Can Anything Be Done to Stop Overfishing?

It’s a complex issue, but NRDC attorney Molly Masterton says that a combination of smart management policies and consumer vigilance is key to the solution.

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Q: What can be done to eliminate the problem of overfishing? Any ideas?

—Lepa Chapa

A: The stats are bleak: One-third of fish populations worldwide are overexploited or dangerously depleted. And in some cases, overfishing has altered complex marine ecosystems, creating a ripple effect down food chains. Not to mention, its effects are hidden and often difficult to study. When we clear hundreds of acres in the rainforest, we can see the devastation; it’s much harder to witness the depletion of the ocean’s marine life.

NRDC attorney Molly Masterton

Rebecca Greenfield

But there’s hope. Molly Masterton, an NRDC attorney who works to promote healthy marine management, has seen huge strides in policy work geared to restore and maintain sustainable fisheries—the lifeblood of many coastal communities and essential for healthy oceans. “We have come to a point where we needn’t accept overfishing as an unavoidable effect of fishing in our ocean,” she says. “But reining it in requires governments to employ science-based tools and stick-to-itiveness.”

The United States is a global leader in sustainable fishing, with laws such as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which has helped some of our most iconic fish and shellfish species—like Atlantic sea scallop and haddock—rebound after chronic overfishing through the 1980s and ’90s. Unfortunately, the law is currently under attack in Congress. NRDC is working to defend against proposals to strip protections for fish populations, endangered marine species, and special ocean places like marine monuments. (You can help by contacting your members of Congress to show your support for healthy fisheries and healthy oceans.)

The United States is also a top seafood importer—a unique position that allows us to influence global practices. We consume close to five billion pounds of seafood every year, 90 percent of which is imported, often from countries without rigorous fishery management laws. Federal “traceability standards,” like the U.S. government’s new Seafood Import Monitoring Program, help shed light on unlawful fishing practices and reduce our consumption of illegal products. Before the implementation of this new program, it was estimated that illegally caught fish made up an estimated 30 percent of all our wild-caught seafood imports.

Tell Congress and the Trump administration to save our oceans and marine wildlife

Government policies are key in shaping best practices, but we as consumers also have a role to play. NRDC’s Smart Seafood Buying Guide  offers suggestions for visiting the fish counter, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app is a comprehensive, science-based guide that will help you weigh your options. Supporting sustainable options with your dollar is critical.

Ultimately, Masterton says, smart management can help shrinking fish populations recover, and luckily the United States and NRDC have been at the forefront of those efforts. But she also cautions that despite our successes with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, there remains much work to be done. Nearly three dozen fisheries are still recovering from overfishing, and systemic problems like bycatch (unintended catch of other wildlife) and damage to marine habitat remain. And NRDC and our partners are not giving up the fight any time soon.

Ultimately, policies to ensure healthy fish populations and marine ecosystems benefit everyone—those of us who enjoy seafood for dinner and those of us whose livelihood depends on it.

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