U.S. Fisheries Management: Lessons from a 35-Year Journey

Eric Schwaab traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to  address the 6th World Fisheries Congress

Eric Schwaab traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to
address the 6th World Fisheries Congress

By Eric C Schwaab, Acting Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Management
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration U.S. Department of Commerce

World Fisheries Congress 2012 – “Sustainable Fisheries in a Changing World”

May 11, 2012

I am pleased to be here at the 6th World Fisheries Congress and honored to have been invited to provide your closing remarks. The events, papers and other discussions of this week truly demonstrate that we have come a long way in fisheries science and management around the globe, but that we also still have a long way to go and,
perhaps most importantly, that we have much to gain by learning from each other and working together even more closely in the challenging years ahead.

I want to thank the organizers and the hosts for a wonderful venue, an excellent
forum and, notably, a particularly appropriate theme – – “Sustainable Fisheries in a Changing World.”  I can think of no better ambassador to underscore both our
changing world and our responsibility for global stewardship than fish.

Like many of our most pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges, fish recognize no national or state boundaries.  They move about, largely unseen – – be that on their own or in crates.  Their populations change dramatically not only as a result of our direct intervention, but also as a result of changes in environment both large and small.  They are subject to environmental variables – – but also to changing social and economic conditions.  This point has been made clear throughout the week as we have seen multiple trend lines suggesting a changing balance between aquaculture and wild-caught fish and ever-evolving market conditions.

And, as another point of focus here this week, fish require constant and ever more sophisticated scientific understanding if we are to achieve our management objectives. But science only serves as a foundation for good decisions and, like many other important issues we face, the difficult task of translating good science into effective policy and action requires considerable effort.

But fish also present us with a tremendous opportunity for robust international collaboration and global stewardship.

Global Stewardship

Fish are, of course, also a classic example of the tragedy-of-the-commons.  It’s clear that our efforts to meet our obligations as global stewards of our fisheries have not kept pace with the increasing demand for fish in the marketplace, highly efficient and sometimes overcapitalized fishing fleets, or changing ocean conditions.

Further, we have not yet come to grips fully – – and, as pointed out, this is particularly true in the United States – – with either the promise or the challenges of aquaculture. Also, the complex challenges of addressing illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is especially critical since it undermines the stewardship practices of legitimate fishing operations adhering to modest but earnest efforts to manage international fisheries.

But I have been asked to speak today about the U.S. experience in managing our fisheries and to provide some concluding thoughts on what we have heard this week.   As a top federal fishery manager in the United States, I am pleased to be here with you to share some of our experiences, to learn from yours, and to seek new ways to work together.  I am also pleased to be here in front of you representing a number of colleagues from the U.S. government, including several from my agency, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.

Our Fishery Management Progress

I would like to first focus on four key elements that together form the foundation for our current fishery management progress.  Not because they are unique to U.S. fisheries, but because taken together they are the basis of an increasingly effective management program – – and one that is paying dividends in the ocean and in the marketplace.  Our experience is still very much a work in progress.

I would also like to speak about some of the key challenges ahead, challenges discussed here in detail this week but that I hope will be a continuing point of emphasis in the years ahead.

Let me start with the U.S. experience.  I will list these four key elements quickly and then speak more about each.

  1. U.S. marine fisheries are managed under a rigorous science-based process – it is an iterative system between science and management that is structured to routinely monitor stocks and use that information as a foundation to prevent overfishing, rebuild depleted stocks, and ensure sustainability.
  2. Our system now employs catch limits and accountability measures for all federally managed stocks to ensure sustainable fishing rates.  If overfishing and/or overfished status is determined, our process is designed to respond quickly and adjust harvests to end overfishing and/or begin the rebuilding process.
  3. Our process is transparent, participatory, accountable, and adaptable.  A network of fishery management councils — made up of fishermen, scientists, managers, and others –come together to openly debate and develop management options.
  4. And finally, based on action of those councils, it is a system increasingly relying on what we term “catch share” approaches, which assign shares of an annual quota to individuals or groups of fishermen.  These market-based systems better align the business interests of fishermen with long-term sustainability goals, providing both immediate and long-term economic, social, and environmental benefits.

Management History

Before I go into detail, let me provide a little history.  This progress did not happen overnight.   Rather, our management system has evolved over the last 35 years under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act – the cornerstone law of marine fishery management in the United States. Initially enacted in 1976 and updated twice, the visionary components of this law established the pillars of the science-based, participatory management process at work in the United States today.

I must admit that this process initially did not come with clear operating instructions.  During the formative years, the pace of technology, overcapitalization, and the increased efficiency to catch fish far out-paced the development of our science and management infrastructure.  By the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of our nation’s most historic fisheries were collapsing and the race-for-fish was wreaking havoc on the economies of many of our coastal and fishing communities, as well as the resource.

In 1996, the first update to the national Act focused on sustainability goals, emphasizing management efforts to end overfishing, rebuild depleted stocks, and protect essential fish habitat.  And while progress was made, it was not fast, consistent, or yet sustainable.

