The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last week released two reports pointing to continued improvements in US fish stocks. Taken together, they send a clear message: that fisheries nationally are turning the corner as sustainable and more innovative management approaches take hold. Congress should take note.
The first report, the so-called Status of Stocks report to Congress revealed that seven stocks were removed from the overfishing list last year and four from the overfished list. Two more stocks were declared “rebuilt,” bringing the total number of rebuilt stocks to 34 since 2000. Twenty-eight species are still on the report’s overfishing list, reminding us that there is still work to be done. But after decades of mismanagement that depleted fisheries and hurt coastal communities, the positive momentum of recent years is unmistakable.
The second report released concurrently by the agency, Fisheries Economics of the US 2012, underscored the critical role that healthy fisheries play in our nation’s economy. According to the report, U.S. commercial and recreational saltwater fishing generated more than $199 billion in sales in 2012, a gain of 7% over the previous year. It also found that the economic impact of fishing jobs increased 3% from 2011 to 2012. Such year-on-year growth is to be welcomed.
The news in U.S. fisheries is not universally positive. A number of fish populations remain in serious trouble, and there are individual fishermen in some regions who face enormous financial hardship through no fault of their own. We should not lose sight of that. But we also shouldn’t allow that to obscure the clear trend towards more vibrant fisheries that we’ve seen in recent years.
Let’s hope that Congress is taking clear note of what these reports say as it tackles three important issues in the coming weeks:
- Appropriations: The House and Senate are currently moving through committee the bill that will fund the National Marine Fisheries Service in fiscal year 2015. It is crucial that we continue to invest in the management of our nation’s fisheries to ensure their continued recovery and long-term success. Just as we invest in roads and bridges on land, the information infrastructure of fisheries is what allows the economy around them to thrive. As Congress struggles with tight budgets, it must do more to give the National Marine Fisheries Service the financial resources it needs to succeed.
- Anti-Fisheries Rider: In what has become an unfortunate annual tradition, Congressman Steve Southerland of Florida seems set to make another attempt to usurp the authority of local fishery managers by taking an important fishery management tool called catch shares out of their toolbox. Improved management in a number of fisheries through the adoption of catch shares is a critical ingredient in the successes that last week’s reports details. By aligning the economic and conservation interests of participants in these fisheries, catch shares have allowed fishermen the freedom to fish when it makes sense for them, given them a tangible stake in the long-term health of the fishery, and enabled more robust enforcement of science-based catch limits. According to NOAA’s economic report,
“[c]atch share programs are helping to improve economic efficiency and encourage more sustainable fishing practices. They are also designed to produce more fish at lower costs, improve fishermen’s safety and profits, and strengthen the biological and economic benefits in a fishery.”
Members of Congress should think hard before supporting Rep. Southerland’s short-sited and parochial amendment when it comes to the floor.
- MSA Reauthorization: Both the House Natural Resources and Senate Commerce Committees have started circulating discussion drafts of legislation that would reauthorize the nation’s premier federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, or MSA. It’s commendable that congressional leaders are reviewing how the law is working and whether improvements may be possible. But some ideas for reform would turn back the clock, ignoring the progress that’s been made since the law was last strengthened through reauthorization in 2007. As lawmakers in the House and Senate move towards consideration of reauthorization drafts, they would be well served to take a cautious approach, and recognize that their first obligation given current progress is to do no harm.
Last week’s reports are another reminder of just how important the fishing industry is to our economy. We are encouraged that smart management is continuing to yield positive results for both fish stocks and fishermen. Through its past leadership, Congress deserves to share in the credit for this progress. It should build on that success to ensure it continues in the years ahead.