Last week NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reported its annual Status of Stocks, a document that provides an update on the overfished and overfishing status of many US fish population. (See a summary here.) Overfishing is defined as the catch rate being too high to sustain a population of fish, while overfished refers to the remaining numbers of fish in a given population, specifically when those numbers are low. Fish stocks can be undergoing overfishing if too many fish are harvest, overfished if not enough fish remain, or both if both conditions apply. (Stocks obviously can also be neither overfished nor undergoing overfishing.)
Although stock assessment involves estimates and assumptions, current population models are increasingly doing a better job at helping us understand how many fish of what species are in the ocean. And because fish stocks are dynamic and often changing—not only the biological aspects of the stock, but the environment in which they live and the harvest they are subjected to—it becomes important to have annual reports to understand where things stand.
The good news: NOAA reported only 8% of 308 assessed stocks to be on the overfishing list, and 16% of 228 assessed stocks on the overfished list. A total of 6 stocks were removed from the overfishing list, while 4 were added. 2 stocks were removed from the overfished list, while none were added. Also, three stocks were determined to be rebuilt, which means the stock was previously overfished but has increased in abundance to a level that supports sustainable harvest.
Let’s look at the three rebuilt stocks, and how they improved. Gag grouper in the Gulf of Mexico was declared rebuilt after revised catch limits, minimum size limits, and area management. Golden Tilefish in the Mid-Atlantic region recently had changes in gear restriction and and catch limits to successfully rebuilt, and Butterfish from New England to Cape Hatteras attributes improvements in science and environmental understanding as the keys to recovery. All three stocks took some work, but demonstrate that recovery is possible through multiple regulatory options.
NOAA also reports stock status by US region. In their report last week, most regions were reporting about 3–6 stocks being overfished or experiencing overfishing. The Mid-Atlantic was in the best shape reporting no stocks on either list, while New England came in with the most stocks of concern—5 stocks overfished, 1 stock experiencing overfishing, and 7 stocks experiencing both.
Thanks to the properties of population growth and the life histories of many fish, we can harvest many stocks at relatively high rates. But what remains difficult is knowing what exactly is the maximum rate of harvest—the rate that keeps the population sustainable yet maximizes catch and economic interests. Unfortunately, sometimes stocks are overfished, and rebuilding stocks can be slow and difficult work. Closing a fishery often has very serious economic implications, and even a complete closure is not a guarantee that a stock will rapidly recovery. We still have a long way to go with many US fish stocks, but slowly we are trending in the right direction toward more sustainable fish stocks and fisheries supporting our coastal communities.
Check out the NOAA video below for more information.