08/24/2013 - Note: The following was originally posted on The Oregonian website.
When it comes to protecting the environment, too often we wait for a crisis before we're compelled to act. That's especially true of marine conservation. Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface and they transcend political boundaries, and as long as the public sees fish for sale at the store, problems such as overfishing can be easy to ignore.
The United States, however, has made remarkable progress toward ending overfishing -- catching fish faster than they can reproduce -- and rebuilding depleted stocks in our waters. This is largely because of a willingness to follow the science and stick with firm annual quotas on catches that cannot exceed scientific recommendations. Credit this to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law that governs our nation's ocean fisheries.
Pacific lingcod, South Atlantic black sea bass, and mid-Atlantic summer flounder are among the 32 fish populations rebuilt under the act since 2000. The recovery of these and other depleted fish species is good for the environment and our economy alike. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service projects that it will result in an additional $31 billion in annual sales and 500,000 more jobs.
Now, faced with rising demands on our oceans, fisheries managers, scientists, conservation groups and fishermen have begun exploring ways to broaden the focus from a traditional species-by-species approach to one that considers how everything in the ocean is linked together. Known as ecosystem-based fisheries management, this approach considers and then accounts for how fishing for one species affects larger ocean ecosystems.
Along the Pacific coast, regional fisheries managers from Alaska to California are beginning to use this method proactively to conserve schooling species of small prey fish that are a critical food source for whales, seabirds and larger fish. Globally, these forage fish, including sardines, anchovies and herring, already account for more than one-third of the total catch of wild marine fish, and nearly all of this – 90 percent – is processed into fish meal or oil.
This spring, the Pacific Fishery Management Council unanimously adopted its first fishery ecosystem plan, setting a priority to prohibit new fisheries for forage species that are not now commercially sought after until the effect on ecosystems has been evaluated. Although it may seem like an obvious precaution, exploring these issues before industrial-scale fishing vessels take to the water does not happen often enough. It has been more than a decade since fisheries managers in Alaska enacted similar protections for key forage species, with the strong support of commercial fishermen, who recognized the need to protect the prey for the fish that sustains their livelihoods. Alaska now boasts some of the most robust and healthy fish populations in U.S. waters.
The success of this proactive effort and the progress that has been made to conserve our fisheries is encouraging, yet more needs to be done. One glaring example is our response to a changing climate, which is fundamentally altering the web of life below the ocean's surface.
Recently, a study in the science journal Nature documented that fish populations are moving from warmer water in the tropics toward colder waters at the poles. Oceans are also becoming more acidic as they absorb increasing levels of carbon dioxide. This presents an inescapable threat to marine creatures that form shells, from tiny copepods that nourish fish and whales to oysters savored by seafood lovers around the world. At the same time, our fragile ocean ecosystems face rising industrial pressure because of new shipping routes, more energy extraction and the growing need to feed a rising world population.
In light of such challenges, and as debate in Washington heats up this fall on reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Congress should work to strengthen this essential legislation to maintain resilience and productivity in our oceans for the long term. Fisheries managers have made significant progress to end overfishing and rebuild depleted populations. Similar efforts are needed to better account for the role of critical forage fish within the larger marine food web and to prevent the expansion of commercial fishing into new areas without first understanding the potential consequences.
Our current fisheries law has served our nation well, but science has greatly expanded our knowledge of ocean ecosystems. Now those laws and regulations must catch up if we are to ensure that our marine resources are as bountiful in the future as they have been in the past.