Can the U.S. win the battle against overfishing?

September 23, 2012

We've written before about "the end of fish." This is the rather apocalyptic warning, promoted by ecologists like Daniel Pauly, that humans are severely over-exploiting the ocean for fish, and, if we're not careful, stocks of key species like tuna will soon collapse. Then it's lumpy jellyfish sandwiches for everyone.

James Brooks, Kodiak Daily Mirror, File/Associated Press - File - In this Jan. 14, 2012 file photo, fishing boats line the docks during crab season at Cannery Row in Kodiak, Alaska.
James Brooks, Kodiak Daily Mirror, File/Associated Press - File - In this Jan. 14, 2012 file photo, fishing boats line the docks during crab season at Cannery Row in Kodiak, Alaska.

But it's worth reiterating that the end of fish can be avoided, as even Pauly has pointed out. While plenty of countries are guilty of relentless over-fishing—southern Europe and China often get mentioned as key culprits—there are several nations that have worked hard to improve their fisheries management practices over the years. Iceland. New Zealand. Australia. And the United States. "The U.S. is actually a big success story in rebuilding fish stocks," says Ray Hilborn, a marine biologist at the University of Washington.

One place to see that progress is in a new annual report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which found that the U.S. seafood catch was at a 17-year high last year, thanks to policies to rebuild domestic fisheries. Commercial fishermen caught 10.1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish, up 22.6 percent from 2010. That haul was worth $5.3 billion. NOAA cited the increase as evidence that U.S. fish populations were slowly recovering.

It's not all good news. Progress has been uneven. A large fraction of the overall catch increase came from menhaden in the Gulf of Mexico, pollock in Alaska, and hake in the Pacific. At the same time, other U.S. fisheries have been declared disaster zones—particularly the cod fisheries in New England and oyster and crab fisheries in the Mississippi. Populations in those areas haven't been recovering as expected, and the Commerce Department will likely have to impose stricter catch limits for 2013. In some areas, that will hit fishing communities extremely hard.

Yet despite the ups and vicious downs, recent trends in the United States have been encouraging, say scientists. Many fisheries appear to be strengthening. For that, much credit goes to recent efforts to tighten the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, says Steve Murawski, a former scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service. In 2006, Congress moved to end over-fishing by requiring strict new annual catch limits at all federally managed fisheries by 2011. "That tightening of the screw has been the single most important factor in the relative success of the U.S.," Murawski said in a recent interview.

Different regions in the United States employ different policies to regulate overfishing. Alaska has long used a "catch share" system, in which fisherman are granted a fixed percentage of the overall haul each year. That system gives the industry a stake in ensuring that the overall fishery remains healthy for years to come. (Evidence suggests that catch shares are very effective at preventing fisheries collapse.)

Other regions, such as New England, have put in place overall catch limits—though the success of this system depends on scientists and regulators setting the limits correctly. Make the limits too loose, and fish populations start collapsing, as is now the case with Atlantic cod. Make them overly stringent, and fishermen suffer.

The United States still has plenty of room to improve. NOAA only assesses about 200 of the 532 types of fish under regulation, so it's difficult to get a full picture of how much progress is being made made. That's because, Murawski says, "assessing fish stocks is complicated and expensive," which means that NOAA often has to engage in triage, focusing mainly on protecting the most economically important species.

Even so, some fisheries scientists say that the U.S. success in building its fish stocks could be a model for other parts of the world. In 2006, a study in Science led by ecologist Boris Worm warned that global fisheries were on pace for "collapse" by 2048. But a follow-up study in 2009 by Worm and Ray Hilborn found that this fate was far from inevitable. In some well-managed regions, fish stocks were rebuilding. The question was whether the rest of the world would adopt policies to prevent overfishing.

"In parts of the world, like in the North Atlantic, we're starting to see reduced fishing pressure after 150 years of being fished hard," Hilborn told me this summer. "But in parts of Asia and Africa, we don't have good stock assessments to tell what the trends are. What we do know is that fishing pressure is increasing there."

Indeed, if the United States wants to make its fish footprint sustainable, it will have to consider the rest of the world, too. The NOAA report found that about 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States last year was imported abroad (though a fraction of that was caught by U.S. fisherman, exported for processing and then re-imported).

Related: The end of fish, in one chart.

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