New England Fisheries

NMFS Receives Failing Grades on 2018 Status Report

In New England, Atlantic cod has been overfished and subject to overfishing for decades. Image via NOAA.

When I went to school a long time ago, we had to get our parent’s signature on the report card and return it to the teacher. Some terms, I wanted to forge the signature rather than face the music at home. Other times, I tried to focus my parent’s review on the great grade I got in shop class in hopes of distracting them from my math grade.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is lucky that no one has to sign its stock status report cards because they have been repeatedly flunking in two areas: the fish stocks managed exclusively by the New England Fishery Management Council and the highly migratory species managed by NMFS itself.

It’s time for NMFS to stop hiding its bad grades.

Progress, but not really

Every year, NMFS submits a report to Congress on the status of U.S. fisheries, highlighting the agency’s progress towards achieving the goals of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that were established over 40 years ago—produce optimum yield while preventing overfishing. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, and specifically the conservation- and science-based management measures contained in it, has helped the U.S. lead the world in sustainable fisheries management. And so, NMFS’s 2018 Status of the Stocks Report has a lot of good news for most of the country and the coastal economies that depend on healthy, sustainably-harvested seafood.

Chris Oliver, the head of NMFS and a consistently successful leader during his time running the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, reported with justifiable pride that 91% of managed U.S. fish stocks are not subject to overfishing and 82% are not overfished. Science-based and effectively managed fisheries, he reported, generated more than $212 billion in sales and some 1.7 million jobs in recent years. Additionally, under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, NMFS has rebuilt 45 stocks to healthy levels since 2000, one of which was even a New England Council-managed stock—the Gulf of Maine smooth skate—rebuilt in nine years as a result of “strict management.”

What Mr. Oliver fails to mention, even once, in his review of NMFS’s report card is the fact that NMFS continues to fail in two areas: the New England Council-managed stocks and the NMFS-managed stocks (note that NMFS has ultimate authority over the New England Council-managed stocks). The stocks managed by these two entities comprise 56% of the Nation’s remaining 43 overfished stocks and 50% of the 28 stocks still subject to overfishing. Of the overfished stocks that are still subject to overfishing, New England Council- and NMFS-managed stocks comprise 82% of the total.

More than a decade ago, Congress ordered NMFS to develop rebuilding plans for overfished stocks that immediately stop overfishing. Five of New England’s stocks that are in rebuilding plans are still subject to overfishing. And Mr. Oliver also fails to mention that many of these species, like Atlantic cod, have been in this overfished/overfishing status for decades.

The next closest council to New England’s record 15 overfished stocks and 7 stocks subject to overfishing is the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council with 5 overfished stocks and 6 stocks subject to overfishing. New England’s neighboring council, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, has no overfished stocks and only one stock subject to overfishing.

Something is clearly wrong in our region.

NMFS must be accountable for both success and failure

These persistent management failings are not simply bad reflections on the reputations of NMFS and U.S. fisheries. The impacts of NMFS’s actions, or lack thereof, extend well beyond the consequences to the fish populations. There are substantial opportunity costs associated with these failures: losses in revenues and coastal fishing jobs are the price the U.S. pays for poor management.

The agency can’t be very proud of this persistent black stain on its otherwise positive performance. But management won’t improve, nor will affected stocks rebuild, until NMFS starts to hold itself as accountable for its poor performances as it does for its successes. The remedy is not difficult and can be found in Mr. Oliver’s own remarks: strict management. Strick management has been found over and over to lead directly to stock rebuilding, stock health, increased revenues, and increased jobs.

It isn’t too much to ask for progress and success with all the nation’s fisheries; they are, after all, a public resource. And it should not be too much for NMFS to deliver progress and success to all the nation’s fisheries. Mr. Oliver, you are capable, surprise us: we’ll gladly even settle for a “C” next time around.


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