Running Aground – The U.S. Fisheries Management System is Headed for the Rocks

More stocks are less healthy and climate change is looming

Ocean ecosystems, Indigenous cultures, commercial and recreational fishing, and coastal livelihoods and economies—all of these rely on abundant fish populations. That means there is a lot at stake to ensure we manage fishing activity sustainably.

It’s never been an easy task, but the progress to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks has been steady—until recently. This year, NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for sustainably managing our fisheries, released its annual report on how our marine fish populations are doing. It’s clear that in many ways, progress has stalled or even started to reverse entirely:

  • Since 2017, the number of overfished stocks has jumped from 35 to 49. This increase is really concerning—it means that 20% of fish stocks where we are able to estimate the abundance are at unhealthy levels and need serious management intervention to rebuild. Overfished stocks are challenging to manage, are less resilient, and require rebuilding plans that reduce fishing in order to bring them back to healthy stock sizes.
  • No fish stocks were rebuilt in the last year. Since 2000, 47 fish stocks have been successfully rebuilt, but the pace of progress has slowed. Since 2016, we’ve rebuilt 8 stocks, but in the five years before that, 18 stocks were rebuilt. 
  • Stocks that were previously rebuilt are back to being overfished. Unfortunately, eight of the 47 stocks declared rebuilt have since become overfished once again. This shows that management was not responsive enough to keep stocks above that overfished threshold.
  • While overfishing remains near historic lows, our progress toward ending unsustainable fishing has stalled. In 2020, 8% of stocks were subject to overfishing, which is similar to levels over the last several years. More worrisome is the length of time that stocks continue to be fished at rates that are driving their populations downward. Some of our most iconic stocks, like cod in the Gulf of Maine, experience overfishing every year.

These trends show that our fishery management is struggling to keep up with today’s challenges. When management works as intended, fish stocks are fished at sustainable rates and stay at healthy sizes that can continue to support fisheries for the long term. When a stock becomes overfished, a rebuilding plan should bring it back to its targeted healthy population size. What we are seeing now is more stocks being fished unsustainably, more stocks that need rebuilding, fewer stocks successfully rebuilding, and stocks that have rebuilt sliding back into needing rebuilding once again.

In short, the progress U.S. fisheries has made is laudable, but it is also slowly eroding. Now is the time to reverse these trends because management challenges are continuing to grow. Climate change presents a challenge to every part of the management system, from collecting data, to scientifically assessing the size of fish stocks, to managing within sustainable limits. The impacts of climate change typically make it more difficult for overfished stocks to rebuild. At the same time, the need to rebuild is more critical than ever, as abundant fish populations are more resilient to the warming, acidification, habitat degradation and food web disruptions that are occurring. Leaving stocks at unhealthy levels as we head into an era of increasing impacts from climate change puts Tribes, fishing communities, businesses and ecosystems at risk.

Work remains to be done to ensure that U.S. fisheries are truly sustainable across the board and for the long haul. Solving these challenges will take renewed collaborative effort done in a manner that is inclusive and equitable. Tribes, fishermen, managers, scientists, environmentalists and lawmakers must again come together to build adaptive approaches to ensure sustainable fishing for the long term. To fail to do so would sacrifice the progress we’ve made together—and send us unprepared into a hotter, more uncertain fisheries future.

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