterton

Big Win in the Fight to End Illegal Fishing and Seafood Fraud

If we want healthy oceans, we need to know more about the seafood we eat. A lot more.

That’s why we are celebrating news about the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, also known as the seafood traceability rule. This week, a federal court rejected a challenge to the rule by commercial seafood industry interests.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued the rule last December. It is a key first step in the U.S. government’s efforts to combat the influx of illegal seafood coming into our borders. 

The seafood traceability rule was developed out of recommendations by a multi-agency Task Force in 2014. With this week’s ruling, NMFS has the green light to forge ahead with implementing this critical safeguard. 

As you may recall from my earlier blogs, the seafood traceability rule is all about requiring more data disclosure from importers. The purpose is to uncover elusive illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud practices. IUU fishing is a leading cause of overfishing, marine habitat destruction, and bycatch of ocean wildlife, and it is pushing our oceans to the brink. By creating unfair competition, IUU also impairs the global seafood economy and hurts our law-abiding fishermen at home. This is one reason why the seafood traceability rule has a history of strong bipartisan support from key decision makers and the broader public.  

The rule will make the seafood supply chain more traceable by establishing a data reporting procedure for imports of a number of “priority” species—including tuna, Atlantic and Pacific cod, and red snapper. The data will make them traceable from the point of harvest to the point of entry into U.S. commerce. At the border, importers will need to report what kind of fish they are importing, the quantity, and how and where it was caught or farmed. NMFS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will oversee this process, beginning in January 2018.

By shedding light on illicit activities along seafood supply chains and empowering agencies to take enforcement action, the seafood traceability rule will protect our oceans, along with U.S. and international fishermen who play by the rules.

Seafood at market.

NOAA Fisheries

As I described in an earlier post, the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) and a handful of commercial seafood businesses filed a lawsuit challenging the rule in January. They argued, among other things, that NMFS lacked authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, our primary federal fisheries law, to regulate seafood fraud. NRDC, along with Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity, and with co-counsel from Earthjustice, filed an amicus brief in support of the rule—specifically, supporting NMFS’s authority to issue it under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

In a thorough, 67-page opinion, the Court drew on an extensive administrative record, technical studies, and legislative history. It concluded that NMFS followed both the procedural and substantive requirements of the law when it adopted the rule. While its discussion on each claim is interesting and robust enough to warrant its own blog post, I will highlight here two key points:

First, the Court recognized the gravity of the problem and the importance of traceability as a means to address it. It acknowledged the “profound” economic and environmental impacts of IUU fishing and seafood fraud, and highlighted how complex supply chains have allowed these problems to persist. Pointing to the work of the IUU Task Force and several independent studies, the Court found ample support to conclude that improving supply chain traceability is critical to deterring these pervasive practices.

Second, the Court made it clear that NMFS has authority to tackle this issue head-on by regulating both IUU fishing and seafood fraud under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This is crucial because seafood fraud overlaps closely with IUU fishing and is often used to conceal illegal product. In other words, to get at one issue, NMFS must be able to address the other. That’s what the traceability rule seeks to do. The Court recognized this, finding that IUU fishing and seafood fraud are “inextricably intertwined.” The Court considered previous amendments to the law, and determined that Congress had “gradually expanded” NMFS’s authority to address IUU fishing under Magnuson-Stevens. While Magnuson does not explicitly grant authority to regulate seafood fraud, the Court said, such regulations are appropriate when needed to combat IUU fishing, and it was reasonable for NMFS to interpret the law this way. The Court also found plaintiffs’ argument that Food and Drug Administration has exclusive authority to regulate seafood fraud unpersuasive.

The Court’s ruling is a huge win. But our work is not over. 

Our next priorities are lifting the administrative stay on shrimp imports—which account for 29% of U.S. imports by value and are known to be at high risk for IUU—and eventually expanding the rule to cover more species. 

As the Court stated, the scourge of IUU fishing is a problem of global concernTo protect our oceans and give our fishermen a fair shot, we need strong policies to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud. This rule will be a real step forward in detecting and thwarting these practices at the border, and we are hopeful that NMFS can now move forward with robust implementation in January. 

Ships transferring illegal catch off the coast of Sierra Leone.

NOAA Fisheries

The Fight for Healthy Fisheries Resurfaces in Congress
Molly Masterton

House Oversight Hearing Signals Return of “Empty Oceans Act” and New Efforts to Roll Back Federal Fisheries Law

This afternoon, the House Natural Resources Committee’s Oceans Subcommittee held an oversight hearing on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the law that governs our nation’s fisheries in federal waters. The hearing presented an opportunity for decision makers to discuss the law’s remarkable achievements—including successfully rebuilding 43 once-depleted stocks and supporting 1.6 million jobs—and strategies to further these successes. While some of that happened, at other points, the hearing devolved into an unproductive exercise in finger-pointing and a platform for members to advocate for what has been a growing list of proposals to undermine the core tenets of sustainable fisheries management.

