08/09/2011 - The waters off the Southeastern United States are home to a diverse bounty of marine life that draws divers, anglers and tourists from around the world.
Yet chronic overfishing—taking fish faster than they can reproduce—has put all of this activity at risk. Populations of some popular groupers are dwindling. And there's a red snapper fishing moratorium off the southern Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida because the species plummeted to less than 15 percent of a healthy level.
So during August, federal fishery managers meeting in South Carolina and Texas are pulling out some new tools to fix the overfishing problem.
They plan to set catch limits on dozens of species before they plummet to dangerously low levels. It's like regularly maintaining your car so you don't break down on the side of the road and need an expensive repair. If the plans are done right, managers should be able to ensure that there are enough fish to reproduce and replenish their populations. Better management should help avoid critical shortages in the future that require drastic fishing limits. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing policies in federal waters from North Carolina to Florida, approved its plan on August 9 and Gulf of Mexico managers are expected to act next.
Some fishermen fear these new limits could harm their businesses. But for more species, the amounts will be close to our little above the current level of catch.
The idea is to avoid what's happening with Gulf of Mexico gag grouper and South Atlantic red snapper. Gag grouper populations have been cut nearly in half, and males are in critically short supply.
Gulf fishery managers are expected to reduce the allowable gag catch by 50 percent and approve other measures to help the species rebound. Gag gather in known places, so it's not hard to find them. A sound recovery plan should include expanded protections for spawning areas and habitat where males congregate to give them a fighting chance.
Red snapper fishing in the South Atlantic has been prohibited because the species plummeted to dangerously low levels. Older fish, the best breeders, are scarce, and younger fish could not reproduce fast enough to keep up with higher fishing rates. The gag and red snapper restrictions should help both these species recover and eventually lead to robust fishing and a healthy ocean ecosystem.
Yet protections arrive piecemeal, and sometimes they have unintended consequences. Anglers may fish more frequently for species that aren't protected, potentially driving those populations lower. Waiting for a crisis before taking action is poor fishery management that has allowed overfishing to deplete too many valuable species. Economic losses have followed.
The new plans to prevent overfishing could put the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic fishery management councils ahead of the curve. It's critical that the plans have enough teeth so that fishery managers can act in time when they see species declining. With the right tools and a strong blueprint, they will be able to adjust catch limits as conditions change.
Our nation made preventing and ending overfishing a priority when Congress strengthened the nation's fishery law in 2006. Congress had to step in because overfishing was allowed to continue and threatened the future of our fishing industry and oceans.
When properly implemented, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishing Conservation and Management Act is a tool that can save species upon which fishermen depend. The law has helped many species nationwide begin to recover, including Gulf of Mexico red snapper.
Science-based fishing limits have helped more Gulf of Mexico red snapper to grow older and reach their best spawning years. Early evidence shows that the fish are more plentiful and are spreading over a wider area.
Yet new fishing rules are rarely popular. Some fishermen criticize the data upon which new regulations are based. That is a refrain often heard when courageous managers decide to clamp down on overfishing. Conservation-minded fishermen realize the need to protect the resources we all share.
Most of our Southeast fishery managers are recreational or commercial fishermen themselves. They make decisions based on data that are reviewed by leading fishery researchers and in consultation with a panel of scientific advisors.
The process of studying fishing is difficult. But we have to act on the best scientific findings available or risk depleting our oceans of valuable species and suffering much larger economic losses in the future. We should not allow our resources to reach the point of crisis. We need to act now to secure the future of fishing and our oceans.
For more information, visit the South Atlantic Fish Conservation Campaign.