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National Academy of Sciences Confirms Successful Rebuilding of U.S. Fisheries, Yet Suggests Weakening the Rules

David Newman

Posted October 16, 2013

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America’s once-depleted fisheries are now recovering because of strong legal mandates to end overfishing and quickly rebuild fish populations to sustainable levels.  This is big news, especially given the sad state of many fisheries throughout the world these days.  In the early 1990s, many U.S. fisheries were in severe decline from fishing too hard over the previous decades.  In 1996, a bipartisan majority in Congress (yes, that’s right, Democrats and Republicans working together!) amended the nation’s fisheries law to require that overfished species be rebuilt to healthy levels in as short a time period as possible, but not to exceed 10 years unless the biology of a particular fish stock or an international agreement dictated otherwise.  Since then, this requirement has given rise to a fisheries management system that has had unrivaled success:

  • Two-thirds of fish stocks put in rebuilding plans since 1996 have either rebuilt to healthy population levels, or have made significant rebuilding progress, according to a recent NRDC analysis of federal data.
  • The same analysis found that gross commercial revenues have increased by $585 million for these rebuilding success stories – a 92% increase (54% when adjusted for inflation) from the start of rebuilding.
  • The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency charged with managing the nation’s fisheries, counts 34 stocks as having rebuilt between 2000 and 2012, including: New England haddock, Mid-Atlantic summer flounder, South Atlantic black sea bass, Gulf of Mexico red grouper, and Pacific lingcod.
  • NMFS recently reported to Congress that fisheries management in the U.S. has made “continued, significant progress…to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks.”

Our current fisheries management system, which has taken years to develop and refine, now provides checks and balances between the accountability provided by the legal requirement and the flexibility provided by the fishing industry-dominant regional management councils that guide the law’s implementation.  

The Magnuson-Stevens Act’s Rebuilding Requirement has “Resulted in Demonstrated Successes”

In September 2013, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report evaluating this rebuilding effort.  The Report recognizes (p. 10) that the rebuilding requirement of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) has “resulted in demonstrated successes in identifying and rebuilding overfished stocks.”  Specific findings included:

  • Nearly three-quarters of the 35 overfished stocks evaluated have either rebuilt or made progress toward rebuilding.
  • For stocks in rebuilding plans, “fishing mortality has generally been reduced, and stock biomass has generally increased” and “the long-term net economic benefits” have been “positive.”
  • “The legal and prescriptive nature of rebuilding mandates forces difficult decisions to be made, ensures a relatively high level of accountability, and can help prevent protracted debate over whether and how stocks should be rebuilt.”

Successful rebuilding was found to occur in cases where strict timelines and biomass targets were implemented, as the law requires.  Unsurprisingly, rebuilding failed when the MSA’s rebuilding requirements were not implemented effectively and overfishing continued. 

Removing or Weakening Rebuilding Timelines and Biomass Targets Would Be Counterproductive 

Paradoxically, the Report suggests changes to the current rebuilding approaches that have proven so successful, including removing rebuilding timelines and biomass targets in favor of a system focused on achieving specific fishing mortality targets, regardless of whether the selected targets actually work to rebuild the stock.  Think about it by way of analogy:

Imagine you need to drive to an appointment scheduled in one hour 60 miles from your present location.  You know that you have to travel at 60 miles per hour to get there exactly on time.  Unfortunately, once on the highway it starts to rain and there’s an accident up ahead that snarls traffic.  Your speed slows to 30 miles per hour for a few minutes until you navigate around the accident.  To still arrive on schedule, you now need to adjust your rate of speed to compensate for the unforeseen slowdown.  In the world of fisheries, there are many instances akin to rain and unforeseen accidents.  For example, management sometimes fails to restrain the fishery to the target mortality level in a given year, which can slow the pace of rebuilding and require an adjustment in future years to stay on track.  Other examples include climate changes and unpredictable rates of reproduction and predation.  All of these factors are foreseeable, just not predictable, meaning we expect them to happen from time to time, but do not know exactly when and where.  Thus, if we expect to succeed at arriving at our rebuilding destination within a finite time period, we need to adjust the fishing mortality rate to account for these factors.  Merely maintaining a fixed fishing mortality rate and disregarding firm timelines and targets, as the Report suggests, could mean that we never arrive at our goal of sustainable fisheries.  A lack of progress toward rebuilding is exactly what led Congress to include timelines and targets in the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. 