America’s ocean fisheries are some of the best managed in the world, and our success is owed to the MSA’s science-based management framework. 

In the 1980s and 90s, fish populations across the country were in decline due to overfishing, and some of our nation’s most iconic stocks (such as cod, flounder, and haddock in New England) had crashed. But lawmakers and fishermen rose to the occasion, and the health of our nation’s fisheries and coastal economies improved as a result. Thanks to requirements that fishery managers end overfishing through science-based catch limits and rebuild overfished stocks in as short a time as possible not to exceed ten years (with certain limited exceptions), many of our fish populations have come back from the brink after decades of chronic overfishing. (For more on this, see our report evaluating the rebuilding requirement’s effectiveness, “Bringing Back the Fish.”)

Pacific Lingcod, successfully rebuilt under the MSA in 2005

Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Through previous reauthorizations of the law in 1996 and 2006, Congress has consistently moved the ball forward on sustainable fisheries management, with broad bipartisan support. The late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was a leader of these reforms, working to ensure a legacy of healthy U.S. fisheries and fishing economies. That legacy was evident today. While each of the hearing witnesses came with different perspectives—these included one state fisheries manager, one recreational angler, and two members of the commercial fishing industry—they all expressly recognized the law's significant achievements in reducing overfishing and rebuilding depleted stocks. Charles Witek, a recreational fisherman from New York who has been closely involved in management decisions at both the federal and state level, described the MSA as "the only framework for fisheries management that has [been] met with consistent success."

But recent legislative proposals threaten to move us backwards. Lurking not so far in the background of today’s hearing was a growing array of bills that would weaken the MSA by de-emphasizing the role of science, diminishing transparency and accountability, and generally watering down legal standards.

One offender is H.R. 200, Congressman Don Young of Alaska’s latest effort to dismantle the MSA in the name of “flexible” fisheries management. H.R. 200 would, among other things, weaken the law’s rebuilding requirement by riddling it with loopholes, and exempt potentially hundreds of species from science-based catch limits. It also takes a swipe at bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Antiquities Act, and National Marine Sanctuaries Act.  Far from a minor tune-up of the law, Congressman Young’s “Empty Oceans Act” is a full-on attack of the very parts of the MSA that have successfully brought back depleted fisheries.

If you are thinking this all sounds familiar, that’s because we have been here before. H.R. 200 marks the third iteration of the Empty Oceans Act. As my colleague Alex Adams wrote then, these efforts to dismantle the MSA are longstanding and often perplexing. But each time, they have failed. Recognizing that the MSA has produced real benefits to our oceans and coastal communities, over 500 organizations and individuals, representing fishermen, business owners, chefs, and community leaders, joined letters opposing the Empty Oceans Act (then H.R. 1335) in 2015.

This Congress, H.R. 200 is flanked by a number of other bills that prioritize short-term economic gain and partisan political volleying over the health of our ocean fisheries. One of them is H.R. 2023, the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act.” Introduced by Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana, H.R. 2023 seeks to benefit the recreational fishing sector specifically, but shares many similar provisions with H.R. 200 and would have wide-reaching impacts that weaken science-based management in both the recreational and commercial sectors. 

Another theme of discussion at today's hearing had to do with how the Department of Commerce (through NOAA Fisheries) and the regional fishery management councils implement statutory mandates. Recent decisions by the Department of Commerce—including decisions to allow relaxed management of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, and to validate New Jersey's risky decision to opt out of necessary conservation measures for summer flounder—show an alarming trend of political officials intervening to undermine science-based fisheries management, and effectively sanctioning overfishing of sensitive populations that require careful management by scientists and managers at the regional level. (Thankfully, the ocean conservation community is holding the agency accountable—on Monday, Ocean Conservancy, EDF, and Earthjustice sued the Department of Commerce for failure to comply with the MSA and other federal laws in issuing the red snapper rule.)

The MSA’s unique system of stakeholder-driven, science-based fishery management has shown that putting long-term sustainability first works. While there’s still work to be done—over three dozen stocks (out of 235 stocks with known status) still remain overfished—the MSA has a proven track record of success, and American fisheries are well along the path to recovery thanks to two decades of hard work.

We hope that Congress and the Administration will continue to support the MSA and safeguard its hard-won gains. The future of our oceans depends on it. We will be providing updates throughout the MSA reauthorization process, so be sure to stay tuned.

