Stocks of Cod and Red Snapper Drop, but Others Improve

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Pacific whiting and North Atlantic swordfish stocks are rebounding but populations of cod and red snapper continue to struggle, according to a report released yesterday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Overall, the annual survey, which comes as the Bush administration is considering changing federal rules designed to prevent overfishing, said the state of the country's fisheries is largely unchanged from last year. NOAA Fisheries Service tracks a third of known fish stocks, and it reported that 19 percent of those populations are being fished faster than they can reproduce.

"This year's report show progress for some stocks but also signals we have our work cut out for us," said Bill Hogarth, who directs NOAA Fisheries. "We really have a plan of where we're going."

But marine advocates seized on the new report as fresh evidence that federal authorities have not clamped down on commercial exploitation. In New England, for example, management officials have decided to allow cod overfishing until 2009, even though they are trying to rebuild the dwindling species.

"Our fish populations are not recovering, and NOAA is not doing a good job at managing our nation's fish stocks," said Matt Rand, who directs the National Environmental Trust's marine fish campaign. "You've got to stop overfishing on an overfished population or it's never going to rebound."

In late June, administration officials proposed changing overfishing guidelines known as National Standard 1, sparking protests from environmentalists. The new rules could provide fishery managers with greater flexibility by allowing them to restore stocks over a longer period of time and adopt rebuilding plans with a much lower chance of success than the 90 percent goal now outlined by the agency.

Mark Powell, director of fish conservation at the advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, said yesterday's report highlights the need to keep current fishing restrictions in place.

"With this level of failure, it makes little sense to weaken protections for fish," Powell said.

But NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Susan Buchanan questioned that assessment, saying the agency has proposed "stricter requirements" that "would help us end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks faster than . . . under the existing guidelines."

Some fish stocks, particularly in the Pacific, have recovered in recent years. In 2002, federal officials determined that Pacific whiting had become depleted, but fishing restrictions and cooler ocean temperatures that bring in more nutrients have helped the species rebound completely.

"It's stable and healthy," said Mike Burner, staff officer at the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

On the other hand, more than 40 percent of fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico are facing intense fishing pressure, according to the Ocean Conservancy's analysis of the new federal statistics. Industry has overfished red snapper for more than two decades and the population has declined 95 percent during that time, Powell said.

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