Snapshot of U.S. Fisheries Shows a Need for Change

NOAA Fisheries’ Status of Stocks report shows the shortcomings of status quo fishery management

Each year, NOAA Fisheries reports to Congress about how fish stocks are doing in the U.S. in the Status of Stocks report. The report focuses on a few key numbers: namely, overfishing in general, or how many fish stocks are being fished at an unsustainable rate, and also how many stocks are overfished, where their population size is too low to provide long-term sustainable fishing. The report also provides details on how many stocks have been rebuilt to a healthy population size after being overfished.

For fisheries policy advocates like me, the report is an invaluable snapshot of where things stand, and for the last several years, the news out of the report has been concerning. There have been more stocks that are overfished, no new stocks rebuilt and a plateau on how many stocks are experiencing overfishing. These trends point to a reversal in progress made toward more sustainable fisheries over the last few decades.

The most recent report, released earlier this spring, tells us that the waters are still murky for U.S. fisheries. There have been some improvements, but there are also still shortcomings and signs that status-quo management is not going to be sufficient given climate change and other threats.

For example, it’s good news that NOAA Fisheries declared two new stocks rebuilt for the first time since 2019. But these two stocks tell two very different stories. One—yellowtail flounder in the Cape Cod and the Gulf of Maine—has recovered to healthy levels over time and reached its target population abundance. The other—winter flounder in Southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic—was rebuilt not because the stock size got larger, but because scientists determined that the target population size should actually be lower than they had previously thought. Essentially, the bar for success was adjusted to reflect a new reality for the stock in light of changing environmental conditions and lower stock productivity. This means that even though winter flounder is technically rebuilt, the stock is still in poor condition and requires careful management. This situation with winter flounder is one we should expect to be repeated more often with climate change, which will make rebuilding stocks more difficult.

Other trends in the report are similarly mixed, as with the tracking of overfished stocks where the population size is too low to support long-term sustainable fishing. In 2022, nearly one in five fish stocks was overfished, a number that remains too high. Overfishing can erode the long-term health of the fishery and lead to an overfished stock that needs rebuilding. Just 7% of stocks were experiencing overfishing, which means the majority are being fished sustainably. However, some of those fish stocks have been experiencing overfishing for years—stocks like greater amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico, where scientists have determined that the stock has been experiencing overfishing almost continuously since 1980. These chronically overfished stocks point to the need to continue to improve the management system. Fish populations that are overfished and/or experiencing overfishing are less resilient to environmental changes and provide fewer benefits to the ecosystem and to people. That’s why it matters more than ever to get it right.  

Taken together, the last few years of Status of Stocks reports make it clear that our current system for managing fisheries is not going to be sufficient to meet the challenges posed by climate change and other threats. In short, status quo management won’t cut it, and now is the time to start making fisheries more sustainable and more climate ready. Thankfully, many people involved in fisheries—fishermen, managers, scientists and advocates alike—have recognized the need for climate-ready fisheries. At a recent panel at Capitol Hill Ocean Week in D.C., the head of NOAA Fisheries, Janet Coit, echoed this sentiment, saying “There’s no place around the globe—and certainly not what I’m responsible for in the U.S.—where we are not seeing ecosystem changes associated with climate that are happening in the same way that they have in the past. It means that status-quo management and the way we’ve been doing things is no longer working well.”

Here at Ocean Conservancy, we couldn’t agree more. We’re advocating for fishery-management actions to consider climate change impacts, so that both fish populations and fishing communities have the best opportunity to navigate the serious consequences of climate change. Part of that work needs to be ensuring that fish populations are at healthy levels, so they’re more resilient to disruptions, shocks, and stresses. Learn more about what we need to do to have healthy fisheries for the future, and join Ocean Conservancy in working towards more sustainable U.S. fisheries.

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