Point Judith, Rhode Island

Credit: NOAA Fisheries 

Petition to Ban Vaquita-Harmful Fish and Fish Products from Mexico

Petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Animal Welfare Institute to the Secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security, the Treasury, and Commerce seeking immediate implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s prohibition on the import of fish and fish products from Mexico that are contributing to the killing and serious injury of vaquita (the world’s most endangered marine mammal with fewer than 30 left and an annual decline rate of 50 percent per year) in excess of U.S. standards for marine mammal protection.

China's New Direction in Domestic Fisheries Management
Sarah Chasis

There’s good news from China about management policies that aim to strengthen domestic fisheries management in China’s ocean waters. These new policies, which aim to control the total domestic marine catch, are a promising step forward, and an exciting opportunity for China to create resilient fisheries. Restoration of domestic fisheries would help take some of the pressure off distant water fisheries.

Photo: amanderson2 / Flickr

China has been the world’s largest producer of wild fish for over two decades. Yet some more troubling numbers have lurked behind this seemingly stable statistic. For example:

These figures, along with issues of ocean pollution and the degradation of ecosystems, have raised concern over the resilience and sustainability of China’s ocean fisheries.

In previous decades, China worked to stem depletion by adopting a series of fishery reform measures, including input control measures such as fishing vessel and horsepower control rules, the moratorium on summer fishing, and technical restrictions. It also announced output controls such as “zero-growth” and “minus growth” policies in 1999 and 2000 in order to limit catches. In 2006, China issued the Programme of Action on Conservation of Living Aquatic Resources of China, which for the first time sets a goal of cutting catches to 10 million by 2020. However, these policies did not provide specific measures to attain their goals.

In January 2017, China’s Ministry of Agriculture announced bold new reforms. In addition to reiterating the goal of cutting total domestic marine fishing output to less than 10 million tons by 2020 (down from 13 million tons in 2015) and thereafter matching production to the carrying capacity of marine fishery resources, the new policy sets out three priority measures that will contribute to that goal:

  1. Strengthen fishery resource surveys, monitoring and assessment to understand species composition, distribution and migration patterns, and the biological characteristics and abundance of commercially important species;
  2. Strengthen catch monitoring and data collection; and
  3. Conduct Total Allowable Catch (TAC) management pilots for individual species in the coastal provinces, with expansion over time.

The first two national TAC pilots were launched  in March, setting the course for establishing China’s TAC management scheme.  The pilots present an important opportunity for restructuring the fisheries management system of China. The goal is to carefully implement this program to minimize negative effects on established fishing communities.

We cheer China’s new direction in fisheries management, and are excited to see the country develop more resilient fisheries in the years to come. 

Critical Planning for Climate-Ready Fisheries
Lisa Suatoni

Fishing for herring in Alaska

Photo credit: NOAA

United States fisheries are facing increasing upheaval and stress from global change due to warming and acidifying waters. On the east coast, for instance, species such as the Blueline Tilefish are moving farther north in search of more favorable water conditions. This spells loss for one region and gain for another. In the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana is losing essential nursery habitat for crabs and shrimp each year due, in part, to sea level rise. On the west coast, Pacific Northwest oyster hatcheries have experienced losses in oyster seed due to the upwelling of increasingly corrosive waters onto the continental shelf.

As human caused climate change proceeds, marine communities will be reshuffled and the bounty off our coasts will change rapidly, and at times, unexpectedly. This will have increasingly serious economic and social impacts to our coastal communities. Marine fisheries and seafood industries support over $200 billion in economic activity and 1.83 million jobs annually.

The U.S. government and regional fisheries management Councils are faced with the serious and urgent challenge of providing guidance about how to fish sustainably and with minimal harm to people in coastal communities in a changing climate. We applaud NOAA Fisheries for taking a an important  first step forward towards this goal this week, by releasing their Climate Science Strategy Regional Action Plans (RAPs).

The RAPs outline regionally-tailored research agendas to better understand and prepare for the effects of climate change on U.S. fisheries. The proposed actions will help fisheries scientists better track changing ocean conditions, provide improved forecasting abilities of fish location and abundance, and identify fisheries most vulnerable to climate change. Improved understanding of how and why fish populations are changing will enable fishermen to prepare for these changes, including taking advantage of emerging fisheries in their region.

In order for the RAPs to come fully into fruition, we need the federal government to continue funding important, basic fisheries science at high levels. In addition, integration of marine sciences across federal agencies and between agencies and academic sciences will be required. Luckily, the RAPs were designed in a manner to facilitate collaboration with stakeholders interested in specific elements of the plans.    

