A new report highlights the success, and challenges, of fisheries management.


Surf fishermen try their luck for bluefish off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Photograph by Tyrone Turner, National Geographic

Two-thirds of the closely monitored U.S. fish species once devastated byoverfishing have bounced back in a big way thanks to management plans instituted 10 to 15 years ago, a new study says. And fish aren't the only ones celebrating. Recovering populations can mean more revenue and jobs for some fishermen—but unfortunately success hasn't been universal.

Authors of a new Natural Resources Defense Council report said the results prove that critically overfished species can be rebuilt, even from very low levels, when Mother Nature is given a chance to recover. That's good news in a world whererampant overfishing is a critical concern.

"This demonstrates that when we trace the historic arch of these fisheries in which rebuilding requirements were put in place 15 years ago, we see real positive news. We see populations that were depleted or in decline turned around and rebuilt or well on their way to rebuilding," said principal author Brad Sewell.

"It's not 100 percent. It's two-thirds, so it's not unbridled good news but it does show the effectiveness of a law that has had its share of controversy," he added.

The study used in-depth stock assessments and other data from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to chart the progress of stocks managed under theMagnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. That law was revamped by Congress in 1996, in an attempt to address plunging fish populations around America's coastlines, mandating that stocks be rebuilt within a decade (some were granted exceptions).

The NRDC report charts progress for the 44 stocks that have sufficient population and catch data under the act and found nearly two-thirds, some 28 stocks, have now been designated as fully rebuilt or as having made significant progress toward sustainable populations. The study doesn't include species not managed under Magnuson-Stevens, those for which recent stock assessments aren't available, or those fished internationally.

Despite those omissions, the success of so many rebuilding plans has delivered an economic boon to many fishermen, Sewell said. Gross commercial fishing revenues from the 28 rebuilt stocks were 54 percent higher when adjusted for inflation during the 2008-2010 period than they were when rebuilding began.

"The system overall is working and making progress," said Galen Tromble, of NOAA Fisheries' Office of Sustainable Fisheries. "We just have to keep doing the science, collecting all the data we can, and then adjusting our management accordingly." (Related: "Entrepreneurs Fight for the Future of Fish.")

Fishery Successes and Struggles

The report also reveals some rough patches. Eight of the fish stocks evaluated have made only limited progress and eight others saw very little progress at all.

Regional trends show some successes, like the mid-Atlantic's bluefish, flounder, and black sea bass, while other species have struggled, like greater amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico.

Part of the problem, both Tromble and Sewell noted, was continued overfishing in some areas.

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