Overfishing 101: How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S. (Part 2)

Overfishing 101: How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S. (Part 2)

My interest in the ocean began when I joined the Coast Guard at age 18. This was the start of a passion that led me to study marine science, work at the National Marine Fisheries Service and help promote fisheries conservation—including through my current efforts with the Pew Environment Group.

Overfishing 101

Like many of my colleagues, I care deeply about fishing—as much as I do about protecting our oceans for future generations. The more fish there are in the water, the better the sport is for people like me who love it. So, the goal of my work is to increase the abundance of fish in our oceans and enhance recreational and commercial fishing opportunities for everyone.

To effectively manage these populations, the U.S. needs to base its policy on science. Few topics arouse passions about ocean conservation more quickly than overfishing—taking more fish from our ocean than nature can replace—and what to do about it.

In my experience, this debate too often sinks into the details and jargon of fisheries management, making it difficult for the lay person to understand the subject. In this post, I'd like to break it down in a way that is easier to understand.

How fish are managed in the U.S.

In the United States, our nation's saltwater fish are managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This is the same agency that monitors weather. It is housed, for historic reasons, in the U.S. Department of Commerce. NMFS, in turn, oversees eight regional fishery management councils that are responsible for making recommendations on how many fish can be caught and by whom. These councils are composed of representatives of state governments, commercial, charter and recreational fishermen, and a few others with specialized expertise. They are assisted by a group of science advisers.

The regional councils develop plans that describe the state of various fisheries (a “fishery” comprises wild fish populations and the individuals who commercially or recreationally catch them). These detail any problems, such as unintended catch of non-target species in the region or damage to sea floor habitats. The council then develops management measures to address those challenges. These plans are then reviewed by NMFS and, if deemed adequate, approved.

Tagging yellowtail flounderTo determine the health of ocean fish populations and provide the basis for informed management decisions, NMFS uses its fleet of research ships, or hires industry vessels, to conduct sample surveys of species throughout their range, recording information such as age, size and abundance. Fishermen, working under the direction of NMFS scientists, often conduct these assessments through cooperative research programs. Additionally, the agency collects catch data from commercial and recreational fishermen to determine the quantities caught each year and estimate how many other species die as unintended catch from fishing, as well as natural causes.

If NMFS allows overfishing to go on for too long, fish populations shrink to an unsustainably low level. In general, the agency defines a population as “overfished” if it falls below 20 percent of historic levels. When NMFS notifies a fishery management council that a population that it manages is “overfished,” the council has two years to develop and implement a rebuilding plan.

The plan must end overfishing immediately and restore the population to healthy levels within 10 years if it is biologically possible. If it's not feasible, NMFS regulations allow for enough time for populations to rebound without any fishing, plus the time it takes to add one additional generation as a safeguard. So, in other words, federal fisheries managers must develop strategies with a target of rebuilding in 10 years. But they may have more time if the science shows that the population will take longer to recover.

In my next post I'll explore why efforts to delay rebuilding plans and legislative proposals to add so-called “flexibility” in managing fish populations are a bad idea that would only repeat past failed policies.