The task at hand is substantial. But, as the RAPs make clear—there is much we can and should be doing to ensure healthy fisheries and productive coastal economies in the coming decades—as our oceans experience profound change from global warming and ocean acidification.

Prevent Global Bycatch of Whales and Other Wildlife

A dead Humpback whale caught in fishing line in the Gulf of Maine Fotosearch/Getty Images

Commercial fishing operations often hook, trap, and entangle marine mammals and other wildlife with their gear. More than 650,000 whales and dolphins are killed or seriously injured every year by foreign fishing fleets casting their net for other species. Here in the United States, where bycatch represents roughly 20 percent of the fish caught in our waters, NRDC is using decades of expertise in fisheries litigation to enforce and strengthen laws that reduce this threat.

We have assessed the scale of the problem, revealing that outmoded fishing gear used by foreign fleets is endangering whole populations of marine mammals, including New Zealand sea lions, Mediterranean sperm whales, vaquita porpoises, spinner dolphins, and many other species.

According to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, nations exporting fish or fish products to this country must prove that their gear does not kill or injure marine mammals in excess of U.S. standards. Yet for decades, the United States has failed to enforce this law, so NRDC is pushing the National Marine Fisheries Service to fully implement it. We are also working to shore up the laws governing bycatch in U.S. waters. American fishermen use gear that is meant to protect marine mammals, but many still bring in too many unintended fish, birds, sea turtles as well as marine mammals. For every shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico, 2.5 other fish are found in the net, as well.

NRDC advocates are calling on Congress to amend the bycatch provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Management Act—America’s bedrock ocean fisheries law—so that it requires fishery-management plans to include bycatch prevention, expand the bycatch definition to encompass seabirds and other marine species beyond fish, and improve the monitoring and reporting of bycatch.

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.

NOAA Releases an Important Fisheries Climate Science Strategy
Lisa Suatoni

The Fisheries Climate Science Strategy released this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an important and bold step by the agency to better manage our nation's fisheries in the face of a changing climate. It's a commitment by NOAA to get ahead of the game and establish the structures (information and tools) and support (partnerships) it will need to better manage fisheries in a changing world.


Climate change and ocean acidification have already changed the contours of the fishing industry in our country. American lobster fisheries in Connecticut and New York have nearly vanished due to warming waters and increased incidence of disease. Some scientists believe that rising temperatures have thwarted the recovery of the long-overfished Atlantic cod in the Northeast. Rising acidity along the coast of the Pacific Northwest has caused massive die-offs of oyster larvae. As fish move northward and into deeper waters as a result of rising water temperatures, historic fisheries will fade and new ones will arise in coastal fishing communities around the United States. These changes will make it harder for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to fulfill its mission to manage and sustain fishery resources and their ecosystems for the benefit of the nation.

NOAA's strategy is the agency's response to the question: What does a climate-ready NMFS look like?

The agency's answer is an impressive, comprehensive analysis of what research investments are needed to fulfill its mandate. Seven key scientific objectives are identified, and their implementation will be tailored regionally by the science centers.

The objectives as outlined by NOAA are the following:

Objective 1: Identify appropriate, climate-informed reference points for managing [Living Marine Resources] LMRs.

Objective 2: Identify robust strategies for managing LMRs under changing climate conditions.

Objective 3: Design adaptive decision processes that can incorporate and respond to changing climate conditions.

Objective 4: Identify future states of marine, coastal, and freshwater ecosystems, LMRs, and LMR dependent human communities in a changing climate.

Objective 5: Identify the mechanisms of climate impacts on ecosystems, LMRs, and LMR dependent human communities.

Objective 6: Track trends in ecosystems, LMRs, and LMR-dependent human communities and provide early warning of change.

Objective 7: Build and maintain the science infrastructure needed to fulfill NOAA Fisheries mandates under changing climate conditions.

They illustrate four main themes. We need to monitor the changes that climate change brings about - both in the sea and in the human fishing communities. We need to better understand how rising water temperatures and declining seawater pH affect fish populations. We need to be better at predicting the changes with modelling. And, we need to develop tools that can help us make decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Importantly, priority actions are identified. The first is a call to assess the vulnerability of fish stocks to climate change and ocean acidification. This type of research will go a long way to prioritizing research projects and helping fishermen prepare and adapt to the changing oceans. In truth, if implemented, each of the identified research objectives will improve fisheries management and sustainability even if the climate were not changing. However, it is ever so important in the face of a rapidly changing environment. We applaud NOAA for its commitment to this important body of science.



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