have shown that responsible fisheries management practices, including catch monitoring, have clear environmental and economic advantages. By analyzing thousands of fisheries around the world, researchers have found the benefits of sustainable management policies outweigh the costs by an average ratio of 10-to-1. The responsible management of fisheries not only helps a fisherman’s bottom line, but also the long-term viability of the industry and the overall health of the oceans.
Bycatch, or the capture of non-target species, is a serious threat to the sustainability of fisheries. Researchers estimate that between 17 and 22 percent of the fish caught in the United States are actually thrown out as wasted catch. In fact, the decline of the iconic Atlantic cod population in New England is due in part to the bycatch of this species by fisheries in this region. By discarding around 2 billion pounds of non-targeted seafood every year, the amount of fish thrown away in the U.S. is equivalent to the entire annual catch of some other fishing nations around the world. This practice is not only wasteful, but if not carefully measured and controlled, also endangers the continued abundance of fish stocks that fishermen depend on.
In order to effectively monitor bycatch, impartial observers are assigned to a portion of a fishery’s trips out on the water. While onboard, observers count how many fish are caught, (including the ones that are thrown back overboard), measure the catches and record where fishing occurs. Accurate and independent observer monitoring provides crucial information to help ensure that catch limits are being respected and that periodic assessments of fish populations more accurately reflect what is really happening in the water.
In 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act became the primary law governing federally managed fisheries in the United States. This law includes provisions to prevent overfishing, to rebuild stocks that have been overfished, and to minimize the amount of wasted catch through catch-data reporting. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is meant to be enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) which coordinates eight regional fishery management councils ranging from New England to the Western Pacific. Until 2007, however, NMFS did not have a standardized way to count the number of fish being taken out of the water by Northeast federal fisheries. Each fishery was (or in some cases, was not) monitored based on politics and one-off actions, but there was no central plan to adequately count and report the amount of catch, especially wasted catch that is thrown overboard, in every fishery.
Fishermen have already seen the consequences of failed monitoring firsthand. The Northeast region has already seen the crash of the New England groundfish fishery, which includes the Atlantic cod populations. In 2008, Oceana successfully sued NMFS, claiming it violated the Magnuson-Stevens Act by not establishing an adequate catch reporting method in New England. This Oceana lawsuit resulted in the federal government working with the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils to create its first plan for monitoring catch in the Northwest fisheries last June.
On July 29, Oceana again filed a lawsuit against NMFS, claiming NMFS has continued to disregard rulings from previous lawsuits, and that the current bycatch reporting proposal in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic is underfunded and will fail to provide accurate information on fisheries management. Funding an adequate number of observers is essential to the long-term viability of all fisheries, including those in New England. If allowed to continue, unmonitored amounts of bycatch will exacerbate overfishing and lead to diminished catches and lower profits. Holding the federal government accountable for long-term management is essential for getting the reliable data our oceans’ health depends on.
The short term burdens that come from proper monitoring are small compared to the long-term economic damage that could occur if mismanagement were to continue. Hopefully, this lawsuit will encourage NMFS to fulfill its responsibility, and finally begin effectively enforcing proper monitoring and fishery management.
A version of this post also appeared in Common Dreams.