WASHINGTON — While most domestic assessed fish populations appear to be managed sustainably, a new report on U.S. fisheries also shows that the number of stocks in danger of being overfished or depleted jumped from 2005 to 2006, prompting government officials and environmental groups to urge formulation of stronger rules to protect endangered fish species.
However, the report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should reassure consumers about the fish they see in supermarkets or on restaurant menus, said John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group. The report also shows the industry is doing its part to satisfy consumer demand in a responsible way.
“The bottom line is that if a species of fish is in the store or on the menu, the stock is available to meet consumer demand,” said Connelly. “It is our industry's goal to provide American families with healthy, delicious seafood now, while at the same time conserving plenty for future generations.”
At least 75% of domestic assessed fish stocks are not overfished, or subject to overfishing, according to the 2006 “Status of Fisheries of the United States” report, prepared by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. By NOAA's definition, a stock that is subject to overfishing has a fishing harvest rate that exceeds the level established for maximum sustainable yield.
NMFS, in reviewing individual stocks or stock complexes in 2006, found the number of stocks subject to overfishing went up from 45 in 2005 to 48 in 2006, while overfished stocks increased from 43 to 47, noted William Hogarth, NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries. NOAA uses the term “stock complex” to refer to a group of similar species harvested together or sharing a similar life history.
“We need to end overfishing and rebuild several additional stocks,” Hogarth said.
An official with a seafood conservation education program, operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, Calif., found the report troubling.
“In general, there hasn't been a huge number of improvements in the number of fish being overfished or subject to overfishing,” said George Leonard, the senior science manager at the aquarium's Seafood Watch Program. “I'm disappointed but not surprised. I'm more surprised how NOAA is maintaining that fisheries are well managed and sustainable and if they're on the [store] shelf we shouldn't be too concerned. Something like 25% are not likely to stay in that condition if their biologic status remains unchanged.”
A National Environmental Trust spokesman blamed regional fishery management councils for failing to reduce the pressure on the fish populations for which they're responsible. The federal government oversees a system of eight regional councils. The U.S. secretary of commerce appoints 72 representatives to the boards, based on nominations from the governors of the fishing states. Council members represent fisheries, environmental and academic interests.
“These councils are political bodies and are influenced by politics,” said Matt Rand, marine fisheries campaign director for the NET. “It's not an easy job. It's hard to say we've got to reduce the amount of fishing when you've got people out there struggling to make a living.”
Environmentalists, industry representatives and government officials are hopeful the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 will make a difference. Under the act, Congress provided new tools and requirements, such as annual catch limits set by scientists and limited access privilege programs, to improve the management of fisheries. Protective measures must be in place by 2010 for all fish stocks experiencing overfishing. How much impact the act actually will have remains to be seen, though, since it is subject to interpretation as it moves through the rulemaking process.
“It's a strong law that has strong mandates to end overfishing,” Rand said. “I think it's a good act. Congress did a good job. We need strong rules to implement it.”
Overfishing isn't limited to U.S. waters. A major international scientific study released last year in the journal Science found that about one-third of all fishing stocks worldwide have collapsed, meaning they had declined to less than 10% of their maximum yield. The study noted that if current trends continue, all fish stocks worldwide will collapse within 50 years.
Around the globe, increased demand for fish and reduced supply have spawned fish farms. While some are operated responsibly, others have drawn fire from activists who contend the farms are not environmentally sound. Yet the oceans don't provide enough wild fish to meet demand, so aquaculture is absolutely essential, according to the NFI, which supports farm development.
“The opportunity exists to grow more fish here in U.S. waters, but we run the risk of ‘missing the boat’ without the domestic infrastructure that is necessary for our nation to significantly invest in aquaculture,” the NFI's Connelly said. “NFI is working with the [Bush] administration and Congress to strengthen the regulatory process that can help provide sustainable, reliable sources of seafood to future generations of Americans.”