Environmentalists Call for Urgent Steps to Respond to Groundfish Crisis

Groups Support Proposed Pacific Bottom-fishing Closures

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (June 3, 2002) -- Federal fisheries managers meeting June 17-21 in San Francisco, CA must act quickly to respond to the collapse of the Pacific groundfish fishery, according to environmental groups. The Ocean Conservancy, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and Environmental Defense said more effective steps by the Pacific Fishery Management Council to conserve and rebuild imperiled fish populations are long overdue. The groups were responding to an announcement by the Council's Groundfish Management Team that the ocean floor from Mexico to Canada may need to be closed next year to most commercial and recreational fishing. The affected fisheries include dozens of once plentiful species of rockfish, better known as Pacific red snapper.

"This crisis has been building for decades as groundfish stocks and landings continued to decline," said Mark Powell, director of fish conservation for the Ocean Conservancy. "Since the mid-1980s, scientists have warned federal fishery managers that groundfish could not sustain the level of permitted fishing. But the council, heavily influenced by the fishing industry, repeatedly failed to deal with an ever-shrinking pie. Instead, they focused their efforts on dividing up the crumbs that were left."

The environmentalists said immediate solutions are needed to deal with the crisis. They called for effective measures to reduce bycatch and habitat damage, including broad closures to bottom fishing and the creation of marine reserves to fully protect vulnerable habitats. They also urged Congress to offer federal aid to fishing communities to help them make the transition to smaller fleets and a more sustainable industry.

"You can't have a fishing industry without fish," said Karen Garrison, co-director of NRDC's oceans program. "This is a crisis for both fish and fishing families. The fish need a break, and the fishermen need financial help to move to more selective fishing methods and smaller fleets."

Garrison called on Congress to strengthen, not weaken, laws that require managers to avoid overfishing and rebuild depleted species. "Weakening the law won't bring the fish back, and it won't help the people who depend on them," she said.

The three groups outlined several key actions that must be taken to address the crisis:

  • Create closed areas to help rebuild depleted stocks, including broad areas closed to bottom fishing and portions of the coast designated as fully protected marine reserves, where habitat and ecosystems can regenerate;

  • Require managers to adopt a more precautionary approach to stop excessive fishing when a fish population drops below desirable levels;

  • Provide increased funding for observer programs to account for bycatch, which occurs when fish are discarded at sea (bycatch is a particularly serious problem for Pacific groundfish because most are dead or dying when discarded, yet they are not counted toward fishing quotas, resulting in underestimates of the total fish killed);

  • Provide financial assistance to fishermen, including funds for cooperative research involving fishermen and scientists and for shifting the fishing industry towards smaller fleets and more selective and less destructive fishing gear; and

  • Reform the composition of fishery councils to reduce the influence of the fishing industry (Relying on the industry to self-regulate is a proven failure).

"Solving this crisis will require changing both where and how we fish for groundfish," said Joshua Sladek Nowlis, ecosystem scientist with the Ocean Conservancy. "We need to create networks of no-take marine reserves to allow the ecosystems and the critical groundfish populations to recover. This solution has been supported by thousands of scientists in recent years as a valuable fishery management tool and the most effective and efficient way to rebuild depleted fish stocks. Sadly, the fishery councils have dragged their heels as they watched fish stocks decline."

"Another key solution is to provide financial assistance to fishermen to help them deal with this crisis, with a focus on using their valuable experience and knowledge to help improve our understanding of the marine environment. Funding is also needed for programs that can increase the selectivity of groundfish fisheries, so that we drastically reduce the catch and wasteful discard of many other fish species", added Dr. Rod Fujita, a scientist with Environmental Defense.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Ocean Conservancy strives to be the world's foremost advocate for the oceans. Through science-based advocacy, research, and public education, we inform, inspire and empower people to speak and act for the oceans. Headquartered in Washington, DC, with more than 900,000 members and volunteers The Ocean Conservancy has regional offices in Alaska, California, Florida, and New England and field offices in Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, CA, Florida Keys, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the office of Pollution Prevention and Monitoring in Virginia Beach, VA.

Environmental Defense, a leading national nonprofit organization based in New York, represents more than 300,000 members. Since 1967 we have linked science, economics, and law to create innovative, equitable, and cost-effective solutions to the most urgent environmental problems.