Note: This is the first in a three-part series on the plight of Atlantic mackerel, a vital forage fish.
This year, scientists confirmed what marine predators along the East Coast were likely sensing for some time: that the population of mackerel is too low, and that fishing has been too intense for the population to sustain.
While this dire situation has been developing for years, fishery managers have an opportunity to reverse the downward trend with a single vote next week. We’ll get to that shortly, but first here’s some background.
Atlantic mackerel, like anchovies, sardines, menhaden, herring, and shad, are forage fish—relatively small but vital prey for whales, dolphins, sharks, larger finfish, and birds. The fall migration of menhaden along the East Coast, for instance, kicks off a feeding frenzy for striped bass, bluefish, and anglers eager to catch them. In spring, puffins in the Northeast rear their chicks on herring.
Industrial-scale trawlers also target forage fish, which are often sold as bait or ground up for use in fish oil pills, food for farm-raised fish and pets, and fertilizer, and occasionally—as is the case with some Atlantic mackerel caught off the East Coast—exported as seafood.
Once a species in U.S. marine waters is found to be overfished, the nation’s primary ocean fish conservation law—the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act—requires that managers create a plan to rebuild that species “as soon as possible.” In the case of Atlantic mackerel, the timeline for that recovery will be set next week by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
In most cases, some level of fishing can continue on an overfished species without jeopardizing its recovery. When managers choose a rebuilding timeline, they also determine what (if any) level of catch can be sustained during that period. Generally, managers opt to lower catch levels in the short term and raise them as the species rebuilds.
With the Atlantic mackerel population at historic lows following more than a decade of overfishing, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is considering several rebuilding timelines, ranging from three to seven years. The council should select the three-year timeline with lower catch levels so that Atlantic mackerel can recover in the shortest time possible. Longer timelines with higher catch levels risk driving the species to the tipping point of commercial extinction, and delay the benefits of a fully rebuilt population in exchange for more fishing now. Longer timelines also carry more risk because they require that scientists and managers project further into the future just how a population will fare. With forage fish such as Atlantic mackerel, which experience booms and busts more than those at the top and are sensitive to ocean conditions, the danger of a longer timeline at a high catch level is even greater than it would be for other species.
These reasons alone are enough to make the shortest timeline the best choice for mackerel, but there are even more. Some of the rebuilding alternatives the council is considering assume that Canadian fishermen, who also target Atlantic mackerel, will not increase their catch as U.S. fleets net more fish, but history shows that Canadian landings often mirror those of the Americans. Further, many of the timelines contain unsupported projections for how quickly the mackerel population will grow in the future.
The council would set a terrible precedent by choosing either of the two longer timelines under consideration because each would force managers to contradict their own guidelines, created just two years ago, for how they make management decisions in the face of risk. Essentially, these longer timelines are riskier—that is, have a lower chance at succeeding in reaching the goal of a rebuilt population—than the council said was acceptable. Atlantic mackerel is the first species identified as overfished and in need of a rebuilding plan since the council passed that policy. By setting a longer timeline in this decision the council would go back on its word and, in fact, deviate from the clear letter of the law.
Atlantic mackerel grow fast, reaching reproductive age within two to three years, and they continue reproducing for years after that. That means setting a conservative timeline and catch limit now could help this population rebuild in as few as three years, allowing fishermen and marine predators alike to reap big benefits without jeopardizing the species’ commercial viability. The choice is easy and clear: The council should choose the three-year rebuilding timeline.
Next: The backward idea to increase the catch limit on a species just declared overfished
Joseph Gordon manages campaigns for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean conservation work in the U.S. Northeast.