Changing Planet

Overfishing 101: How Science Helps Managers End Overfishing and Rebuild Depleted Fish Populations

NOTE: This is a guest post from Lee Crockett, Director of Federal Fisheries Policy at the Pew Environment Group

This post is the seventh in a series, “Overfishing 101.” The entire series can be viewed here.

I touched on fisheries science in my last post, but here I would like to take a more detailed look at the use of research in setting policy and managing our marine resources.

Industry representatives frequently charge that federal fisheries managers use bad science to make decisions. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Claim—The federal government sets annual catch limits on many species by guesswork because it doesn’t have accurate population assessments or reliable information on overfishing for the majority of species it manages.

Limited data for popular species of reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, has been a known problem for decades. But deadlines in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) to establish annual catch limits to end overfishing and rebuild depleted species finally focused attention on this issue. Now, progress is being made to gather more and better data.

NOAA Groundfish Observer Program
NOAA Groundfish Observer Program

However, some short-sighted interest groups are calling on Congress to weaken the law to exempt certain fish species from catch limits because of a lack of “full scientific information.” Ironically, if Congress removes the requirement to set catch limits for these so called “data poor species,” managers would likely shift their limited monitoring and research budgets away from these fish to other species where the legal requirement for catch limits still exists, further exacerbating data problems.

Claims that catch limits cannot be set for “data poor species” are simply false. Currently available information on basic biology, life history characteristics and catch numbers can be used to set quotas for every federally-managed fish, even those without complete assessments. For these populations, managers can base quotas on current catch levels until more complete scientific evidence indicates that the population can support additional fishing pressure. For example, in June of this year, science advisors in the South Atlantic recommended a quota for cobia, a popular sport fish that has not yet been fully assessed, at levels about 25 percent above median landings for the past 10 years. This sensible approach to setting catch limits is based on the stability of the stock, life history characteristics and other data; and gives anglers ample opportunity to target this fish without risking overfishing.

While fishery managers collect more information on individual species, they also could take advantage of a short-term solution by managing several data poor populations as a “complex” (grouping) with similar biological characteristics and vulnerabilities. Then managers can use one or more of the species in the complex that has been assessed as an “indicator species” for the entire group. That information could be combined with other science and catch reports to set annual catch limits for all the species in the affected complex. Fisheries managers then could use those various sources of biology and data to monitor and set annual catch limits for the whole group of species.

The claim that existing science is inadequate wrongly leads some to conclude that managers should allow unchecked fishing unless or until scientific information can show that limits are necessary. That approach has created disastrous consequences in many parts of the country. For example, managers unwittingly allowed overfishing of South Atlantic red snapper for 50 years, reducing the breeding population to 11-14 percent of what scientists consider a healthy level. Allowing fishing without any limits because of doubts about the data is like embarking on a shopping spree without knowing what is in your checking account.

The failure to conserve the fish populations that sustain the fishing economy is a losing long-term proposition. But implementing firm catch limits, based on science, that prevent overfishing will benefit anglers and conservationists alike for generations.

The bottom line: we have the legal and scientific tools in place to restore our ocean fish to healthy levels. We are seeing progress around the country. We now need to finish the job of ending overfishing and rebuilding our nation’s valuable fish populations.

Next time I’ll explore some success stories and policies that will move our fisheries forward in ways that are good for the environment and for communities.

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.

  • […] and promote sustainable fisheries management. This post, previously published on the and the National Geographic blog, is the seventh in a series, “Overfishing 101.” Read the previous post […]

  • Shawn Sweezey

    I’ve been salt water fishing,the waters of the Gulf of Mexico,at New Port Richie Fl.,for 22 years,and have seen a major decline,in the success of anglers in general! I’ve seen 10′ sharks,killed,only for their fins,and tail! The size of the fish,have dwindled,as well as the number caught! I can’t understand why they imposed a moritorium on grouper,on uour every day fisherman,and not on the commercial fishermen!!!!!!!!!

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