Saving Seafood From Extinction

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The AP has a vivid description of fishermen rallying in Massachusetts last week to protest the transition to new fishing restrictions slated to take effect next May. Mock hangings and signs analogizing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to Nazis make for good theater, but there is a whole lot more to the story than an agency bent on not "letting fishermen fish." The new regulations they are protesting are part of a last-ditch effort to overhaul the nation's devastated fisheries. Decades of overfishing have left many fish stocks in precarious state. Once-abundant North Atlantic fish like cod, haddock, and flounder are at only a fraction of their historic levels. The problems are not unique to the Northeast: red snapper stocks in the Gulf of Mexico are at historic lows, and at least forty other marine fish stocks around the country are either overfished or subject to overfishing.

For years, fishery managers used maximum sustainable yield to set the catch limits. Unfortunately, those limits failed to account for uncertainty in fish stock assessment models, and did little to promote the goal of rebuilding depleted stocks. Catch limits were often set at unsustainably high levels. Recognizing as much, Congress strengthened the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act in 2006, setting a goal of ending overfishing in U.S. ocean waters by 2011, and restoring depleted fish populations within a decade.

We have to do something or this generation of fisherfolk will be the last--because there won't be any more fish.

NMFS is now carrying out this new mandate: in January it published a final rule requiring fishery managers to set scientifically-justifiable catch limits, factoring in scientific uncertainty, bycatch, and cheating. With few exceptions, this rule means that annual catch limits are going to be set below maximum sustainable yield. Last month NMFS followed up with a proposed amendment to the management plan for many Northeast fisheries, implementing the new, more sustainable approach--meaning significant cuts to allowable catch for many species.

There is undoubtedly much in the new plans to criticize--I have previously expressed my disagreement with the "catch share" approach favored by the agency. But, my dispute is with the choice of remedy, not with the diagnosis of the problem. In other words, NMFS is absolutely right to lower the catch limits (my disagreements are with whether it should do this while also privatizing the fishery by implementing a "catch share" plan). To suggest that NMFS' "faulty science" (see also here and here) is to blame for a fisheries crisis that has been decades in the making is so far beyond wishful thinking as to be willful blindness.

There is no getting around the history: a major cause of dwindling fish stocks has been the willingness of fishery managers to ignore science in favor of protecting fishing communities from more immediate pain. Managers have been reluctant to make the tough decisions needed to protect the nation's fisheries from over-exploitation and to rebuild those that have been severely depleted. As a result, catch limits have been too high for too long.

Allowing this overfishing to continue means abandoning all hope of either stock recovery or a healthy fishery. Such a tactic doesn't do anybody any favors. Overfishing is disastrous not only for the fish but also for broader marine ecosystems, and ultimately for the fishing communities themselves. Those communities are already hurting, and the new restrictions will definitely cause more pain. But, business as usual is simply not an option. Current management practices have not only failed to restore fish stocks to sustainable levels but have often allowed them to deteriorate further. We have to do something or this generation of fisherfolk will be the last--because there won't be any more fish.

It is time to help fishing communities not by ignoring their plight or pretending that a little fairy dust will fix the deeply-rooted problem of fishing overcapacity, but by real investment intended to build the sustainable fishing industry of tomorrow. For some, that will mean finding new ways to support themselves and their families. They deserve our support in that process. Instead, what they are getting is political grandstanding--with various members of Congress who should know better purporting to "protect" these communities by once again jettisoning science in favor of expediency. Fortunately, cooler heads seem to be prevailing, and oxymoronic bills like the "Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act" are gaining little traction. The prospect of a last-minute legislative gutting of the NMFS's science-based approach to setting catch limits is unlikely, but needs to be watched.

As global warming acidifies and warms the oceans, rebuilding threatened fish stocks is only going to get more difficult. Those of us with an eye toward the medium and long-term can only hope that dramatic protests, and behind the scenes political jockeying fail to water down these much-needed protections.

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Rebecca M. Bratspies

Rebecca M. Bratspies is Professor of Law at the CUNY School of Law, New York, and a Member Scholar of the Center for Progressive Reform.
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