Regulation, Consumer Education Key to Fisheries Conservation

By Lea Terhune
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - For centuries cod was abundant in American waters, but in 1992 the Atlantic cod fishery abruptly collapsed. Thousands of people lost jobs, and the region is still recovering.

In the wake of that collapse, the United States set fisheries management standards that have helped some critical domestic fisheries rebound. The challenge today, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is effective regulation of the international fishing industry.

“The U.S. has done a pretty good job with its fisheries. I know we do have a ways to go,” director of NOAA fisheries William T. Hogarth told journalists at a March 21 panel discussion organized by National Geographic, the National Environmental Trust and the Pew Charitable Trusts. He said the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006 provides additional tools for responsible fishery management. (See related article).

The big threat to sustainable fisheries lies beyond U.S. borders: “Can we, on an international basis, keep the harvest at a level that will make sure that the stock does not regress back into an overfished stock?”

Bluefin tuna, prized for Japanese sushi, tops the list of threatened fish stocks.  The species’ population has declined by 90 percent since the 1970s, overfished in response to market demand. Scientists predict bluefin and other species could disappear if overfishing continues.

“We’d like to educate all of the public, not only the American public, but the others, about the risks of consuming bluefin tuna at this time,” Hogarth said.

Fen Montaigne, author of a National Geographic study of international fishing practices, agreed that the United States is on course domestically. “In the U.S. there is really pretty good control - fish brought into port, detailed reporting, inspections - it does a good job. In Europe, it is the absolute opposite.” Montaigne sees it as “a question of political will that seems to be lacking in the EU, in France, in Spain, in Italy. Libya is beyond the pale.” 

Unregulated, gigantic harvests enabled by technologies that indiscriminately scoop up huge catches, at great cost to ocean ecosystems, contribute to fishery collapse. Gill nets, bottom trawling and similar methods capture tons of “bycatch” - nontarget fish, even turtles and birds, which often die as a result. Spawning grounds are disrupted, causing further species depletion.


Effective regulation relies on enforcement by governments and the fishing industry, and changes in the worldwide market. Private conservation organizations now focus on influencing the market by educating consumers about what fish to buy.

California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium introduced its guide to environmentally sound seafood choices in the 1990s.  “The Seafood Watch Card is to harness the power of commerce itself and the market in favor of conservation, and get industry support behind responsible management of fisheries,” Mike Sutton, director of the aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans, told USINFO. It also makes the point, he said, that “we can’t rely on federal law alone to safeguard our fisheries.” The World Wildlife Fund, the Marine Stewardship Council, Seafood Choices and Oceans Alive offer similar guides for wholesale and retail consumers, to steer the market - fish counters, restaurants and homes - toward sustainable seafood.

Albacore or wild Alaskan salmon, for example, have a healthy biomass and are good choices, according to these groups.  They recommend avoiding others: orange roughy – with 100-year life spans - Atlantic cod, red snapper, Pacific rockfish and shark are species in decline.

“Fisheries can recover. Most species are very fecund, so they have the ability to recover if we just leave them alone for the time that it takes,” Sutton said.

The U.S. government, which differs with assessments of some independent research groups, is developing its own “Fish Watch” program, according to NOAA spokeswoman Susan Buchanan.

“NOAA’s perspective is that over-fished species are managed under plans that allow for small, highly monitored commercial fisheries.” She says legitimate operations “should not be penalized by consumer boycotts.” Consumers should “feel morally and ethically sound if they consume fish that were legally caught and marketed,” she said.

Sustainable fishing is a selling point for some small fishing concerns. Pelican Packers, in Bellingham, Washington, cans albacore fished by ecosystem-friendly trolling. Co-founder Judy Cosky told USINFO the cannery was started “to create an alternative market” for quality, U.S.-caught albacore.

NOAA’s Hogarth wants stronger action from the International Committee for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which sets guidelines for management of tuna fisheries and of which he is chairman. ICCAT acknowledges that some stocks are fully fished or overfished but has stopped short of lowering the recommended quota below 29,500 metric tons.

“[W] e have to get to about 15,000 metric tons at least to have any chance of arresting the stock decline and avoid collapse,” Hogarth said. Some countries, ignoring legal quotas, take as much as 60,000 metric tons of bluefin annually. “While still disappointed we could not get a better job done, we’re not finished,” he added, “I don’t want to sit over a commission that looks at the demise of probably one of the most magnificent fish that we have in the ocean.”

See also "Long-Term Data Confirm Fishing Puts Species in 'Double Jeopardy'" and "Accelerating Loss of Ocean Species Threatens Human Well-Being."

For more information on U.S. policy, see Environment.