Once Decimated U.S. Fish Stocks Enjoy Big Bounce Back

A new report highlights the success, and challenges, of fisheries management.

Two-thirds of the closely monitored U.S. fish species once devastated by overfishing have bounced back in a big way thanks to management plans instituted 10 to 15 years ago, a new study says. And fish aren't the only ones celebrating. Recovering populations can mean more revenue and jobs for some fishermen—but unfortunately success hasn't been universal.

Authors of a new Natural Resources Defense Council report said the results prove that critically overfished species can be rebuilt, even from very low levels, when Mother Nature is given a chance to recover. That's good news in a world where rampant overfishing is a critical concern.

"This demonstrates that when we trace the historic arch of these fisheries in which rebuilding requirements were put in place 15 years ago, we see real positive news. We see populations that were depleted or in decline turned around and rebuilt or well on their way to rebuilding," said principal author Brad Sewell.

"It's not 100 percent. It's two-thirds, so it's not unbridled good news but it does show the effectiveness of a law that has had its share of controversy," he added.

The study used in-depth stock assessments and other data from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to chart the progress of stocks managed under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. That law was revamped by Congress in 1996, in an attempt to address plunging fish populations around America's coastlines, mandating that stocks be rebuilt within a decade (some were granted exceptions).

The NRDC report charts progress for the 44 stocks that have sufficient population and catch data under the act and found nearly two-thirds, some 28 stocks, have now been designated as fully rebuilt or as having made significant progress toward sustainable populations. The study doesn't include species not managed under Magnuson-Stevens, those for which recent stock assessments aren't available, or those fished internationally.

Despite those omissions, the success of so many rebuilding plans has delivered an economic boon to many fishermen, Sewell said. Gross commercial fishing revenues from the 28 rebuilt stocks were 54 percent higher when adjusted for inflation during the 2008-2010 period than they were when rebuilding began.

"The system overall is working and making progress," said Galen Tromble, of NOAA Fisheries' Office of Sustainable Fisheries. "We just have to keep doing the science, collecting all the data we can, and then adjusting our management accordingly." (Related: "Entrepreneurs Fight for the Future of Fish.")

Fishery Successes and Struggles

The report also reveals some rough patches. Eight of the fish stocks evaluated have made only limited progress and eight others saw very little progress at all.

Regional trends show some successes, like the mid-Atlantic's bluefish, flounder, and black sea bass, while other species have struggled, like greater amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico.

Part of the problem, both Tromble and Sewell noted, was continued overfishing in some areas.

"We have had stocks in which we put a plan in place, but when we evaluated what actually happened we found that the stock was still subject to overfishing," Tromble said. "That's in some cases because our expectation of what our management would do turned out to be not quite right. Just assessing stocks, monitoring populations, and estimating how much can be caught is an improving science but far from a foolproof one. It's not easy to count fish in the ocean."

Fishing regulations also govern dynamic natural ecosystems that undergo their own changes—some perhaps predictable but others simply unexpected. Some struggling stocks may have been hit with environmental factors that produced several poor reproductive years that stunted rebuilding, while others may have enjoyed particularly good years over the past decade.

"Georges Bank haddock has had a couple of great recruitment years that helped it to recover," Sewell explained. "Georges Bank cod hasn't had a really good recruitment year in a few decades."

"Rebuilding plans are based on what's happened in the past, averages of estimated recruitment, growth, and other historic factors that can be projected into the future," Tromble said. "But future conditions might be worse than average over ten years and we can't force a stock to rebuild simply by reducing fishing. Conditions during that period have to be favorable."

Crashing Cod

The challenges of fishery management have been vividly illustrated in the case of New England cod fisheries, the iconic species whose alarming decline helped spur Congress to act back in the mid-1990s.

The cod that once filled New England waters and coffers have been ravaged to the point that NOAA regional administrator John Bullard said at a January meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council they were heading "seemingly inexorably, to oblivion."

In January the council made the controversial decision to slash cod catch quotas in an attempt to save the species and perhaps provide something for future fishermen to catch. But the limits seem likely to put many out of the business for good. Gulf of Maine cod catches will be reduced nearly 80 percent from last year's numbers for three years, and Georges Bank by 61 percent next year. As bad as those numbers sound the reality is worse because 2012 numbers were already historically low due to dwindling stocks.

Gulf of Maine cod catches that were 8,000 metric tons ten years ago will be only 1,550 metric tons over the next few years. Georges Bank cod, once 12,000 metric tons, will next year be at 2,000 metric tons.

(Related: "The Bottom Line: Changing Course for America's Oldest Fishery.")

Maggie Raymond, executive director of Associated Fisheries of Maine, said the drastic measures left many cod fishermen, processors, and other fishery-dependent businesses she represents uncertain about management efforts they haven't seen pay off.

"Fishermen in our association question the constantly changing results of fisheries science," she said. "For example, just a few years ago, fisheries scientists and managers said that Gulf of Maine cod were at the highest biomass level in 30 years. The fishing industry fished within the scientifically set quotas, and despite that compliance, today the Gulf of Maine cod population is, according to the same scientists, at a record low. This volatility in advice makes business planning very difficult for fishermen, and not surprisingly leads to frustration and some level of disbelief about the quality of the science.

"NOAA Fisheries has acknowledged that there are as yet unexplained environmental factors that are inhibiting rebuilding," she continued. "Industry would argue that increased water temperature and inflated predator populations, such as dogfish and seals, are inhibiting stock rebuilding."

Fishing's Unsteady Waters

Whatever the causes of collapse, many fishermen have been hit hard. "The New England groundfish fleet has shrunk significantly over the past several years, and those who remain have already made huge sacrifices and have substantial financial investment at stake," Raymond said. "Most fishermen's homes are tied to the debt, so that reality adds to the current level of anxiety about the future."

Galen Tromble stressed that any fishery includes the people in it, not just the fish, making such decisions extremely difficult. "We have a mission to provide sustainable seafood from our marine fishery resources, so we're trying to achieve balance. On one hand, conserving the resource so it's sustainable and will be there for the future, but also trying to achieve yield. We have an objective to catch fish, but not to catch too much."

Tromble said examples like Alaska's groundfish fishery show that well-managed stocks can be highly productive and yield the stability fishermen need. "Populations go up and down but they do that from a robust level," he said. "It's quite a different challenge to sustain the fishery economically when you have very low abundance levels, not capable of producing a high yield, and you're further reducing them in the short term to try to rebuild the stock."

Despite the uncertain future for New England's cod fishermen and others, NRDC's Sewell stressed how successful the rebuilding efforts have been in most other locales over a decade and a half. He noted that his organization and other conservationists hope Magnuson-Stevens won't be watered down by legislation that has been introduced several times in the past few years.

"We're hoping that as these successes become apparent that interest in weakening or modifying the rebuilding laws will abate," he said. "I hope that folks will take pride in what's been accomplished so far and dig in and finish the job."

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