May 31 2012

Fish on Fridays: Long-Term Fishery Investments Starting to Pay Off

By Michael Conathan | Director of Oceans Policy at the Center for American Progress.

See which fish stocks were fully rebuilt in 2011.

Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual “Status of Stocks” report to Congress outlining the overall health of our nation’s fisheries. To the relatively small cadre of fish geeks (myself included), the release of this document is a major event. It lacks the panache of the Oscar nominations, but for us it is perhaps comparable to the way the 1 percent gets all giddy for Berkshire Hathaway’s annual letter to shareholders.

NOAA’s report for 2011, similar to that of Warren Buffett’s financial powerhouse, continued its recent trend of positive returns. The topline numbers showed modest yet continued growth in the overall health of America’s fish populations. At the end of 2011, just 14 percent of fish stocks were subject to overfishing, and 21 percent were in an overfished state—down from 16 percent and 22 percent in 2010, respectively. (Recall this description of the difference between a stock that is “subject to overfishing” and one that is “overfished.”)

Yet the most impressive news to emerge from this year’s report was that six stocks have been declared fully rebuilt—more than in any other year—bringing the overall total of stocks rebuilt since 2000 to 27.

Despite these positive trends and all the feel-good stories the report has spawned (in more than 100 newspapers nationwide), correspondence in my personal inbox this week was dominated by references to a Washington Post Wonk Room blog post proclaiming boldly that it had found “The end of fish, in one chart.”

The chart in question comes from a wide-ranging World Wildlife Fund study on global biodiversity, and it displays the dramatic increase in global fishing pressure from 1950 to 2006. The blog piece goes on to reference an overpublicized doomsday scenario article published by lead author Dr. Boris Worm in 2006 in the journal Science. Worm’s study predicts the demise of global commercial fisheries by 2048. Ah, how the mass media truly loves a ticking clock.

The rest of that story, as I explained in an earlier column, is that Worm later collaborated with several other colleagues, including Dr. Ray Hilborn, on a follow-up article that Scienceran in 2009 showing a far rosier outlook on the future of the world’s fisheries—specifically that “conservation objectives can be achieved by merging diverse management actions, including catch restrictions, gear modification, and closed areas.” Sound management practices mean fishery rebuilding is possible.

And that’s precisely what we’re now seeing in domestic fisheries with the slow but steady recovery of fish populations. Our regulations are working—at least for the fish. Yet as always, we must continue to seek the balance between regulations that work for the fish and for the fishermen.

Hilborn hit this point perfectly with an op-ed he co-authored for The New York Times earlier this week with his colleague and wife, Ulrike Hilborn. Their point, similar to one I made in this series four weeks ago, is that when we as consumers eschew overfished fisheries that are in the process of rebuilding under strictly enforced science-based catch limits, we unnecessarily penalize fishermen who are acting in the best interests of the ecosystem, coastal communities, and our national economy.

Americans should not feel guilty about eating domestically produced seafood, as long as we keep strict regulations in place that reflect the best available science and that continue working toward the rebuilding goal achieved in 2011 by six different fish stocks.

 Read the full article on American Progress.


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