Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration set catch limits under the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act amendments for all covered species, a major triumph for fisheries management.
The Environmental Forum asked the leading voices in fisheries management, “Is the 2006 law succeeding in restoring fish stocks? Are adjustments needed to ensure robust stocks and sustainable commercial and recreational fisheries in the future?” Here’s an excerpt of the response by Mike Hirshfield. Oceana’s Senior Vice President for North America, and Chief Scientist. He is currently on sabbatical; you can read about his travels at his blog.
The United States is fortunate to have a law designed to keep abundant fish populations in the ocean. All ocean lovers, including commercial and recreational fishermen, should celebrate the passage of the 2006 amendments to that law. If they are carried out fully, we will definitely see increased fish populations in future years. Our fishery management system is one of the best in the world, certainly compared to places like Europe. But before we pat ourselves on the back too much, we need to take a clear-eyed look at what the amendments did — and didn’t — do, as well as the way the National Marine Fisheries Service is implementing the law. Some problem areas are indicated below by italics.
The amendments only addressed part of the problem. Fisheries management comes down to three principles: First, don’t kill more fish than can be replenished. Second, don’t kill too many other animals. And third, don’t wreck the places fish need to live. The 2006 amendments really only dealt with the first.
The amendments came 10 years too late for some species. Conservationists thought the 1996 amendments required an end to overfishing. We were wrong. Unfortunately, for some species, the additional decade meant ten more years of declining populations. For long-lived, slow-growing species like Atlantic halibut, some sharks, and Pacific rockfish, the extra overfishing means their populations won’t rebuild for decades — if ever.
Too many species are “off the books.” Several hundred species of fish caught by fishermen are not included in fishery management plans, so managers don’t consider them subject to the accountability requirements of the 2006 amendments. Managers have even removed species from plans to avoid the obligation. Species subject to international management are exempt from the requirements, even if overfished, like Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Too many species may fail to rebuild. Many rebuilding plans are designed with little better than a 50 percent chance of success — meaning they are nearly as likely to fail. Even an 80 percent chance of success means 20 of 100 such plans will fail. We may not always have all the science we would like, but it needs to be taken seriously, with the tie going to the fish. We need more safety margin, not less.
The bare minimum is the target. “Not overfished” and “preventing overfishing” are weak standards of success, leaving too many populations at risk. Fish stocks will face increased threats from a changing climate. We need to hedge our bets with larger fish populations, not the bare minimum.
You can read the full piece at The Environmental Forum.