Saturday, May 13, 2006

Is the U.S. still overfishing?

Yes, unfortunately, overfishing continues in U. S. waters.

New data from NMFS show results for the first quarter of 2006. Some regions and fisheries actually got worse.

Since it's difficult to draw conclusions from the opaque NMFS reports, the Ocean Conservancy has developed an overfishing scorecard which looks at overall results through 2004.

One interesting finding from this scorecard is that success levels vary, and it's possible to identify some best management practices that seem to work. These best practices have led to progress in some regions and fisheries. (An updated and expanded scorecard will be available soon, and blogfish will cover the release.)

Overall, much remains to be done. Ten years after U.S. law was strengthened in an attempt to end overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks, managers are failing to meet these goals--even when measured by their own standards (generally: fishing below MSY and biomass above 1/2 MSY)

Are you surprised?


Anonymous said...

No, I'm not surprised. Fishery management in the U.S. is dominated by the most powerful fishing interests, so what do you expect.

Anonymous said...

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SC Sustainable said...

Let's not forget to put this in an international perspective. Though the U.S. fishery management system is flawed, it is still one of the best, if not the best in the world. The U.S. tends to be more conservative than many of our foreign counterparts in internation fisheries management commissions and our enforcement is better as well.

Fishery management is not easy! Not only do managers have to deal with uncertain, and sometimes absent, scientific data, they also, by law, must consider social and economic impacts. There are two very important parts to fisheries, the fish and the fishermen. We can't have one without the other. Sometimes a complete moratorium on fishing would rebuild a fishery, but then we would have no fishermen left in business when the fish come back! Then our seafood supply will consist of imports, which are for the most part not as sustainable as domestic products.

Mark Powell said...

How does it serve the economic and social interests of fishermen to have overfishing year after year? We have many examples of this in the U.S. Managers have allowed overfishing of cod in New England for decades, and now the cod population is near record lows. How is that helping the economic and social outlook for NE fishermen?

SC Sustainable said...

Have you been following what is happening with snapper grouper in the southeast? Some of the species were recently determined to be overfished and/or overfishing. The fishermen realize that this must stop, but many also know that if overfishing is halted immediately and if the most drastic rebuilding plan is put in place, they will not be able to make a living. If they keep fishing they will lose their home and their boat, because they won't be able to catch enough fish each trip to pay for crew, fuel, food, ice etc and make a profit to take home. They can't just sit at home and wait for the fishery to recover either, they'll still lose their boat and their home. It's not just the fishermen though, it is also the dock owners. They won't be able to keep their businesses open either if there is a severe drop in the number of fish coming in. Once a dock closes it doesn't remain an empty dock, it gets developed into a condo, a vacation home, a hotel. If our fishermen and docks go out of business, who is left to catch and unload these snapper and grouper when they recover? No one! Then what will consumers find in grocery stores and restaurants? Snapper and grouper imported from Central and/or South America where the populations continue to be overfished. I guess if we only care about fish populations in the U.S. than that is fine. Recreational fishermen will still be able to eat local/domestic grouper, but what about everybody else?

I am not suggesting that we ignore the depleted status of our fish populations by any means. Cuts must and will happen, we have to rebuild these populations. I am saying that we have to consider the social and economic needs of the human aspect of fisheries. This greatly complicates the fisheries management process. Rebuilding and recovery doesn't happen as quickly as it could or should. Sometimes it doesn't happen at all, and that's where the fishermen and the fish lose either way. No one ever said it was easy to fix mistakes from the past.

The moral of the story is, we need to keep our fishermen sustainable at the same time we need to keep our fish sustainable. It is a delicate balance that will take time to achieve. But the U.S. is farther on the way to this delicate balance than many foreign countries.

Mark Powell said...

Yes, I've been following the problems in the South Atlantic snapper-grouper fishery, it would be hard to miss. I attended the South Atlantic Council meeting in Jekyll Island this spring and saw first hand what the managers are doing. It's a too-typical pattern of fishermen and managers resisting cutbacks until it's too late. A small dose of fishing restrictions could have saved the fishery a decade ago, now it's too late to expect minor cutbacks to bring back the fish and keep the fishery thriving. We need quick action to end overfishing if the depleted species are to avoid total collapse.

