National Policy

NOAA Reports on Status of the Stocks

Photo credit: Joachim S. Mueller.

NOAA Fisheries recently released the Status of the Stocks 2017 report. This report is an annual update to Congress on the condition of managed fisheries in the United States and provides the opportunity to reflect on the year’s progress as well as identify opportunities for improvement.

Overall, U.S. fisheries are still moving in a positive direction, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) continues to generally deliver on its promise to produce optimum yield from the nation’s managed fisheries. According to the report, only 9 percent of stocks are subject to overfishing, which is consistent with 2016 numbers, and 15 percent of stocks are overfished – the lowest number ever. Also, three more stocks were moved to the rebuilt list, bringing the total number of rebuilt stocks to 44 since 2000.

Maximum ecological benefits and fisheries benefits will only be reached when no stocks are overfished or subject to overfishing, but nonetheless, these numbers show that the U.S. must be doing something right when it comes to fisheries management. That, and they certainly give the United States and most U.S. fishermen well-deserved bragging rights around the world.

Keep Management Strong

It would be difficult to overstate the fact that the key to success of sustainable fisheries in the U.S. has been a strong federal fisheries law: the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The Congressional amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1996 and 2006 strengthened the conservation and science-based management provisions, which in turn have been an essential factor in helping our fisheries achieve the status they have today.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is once again due for reauthorization. Rather than the strong bipartisan effort that has historically promoted healthy fisheries and the communities that depend on them, however, the MSA is now under attack from multiple fronts in Congress.

One bill that could come to a full House vote at any time, H.R. 200, threatens to undo the progress that has been made over the last forty-plus years. Lawmakers say H.R. 200 allows more “flexibility” in fisheries management, when in reality it creates more loopholes around science-based catch limits and weakens rebuilding requirements. It also dangerously prioritizes extractive fishing practices over foundational environmental protection laws.

If we want our fisheries to continue moving in a positive direction – particularly when they face the added pressures of adapting to stock shifts and productivity changes arising from warming waters and other impacts of climate change – Congress must keep management strong. At a bare minimum, Congress must maintain the conservation and science-based principles of the MSA that have made it such a success.

Opportunities for Improvement

As said above, the Magnuson-Stevens Act is generally delivering on its promises. New England fisheries are clear outliers in the Status of the Stocks report once again, and not in a good way.

New England has 14 stocks on the overfished list – more than all other regions combined. Also, six New England stocks are still subject to overfishing; only the South Atlantic region and the federally managed highly migratory species fishery have more. Some of these stocks like cod have been overfished and subject to overfishing for decades, since standards were first quantified in the region.

The prognosis, unfortunately, is not good.

New England fishery managers recently reduced essential fish habitat protections in the region and increased catch limits for overfished species like Atlantic cod. These decisions are hardly likely to help these struggling stocks recover. Also, New England already operates under a more “flexible” MSA when it comes to rebuilding timelines, and the results of that fiasco are still playing out ecologically to the disadvantage of the region’s fishermen.

New England fishery managers should instead be using a precautionary approach to management, focusing on achieving accountability and ensuring accurate reporting of catch to prevent overfishing. It is also time to transition to ecosystem-based fisheries management to account for important fish interactions with habitat and prey species. Several key management actions are percolating up through the system that may offer promise in these areas.

Right now though, hopefully, the Status of the Stocks 2017 report is a wake-up call to Congress not to break something that is working surprisingly well in most fisheries around the nation.


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