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Losing the Gold, American Fisheries at Risk

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© Eric Geveart

Who needs to know that American fish stocks may be once again at risk?

Everyone who dines on American seafood.

Every coastal town from the Northeast to the Gulf to Alaska that relies on commercial fishing.

Every U.S. marina where recreational fishing boats are moored.

Everyone who depends on a healthy marine ecosystem needs to know that in the next few weeks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is preparing to finalize changes to the science-based policies that form the backbone of how we manage our fisheries. These proposed rules could return our nation to the dangers of overfishing, threaten entire fish species, put fishermen and charter boat businesses at risk and undercut restaurants and coastal tourism as we experienced in the 1980s and 1990s.

The law is the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), and National Standard 1 is the rule under MSA that guides our nation’s eight regional fisheries management councils in setting catch limits, assessing the health and abundance of fish stocks, regulating bycatch and other policies. Since 2006, under MSA, thanks to science-based catch limits and effective stock assessments, 30 fish stocks that were once severely decimated have been rebuilt to sustainable levels and those fisheries have been reopened.

Now, NOAA is quietly preparing to alter National Standard 1. Their proposal threatens seafood sustainability by:

  • Increasing the risk of overfishing. Currently, if the catch on a fish stock exceeds safe levels in one year, fisheries managers are required to take corrective action immediately. The new proposal allows managers to average a high year’s catch with two other years and delay taking action in the hope that fishermen don’t catch too much fish in the following year. Furthermore, managers can raise fishing quotas by carrying over uncaught fish from a previous year without determining if the catch was depressed because the fish population was smaller than managers had estimated.
  • Allowing extended overfishing. Under the new proposal when scientific information indicates that catch reductions are necessary to protect fish stocks, managers can choose to phase in reductions more slowly that currently allowed. This puts fish stocks at risk over multiple reproductive seasons, rapidly amplifying impacts to the population as a whole.
  • Excluding important fish species from management: Under the new proposal, the trigger that determines when regional fishery council management needs to step in to manage a fishery can be influenced by short-term or economic factors, the existence of weaker state fisheries management, or industry self-regulation interests. In other words, science-based management and appropriate conservation could be jettisoned leaving fish stocks at risk.
  • Removing oversight. Currently, the MSA requires the Secretary of Commerce to review all fish stock rebuilding plans to determine if they are making progress. Under the proposed new rule, the secretary is only required to determine if the plan is being implemented as intended regardless of whether the health of the fish stock is improving.

It is both surprising and extremely disappointing that the Obama Administration would propose weakening our nation’s core fishery management rules—the very rules that have built this Administration’s stellar record of ending overfishing and rebuilding once depleted stocks. If these changes are implemented, we risk throwing away ten years of successful fisheries management. Since 2006, under MSA’s science-based policies, we have seen fisheries rebound and communities on the brink of collapse rebuild. But make no mistake, even with this success there are still many American fish populations that need close, science-based management if they are to return at all. The Atlantic cod, for example, was so fished out that it will be many seasons yet before their number has reproduced and grown strong enough to support a fishery again.

In this day and age, the technologies available to commercial and recreational fishermen are so advanced that it is possible to rapidly deplete our fish stocks. We saw this happen in the 1980s and 1990s, and it can happen again, if we don’t maintain strong fishing rules that exert some self-control.

We cannot afford to abandon our current gold standard fisheries management policies. I urge you to tell the Obama administration that it is unconscionable to allow NOAA to gut our nation’s fisheries rules.

Take action now and tell NOAA to strengthen, not weaken, our nation’s fishery conservation and management standards.

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