In the dark about sustainable fishing levels

Did you know that offshore fish stocks that are either experiencing overfishing (the annual rate of catch is too high) or are overfished (the population size is too small) are at all-time lows?

According to the latest NOAA Status of U.S. Fish Stocks report, of the 308 fish stocks managed by the eight regional fishery management councils with a known stock status, 92 percent are not experiencing overfishing and 84 percent are not overfished. In the South Atlantic region (the Carolinas, Georgia and east Florida), out of all the stocks managed, only six species (all in the snapper-grouper fishery) are either experiencing overfishing or are overfished.

While all of this is good news, there is some bad news concerning fish stocks.

Of the 469 stocks managed by the fishery councils, the status of 161 stocks is unknown for lack of stock assessments, the basic scientific tool used to determine sustainable fishing levels. In the South Atlantic, of the 59 species in the snapper-grouper fishery, the stock status is unknown for 76 percent or 45 species. Additionally, the status is unknown for important top-water species like dolphin (mahi) and wahoo.

For stocks with an unknown status, the only way to set an annual catch limit is to use historical landings, which has no real scientific basis, and can unfairly penalize fishermen with artificially low catch limits.

Adequate resources are not being devoted by NOAA into stock assessments. Over the last 10 years in the South Atlantic, an average of only three stock assessments have been conducted per year.

Not only have many stocks never been assessed, assessments of economically important species can be too far in between. An example is black sea bass, which was in a rebuilding plan and went six years between assessments. Many believe the black sea bass stock was rebuilt early, but because assessments are required to change the annual catch limits, fishermen could not take advantage of the rebuilt stock for lack of a timely assessment and had to suffer through some very short seasons. Other examples are vermilion snapper and king mackerel, which have had five years between assessments.

How can more NOAA financial resources be devoted to stock assessments?

NOAA has spent about $160 million over the last six years pushing its National Catch Share Policy in an effort to privatize fisheries by giving commercial fishermen “shares” in fisheries based on catch history, which can be bought and sold like shares on Wall Street.

Catch share programs tend to benefit large corporate fleets that can buy up shares and hurt small fishermen who cannot. Studies have shown that catch share programs hurt fishing communities by destroying jobs and don’t provide any biological benefit to fisheries. A recent National Fisherman editorial entitled “A five-year failure” says the New England groundfish catch share program “may actually be damaging the ecosystem.”

Proposals for catch share programs in the South Atlantic snapper-grouper fishery have been met with overwhelming opposition by recreational and commercial fishermen.

It’s time for Congress to ensure that NOAA funds being spent in a misguided effort to privatize our fisheries through catch share programs -- something that has nothing to do with improving fishery sustainability -- are reallocated to better assessing the sustainability of our fish stocks, so fishery managers and fishermen are not in the dark about sustainable fishing levels.

Tom Swatzel
Executive Director
Sustainablefishing.org


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