What I see is persistent overfishing and a long-term failure by managers to fix the problem. Some managers claim "not enough info" but the stock assessment science panels said the information was adequate for a stock assessment to be accurate.
As one example, overfishing has continued on snowy grouper for more than a decade, and the species has declined to less than 5% of previous abundance. This has happened as fishermen found and fished out aggregation sites one after another. Now there is almost nothing left of snowy grouper and it will take decades to bring them back.

This repeats the cod crisis seen elsewhere. Did it help cod fishermen in Newfoundland to "protect their social and economic interests" in the early 1990s by letting them fish when stocks were in trouble? No, the stock collapsed and now every fisherman is out of work.

Do you approve of Amendment 13C to the snapper-grouper plan, which "phases in" fishing cutbacks? Do you approve of Council Chair Daniels' motion to end overfishing slowly, phasing in restrictions over 24 years?

FishFinder said...

Interesting dialogue. I think the logic of SC Sustainable, while flawed, is the typical reaction. "Who will be there to catch the fish when they recover if you put everyone out of business now?" Trust me, my friend, if there are fish, there will be people who want to catch them. It may not be the folks who are doing it now, and for that I genuinely feel remorse. But the blame for this can be squarely laid at the feet of the fishery managers who refused to respond at the first signs of trouble - citing, what else, but 'lack of data certainty'. Now we are scraping the bottom of the snapper-grouper barrel when we should have thriving fishing communites up and down the South Atlantic coast of the US. Blogfish accurately described the snowy grouper situation. This all could and SHOULD have been avoided twenty years ago. It is a bitter pill to swallow, I know, but necessary medicine if we are to have healthy fisheries. And besides, is the only reason to have fish so that someone can go and kill them? That seems like a ridiculous notion to me. A healthy balance, indeed, SC Sustainable, but recal that without fish, there can be no fishing.

SC Sustainable said...

To begin, a response to Mark’s post.

I completely agree with you that snapper grouper is in trouble and cuts are needed to make this fishery sustainable. At the same time, I’d like to argue a couple of points. We’ll go with the example you used, snowy grouper.

Your quote: “It's a too-typical pattern of fishermen and managers resisting cutbacks until it's too late. A small dose of fishing restrictions could have saved the fishery a decade ago”

In fact, a decade ago, manager did implement fishing restrictions. The models at the time suggested a cut in landings was needed. The managers set a quota for the snowy grouper fishery and it did achieve a 42% reduction in landings (not that 42% is really a “small” dose). It took nearly 10 years to get enough money and time to do another stock assessment and then it turned out that the fishing pressure the early 80s had hammered the stock so much that the 42% reduction in landings merely corresponded with a comparable decline in the population biomass. Sadly it took 10 years between stock assessments to find that out. This is bad news of course, and snowy grouper is in trouble, but I thought it rather unfair of you to make it look like the managers from 10 years ago completely resisted cutbacks and did nothing.

Now I’d like to suggest another example, vermilion snapper – a major component of the mid-shelf snapper fishery with landings approximately three times the landings of snowy grouper – to counter this argument:

Your quote: “Some managers claim "not enough info" but the stock assessment science panels said the information was adequate for a stock assessment to be accurate.”

Not is what the stock assessment review panel concluded: “The Panel accepted that the data used were the most appropriate data that were available and were adequate for conducting an assessment.” The data was appropriate, it was data on vermilion snapper and it was all they had, and it was adequate for conducting an assessment, meaning they could fill in all the needed parameters. They said nothing about the assessment being accurate. In fact, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the stock assessment report:

“There is major uncertainty in determining whether or not the stock is overfished because no reliable functional stock recruitment relationship could be established based on available data. In addition, the estimated abundance indices used in the assessment of vermilion snapper are based on a limited spatial coverage that does not fully reflect the entire stock.”

“Because of the scatter in the stock–recruitment data, all MSY–related benchmarks estimated in this assessment must be considered quite uncertain.”

“...the fact that it was not possible to fit the production model signaled that there was insufficient information present in the abundance indices to determine the magnitude of the biomass with any precision.”

It doesn’t sound too accurate to me....

In conclusion, I do agree with Amendment 13C and its plan to phase in fishing cutbacks. The phase in might give the fishermen and dock owners a chance to find a way to diversify their business and not shut down completely. I can’t respond concerning Chairman Daniels specific motion to end overfishing slowly as I was not present when that motion was made.

Now, in response to fishfinder.

Your quote: “...if there are fish, there will be people who want to catch them. It may not be the folks who are doing it now...”

