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A Canary in the Ocean Coal Mine

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Earlier this week federal managers of West Coast U.S. fish stocks found that canary rockfish is rebuilt. This is great news for fishermen, seafood consumers, and conservationists, as it means a healthy population that puts more fresh seafood on American plates and supports a stronger ocean ecosystem. Canary rockfish is important in its own right as a species, but this finding allows for increased fishing of other fish populations that swim alongside it – canary is common as bycatch, or non-targeted species that also get caught in fishing gear, and increased catch levels will enable greater fishing opportunities of other species.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal group that co-manages our nation’s fisheries off of Washington, Oregon, and California approved the analysis done by NOAA Fisheries today, starting what will most likely be a revision of catch limits, and an official update to the “Status of Stocks,” NOAA Fisheries’ official score-keeping tabulation of stocks nationally.

A rebuilt population declaration comes as a bit of a surprise; canary rockfish were in year 15 of an updated 29-year rebuilding plan. Canary was found to be overfished in 2000 after unsustainable fishing pressure in the 1980s and 1990s and a rebuilding plan that reduced catch and set limitations on fishing gear was put in place to rebuild the population from less than 6% of the historic population size. That means this good news of rebuilding shouldn’t have arrived until 2029. But better data, an improved model for assessing the health of the species, and good recruitment (the number of eggs that survive to become young fish in a given year and replenish a population, a highly variable feature in many fish), and a commitment to rebuilding by managers and fishermen led to this outcome sooner than expected. Some top-notch science, a boost from nature, and a robust rebuilding strategy paid off.

Although this good news is cause for celebration, it is also a reminder of why we must remain vigilant. A changing climate and unstable ocean conditions mean shifts in fish stock productivity, and likely other ecosystem changes we have yet to foresee.

Ironically, Congress is in the midst of rolling back the mandate for rebuilding programs such as this one. If the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization bill that passed the House of Representatives earlier this month becomes law, successes such as this will become rarer. Opponents want “flexibility” to increase fishing opportunities and continue overfishing today; however this short-sighted approach would push rebuilding even further into the future, costing fishermen, seafood consumers, and the ecosystem in the meantime.

A rebuilt canary population should be more than just a happy tweet, but also a timely reminder of what rebuilding can accomplish and a warning to stay strong on critical requirements of the law.

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