Ultimately, the U.S. Congress reauthorized the act again in 2006, placing even more stringent requirements in several key areas.  As a result, this year the United States is poised to achieve a monumental milestone in its 35-year journey to end overfishing and fully rebuild its stocks.  Within the 2012 fishing season, all U.S. federally managed fisheries will be managed under science-based annual catch limits with accompanying accountability measures in place.

Key advances include those noted a few moments ago.

First, we use – – in fact are bound by – – science as a basis for setting annual quotas.  Science committees for each of the eight regional fishery management councils review stock assessments and other fisheries data and recommend catch limits to the management body.  These committees are made up of scientists from state, federal, industry, and academic institutions.  The management councils and subsequently NOAA are required to set annual quotas that fall within the advice of the science committees.  This new approach is not without its challenges.  Securing sufficient scientific information to set these limits each year is daunting.  Add to that the fact that as we all know, scientific advice significantly constrains fishing seasons, quotas, and short-term economic opportunity – – challenging in the short term already stressed fishing communities.  Yet on balance, as noted in our status of the stocks report, we are seeing positive results from this science-based discipline.

Second, based on the science, the councils and the agency set annual catch limits and accountability measures.  The recent reauthorization of the Magnuson Act required that catch limits set to end overfishing be put in place for all stocks by the end of 2011.  And for depleted or “overfished” stocks, catch limits were required to be set at a level that would lead to rebuilding of stocks within a 10-year period.  While there are exceptions for longer-lived species, annual species, and shared stocks under international management, we are seeing a quickening pace of rebuilding that is already yielding improved fishing opportunity and increased quotas in many fisheries.

In fact, just next week we are releasing our 2011 Status of the Stocks report, an annual assessment of the status of 528 federally managed stocks.  That report indicates a record six stocks rebuilt to healthy levels in 2011, bringing to 27 the total number of stocks rebuilt since 2000.  We now know that of 258 stocks for which fishing rates can be adequately determined, 86 % were free from overfishing.  And of 219 stocks for which population levels can be determined, 79 % are at or above target levels.  And as you will note from these numbers, we have work ahead of us on the assessment front. Yet a total of 214 stocks were assessed or reviewed in 2011 compared with 189 just a year earlier.

Fishery Management Councils 

None of this would be possible without our fishery management councils.  The councils translate complex fishery science, sometimes challenging catch limits, and the diverse needs of recreational and commercial fishing businesses into fishery management plans.  By their very makeup, the councils integrate diverse interests in a manner that yields the best conservation and allocation outcomes possible.  Beyond the members themselves, council proceedings are open to fishing communities,  and public participation is invited in many ways.  By listening to scientists, managers, and coastal residents, the best range of management options surfaces and decisions are well-informed by the needs of fishing communities.  This is not to say that everybody gets what they want – – in fact, the process of responsible, science-based management has led to significant short-term challenges in many communities.  But the process of inclusion does certainly increase ownership of the management plans.

Finally, the 2006 reauthorization turned emphasis again to catch share management systems.  Although still controversial in many fishing communities), the councils have increasingly turned to catch share systems to achieve diverse community and management goals.  Through application of catch share systems, fishermen trade a variety of input controls such as days-at-sea systems for a management system focused more directly on outputs – – how many fish are caught.  Designed properly, this approach frees fishermen to use their ingenuity and business expertise to maximum advantage by reducing capture cost, maximizing market value at the dock, and stabilizing seasons.  We have also seen great gains through increased capture of target species, reduction of bycatch, and improved safety at sea.

These new processes and approaches have been integrated at different rates around our coasts.  Our earliest successes emerged from the North Pacific, where early adoption by managers and by industry was responsible for ending the notorious boom-bust fisheries in the North Pacific, transforming them into some of the  largest, most sustainable fisheries in the world.

Yet we also know fundamentally that sustainability is not a one-time achievement.  Rather, it is a dynamic process that evolves over time with advancements in technology, lessons learned, and, perhaps most important of all, the collaboration that comes with the participation of diverse invested interests in the long-term sustainable supply of seafood – wild-captured and cultured alike.

It is critical to note that U.S. wild-captured fisheries would not have made the progress we are witnessing today without the cooperative efforts and investment by our fishing and seafood industries.  It is the capital investment and commitment on the part of industry that has assisted with critical data collection on our stocks, investments into science and research, technology and gear modifications, observer coverage, evolving best practices, and the innovative management strategies that have come to define U.S. fisheries today.

This same collaborative spirit is emerging throughout the seafood retail industries that are working with conservation initiatives and fishery improvement projects — both inside and outside the United States.  The popular market strategy of encouraging consumers to denounce some fisheries and advocate for others has raised awareness about the important role of corporate responsibility in our seafood industry, and the stewardship role incumbent on us in our global community.  At the same time, in our changing world, we must be cautious about findings that are based on a moment in time or a particular fishery or geographic area.  We have been working through our communications efforts to help move beyond a  view of sustainability that can result in disenfranchising the very industries that are actively sacrificing, engaging in rebuilding, and employing ever more responsible fishing strategies.

