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Overfishing 101: How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S.

In the second post of a special series to mark the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a law that is helping to rebuild America’s depleted ocean fish populations and ensure their long-term sustainability, Lee Crockett looks at some of the basics of why all Americans should care about how our fish are managed.

By Lee Crockett

Fish are an essential component of life in the world’s oceans, with the state of their populations serving as a bellwether of the health of ocean life overall. Unfortunately, many species around the world are in trouble.

Pollution, habitat destruction and overfishing (removing fish from the ocean faster than they can reproduce) have impoverished our oceans. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported recently that nearly a third of the Earth’s fish populations are overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion.[ii]

All too often the discussion around the issue of overfishing has been limited to a small group of stakeholders such as fishermen, conservationists and scientists. To help open up this debate to the broader public, I’ve developed a short series nicknamed “Overfishing 101.” In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the basics of why all Americans should care about how our ocean fish are managed.

Understanding Overfishing

Overfishing is a problem that affects the entire marine environment, extending far beyond just the species being caught. For example, in the Caribbean, depleted parrotfish numbers have been directly linked to the declining health of Caribbean coral reefs.[iii] Parrotfish eat organisms such as algae that grow on corals, ingesting bits of hard material in the process, which is excreted as white sand. Without this species, however, algae take over corals, killing the tiny organisms.

Today, 40 ocean fish populations managed by the U.S. government—including Caribbean parrotfish—are subject to overfishing.[iv] In New England, recent federal assessments found that 10 of 20 groundfish populations—species that live near the ocean floor such as cod—are subject to overfishing.[v] And nine populations in the South Atlantic—the majority of which are types of snapper and grouper—are also suffering from overfishing. To make matters worse, these are long-lived fish that reproduce slowly, and populations would take decades to recover.[vi]

On the other hand, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) the economic value of ending overfishing and rebuilding all of our depleted U.S. fish populations could add up to $31 billion in sales and support 500,000 new jobs.[vii] But to achieve the benefits of healthy fish populations, we must set firm catch limits that are based on science, and those limits must be enforced.

While many fishermen understand and support the need to sustainably manage fisheries, some within the industry balk at the limits necessary to achieve sustainability. They have begun lobbying Congress to revise the current laws and regulations. Weakening existing standards, though, would impair the health of our marine ecosystems for decades to come, making recovery harder and more expensive.

For example, lax management of South Atlantic red snapper allowed chronic overfishing for 50 years. This has reduced the breeding population to 11-14 percent of what scientists consider a healthy level. To reduce the number of red snapper taken, fisheries managers were forced to impose a moratorium, stopping all fishing for South Atlantic red snapper until the species makes measurable progress towards full recovery.[viii]

Weakening federal laws that govern the management of our ocean fish would not only have implications for commercial and recreational fishermen, but also countless others who depend on the bounty of our oceans for a livelihood and for recreation.

In my next post, I’ll explore how U.S. ocean fish populations are managed and why. And in subsequent parts of the series, we’ll examine why good science is so important to rebuilding depleted fish populations.

This series of posts authored by Lee Crockett—head of Pew Environment Group Federal Fisheries Policy and a life-long angler—explores the importance of sustainable fisheries management to the U.S. The series marks the 35th anniversary of the passage of America’s primary fisheries management law (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act), on April 13.

Lee Crockett joined the Pew Environment Group in June 2007 as director of Federal Fisheries Policy. Before that, he was executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the largest national coalition dedicated exclusively to promoting the sustainable management of ocean fish. Previously, he was a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, leading agency efforts to protect essential fish habitat. He also served as a staff member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, working on a variety of fisheries, environmental and boating safety issues.

Crockett holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Connecticut. Before college, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

The views expressed in this post are those of Lee Crockett and/or Pew Environment, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. We welcome other viewpoints and comments, but reserve the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.


[ii] U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) 2008,” p. 7. http://www.fao.org/docrep/011/i0250e/i0250e00.htm.

[iii] M.J. Paddack, et al., “Recent Region-wide Declines in Caribbean Reef Fish Abundance,” Current Biology (2009), DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.041.

[iv] NMFS, “2010 Status of U.S. Fisheries: Fourth Quarter Update,” through December 31, 2010. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/statusoffisheries/SOSmain.htm.

[v] NMFS, “2010 Status of U.S. Fisheries: Fourth Quarter Update,” through December 31, 2010. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/statusoffisheries/SOSmain.htm.

[vi] NMFS, “2010 Status of U.S. Fisheries: Fourth Quarter Update,” op. cit.

[vii] Testimony of Eric Schwaab on Implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act  before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard, p. 3, March 8, 2011: http://www.legislative.noaa.gov/112testimony.html.

[viii] “The Plan to Save Red Snapper,” Pew Environment Group, 2010. http://www.pewenvironment.org/news-room/fact-sheets/the-plan-to-save-red-snapper-329078 .