Saving Our Fisheries

by Rebecca Bratspies

February 24, 2010

A few thousand fishermen and women are making port in Washington, D.C. today to rally against the best hope for the future of fishing. They don’t see it that way, of course, but a look at the evidence leaves no other conclusion.

The simple truth is that American waters have been overfished for years. When boats take out more fish than nature can replace, fish populations shrink. If fishing efforts doesn’t decrease to match the smaller fish population, the resulting overfishing creates a vicious cycle—each year’s catch takes a bigger and bigger percentage of the remaining fish, until finally there are so few fish that the entire fishery, and the jobs depending upon fishing, disappear. Unfortunately, we have reached that point of collapse with many of our northeast fisheries, like winter flounder, which is below 10 percent of the targeted level; and American Shad, which is at an all-time low.

The crisis has been a long time coming. Like many other countries, the United States spent decades letting the immediate needs of fishing communities guide its fishing plans—and the result has been disastrous. In late 2006, Congress wisely decided that business as usual would drive overfished stocks to extinction. In its reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Congress recognized a critical failing in past efforts to stem overfishing: overly optimistic estimates of the “maximum sustainable yield” that could sustainably be fished. They gave the fishing industry too much credit for staying within the limits, and the fish themselves too little time to repopulate.

So, the National Marine Fisheries Service now sets annual catch limits below the maximum sustainable yield estimates. The lower levels provide a cushion to protect fish stocks from unforeseen events, mistakes in the fish population estimates used to set harvest limits, bycatch, or some folks fishing over their limits. Including this kind of margin of error makes good sense, given how many uncertainties there are, and how critical it is to make sure we don’t drive fish stocks to extinction. At long last, these new rules end the practice of tailoring science to fit politics.

From the perspective of the men and women who fish for a living, however, the new rules are a double whammy. The maximum sustainable yield estimates were reduced, and then the annual catch targets were reduced even more, just to be sure.

Environmental protection is often portrayed as a false choice between the economy and the environment, and the fishing industry is falling back on this tactic, warning of dire economic consequences unless Congress extends Magnuson-Stevens’ ten-year deadline for rebuilding fish stocks. That’s exactly how we got into this crisis in the first place. It’s true that the lower fishing limits pit the short-term economic interests of today’s fishers against the effort to sustain and rebuild fish stocks for tomorrow. But it’s also true that today’s lower limits are vital if those same folks want to have any future in fishing. This isn’t a choice between protecting the fish and protecting the fishing communities. We need to do both -- and that should include federal assistance to those communities. These long-overdue changes are the answer.

Years of overfishing created this crisis, and years of toothless regulations did nothing to stop it. Too many science-based recovery targets were watered down to accommodate political interests. It is time to get off this slippery slope once and for all.

The men and women who actually do the fishing do a hard, dangerous job, and they deserve our respect. But they are lobbying against their long-term economic interests. If our American fisheries collapse, as they are on a trajectory to do, the companies that put fish sticks in your grocer’s freezer case will survive by importing fish from elsewhere and raising prices on consumers. But the Americans who do the hard work of pulling up fish from the sea will be out of a job.

That’s exactly why the new rules, their tough short-term impact notwithstanding, make sense. The pain of reducing catch limits today pales in comparison to the prospect of losing the entire American fishing industry several years down the road.

Rebecca Bratspies wrote previously on the limitations of catch shares and critiqued Senator Snowe's International Fisheries Agreement Clarification Act.

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Rebecca M. Bratspies is Professor of Law at the CUNY School of Law, New York, New York.

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