But, don't just take it from me.  Here's what Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council member Capt. John McMurray had to say about the Report's suggestion to forego strict rebuilding timelines and targets:

Prior to 1996 (when SFA was passed), managers were able to put off rebuilding in the name of minimizing economic impacts, and the result was, well, it was chronic overfishing.  It doesn’t take a, brain surgeon, or, ehm, a fisheries scientist to figure that one out.  The longer the rebuilding period, the longer managers, under extreme pressure from their constituents and politicians, put off rebuilding as most federally managed stocks bounced along at a low level.  This hurt everyone in those fisheries, but particularly anglers.  Commercial fishermen, at least the good ones, could always find fish to scoop up via net.  But anglers, using the least efficient gear and having the least range, and who really depend on abundance, were stuck busting their rear-ends to find a 14” fluke.

...without firm deadlines and rebuilding goals, managers don’t have the balls to rebuild.  Speaking from a Manager’s perspective (I sit on the Mid Atlantic Council), I absolutely understand this. 

Even the NAS acknowledges (p. 10) that “setting rebuilding times is useful for specifying target fishing mortality rates for rebuilding and for avoiding delays in initiating rebuilding plans.”  The Report also acknowledges (p. 184) that it is a challenge to increase flexibility for short term socio-economic concerns “while maintaining the tractability and mandate for action that many consider to be a positive aspect of current rebuilding plans.”  Among them is Rip Cunningham, former Chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council.  He wrote recently that the idea of managing with fixed fishing mortality rates without strict rebuilding timelines and targets would likely result in maintaining fish populations at depleted levels "until the stars align to cause a lot of high recruitment events," which even then may not be enough to recover the stock to healthy levels.  Mr. Cunningham "doubts" that this approach will be much help to the struggling New England groundfish industry, and has a "strong sense" that it "will absolutely cream the recreational users," who need abundant fish populations to make it worthwhile to go fishing.   

As another former Chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, John Pappalardo, recently explained:

There’s a long history here of taking a lot of fish and kicking the can down the road.  The evidence is in, and we need to maintain a framework for setting goals and measuring success in rebuilding our stocks with the full participation of fishermen.

It’s puzzling then, that the very same NAS study that highlights the successful track record of rebuilding under the current system - and the accompanying economic and ecological rewards - goes on to suggest weakening that system with an approach that lacks empirical evidence that it will work.  The study lacks quantitative analysis (e.g., management strategy evaluation) demonstrating how its proposal to weaken or eliminate hard timelines and targets would be effective in rebuilding overfished stocks, maximizing benefits to the public, and reducing short-term social and economic costs to the industry. 

While Rebuilding Fisheries Produces Tangible Economic Benefits, “Inefficiencies” in the Current Rebuilding System Have Not Been Shown to Cause Substantial Economic and Social Impacts

The NAS Report (p. 185-186) concludes that the current rebuilding requirements, while clearly effective, can lead to “inefficiencies” and adverse short-term socioeconomic impacts to certain user groups.  Yet, the Report provides no supporting empirical data or quantitative analysis of these purported inefficiencies and impacts.  Indeed, the Report (p. 143) concludes that “the necessary socioeconomic data do not exist.”  Further, it acknowledges that “the long-term net economic benefits” of rebuilding have been “positive,” citing the peer-reviewed literature to this effect (p. 144).  NMFS estimates that complete rebuilding of all U.S. stocks will ultimately increase fishermen’s dockside revenues by $2.2 billion a year—a 50% increase from 2010 revenues.  Taking into account multiplier effects (such as activities of processors, wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants), NMFS estimates that the total sales impact could be $31 billion and that 500,000 jobs could be created.  Fisheries rebuilding has also supported about one-third more recreational fishing trips over the past two decades.  The Report is mostly silent on these tangible social and economic benefits of rebuilding success under the MSA, choosing instead to focus on speculative and non-quantified short-term economic costs. 

