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Six Solutions for Sustainable, Climate-Ready and Equitable Fisheries

New bill from Reps. Huffman and Case would improve fishery management

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© Jeffrey Wickett, U.S. Forest Service

Along the coast of the United States, marine ecosystems support fisheries that feed us, connect us with friends and family and sustain cultures and traditions. As a result of decades of hard work by fishermen, managers, scientists and conservation groups, our country has some of the most sustainably managed fisheries in the world.

But the work is not done. New challenges, like our rapidly changing climate, are making it harder to tackle ongoing ones. Our fisheries face challenges in rebuilding stocks to healthy population levels, reducing our impact on ocean habitats and other ocean creatures, supporting subsistence and Tribal fishing and cultural activities and maintaining strong fishing communities and coastal economies.

After an extensive listening tour to get input from regional fishery participants and experts, Congressmen Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Ed Case (D-HI) have introduced the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act. This ambitious bill would amend and reauthorize our existing marine fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The new bill tackles the most challenging issues facing our fisheries and fishing communities today and offers forward-looking solutions to better prepare our fisheries for long-term sustainability, even in the face of changing ocean conditions.

Here are my top six favorite solutions from the bill:

1. Consider climate change impacts throughout the management system.

The ocean is getting warmer, there’s less oxygen in the water and acidification is affecting water chemistry. Populations of fish are shifting, seeking cooler waters like what they’re more used to. And many fish populations are becoming less productive, leaving fewer fish to support ecosystems and fishing opportunities. This bill conveys one clear message: climate change is here, and America’s fisheries must be sustainable even in the face of it.

To do that, the bill directs scientists and managers to consider climate impacts when they make decisions about how much fishing can occur each year. Working with NOAA Fisheries, managers will focus on the stocks most vulnerable to climate impacts. And for those instances where stocks are shifting from historic fishing grounds to new areas, managers should ensure fishing is sustainable while determining how to manage fisheries across geographies.

2. Do more to bring vulnerable stocks back to healthy levels.

I recently wrote about a growing challenge in fisheries management—while we’ve been successful in rebuilding 47 stocks since 2000, 20% of our fish stocks still need to be rebuilt to healthy levels. Of those, many just aren’t improving under current management. Even more worrying, more stocks are slipping into an overfished status each year, meaning that our management system is still allowing stocks to decline.

To address this situation, the bill encourages managers to more actively manage stocks that are in rebuilding plans, which means checking on their progress more frequently and improving management when stocks are struggling to recover. The bill also recommends that when a rebuilding plan ends without restoring the stock, the next rebuilding plan should be more likely to succeed than the last one. With climate change lowering the resilience of fish stocks, rebuilding is a key way to protect them from climate-related disasters.

3. Expand Tribal representation in the management system.

Indigenous people stewarded the waters, ecosystems and fish in the region we now call North America since time immemorial. Sustainable management practices by Native peoples maintain the health and productivity of ocean resources that, in turn, support enduring societies. But our fishery management system contains profound inequities that prevent sovereign Tribes and Native Americans from co-equal management of the fish and marine ecosystems which they have historically stewarded and of which Indigenous people and culture are an intrinsic part. 

The Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act takes important steps to begin addressing these long-standing issues, adding two Tribal seats to the management body that governs fishing in the North Pacific, representing more than half of our nations coastline and 229 Federally-recognizes Tribes. It also acknowledges and defines subsistence fishing and makes those fishermen eligible for disaster aid.

Fisheries boats docked at the marina
© Patricia Chambers, Ocean Conservancy
4. Improve data collection and use, particularly in recreational fisheries, for better sustainable management.

Fishery management is a data-hungry enterprise. Science-based management means we need to frequently assess the health of fish stocks to know how to keep fishing at sustainable levels. To do this, we rely on accurate and timely data on how much is being caught each year, along with data on ocean conditions and biological information.

The bill makes changes to improve the handling of existing data by NOAA Fisheries so it can be more easily utilized for management and to facilitate growth in use of electronic technologies for fishing vessels to report on and monitor their catch. The bill further tackles one of the biggest remaining challenges in sustainable management—improving data on recreational fishing. Private anglers around the country catch significant amounts of fish each year—often the reason that overfishing is still occurring in some important fisheries. Improving the collection of data from anglers and integrating that data into management is a crucial step in ensuring the recreational fishing sector is accountable for its catch.

5. Address ecosystem impacts while we manage fisheries to keep the ocean healthy.

U.S. fisheries are some of the world’s most sustainable, but fishing still has an impact on the environment. Additionally, energy development, shipping, activity within ports and pollution can damage the ecosystems that fish and fishermen rely on.

The Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act tackles issues around habitat, forage fish and bycatch to try to lessen ecosystem impacts. For habitat, the bill strengthens managers’ abilities to keep non-fishing activities from damaging habitats essential to fish and also improves the ways we plan for and manage those habitats. The bill removes loopholes that are preventing common-sense management measures that would reduce bycatch and improves reporting of bycatch in fisheries. And the bill looks to improve management of forage fish, which are important prey species that support the needs of many predators, including other fish.

6. Support fishing communities to keep our fishing traditions alive.

Healthy fisheries around the U.S. support commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing activities that, in turn, feed families and bring people together. But fishing communities are vulnerable, especially as climate change threatens the health of our ocean.

The bill reforms the way disaster assistance is provided to fishermen and fishing businesses, which will be important as marine heat waves, harmful algal blooms and other unexpected events increase in frequency. It also supports and preserves working waterfronts, maintaining critical infrastructure for fishing communities. The bill also takes into consideration the social and economic benefits of coastal communities’ participation in fishing to sustain the cultures, livelihoods and practices of fishing communities.

These six solutions couldn’t be more important or timely. I spend a lot of time worrying about the future of our fisheries, and this bill has given me hope. While we are only at the start of the legislative process, I’m encouraged that Congress is having the right conversation about fisheries, and I thank Representatives Huffman and Case for leading that work.

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