North Pacific Fishery Managers Can Help Prized Fish—and Biodiversity

Commission should work towards science-based oversight for Pacific saury and vulnerable ecosystems

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North Pacific Fishery Managers Can Help Prized Fish—and Biodiversity
A pink sea coral made up of many branches—with a slender sea star clinging to those branches—fans out against the black backdrop of the deep ocean.
This commensal brittle star clings to a deep-sea pink coral in the Emperor Seamount Chain, between Hawaii and Russia in the north Pacific Ocean. Bottom fishing has damaged these seamounts, which remain vulnerable but could recover if protected.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2015 Flickr Creative Commons Image

Editor's note: This page was updated on April 17, 2024 to include the source information on the map graphic.

The north Pacific Ocean is teeming with life, including valuable commercial fish populations and deep-sea coral reefs. Many of these species are imperiled by a range of factors but, at least in some cases, could quickly return to a healthy trajectory if the North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC) acts decisively.

NPFC, which is tasked with the long-term conservation and sustainable use of certain fish populations and the ecosystems they inhabit, meets in Osaka, Japan, from 15 to 18 April. The commission’s nine member governments should seize the opportunity to modernize management of the commercially and ecologically important Pacific saury, a small pelagic fish, by adopting precautionary management to rebuild the population. Further, members are obligated under the NPFC treaty to practice precautionary management and should heed that commitment by adopting a prohibition on bottom fishing along the Emperor Seamount Chain and Northwest Hawaiian Ridge.

Set the stage for Pacific saury’s long-term recovery

Slim, silvery fish fill a green container onboard a fishing vessel
Implementing new policies for Pacific saury could improve transparency and sustainability.
Photolibrary

Pacific saury are critical prey for predators including tunas, sharks and salmon and are culturally important as well. Historically, saury has been a major commercial fishery—particularly for China, Japan, Korea, Russia and Taiwan, all countries where the fish has long been valued for human consumption. But in recent years, the population has significantly declined. In response, NPFC has reduced the total allowable catch twice, including a 25 per cent reduction that took effect in 2023. However, these short-term measures are still not enough to support Pacific saury’s recovery and sustainability.

In 2021, NPFC agreed to improve the long-term management of Pacific saury. This year, it needs to make good on that commitment by adopting what is known as an interim harvest control rule (HCR). The HCR, a pre-agreed rule to set catch limits based on the size of the population rather than through an ad hoc negotiation, is intended not only to rebuild the Pacific saury population but also to maintain it at a sustainable level.

Once the interim HCR is in place, NPFC would then need to develop a full management procedure (also called a harvest strategy), a process that should include evaluating a wide set of uncertainties in the fishery. The resulting harvest strategy should set longer-term objectives for management of the fishery and account for saury’s role in the ecosystem.

At its annual meeting, NPFC should commit the resources necessary to advance this work with clear timelines. A robust management procedure offers the best possible chance to ensure the long-term recovery, predictability and sustainability of Pacific saury fisheries and in turn would benefit all the marine life and communities that depend on this little fish.

Fulfill mandate to protect North Pacific ecosystems

A map of a portion of the north Pacific Ocean shows small parts of Russia and Alaska at the top and Hawaii on the lower right, with labels denoting a string of underwater mountains called the Emperor Seamounts; the exclusive economic zones of the United States and Russia; and the high seas.
The Emperor Seamount Chain stretches from the Hawaiian Islands across the high seas, where the North Pacific Fisheries Commission has control over protections.

The Emperor Seamount Chain—which arcs northwest from the Hawaiian Islands—is a highly productive and biodiverse series of seamounts. As one of the more modern regional fisheries management bodies, NPFC requires its members to take an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management and ensure that fishing in its waters doesn’t harm the ecosystem. This year, NPFC members should make good on that commitment by adopting measures that would better safeguard the important and vulnerable Emperor Seamount Chain—specifically a precautionary prohibition of bottom fishing in that area.

Among the life on these seamounts are threatened species, such as endemic and slow-growing deep-sea cold-water coral communities that are vulnerable to bottom fishing activities, which can cause serious damage to habitats. Recent studies have documented the toll that bottom fishing has taken on these corals. Still, the science also shows that they can regenerate over time if protected from further destructive activity. Closing this area to fishing would establish NPFC as a leader in the management of fisheries and the ecosystem’s protection.

At this year’s annual meeting in Japan, all NPFC members should cooperate to adopt precautionary, science-based measures to restore Pacific saury and protect vulnerable deep-sea coral communities. These actions would demonstrate that NPFC is fulfilling the commitments that members made when they established the organization and would raise the standard for forward-thinking regional fisheries oversight.

Raiana McKinney is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project and Dave Gershman is a senior officer with The Ocean Foundation’s international fisheries conservation project. 

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