Overfishing threatens food security for a billion people worldwide, job security for millions tied to the fishing industry and coastal economies, and the sustainability of many complex marine ecosystems. Modern technologies have spread industrial fishing to the furthest corners of the world, while human populations have exploded, bringing soaring appetites. We have only recently begun to understand the extent to which these dynamics are leading to the depletion of many fish species, and an extensive policy debate is now being waged regarding what to do about it. Overfishing is expected to get worse in the foreseeable future, complicated by new global pressures from climate change. Society must learn to manage marine resources in a more sustainable way in order to meet the demands of a growing population.
In the United States, federally managed commercial and recreational marine fisheries, such as those for Pacific salmon or red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, are located in a giant “ring” around the country roughly three to 200 nautical miles offshore. This is known as the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It is the largest of any nation, and it contains some of the best managed fisheries in the world. As a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska’s Cook Inlet in 2003 and 2005 and a crab fisherman in the Bering Sea in 2008, I saw firsthand how well our North Pacific fisheries are managed. However, there are still many challenges. We now have the technology and scientific data to understand the impact of hundreds of years of large-scale commercial fishing. The ocean is not as inexhaustible as we once thought.
There are currently 37 federal fish populations classified as overfished according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The populations of iconic species that built early American industries and sustained generations of fishermen, such as Atlantic cod caught off New England, have crashed to historic lows. Yet, the economics of “Big Fish” complicate sustainable management. In the United States, the commercial and recreational fishing industries support $200 billion in annual sales and almost two million jobs. Many coastal communities depend upon a reliable source of fish not only to support the fishing community but also the food service, retail, transportation, and tourism industries. This makes efforts by federal managers to restrict access and rebuild depleted fisheries difficult.
Uncertainties in some U.S. fisheries are now resulting in a legislative fight. At the forefront is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the law that governs all U.S. federal fisheries. The MSA was first passed in 1976 to curb overfishing by foreign fleets near the U.S. coastline, which included the overfishing of crab by Russian vessels in Alaska’s Bering Sea. The law extended the U.S. EEZ to where it presently stands and established a system of management that relies on input from eight regional fishery management councils. After 1976, however, we replaced overfishing by foreign fleets on many of our important species with domestic overfishing. The MSA was reauthorized in 1996 and 2006 to include additional ocean fish conservation measures in order to address domestic overfishing. These measures established scientific rebuilding timelines for depleted fish species and annual catch limits (ACLs) for many important fish. While there are still 37 overfished populations today, there has been an equal number of depleted populations rebuilt to sustainable levels under the MSA since 2000.
The last reauthorization of the MSA was a bipartisan effort signed into law by President George W. Bush. The MSA is again up for reauthorization, but the necessary climate needed to ensure we continue to end overfishing and rebuild fish populations to sustainable levels appears to be more difficult to realize this time around. Political landmines exist in many coastal districts. Some commercial and recreational fishermen, upset with federal managers for closing or restricting access to certain fisheries, have become very vocal. In 2013, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) when the agency drastically cut the amount of cod that fishermen could take that year, citing an “indifference to the plight of Massachusetts fishing families.”As a former commercial fisherman, I understand how even a slight reduction in the length of a fishing season, or a reduction in the total allowable catch for a species, can have significant impacts on the livelihoods of everyone associated with the fishing industry. However, scientists, conservationists, and federal managers warn that we must not prioritize short-term economic gain over the long-term stability of our fisheries and ocean ecosystems.
Some state legislators have also recently pushed initiatives that would extend state waters miles beyond their current boundaries and that would take state control of certain federally managed species. These initiatives are attacks on the whole federal management system by those who mistrust it, are dissatisfied with restrictions placed upon them, and feel that the state can better manage resources. Mistrust of federal management, in part, led the House of Representatives to pass a MSA reauthorization proposal earlier this year that sought to gut rebuilding timelines for depleted fisheries, create exemptions from setting annual catch limits, and weaken the environmental review process of fishery management decisions made by federal managers. The proposal received an early veto threat by the Obama administration and was a “stinging disappointment” to conservationists. It remains to be seen what action will be taken by the Senate but it is clear there is a long way to go in securing sustainable fishing policy in the United States.
While it might be easy to dismiss political infighting on fisheries issues as just another example of electioneering, this is not a uniquely American story. Countries around the world, particularly in the developing world, face similar or greater threats to their domestic fisheries. In countries with little economic stability or law enforcement capability, sustainable fishing policies are non-existent. Not only does overfishing by domestic fleets run rampant in these countries but, desperate to find sources of revenue, they also sell access to fisheries within their EEZs. Foreign industrial ships are often allowed to take without limit, which devastates local industry. With little fish left at home, local fishermen turn to piracy in international waters where there is little oversight. This has led to a current crisis where it is estimated that 108,000 pounds of fish are taken illegally from the world’s oceans every minute. This “pirate fishing” occurs at such a pervasive rate that it has become a multi-billion dollar industry and has evolved into one of the top threats to the sustainability of the world’s fisheries.
Overfishing at home and abroad combined with environmental stressors from climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution run-off is leading our oceans to disaster. As fish stocks decline in many areas, so do larger mammals, sea birds, and other critical components of the marine food web. Industrial fishing doesn’t need to stop, but it needs to be improved. Ending destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling, which destroys habitat in the same way that clear cutting a rainforest might, and increasing law enforcement capacity in international waters are some initial and necessary steps. We must also overhaul how we manage marine resources and think differently about our impacts on the sea. Recent technological advancements and improved scientific understanding of ocean ecosystems, combined with decades of monitoring data, have led many to conclude that a new approach is needed for fishery management in order to meet the needs of the 21st century. Fortunately, the U.S. is poised to lead on this front.
As the re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act works its way through congress, the news isn’t all bad. There is a proposal for updating the law that would manage our country’s marine resources in a better way, called, “Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management.” This new approach is built upon a few key concepts, which include taking into consideration the waste created from bycatch (when other types of wildlife are killed and discarded while fishing for a certain species), the effect of habitat destruction on an ecosystem, and the conservation of smaller “forage fish” which feed larger predators. While much of this might seem like common sense, this proposal is different than the current system of management – which primarily focuses on a single species at a time rather than taking a look at the entire ecosystem.
An ecosystem-based approach would also create mechanisms to take the impacts of climate change into consideration when making fishery management decisions. For example, we now have the tools to understand the link between climate change, rising ocean temperatures, shifting fish migration patterns, and how that affects a particular fishery. By adopting this new approach to fishery management, the U.S. will be an example to countries around the world for sustaining vibrant fisheries in the face of growing population demands and environmental stressors.
We are at a critical juncture in marine resource management. The stakes are high for policymakers to get this right before a tipping point is reached in our fragile ocean ecosystems – the life support system of our civilization. The debate must not fall victim to those who would prioritize short-term economic gain, or personal political gain, over long term sustainability. Watch the re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act closely, as it provides a valuable window into which direction the U.S., and, by example, the world, decides to take.