Sacrifices for Sustainability

Of course, none of this progress to-date would have been possible without the sacrifice by the fishing industry to invest in the long-term sustainability and economic benefits to fishing communities and the nation.

We have also seen some economic data this week regarding catch potential in wild stock fisheries. Rebuilding all overfished U.S. stocks will increase current commercial ex-vessel fishery values by an estimated $2.2 billion in U.S. dollars — from $4.1 billion to $6.3 billion annually.  This increase is anticipated to generate an additional $31 billion in sales nationwide.  At this level, the commercial U.S. seafood industry would generate a total of $133 billion in sales and would support 2 million jobs.  These are sustainable production jobs that can stabilize and build the health of coastal communities.

Of course as has been evident here this week, big challenges remain.  Let me highlight just a few that are at the top of our list.


In this changing world of 7 billion people… and counting … we cannot highlight global sustainable fisheries without highlighting the role of aquaculture.  As was discussed in earlier sessions, this includes aquaculture for food, stock enhancement, and habitat restoration.  In the United States, 86% of the seafood we eat is imported, more than half from aquaculture.  Even as we end overfishing and rebuild stocks, much of the future increase in seafood supply will necessarily come from aquaculture.

Addressing concerns about the risks and benefits of fish farming is critical to their development in the United States and elsewhere and creation of even more sustainable, natural resource-based jobs in our coastal communities.

We also need a more comprehensive public understanding that wild catch, commercial aquaculture, and hatchery-based enhancement are all parts of a spectrum of methods to produce seafood, provide recreational opportunities, and in some cases help with the recovery of degraded ecosystems.

Although environmental issues are effectively addressed in U.S. regulations, as Dr. Anderson noted just this morning, the process of obtaining a marine aquaculture permit is complicated, time-consuming, costly, and uncertain.  Few can afford the time and cost to go through the existing U.S. process to obtain a permit for fish farming in marine waters.  Most invest in farms in other countries, focused on closed systems or, as we have seen, simply import more seafood. To improve the efficiency of the federal permit process for aquaculture, a new U.S. federal Aquaculture Regulatory Working Group was recently formed at the direction of our Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture and the National Ocean Council.  The work group will then address federal coordination on permitting aquaculture in federal waters.  The work group is led by senior management representatives from NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Environmental Protection Agency.

As also noted by Dr. Anderson, as we move forward, scientific advancements are being made in developing alternative feed for aquaculture, in capturing the waste-stream of fish processing trimmings, and in leveraging other synergies between aquaculture and the commercial fishing and seafood industries that will serve as an important source of jobs and production.

For all of us, we must work collaboratively to ensure that aquaculture production is developed responsibly and sustainably.

The Relationship between Science and Management

From a management perspective, much progress has also been made in management through regional fisheries management organizations (RFMO) the primary bodies to manage fisheries internationally.  To sustainably manage our international fisheries, we must continue to highlight and pursue the scientific priorities and management strategies we know to be successful in RFMOs—including:

  1. Prioritizing the need for aggressively assessing the status of our global stocks under rigorous peer review and with public transparency;
  2. As Dr. Hilborn noted, developing alternative methods for setting reasonable limits where full stock assessments are not possible or available;
  3. Setting science-based catch limits and enforcing compliance with those limits;
  4. Managing in accordance with ecosystem and precautionary approaches, including reducing bycatch and protecting vulnerable habitats; and
  5. Taking on the complexities of pirate fishing practices by:
    • Closing ports of convenience to known IUU vessels;
    • Stopping the use of flags-of-convenience; and
    • Identifying needs for consistency in domestic laws to successfully pursue and prosecute illegal fishing.

Third,  many challenges face our global fisheries that are far more complex than controlling the harvest efforts and rates of fishermen – climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, and habitat destruction just to name a few.  Overcoming these challenges will require us to seek opportunities for greater collaboration among nation states, scientists, managers, conservation organizations, academia, and the commercial industries throughout the seafood supply chain.

Our Future, Our Evolving Science 

Finally, achieving sustainable global fisheries will depend upon continued evolution of our science.  There must be a commitment to improving our science and gaining a greater understanding of the status of our stocks worldwide, the interactions among those stocks and their habitats, and an enhanced capacity to monitor and predict the impacts of changing ocean conditions and trends in the ecosystem.

So the tasks before us are relatively simple — better science; more disciplined, transparent, and inclusive management; growth and integration of aquaculture opportunities; level playing fields; and attention to looming habitat challenges both regional and global…..

Despite these challenges, most notable this week has been the spirit of optimism that — together — we can make progress.

As we close the 6th World Fisheries Congress, and leave here inspired by the discussions and ideas we have shared, it is my hope that we – as scientists, managers, conservationists, and industry leaders – will support the inclusion and collaboration necessary for building the transparent, accountable and responsive processes on which sustainability – – in the broadest possible sense of the word – – depends.

Thank you.