This National Ocean Month, as we take time to appreciate the "big blue," we must not forget to thank its unsung — and gilled — heroes. When we picture a healthy ocean, most of us see one teeming with fish. Healthy fish populations are building blocks of marine ecosystems, affecting everything else in the food web from whales to seabirds. They are also engines of our coastal economies and the communities that rely on them, with fisheries in the United States supporting an estimated 1.7 million jobs.
But a new report from NOAA Fisheries, the 2020 Status of Stocks report, shows some concerning trends for the health of U.S. fisheries.
Looking at 460 federally managed fish stocks and stock complexes, the report shows a recent increase in the number of overfished stocks. Meanwhile, no stocks have been rebuilt to healthy levels in the previous year, and eight stocks have become overfished once again after previously successful rebuilding.
There is a lot to unpack here, but one main takeaway is this: Despite historic successes in sustainable fisheries management, we have a lot of work to do to prevent backsliding of fisheries conservation. This job is made more important due to climate change, as fish populations off our coasts are moving into cooler waters, decreasing in productivity and facing more frequent extreme events such as marine heat waves.
The federal law that guides management of our ocean fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, has shown us that that putting long-term fisheries sustainability first — and sticking with it — can work. With science-based requirements to end overfishing and rebuild overfished populations, we have successfully rebuilt 47 fish stocks and significantly curbed overfishing in U.S. fisheries.
Despite historic successes in sustainable fisheries management, we have a lot of work to do to prevent backsliding of fisheries conservation.
While this progress is to be lauded, the job is far from complete. A number of fish stocks have struggled to recover, and several stocks remain subject to unsustainable fishing rates and risky management decisions. The trends in the latest Status of Stocks report bear this out:
- 49 fish stocks (20 percent of all known fish stocks) are overfished, meaning their population levels are too low and their ability to support sustainable fishing is jeopardized. This includes iconic stocks such as Atlantic cod in New England that are still struggling to recover from historical, chronic overfishing. Around 20 percent (as a percentage of stocks with known overfished status) is the largest percentage of overfished stocks since 2012. It is also part of a three-year trend of more stocks becoming overfished.
- Four fish stocks were added to the overfished list in 2020. One of the 49 stocks declared overfished is Atlantic herring, a critically important forage species relied on by sea birds and marine mammals for food. Fishery managers in New England recently voted to better manage Atlantic herring to account for its role in the ecosystem, but before this, years of poor recruitment and risky management decisions left the stock in a dire state. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, rebuilding measures will be required to restore the fishery.
- Rebuilding progress has slowed. Forty-seven stocks have been declared rebuilt since 2000, but that number is stalling out. Only three stocks have been rebuilt since 2017, and none has rebuilt in the last year. Several other important forage species remain on the overfished list, including Atlantic mackerel and Pacific sardine, as do several sharks and other highly migratory species.
- Eight of 47 stocks once declared rebuilt have since become overfished, again. One of these recurrent overfished stocks is bluefish, an important recreational species for anglers, which was successfully rebuilt in 2009, but 10 years later reached another overfished state. Unfortunately, fishery managers in the Mid-Atlantic region just recently voted to select a longer, more risk-prone rebuilding plan for bluefish that allows greater harvest levels than other alternatives considered.
- Overfishing continues despite legal requirements to prevent it. While overfishing, or fishing at an unsustainable harvest rate, is near all-time lows, it still affects 8 percent of stocks with known overfishing status. Catch overages in some regions, such as the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic, have resulted in new additions to the overfishing list.