Commerce Department finds record high number of US fish stocks in jeopardy

Conservationists and fishermen seek stronger laws and enforcement

provided by Marine Fish Conservation Network

he number of fish stocks in need of stronger conservation in US coastal waters has increased for the fourth year running, despite laws requiring federal fisheries managers to stop overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks. The number of fish stocks in jeopardy jumped from 98 to a record high 107, according to the new Department of Commerce year 2000 Report to Congress: Status of Fisheries of the United States. These include such popular commercial and sport fish as red snapper, summer flounder, and Atlantic swordfish.

    The Marine Fish Conservation Network (Network), a national alliance of 100 top environmental organizations and fishing associations, believes the government should work aggressively to reverse that trend.

    “This report clearly demonstrates that our nation's fisheries laws must be strengthened and vigorously enforced,” said Lee Crockett, the Network's executive director. “The National Marine Fisheries Service has a four-year-old mandate from Congress to halt overfishing and rebuild America's fisheries. The number of fish stocks in trouble should be going down, not up.”

    When Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) in 1996, it directed the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and eight regional fisheries management councils to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, minimize the incidental killing of nontarget species, and protect important fish habitat.

    Yet a year ago, a Network study found that NMFS had approved the vast majority of the Regional Councils' fisheries management plans, even though most did not require rebuilding fish populations as quickly as required by law. Very few contained any new measures to reduce the incidental killing of nontarget fish and other species. Meanwhile, although NMFS and the Councils have identified essential fish habitats, they still have not adopted fishing regulations needed to protect these important areas one of the major goals of the SFA.

    “Despite the SFA's requirement that new more conservative criteria be implemented by 1998, NMFS used out-of-date pre-SFA criteria to determine the status for many stocks in this report,” said Josh Sladek Nowlis, Senior Scientist, Center for Marine Conservation, a member of the Network. “We must not repeat such past mistakes by allowing continued overfishing of stocks already overfished.”

    The Network also disagreed with NMFS' decision to introduce a new type of classification in the year 2000 report. “Classifying stocks as having 'major' or 'minor' importance based on their landings disregards their importance to the ecosystem,” said Kate Wing, Ocean Policy Analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in San Francisco, another Network member. “Some of the so-called minor stocks used to be major and now they're depleted because of mismanagement. NMFS should pay attention to all the species it has the responsibility to manage so they can anticipate future problems, not just react to them.”

    In the face of government failure to take necessary action, the Network has drafted its own National Agenda. It recommends new legal provisions, which would prohibit overfishing of all marine fish stocks, reduce the killing of nontarget species (bycatch), and restrict fishing activities that harm essential fish habitat. The Network is also advocating the establishment of fisheries observer programs, the use of precautionary management principles, and a move toward ecosystem-based management.

    Legislation containing these Network recommendations H.R. 4046, the Fisheries Recovery Act was introduced last year by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) and had the strong bipartisan support of 40 Representatives. While Congress did not pass H.R. 4046 during its last session, it is expected to take up reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law governing America's fisheries, early this year. The Network is working closely with its supporters in both the House and Senate to get the Fisheries Recovery Act reintroduced and included in the reauthorization debate.

    Despite this larger grim picture, “The report acknowledges what New England fishermen have known for years,” said Paul Parker, executive director of Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, also a Network member. “Fish such as cod, haddock and flounder are coming back, even after being severely overfished, proving that conservation measures do work, when effectively implemented and given sufficient time. But to bring our fish back to sustainable levels will require much more.”

    For more information about the Department of Commerce report or the Network, call (202) 543-5509 or visit the Network's website, The full report is available online at:

    Contact: Herb Ettel, Marine Fish Conservation Network, (202) 543-5509; Vicki Paris, Center for Marine Fish Conservation, (202) 857-1683; Paul Parker, Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, (508) 945-2432; Kate Wing, Natural Resources Defense Council, (415) 777-0220