Ending Overfishing is Vital to Our Future: A Reminder as Congress Reviews the Magnuson-Stevens Act


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Congress is about to embark on a review of what has worked and what hasn’t in a law widely regarded as having halted overfishing in many American fisheries.  Though we have made progress here in the United States, overfishing is wreaking havoc on the world’s oceans and the mismanagement of our fisheries is the chief cause.  Recent peer reviewed science estimates that 64% of global fisheries are depleted below the levels required to sustain production.

Overfishing can lead to the loss of important species that can upend the balance of critical ocean food webs leading to the further degradation of our ocean.  To save the ocean, we must end overfishing.

One of EDF’s missions is to rebuild global fisheries with the best possible solutions that serve both fishermen and fish so that future generations can enjoy sustainable seafood, fishermen can continue to fish profitably, and our seas are healthy and abundant.  Peer reviewed and published scientific evidence and our decades of experience have shown that catch shares are one of the best solutions for rebuilding depleted fisheries both in the United States and globally.

In the United States, catch shares have brought stability and sustainability to fisheries once in turmoil from overfishing. From the Gulf of Maine, to the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Bering Sea, fishermen have more stable and flexible businesses and fisheries are recovering from years of overfishing.  If you add our neighbors to the north, Canada, there are 15 catch shares that have shown significant improvements in the stability of jobs, revenues and increased safety.  All over the world fishermen are learning form the work that American fishermen and fishery managers have done to save our nation’s fisheries.

Catch shares have not been a silver bullet in this effort.  In some cases, setting catch limits and aggressive enforcement can be enough to make sure a fishery is sustainable, but in many cases catch limits alone produce derby fishing, where fishermen race to fish in short, unsafe seasons, make very little money, and often lose their businesses – all while the health of the fishery continues to fail.

Science-based catch limits are the bedrock of any catch share program.  Catch shares give fishermen an economic incentive to stay within those limits, practically guaranteeing an end to overfishing.  The Gulf of Mexico commercial red snapper fishery has been managed under a catch share for more than five years. Before the catch share, fishermen were often exceeding their catch limit and racing in derby seasons that continued to get shorter and shorter. These derbies were unsafe, sometimes unprofitable and were doing nothing to help rebuild the fishery.

For the last five years, commercial red snapper fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico have seen their fishery prosper through a rebuilding effort under catch shares. Commercial fishermen have seen increases in their catch limit, stable prices and better paying jobs, as well as impressive reductions in wasted fish and the flexibility they need to run successful businesses.

Beyond on-the-water examples, peer reviewed scientific studies of catch shares from around the world show that catch shares can assure the long term sustainability of fish stocks and maximize the social and economic value created by the sustainable use of the fishery. Furthermore, catch shares consistently succeed where conventional management approaches have failed. Specifically, research and experience shows catch shares:

  • Prevent, and even reverse the collapse of fish stocks (Costello et al., 2008)
  • Ensure participants comply with catch limits (Branch, 2008)
  • End the race for fish (Essington, 2010)
  • Stabilize fishery landings and catch limits (Essington, 2010)
  • Reduce ecological waste, such as discards and bycatch (Branch, 2008; Essington 2010)
  • Provide stability to industry through well-paid, safer, sustainable jobs (McCay, 1995; Crowley and Palsson 1992; GSGislason and Associates, Ltd., 2008; Knapp, 2006)
  • Increase the profits and values of fisheries (Grafton et al., 2000; Newell et al., 2005)

Catch shares are not a panacea and we must constantly be looking for way to make sure they are designed well.  In the United States, decades of mismanagement and overfishing had led to the massive consolidation of the U.S. fishing industry.  Catch share management is a tool which can be used to manage this consolidation as the fishery rebuilds.    In some cases though, the combination of previous overfishing, mismanagement of the fisheries and new impacts from climate change has perpetuated consolidation even after the implementation of catch shares.

While this consolidation has been difficult for fishermen, new policy tools can help — while going back to the old, failed system would be disastrous. In New England, for example, EDF has advocated for concentration limits, a common feature in most modern catch shares, to protect small operators and to ensure that no one fisherman holds too large a stake in the fishery.

With 3 billion people worldwide who depend on seafood for protein, this issue extends beyond the environment. We have a moral imperative to restore fisheries across the globe, so that our generation and future generations can count on this important source of food and livelihoods. Empowering fishermen to be the primary stewards of their resource is a strategy that is proven to work.

Ending global overfishing is not just important for the conservation of our ocean.  Ensuring the sustainability of the world’s fisheries will pump billions of dollars into the economy and ultimately improve the lives of fishermen.  The road may not be easy but the status quo of global fishery depletion is an option no one can afford. We will continue to innovate and work with fishermen to find solutions that work for both the resource and the communities that depend on it.

For more information see our recent statement here.


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