The 10-Year Rebuilding Requirement Is Not Arbitrary and Provides a Necessary Mandate for Action by Fishery Managers 

The MSA requires that depleted fish populations be rebuilt in a time period that is “as short as possible” and not to exceed 10 years, subject to exceptions that account for biological differences in fish species, international agreements, or environmental factors.  It has been shown that the great majority of marine fish populations have the biology to be rebuilt within 10 years.  The Report acknowledges (p. 37) that 10 years is a reasonable time period for recovery of many stocks.  The 10-year requirement provides managers with the urgency necessary to reduce fishing pressure adequately to promote fast rebuilding and avoid risk of long-term stock collapse.  Although the Report complains about the 10-year timeline’s “discontinuity” (i.e., different management if a stock can be rebuilt in 10 years versus 11 years), this has not proved a problem in reality—we know of only one stock (Pribilof Islands blue king crab) that even posed this issue.

The Rebuilding Requirements Have Adequate Flexibility

When rebuilding in 10 years is not possible, such as because of biology or environmental conditions, the MSA provides explicit exceptions.  It also provides 2 years for plan development and implementation.  And, under agency guidelines, when a stock has not fully recovered by the deadline, councils may simply maintain the fishing mortality rate in the plan until recovery is achieved.  Councils have taken full advantage of such flexibility and then some.  The Report (p. 81) found that more than half of rebuilding plans had time periods longer than 10 years; NRDC found an average time period of 19.6 years.  Delays of 3+ years in start dates are common.  Unfortunately, some fishery management councils have also even “restarted the clock” with a new plan when recovery targets were not achieved; for example, South Atlantic black sea bass had 3 rebuilding plans before finally being deemed rebuilt this year.

One needs look no further than New England to see the cost of too much flexibility.  To increase flexibility, the Report promotes increased use of the “mixed stock exception” — allowing certain stocks in a fishery to be overfished in order to catch other ones—and extended rebuilding timelines.  The New England groundfish fishery has, in essence, practiced the mixed stock exception for years, overfishing cod (and other species) year after year and extending deadlines while catching healthier.  The consequences have been severe.  Recovery of cod populations, particularly on Georges Bank, has been extremely slow; fishing has resulted in an ecological regime shift, to the detriment of long-term recovery; and coastal communities once reliant on this iconic fish have been severely harmed.  In the country as a whole, it needs to be acknowledged that the rebuilding requirements have not been an unbridled success.  According to the Report (p. 6), 9 of 35 (26%) overfished stocks evaluated are not making progress due to continued overfishing, ineffective input controls (e.g., bag, size, and trip limits), lack of accountability measures, and other “implementation” problems – precisely the type of problems that changes promoted by the Report would foster.

Mandatory Reductions in Fishing Mortality When Populations Decline Would Remove Discontinuities and Reduce Chance of Becoming Overfished 

We agree with the recommendation (p. 5) that harvest control rules that “promptly, but gradually, reduce fishing mortality as estimated stock size falls below BMSY could result in a lower likelihood of a stock becoming overfished as well as providing an approach for rebuilding if necessary.”  However, the current rebuilding requirements of the MSA and National Standard 1 Guidelines are fully compatible with this suggestion.  The only thing preventing this sensible approach to ratcheting down fishing mortality before a stock becomes overfished is the political will of the regional fishery management councils and NOAA.  We support a change to the NS1 Guidelines that promotes that this approach be adopted uniformly around the country.

The MSA is Working, We Can't Afford to Break It

Even as the NAS Report confirms the well documented and unprecedented success in rebuilding America’s fisheries, it paradoxically suggests that policymakers consider policy changes that could very quickly undermine that success, most notably elimination of mandatory deadlines and biomass targets.  While not calling for a change in the law itself, the Report does recommend reversing course on the strict deadlines and biomass targets that have been proven to work rebuilding depleted fish populations.  We believe abandoning an approach that has clear accountability for results and, most importantly, has been shown to work in the real world to restore fish populations and fishing economies would be a grave mistake. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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