Fish Populations Continue Decline Ten Years After Passage of Law to Save Stocks

Contact: Justin Kenney, 215.575.4816, Carrie Collins, 301.664.9000 x18


Washington, DC - 06/13/2006 - Ten years after the passage of amendments to the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that required ailing fish stocks be rebuilt as quickly as possible, most fish resources are still in poor shape, according to a study released today by the Lenfest Ocean Program. Entitled, Rebuilding U.S. Fisheries: Progress and Problems, the study will be published this summer in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

To date, only three out of the 67 fish stocks identified as "overfished" have been rebuilt. They are Atlantic sea scallops, Pacific whiting, and Pacific lingcod. Eighty-two percent of fish stocks that need rebuilding are either still below healthy levels or are continuing to be overexploited. (Visit www.lenfestocean.org for downloadable graphics.)

"Healthy U.S. fisheries are vital resources for commercial and recreational fishermen, coastal communities, and nutrition-conscious citizens," stated Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, the report's chief author and Professor of Natural Resources at the University of New Hampshire. "Unfortunately, we are failing to rebuild many of the resources on which our fishing economy depends."

Of the nine regional management areas analyzed, the Mid-Atlantic is the only region where the number of healthy fish stocks, under rebuilding plans, is greater than the number of unhealthy, still-overexploited fish stocks (3 out of 5). The Pacific region is second in its success rate, but fewer than half of its stocks, under rebuilding plans, have reached rebuilding targets or are no longer overexploited (4 out of 9). Of all the regions, New England has the most stocks at unhealthy levels and in need of rebuilding (18), and of those, 16 stocks are still at unhealthy levels or overexploited. In the Gulf of Mexico, out of 8 stocks under rebuilding plans, only one has reached healthy levels or is no longer overexploited. However, none of the fish stocks now being rebuilt in the South Atlantic (14), Caribbean (3), Western Pacific (1), and North Pacific (4) regions has met rebuilding targets, and overexploitation of the fishery continues.

According to the report, the most critical step to rebuilding depleted fisheries is to stop overfishing as soon as possible in order to allow the fish population to re-establish. But nearly half (45%) of the fish stocks under rebuilding plans today are still fished so heavily they simply cannot recover. Unfortunately, the Magnuson-Stevens Act's mandate that overfishing be immediately halted as part of a rebuilding plan is unclear.

"There is good news, however. Our report demonstrates that when destructive fishing practices stop, fish populations begin to recover," said Margaret Bowman, a co-author of the report and Director of the Lenfest Ocean Program.. In 37% of stocks under rebuilding plans, fish populations have begun to increase in response to a reduction in fishing pressure.

Rebuilding depleted fish stocks also provides a much higher economic gain for commercial and recreational fishing operations. According to an October 2005 study by Rashid Sumaila and colleagues at the University of British Colombia, the net present value of rebuilt fisheries (even taking into account short term catch reductions) is approximately three times as high as continuation of current fishing levels ($567 million vs. $194 million).

The Rosenberg study recommends that populations be rebuilt as quickly as possible, and adjustments to rebuilding plans be made during the rebuilding period to ensure the plan is effective. But despite the law's requirement that fish populations be rebuilt in ten years or less except in very specific circumstances, numerous delays in implementing recovery plans have occurred and deadlines have been pushed back beyond the ten-year legally mandated time limit. Over half of the 67 plans have timeframes of more than ten years (some as long as 90 yrs), and only two have a timeframe of under ten years.

Also, monitoring has been inconsistent or absent, and managers have failed to revise plans that are not working. In almost half the rebuilding cases, managers don't have key information about fishing pressure or fish abundance to determine whether a population is rebuilding. In 51% of the unhealthy stocks, managers cannot determine how much fishing pressure the stock is under, and in 45% of the unhealthy stocks, there is not enough information to determine whether the population is increasing or decreasing.

"The evidence is clear. Ending overfishing immediately and implementing effective recovery plans is fundamental to rebuilding U.S. fish populations, which in turn strengthens the fishing industry," added Rosenberg. "But too often, protracted political debate on fishery management measures and phased-in fishing restrictions slows progress while fish populations suffer. In the long run, inaction — or delayed action — only heightens the threat to the health and abundance of fisheries and ultimately will produce low catches for years to come."

Amendments to the Magnuson Stevens Act are currently being considered in both the House of Representatives (Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute to H.R. 5018), and the Senate (S. 2012). The House Bill would weaken the rebuilding provisions of the Act.

About Lenfest Ocean Program:

This research was initiated and supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program. The Program was established in July 2004 by the Lenfest Foundation and is managed by The Pew Charitable Trusts. It brings the best scientific research to bear on identifying the causes, consequences and solutions to problems facing the global marine environment. The Program currently supports research on the ecological, social and economic impacts of current and proposed fishing regimes, and options for sustainable fisheries management.

Read Rebuilding U.S. Fisheries: Progress and Problems on the Lenfest Ocean Program Website.

Note: The review analyzes data collected over a nine year period beginning in 1996 when the Magnuson-Stevens Act amendments were enacted.

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