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Overfishing 101: How U.S. Ocean Fish Populations Are Managed – Part II

Note: This is the third post in a series, “Overfishing 101.” Read the previous posts here. My interest in the ocean began when I joined the Coast Guard at age 18. This was the start of a passion that led me to study marine science, work at the National Marine Fisheries Service and help promote...

Note: This is the third post in a series, “Overfishing 101.” Read the previous posts here.

Lee Crockett
Lee Crockett, Federal Fisheries Policy Director, Pew Environment Group

My interest in the ocean began when I joined the Coast Guard at age 18. This was the start of a passion that led me to study marine science, work at the National Marine Fisheries Service and help promote fisheries conservation—including through my current efforts with the Pew Environment Group.

Like many of my colleagues, I care deeply about fishing—as much as I do about protecting our oceans for future generations. The more fish there are in the water, the better the sport is for people like me who love it. So, the goal of my work is to increase the abundance of fish in our oceans and enhance recreational and commercial fishing opportunities for everyone.

To effectively manage these populations, the U.S. needs to base its policy on science. Few topics arouse passions about ocean conservation more quickly than overfishing—taking more fish from our ocean than nature can replace—and what to do about it.

In my experience, this debate too often sinks into the details and jargon of fisheries management, making it difficult for the lay person to understand the subject. In this post, I’d like to break it down in a way that is easier to understand.

How fish are managed in the U.S.

In the United States, our nation’s saltwater fish are managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This is the same agency that monitors weather. It is housed, for historic reasons, in the U.S. Department of Commerce. NMFS, in turn, oversees eight regional fishery management councils that are responsible for deciding how many fish can be caught and by whom. These councils are composed of representatives of state governments, commercial, charter and recreational fishermen, and a few others with specialized expertise. They are assisted by a group of science advisers.

The regional councils develop plans that describe the state of various fisheries (a “fishery” comprises wild fish populations and the individuals who commercially or recreationally catch them). These detail any problems, such as unintended catch of non-target species in the region or damage to sea floor habitats. The council then develops management measures to address those challenges. These plans are then reviewed by NMFS and, if deemed adequate, approved.

Tagging yellowtail flounder

To determine the health of ocean fish populations and provide the basis for informed management decisions, NMFS uses its fleet of research ships, or hires industry vessels, to conduct sample surveys of species throughout their range, recording information such as age, size and abundance. Fishermen, working under the direction of NMFS scientists, often conduct these assessments through cooperative research programs. Additionally, the agency collects catch data from commercial and recreational fishermen to determine the quantities caught each year and estimate how many other species die as unintended catch from fishing, as well as natural causes.

If NMFS allows overfishing to go on for too long, fish populations shrink to an unsustainably low level. In general, the agency defines a population as “overfished” if it falls below 20 percent of historic levels. When NMFS notifies a fishery management council that a population that it manages is “overfished,” the council has two years to develop and implement a rebuilding plan.

The plan must end overfishing immediately and restore the population to healthy levels within 10 years if it is biologically possible. If it’s not feasible, NMFS regulations allow for enough time for populations to rebound without any fishing, plus the time it takes to add one additional generation as a safeguard. So, in other words, federal fisheries managers must develop strategies with a target of rebuilding in 10 years. But they may have more time if the science shows that the population will take longer to recover.

In my next post I’ll explore why efforts to delay rebuilding plans and legislative proposals to add so-called “flexibility” in managing fish populations are a bad idea that would only repeat past failed policies.

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Meet the Author

Lee Crockett
Lee Crockett joined The Pew Charitable Trusts in June 2007 as director of Federal Fisheries Policy. As Ddirector, U.S. Oceans, he led Pew’s efforts to establish policies to end overfishing and promote ecosystem-based fisheries management in the United States under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal law that governs ocean fish management. As director, Crockett oversees all of Pew’s U.S. fisheries campaigns. These include efforts in the Northeast, South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Caribbean, and the Pacific. Before joining Pew, Crockett was executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the largest national coalition dedicated exclusively to promoting the sustainable management of ocean fish. Under his leadership, the campaign helped efforts to reauthorize and strengthen the MSA. Previously, he was a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, leading agency efforts to protect essential fish habitat. He also served as a staff member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, working on a variety of fisheries, environmental and boating safety issues. Crockett holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Connecticut. Before college, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s also an avid angler who enjoys fishing the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.