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Ending Overfishing and Rebuilding Fish Stocks

Rachel O’Malley, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, Partnerships and Communications Division

Source: NOAA Earth System Monitor July 2009

Americans consumed nearly five billion pounds of seafood in 2007. With a growing global demand for seafood, it is a priority for NOAA Fisheries Service to end overfishing and return overfished stocks to sustainable levels. U.S. commercial fishing industries—seafood harvesters, processors, dealers, wholesalers, and retailers—generate $103 billion in annual sales, $44 billion in annual income, and support 1.5 million jobs. Recreational fishing generates an annual $82 billion in sales, $24 billion in income, and supports 534,000 jobs in the United States. And, looking at the larger picture, fish also have inherent value as a critical part of marine ecosystems. With much at stake, new legal requirements and innovative management tools are changing the nature of fishery management.

The primary authority for fishery management in the United States is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. This Act was reauthorized in 2006, with new provisions that include a strict timetable for ending overfishing. The law recognizes annual catch limits (species-specific quotas) as the primary conservation tool for achieving the goal of sustainable fisheries. By law, NOAA must adopt annual catch limits by 2010 for stocks that are subject to overfishing and by 2011 for other stocks. Some flexibility exists for stocks that are managed by international agreement. Currently, overfishing is occurring on 41 stocks, mostly in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. In January 2009, NOAA Fisheries finalized guidance that calls for strong accountability measures to prevent annual catch limits from being exceeded and to address any overharvests quickly.

Another important factor in fishery management is catch shares. These are sectors, cooperatives, limited access privilege programs, and individual fishing quotas that provide dedicated access to eligible fishermen and businesses. The United States now has 12 catch share programs in place, which account for nearly 20% of U.S. landings by value. These programs offer flexibility, allowing captains to control when and how they fish for their share of the quota. As a result, top-quality seafood can be available to meet market demand. Participants have seen higher profits, lower costs, and longer fishing seasons. Recent scientific analyses have shown that fisheries managed with catch shares are more stable and productive. They can also help maintain and restore the health of marine ecosystems and support local fishing communities.

Ending overfishing is just the first step in the process of rebuilding an individual stock. It can take years for a fish population to respond and reproduce to a level that supports the maximum sustainable yield. NOAA scientists are constantly evaluating progress toward this goal through individual stock assessments. Every year, NOAA submits a report to Congress on the Status of U.S. Fisheries. In the most recent report, released in May 2009, NOAA announced that four stocks—Atlantic bluefish, Gulf of Mexico king mackerel, and two stocks of monkfish in the Atlantic—have been fully rebuilt. This is the largest number of stocks to be declared rebuilt in a single year since NOAA declared the first stock successfully rebuilt in 2001. In total, 77% of U.S. stocks are not considered overfished.


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