Are fisheries overfished or not?

Earlier this year, I wrote a widely published op-ed about the lack of stock assessments in federal offshore fisheries management, the basic scientific tool used to determine sustainable fishing levels.

Of the 469 stocks managed by the eight regional fishery management councils, the status of 161 stocks is unknown for lack of stock assessments. 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.

Instead of devoting adequate financial resources into 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. Studies have shown that catch share programs hurt fishing communities by destroying jobs and don’t provide any biological benefit to fisheries.

While more stock assessments are badly needed, a congressionally mandated study by the National Research Council of the effectiveness of fish stock rebuilding plans found that assessments can be flawed because of the lack of good biological and historical abundance information. In other words, much better science and data on our fisheries is needed.

The NRC study found that “data from the most recent stock assessments indicate 20 of the 55 stocks analyzed were not actually overfished at the time they were placed in rebuilding plans...” The study points out that its results cut both ways: while a significant number of stock assessments underestimated stock size, some assessments may overestimate stock size, such that “some stocks classified as healthy” are actually overfished.

For our fisheries to be properly managed, there must be a focus on better science and data, which equates to more accurate assessments of whether fish stocks are overfished or not. This is the very heart of successful fisheries management.

Congress must ensure that NOAA gives funding priority to better science, the collection of better data, and more and better stock assessments. A start would be to redirect catch share funding to these purposes.

Contact your representatives in Congress today and ask them to direct more of NOAA’s funding to fisheries science and data collection and away from programs that actually hurt fishermen and fishing communities like catch shares. Click here for contact information.

Thank you in advance for your efforts!

Tom Swatzel
Executive Director
Council for Sustainable Fishing 

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