When Congress reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 2007, they gave federal fisheries regulators a deadline: establish catch limits and end overfishing by 2011. As the fateful year dawned a couple of months ago, recently retired NOAA Fisheries Chief Scientist Steve Murawski made an historic announcement: mission accomplished. Headlines trumpeted the end of overfishing in the United States.
Overfished vs. Overfishing
Fisheries management is full of arcane terminology, including the subtly different designations “subject to overfishing” and “overfished.” A fish population that is subject to overfishing is being caught at a rate that is actively depleting the population, not allowing it to maintain or grow in size. To be “overfished” means the population has been depleted by overfishing and is smaller than managers consider healthy. Although the two designations often overlap, overfished populations are not necessarily subject to overfishing, and vice versa.
And yet, the most recent status reports from NOAA’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries still list 40 stocks – including 10 in New England, alone – as being actively subject to overfishing. Why?
Emily Menashes, Acting Director for the Office of Sustainable Fisheries, says it’s the “difference between implementing measures and having positive verification of [their] success.” Or, put another way, the difference between belief and knowledge. The strict catch limits put into place for the 2010 fishing season are based on scientists’ interpretation of available information about how many fish there are and also a complex suite of what are known as life history traits, such as life span and reproductive success. Regulators believe that the current limits are set at a point that will end overfishing. But they won’t know that for sure for some time.
The first step toward that knowledge is confirming that fishermen have stayed within the limits. That will come when the total catches for the 2010 fishing season are tallied in April.
But the final confirmation will have to wait for thorough stock assessments. For some species, like pollock, that could come as soon as this summer. But others, like yellowtail flounder in southern New England, won’t be fully assessed again until 2012.
And even if such assessments support taking all forty stocks off the “active overfishing” list, NOAA’s Monica Allen says it’s important to remember that ending overfishing is not a one-time deal.
Sustainable fish stocks must be maintained over the long-term. Because the marine environment is dynamic and constantly changing, we’ve developed adaptive, responsive management to sustain successful fisheries. There will be fish stocks where we end overfishing at one point, but then learn that overfishing is occurring at some future time. Our goal is to respond quickly to continue the longterm effort to rebuild healthy sustainable fisheries.
Menashes says she prefers to think of it as the beginning of sustainable fishing rather than the end of overfishing.