National Policy

The Bedrock of U.S. Sustainable Fisheries Just Got Rumbled

Atlantic cod has been overfished or subject to overfishing in New England since at least 1989. Photo credit: Brian Skerry,

One has to wonder at what combination of black humor, irony, and Panglossian worldview induced NOAA Fisheries to issue its revisions of the National Standard 1 Guidelines in the middle of National Seafood Month. Existing fishery management rules and guidelines have produced the rebuilding of some 40 stocks of fish, steadily increased fishery revenues and employment year after year, led to a 98 percent increase in the Fish Stock Sustainability Index since 2000, and earned world-wide respect. But NOAA Fisheries still resolves to weaken the rules, putting our nation’s fisheries – and our seafood – at risk.

NOAA Fisheries’ followers, of course, would likely show no surprise to the notion of the agency tripping over itself with unforced errors. The agency’s role has not been the key ingredient in the success of many U.S. fisheries, and, at least in New England, the agency has been an active enabler of continued failures. New Englanders have to look no further than the plight of Atlantic cod, which has been both overfished and subject to overfishing since at least 1989.

And it isn’t just cod. New England holds the national record for the number of stocks that are overfished or subject to overfishing, many of them held for decades. The Mid-Atlantic Council to our south, for comparison, has none.

The National Standard guidelines are the written expression of NOAA Fisheries’ interpretation of the overarching Magnuson-Stevens Act standards, which stipulate that all federal fishery management mechanisms must aspire to produce sustainable and responsible fishery management. At one time, NOAA Fisheries staff described the guidelines as embodying the precautionary principle; the principle that one should not claim scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking actions designed to avoid, reverse, or mitigate a threat of harm. In other words, given more uncertainty, more caution should be exercised.

So when NOAA Fisheries finally issued revisions to the National Standard guidelines and proclaimed the wisdom of weakening the prior guidelines in the name of giving the councils new “flexibility” when overfishing is occurring and “streamlining” the management process, many in New England – including former groundfishermen – were stunned. What manner of ivory tower is NOAA Fisheries living in?

NOAA Fisheries’ revisions shake the foundation of U.S. fisheries

National Standard 1 is regularly identified as the bedrock of sustainable U.S. fisheries management: prevent overfishing while producing optimum yield from the nation’s fisheries. Derived from the latter objective is the statutory requirement that overfished stocks should be rebuilt as quickly as biologically possible. But NOAA Fisheries’ revisions seem determined to shake this foundation.

The new guidelines:

  • Weaken the current requirements to stop overfishing immediately.
  • Weaken the rules governing when fish need conservation and management measures.
  • Do nothing to strengthen the requirement that failing councils like New England demonstrate that they are making adequate progress in rebuilding overfished stocks.
  • Take some steps toward supporting new ecosystem-based management approaches that many of us support, but in ways that may just expose many overfished stocks to long-term overfishing.
  • Allow the scientific uncertainty underlying the overfishing limit to be ignored.
  • Change how overfished stocks are to be defined so that NOAA Fisheries can look good in their annual reports to Congress.
  • And weaken bycatch minimization.

Furthermore, the revisions are loaded with lofty normative statements of how NOAA Fisheries hopes councils will interpret these new flexible, streamlined guidelines to maintain and improve responsible fishery management actions – as though they won’t have the opposite effect.

“Flexibility” has proven a failure in New England

The New England Fishery Management Council already has the worst record in the country for National Standard 1 compliance. Studies of the Council’s management decisions – and by implication the regional NOAA Fisheries office that approved those decisions – reveal a culture of risk-taking behavior on the part of the Council, in particular in their management of groundfish like cod and yellowtail flounder. It’s a culture of exploiting every regulatory loophole that can be identified, and even some that don’t exist, to produce short-term profits at the cost of achieving long-term optimum yield. Hundreds of fishermen have lost their jobs and their boats in the slow-bleed of ineffective management actions.

The regulatory program before these revisions wasn’t perfect, but there is one simple truth: the numerous councils who produced successful, sustainable fisheries over the course of the last 25 years did so under those rules and guidelines. And the councils that didn’t produce successful, sustainable fisheries failed because they were “flexible” in their decisions, a practice now encouraged by NOAA Fisheries.

In the face of its track record, the New England Fishery Management Council should have been reprimanded, not rewarded with even more flexibility.

Perhaps some regional fishery management councils have demonstrated the capacity to be good managers and stewards, by taking effective conservation and management actions to produce optimum yields from their fisheries year after year. A case could be made that those councils should be given some additional ability to optimize their management strategies; but, by-and-large, those councils aren’t the problem.

The New England Council has neither demonstrated the capacity to exercise discretion responsibly nor the willingness to put effective management measures in place to stop overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks. They have not earned the “flexibility” that NOAA Fisheries has now given them and they are unlikely to put it to good use.

Are these guideline revisions guaranteed to set back the successes that U.S. fisheries have achieved? Will the New England Council exploit these weakened rules to stall recovery even further or even put healthy fisheries at risk? And if they do, will the regional NOAA Fisheries office intervene? It is too early to tell, but the history in New England makes a strong prediction.


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