You are completely right! There will be people who want to catch them, it just won’t be commercial fishermen who will sell their catch to the rest of the U.S. citizens who in a sense “own” this resource too, but can’t access it. The people who will be there to catch the fish will be recreational fishermen. I don’t have a problem with recreational fishermen in the least. I am one myself. I love taking the boat out and bringing home dinner, but I can’t afford to go very often and I can’t go very far from shore, so I can’t access a lot of the fish that I love to eat, like snapper and grouper. I certainly can’t access anything from the Pacific, like cod or halibut, so I want commercial fishermen to go out and harvest the fish so I can buy it in a grocery store or restaurant. I’m sure seafood lovers in Kansas feel the same way.

“...we are scraping the bottom of the snapper-grouper barrel...”

Yikes! That is a bit melodramatic don’t you think? Amendment 13C deals with four stocks which are in varying degrees of depletion. It also increases the harvest allowance of red porgy which is recovering more quickly that expected after managers implemented some tough cuts a few years ago. Yellowtail snapper is not overfished or undergoing overfishing. The most recent info from NMFS (2004) on gag and scamp grouper say that neither is overfished. (A new stock assessment is in progress.) And then there is wreckfish, which has been operating under a very successful ITQ system for over a decade – it is completely sustainable.

There are two sides (if not more) to any issue, and rarely does one person present more than their side. That’s why having a debate like this is a great idea, so those who are not “fish nerds” as I am and you might be, may see both perspectives and make up their own minds.

Mark Powell said...

Hear, hear, SC sustainable! Your last paragraph, on having a good debate, is a major reason for starting this site! Thanks for weighing in, I appreciate it. I'll read and digest your comments, and get back to you a bit later.

Mark Powell

Red Shiner said...

I would just like to add a small point of clarifcation that seems to get overlooked in the fish debates. The current definitions of overfished and overfishing are quite rigid and not necessarily synonymous with unsustainable. The much publicized red snapper in the GOM is an example. According to the latst assessment the stock is experiencing overfishing and is overfished. In this case overfishing means that it is being fished at a rate that results is a low statistical probability that the stock will recover by the target date. However, by all accounts, the stock is increasing. Its just not increasing fast enough to meet the rules. In the general sense the current fishing mortality is sustainable. We could keep fishing this stock at the current rate and the stock would continue to increase albeit very slowly. Unfortunately this fishery and probaly other gets labled as unsustainable in general articles about overfishing. It's true the fishery is not meeting the very high goal of something approaching (but less than) MSY but it is sustainable.

Mark Powell said...

Overfishing that reduces fish populations to small levels creates a risk of lost productivity through many factors such as loss of genetic diversity and absence of large, old individuals which are especially valuable for reproduction. Fisheries models routinely neglect such factors. It's folly to rely on the sustainability of overfishing as predicted by such models. Far better to avoid overfishing and avoid stock depletion. Where stocks are depleted, economic concerns are not a valid excuse for delaying rebuilding. Ask the out of work fishermen in Newfoundland if they would rather have taken small cuts in the early 1980s or the fishery closure that came in 1992 (and continues to this day). For more info, check out research by Jeff Hutchings on the failure of depleted populations to rebuild, (e.g. Hutchings, J.A. 2000. Collapse and recovery of marine fishes. Nature (Lond.) 406: 882-885.), or see his website at

Mark Powell said...

The best answer to SC sustainable is to point out the great resistance that typifies the response of managers and fishermen to scientific advice that fish are in trouble. In contrast, science which suggests that fish are doing well is welcomed with open arms and little skepticism. This leads to fishing cutbacks that are always too little, too late. Managers in the South Atlantic were warned for years that snowy grouper and vermilion snapper were in trouble, but they resisted the news since proof wasn't absolute. Council Chair Louis Daniel still insists the science is wrong. Denial is a powerful factor leading to ineffective management in the region.

SCSustainable said...

Such resistance to advice that fish are in trouble is less common in the South Atlantic than in other regions. The resistance which occurs is usually in response to the poor data sets available for assessments and management decisions. One of the recent criticism of fishery management in the southeast is the lack of up to date data available (but remember, the Council is not charged with collection of data). If Council Chair Louis Daniel doubts the data, I stop and wonder about the data... After all, Louis Daniel recieved a PhD from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. I venture to guess that Dr. Daniel has spent a great deal of time taking an in depth look at the data and forming a well-educated scientific opinion.