Plenty Of Fish In The Sea? It’s The Law!

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

In the 1990’s many U.S. fisheries found themselves in crisis. The fish they relied on were deeply depleted from decades of getting caught faster than they could reproduce. After years of bitter argument and concerted conservation-group efforts, Congress in 1996 passed a sweeping set of amendments to the federal fisheries law, including a mandatory end to overfishing and mandatory recovery of depleted fish populations. Now, those legal mandates are bearing fruit in the form of dozens of rebuilding fish populations in U.S. waters.

By the early 1990s, fishermen and coastal communities had suffered large economic losses. In New England waters, populations of cod, haddock, flounder, and many others had collapsed; leaving fishermen with few fish to catch. Other U.S. regions faced similar situations. In the mid-Atlantic, high fishing levels had reduced popular fish species, like summer flounder and scup, to low abundances. And in the Pacific, numerous populations of rockfish had also collapsed.

So in 1996, to fix the nation’s widespread fisheries problems, congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act, amending the U.S. Fisheries Law [The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act]. The new law required that we rebuild depleted fish populations to sustainable abundance levels as quickly as possible.

Today, we are realizing the benefits of the reformed law.

Scientists with the Natural Resources Defense Council recently evaluated the rebuilding progress of 44 species the Sustainable Fisheries Act has applied to since 1996. They found that 64% of them or 27 species are rebuilding successes! Twenty species have fully rebuilt to healthy abundance levels. And the other 7 species are well on their way to reaching healthy abundances. Scup, summer flounder, bluefish, spiny dogfish, Georges Bank haddock, American plaice, sea scallops, and several Pacific rockfish are some of the notable species that have increased in abundance under the Sustainable Fisheries Act.

And more fish in the sea has meant more thriving fisheries. Commercial fishing profits for the 27 rebuilt fish populations have increased by 92% since the mid 1990’s [54% when adjusted for inflation] – For an increased yearly profit of $585 million. For me and you, it means more delicious, sustainable seafood to enjoy! The increased abundance of fishes has also increased fishing opportunities for recreational fishermen, much to their delight.

Of course, no success story is perfect. Scientists found that 16 depleted fish populations have made limited rebuilding progress. In most cases, this was because fisheries managers had continued to allow high catches and had not properly followed the law. Also, for some species, we lack sufficient information on their abundances, so we cannot determine whether they need rebuilding plans or not.

We still have more to do. But, it is clear that the U.S. Sustainable Fisheries Act, when properly followed, has worked. And its success at achieving healthy fish populations is particularly significant given that so many fish populations around the world remain depleted.

The success of the U.S. fisheries law should provide hope and an example to other countries – If they instituted similar laws, they too could rebuild their fish populations! The European Union recently took some examples from the U.S. fisheries law when reforming their common fisheries law – Their new law requires that by 2015 they set clear goals for rebuilding their depleted fish populations. Hopefully more countries will follow in these footsteps.

And hopefully we will soon have more rebuilding success stories to talk about – Because healthy fish populations means healthier oceans, more prosperous fisheries, and more sustainable seafood!

Please visit Blue Ocean’s Institute’s overfishing page to learn more about the problems our fisheries face and what you can do to help.


Carl Safina is host of PBS’ new series, “Saving the Ocean” and founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University; he writes and speaks on ocean issues. Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.


Human Journey


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.