Natural Resources Defense Council National Academy of Sciences confirms successful rebuilding of U.S. fisheries, yet suggests weakening the rules

David Newman’s Blog

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]merica’s once-depleted fisheries are now recovering because of strong legal mandates to end overfishing and quickly rebuild fish populations to sustainable levels.  This is big news, especially given the sad state of many fisheries throughout the world these days.  In the early 1990s, many U.S. fisheries were in severe decline from fishing too hard over the previous decades.  In 1996, a bipartisan majority in Congress (yes, that’s right, Democrats and Republicans working together!) amended the nation’s fisheries law to require that overfished species be rebuilt to healthy levels in as short a time period as possible, but not to exceed 10 years unless the biology of a particular fish stock or an international agreement dictated otherwise.  Since then, this requirement has given rise to a fisheries management system that has had unrivaled success:

Two-thirds of fish stocks put in rebuilding plans since 1996 have either rebuilt to healthy population levels, or have made significant rebuilding progress, according to a recent NRDC analysis of federal data.

The same analysis found that gross commercial revenues have increased by $585 million for these rebuilding success stories – a 92% increase (54% when adjusted for inflation) from the start of rebuilding.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency charged with managing the nation’s fisheries, counts 34 stocks as having rebuilt between 2000 and 2012, including: New England haddock, Mid-Atlantic summer flounder, South Atlantic black sea bass, Gulf of Mexico red grouper, and Pacific lingcod.

NMFS recently reported to Congress that fisheries management in the U.S. has made “continued, significant progress…to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks.”

Our current fisheries management system, which has taken years to develop and refine, now provides checks and balances between the accountability provided by the legal requirement and the flexibility provided by the fishing industry-dominant regional management councils that guide the law’s implementation.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act’s Rebuilding Requirement has “Resulted in Demonstrated Successes”

In September 2013, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report evaluating this rebuilding effort.  The Report recognizes (p. 10) that the rebuilding requirement of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) has “resulted in demonstrated successes in identifying and rebuilding overfished stocks.”  Specific findings included:

Nearly three-quarters of the 35 overfished stocks evaluated have either rebuilt or made progress toward rebuilding.

For stocks in rebuilding plans, “fishing mortality has generally been reduced, and stock biomass has generally increased” and “the long-term net economic benefits” have been “positive.”

“The legal and prescriptive nature of rebuilding mandates forces difficult decisions to be made, ensures a relatively high level of accountability, and can help prevent protracted debate over whether and how stocks should be rebuilt.”

Successful rebuilding was found to occur in cases where strict timelines and biomass targets were implemented, as the law requires.  Unsurprisingly, rebuilding failed when the MSA’s rebuilding requirements were not implemented effectively and overfishing continued.

Removing or Weakening Rebuilding Timelines and Biomass Targets Would Be Counterproductive

Paradoxically, the Report suggests changes to the current rebuilding approaches that have proven so successful, including removing rebuilding timelines and biomass targets in favor of a system focused on achieving specific fishing mortality targets, regardless of whether the selected targets actually work to rebuild the stock.  Think about it by way of analogy:

Imagine you need to drive to an appointment scheduled in one hour 60 miles from your present location.  You know that you have to travel at 60 miles per hour to get there exactly on time.  Unfortunately, once on the highway it starts to rain and there’s an accident up ahead that snarls traffic.  Your speed slows to 30 miles per hour for a few minutes until you navigate around the accident.  To still arrive on schedule, you now need to adjust your rate of speed to compensate for the unforeseen slowdown.  In the world of fisheries, there are many instances akin to rain and unforeseen accidents.  For example, management sometimes fails to restrain the fishery to the target mortality level in a given year, which can slow the pace of rebuilding and require an adjustment in future years to stay on track.  Other examples include climate changes and unpredictable rates of reproduction and predation.  All of these factors are foreseeable, just not predictable, meaning we expect them to happen from time to time, but do not know exactly when and where.  Thus, if we expect to succeed at arriving at our rebuilding destination within a finite time period, we need to adjust the fishing mortality rate to account for these factors.  Merely maintaining a fixed fishing mortality rate and disregarding firm timelines and targets, as the Report suggests, could mean that we never arrive at our goal of sustainable fisheries.  A lack of progress toward rebuilding is exactly what led Congress to include timelines and targets in the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996.

But, don’t just take it from me. Here’s what Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council member Capt. John McMurray had to say about the Report’s suggestion to forego strict rebuilding timelines and targets: To continue reading click here […]


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