Counting all the fish in the sea is an imperfect science to begin with, and even federal officials acknowledge that they lack the data they’d like for most species. Because of budget limitations, NOAA conducts stock assessments of commercial species only every few years, using independent trawl surveys, official landing data, ecological data and interviews with operators, among other sources.
Its data on recreational fishing are even spottier. NOAA has created an expanded dockside survey and will use new methodology to analyze the results, but officials say they have not made wide use of this approach before this year. After an annual catch limit is set for a recreational fishery, managers can adopt several measures, such as limiting the season or the size of fish that can be taken, to prevent fishers from exceeding the overall threshold.
Steven D. Gaines, dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said researchers are developing more effective tools to estimate fish populations, by looking at the size of the fish and how fish are faring inside and outside marine reserves. “It’s really transforming the opportunity for us to assess where the fisheries are at the moment and take corrective action early on to correct overfishing,” he said.
Even when NOAA receives fresh data, the agency often comes under fire for finding a population is doing much better or worse than expected.
Just this year, for example, NOAA determined the amount of cod in the Gulf of Maine had declined roughly two-thirds since 2008. Local fishing interests and area lawmakers, including Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), have assailed the assessment and warned NOAA against setting cod limits too low this year. The current cod catch limit is 12,000 metric tons; because the recent assessment says that only 11,400 metric tons are left, Kerry wrote, it “could require a fishing limit as low as 1,000 metric tons of cod.”
“Are the laws sustaining stocks and also the fishery, or are we just looking at what is biologically reasonable and then decimating small businesses at the same time?” asked Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which represents groundfish vessels operating along the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine to New York.
Fishing interests have also questioned why they need to restrict their take once a stock appears on the rebound. Summer flounder, or fluke, a popular recreational fishing target in the mid-Atlantic, was so overfished that its 1989 population was deemed 88 percent below healthy levels. After a series of efforts to regulate the catch, an assessment in October showed the species had been rebuilt, with an estimated 137 million pounds of mature summer flounder in the region.
But because the assessment showed the fish has not rebounded as much as scientists expected, managers are not raising the catch limit as high as initially planned. This has angered James A. Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.
“We’re only asking for access to stocks that are in good shape anyway,” he said, adding that federal officials have defined the term “overfishing”too aggressively.
“When we don’t see the fish and we can’t catch them, then we know there’s overfishing,” he said.
Environmentalists and many researchers disagree. Brad Sewell, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said regulators need to take a precautionary approach because the catch limits aim to achieve the “maximum sustainable yield” without pushing a species to collapse. “You’re fishing right on the edge,” he said.
European Union member states are debating whether to adopt a law mandating the sort of catch limits embraced by the United States.
Stricter limits have helped several species in the Washington region rebound, including mid-Atlantic bluefish, and regional managers took the unprecedented step this past fall of cutting the take of menhaden, a forage fish, for the sake of species that consume it.
Mark Spalding, president of the Ocean Foundation, said that people on both sides of the debate need to acknowledge that the United States is facing the sort of transformational moment in fishing that it did a half-century ago in forestry. Until the mid-1960s, the government allowed loggers unfettered access to public lands, he said.
“We had to have this wrenching, put-the-brakes-on-and-turn-the-truck-around” process, he said, adding that when it comes to setting universal catch limits, “this is a monumental achievement.”