Magnuson-Stevens and Stock Recovery

Commercial marine fisheries on the whole are showing signs of recovery.  At least that’s what the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) announced earlier this week.  A recent report put out by the NRDC re-evaluated many previously-overfished marine species, and came to the conclusion that 64% of stocks are successfully rebuilt or show significant signs of rebuilding progress.

Breakdown of US fish stocks including those used in the recent NRDC assessment.  The assessment reported on 44 stocks, although there were over 100 once deemed “overfished.”

In 1976, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), which since then has been the primary piece of legislation regulating marine fisheries in the US.  As the status of fisheries has changed—as well as the science and society’s expectation of resource use—the Act has been amended several times.  In particular, one major amendment (or reauthorization) came in 1996 at a time when the rate of overfishing was near a record high and numerous stocks were in the process of collapsing.  This amendment set forth goals of rebuilt stocks within about 10 years.  Although there is no rule of thumb when it comes to stock rebuilding times (some take a year or two and some take decades, depending on many factors) it was time for a re-evaluation of the impacts of the 1996 reauthorization.

Let’s breakdown the re-evaluation.

The Good

What the NRDC found was seemingly good news—64% of stocks were improved enough to be called a success.  21 of 44 stocks had met their rebuilding targets while another 7 showed significant progress.  Many of these successes were in the Mid-Atlantic and Pacific regions.  Six Mid-Atlantic stocks have been rebuilt: black sea bass, bluefish, goldentilefish, scup, spiny dogfish, and summer flounder.  In the Pacific, seven of eight stocks have rebuilt, including lingcod, Pacific Ocean perch, and several rockfish species.  Furthermore, these 27 rebuilt stocks are valued at $585 million annually.

Bluefish, scup, and summer flounder (L to R) have all recovered from the mid-1990s. (Photos: NEFSC)


The Bad

A total of 16 of 44 stocks (36%) have failed to make significant progress toward rebuilding targets.  Most of the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stocks showed little improvement.  In fact, red grouper was the only species in either region to be classified as a success, although there were only five stocks re-evaluated from the combined regions.  The New England region contributed the most overall to the report—21 stocks—and over half, 12, were considered successes.  However, several key stocks such as cod and some flounders are still in rough shape.  Recent catch limits ought to help these species reach their rebuilding goals, but the limits are certainly not without their concerns.

Atlantic halibut, silver hake, and cod (L to R) have all failed to recover in over a decade. (Photo: NEFSC)


The Rest

Aside from the obvious failures of some stocks to demonstrate rebuilding, perhaps more troubling is the large number of stocks once classified as overfished, but not included in this recent update.  In fact, no less than 124 stocks were once considered overfished, yet the NRDC is only able to report on 44—or 35%.

So why are that many stocks excluded from reassessment?  There are several reasons.  13 of these 124 are managed internationally, which are subject to different laws and requirements than purely US stocks.  These stocks are largely tunas, marlins, and sharks, and are a mixture of success and failure.  Fortunately, several other stocks (including many salmons) were afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act, which is not subject to the same rebuilding criteria as MSA, and many of these stocks have shown improvement.  But yet another group includes many diadromous species—for example herrings and shads—that are harvested in federal waters, but which are managed at the state-level and often lack consensus status.  It would not be fair to say that all of the 80 stocks not included in this recent update have failed to rebuild, but it’s clear that many of them have not.

Numerous stocks were excluded from this recent report, including those managed internationally (many tunas), those under Endangered Species protection (many salmons), and anadromous species who spend considerable time in state waters (herrings and shads).

For better or worse, there are a great many sources of possible error in this assessment process.  Certainly, the fish sampling process may not reflect the status of the stock, nor the assessment models used.  As mentioned, different stocks take varying amounts of time to rebuild, and “safe” levels of rebuilding is also an inexact science.  So the ultimate conclusion—as unsatisfying as it may be—is that there is no clear answer toward the status of commercial marine fisheries in the US.  By our best judgement, some are doing well and recovering, while others remain in perpetual collapse.

Perhaps the bright side of all of this is that the US is amongst the most progressive countries (particularly when you consider its size) when it comes to managing it’s federal fish stocks, and that the successes might provide insight toward other stocks that are more difficult to manage.

By Steve Midway

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