New Report Shows Fishery Management Floundering

A summary of the latest Status of Stocks report from NOAA Fisheries

Imagine this future: You go to the market to buy fish for dinner. What used to be a plentiful supply of fish stacked on top of each other at the fish counter is now sparsely dispersed across beds of ice. You go to the coast to fish with family and friends, and what once was an abundant population of your favorite catch is now hit or miss.

“What used to be” and “what once was” could no longer be guaranteed—these are the threats that we face with increasing climate impacts on U.S. fisheries and the stalled progress on reducing the stocks that are experiencing overfishing, are overfished and are struggling to rebuild to healthy levels. This isn’t simply a hypothetical situation; the fish that are available to us and our ocean ecosystems are essential to our survival and successes. Healthy and abundant fisheries nourish entire coastal communities and their economies and livelihoods. How we manage our fisheries now will be critically important for what the future of those fisheries looks like.

NOAA Fisheries recently released its annual Status of Stocks report to the U.S. Congress, available to the public, on how marine fisheries are doing. Every year, this report is a chance to check in on successes and challenges. On one hand, the fishery management system is keeping up adequate management of some stocks. On the whole, the 2021 report points to management progress staying stagnant, and more stocks are less healthy and less resilient to climate change. Here is the breakdown by status:

Overfishing Status

For a stock to be considered “subject to overfishing,” it must have a higher harvest rate than the rate that produces its Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), a science-based largest average catch value for the stock to support fishing in the long term. Overfishing status is like spending more money than you’re earning—more fish are being caught than the population can readily replenish.

  • The report says: Overfishing is low but hasn’t budged. Of the total stocks with known overfishing status, 92% are not experiencing overfishing, which is good news. While having only 8% of stocks experiencing overfishing remains near an all-time low, this percentage has largely stayed the same for a decade, even though the law requires an immediate end to overfishing.
  • What does this mean? Fishery management needs to do more to prevent overfishing. Big picture: Having only 8% of known stocks experiencing overfishing is laudable, but let’s get as close to zero as possible. Many of the stocks that are subject to overfishing have been so for years.

Overfished Status

An overfished stock has a population that is low enough to jeopardize the stock’s ability to support long-term fishing. Overfished status is like declaring bankruptcy.

  • The numbers show this: A notable chunk of our stocks are overfished, and the number has seen an increasing trend in the past four years. Fifty-one stocks, or 20% of stocks for which we have estimated their population size, are overfished. That number is a slight increase from last year and now part of a discouraging trend. One of those stocks, gag grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, is overfished once again after being rebuilt in 2014.
  • What does this mean? This trend of increasing overfished stocks is worrisome and, without proper management action, can get worse. When a stock is overfished, there are fewer opportunities for fishing, which is difficult for fishermen and the communities that depend on fisheries. Overfished stocks are also less resilient to climate impacts, putting communities and cultures further at risk, and making it clear that avoiding an overfished stock should be the goal.

Rebuilt Status

A stock that is rebuilt was previously overfished and went through a managed rebuilding plan. The stock has increased to a size that can once again support long-term fishing.

  • Here is the verdict: Progress on rebuilt stocks has stalled. The total number of rebuilt stocks—47—hasn’t changed since 2019. Only one stock—the Sacramento River fall Chinook salmon on the West Coast—was rebuilt this year, but it was rebuilt before and then slipped back to an overfished status. It was first rebuilt in 2013, was declared overfished again in 2018, and has been rebuilt again in 2021.
  • What does this mean? Fishery management must work to consistently rebuild stocks and prevent them from experiencing overfishing and becoming overfished once more. Management actions should do more to prevent stocks from repeatedly needing rebuilding.

These numbers are concerning and should signal a need for more and better management action. They also suggest that climate change is an increasingly important force in this equation of fishery management. The 2021 report recognizes this link and affirms that NOAA Fisheries is “committed to reducing the number of stocks that are overfished and subject to overfishing, and to rebuilding stocks that support sustainable fisheries in our changing climate.”

Last month, NOAA Fisheries delivered a similar message in a news feature for Earth Week 2022: “At NOAA Fisheries, we know the answer lies in keeping our pulse on population trends, accounting for uncertainty, adapting management strategies to changes, and holding industry and ourselves accountable.” The agency acknowledges that climate change continues to impact fish stocks and, in this latest Status of Stocks report, affirms their commitment to respond accordingly.

The ocean is not at a stasis. It’s changing more than ever with rising sea levels, warming temperatures, ocean acidification, deoxygenation and more. The dynamism and growing pace of climate impacts must be reflected in management response—we can’t delay management action any longer. Fishery management must ensure that we prevent stocks from reaching low numbers for catch, while simultaneously continuing the progress we’ve made. That way, “what used to be” and “what once was” remain phrases that do not become lifestyles and threaten our abilities to fish in the long term. Accomplishing this will bring great benefit to the health and success of U.S. communities, economies and livelihoods.

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