|Magnuson Reauthorization must address food, jobs, and revenue, as well as fish says Ray Hilborn|
SEAFOOD.COM NEWS by Ray Hilborn (Guest Editorial) May 30, 2013
Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, and one of the world's reknowned experts on fisheries. He has long advocated a broad view of the benefits of fisheries in the food system, and asked that we consider the ecological impacts of not fishing as well as those of fishing. This is a guest editorial written following the Managing Our Nation's Fisheries Conference, held earlier this month in Washington, DC.
The recent Managing Our Nations Fisheries conference in Washington D.C. and the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management and Conservation Act has focused attention on the nation’s fisheries, how well they are doing, and what can be done to improve the contribution of U.S. fisheries to our national well-being. A logical first step in evaluation of our fisheries is to first ask what are the objectives of American fisheries management?
The text of the act begins with “To provide for the conservation and management of the fisheries, and for other purposes”, but then becomes more specific by stating that rebuilding fish stocks, ensuring conservation , protecting essential habitat are all intentions of the act. Also, the act makes it clear that one objective is to provide for “the development of fisheries which are underutilized or not utilized … to assure that our citizens benefit from the employment, food supply, and revenue which could be generated thereby.”
In short the objective of the act appears to be to provide for sustainable employment, food supply and revenue, and to achieve that, conservation of fish stocks and habitats is essential. The two specifically targeted actions are to rebuild overexploited stocks and develop fisheries on underutilized species. Yet, as I will show below, while we have reduced overfishing, one consequence has been far more underutilized fish stocks and we seem to have lost sight of the actual goals of employment, food supply and revenue.
In its annual report to Congress, NOAA reports on the status of our fisheries regarding the biological status and whether the stock are assessed.
The biological status is reported as both the number of stocks that are overfished (are at low enough abundance to reduce sustainable yield), and the number of stocks that are subject to overfishing (fished at a rate harder than would produce long term maximum sustainable yield). There is no systematic scorecard of the fisheries contribution to employment, food supply or revenue with reference to the potential contribution. While measuring these is no doubt difficult, there appears to be a tacit assumption among policy makers that if we prevent overfishing, we will produce something like maximum food production, employment and revenue, or at least that the greatest threat to these objectives is overfishing.
The Magnuson-Stevens act has been quite effective at reducing overfishing so that the proportion of stocks estimated to be overfished has declined to from 38% in 2000 to 19% in 2012, and the proportion subject to overfishing declined from 33% in 1999 to 10% in 2012. This has largely been accomplished by major reductions in fishing pressure off the west coast, east coast and Gulf of Mexico. Alaskan fisheries were never subject to major overfishing and there has been no need to reduce fishing pressure there.
Fishing pressure has declined dramatically from previous peaks; a 40% decline in the East Coast a 48% decline on the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico to a 75% decline on the West Coast. Across all US fisheries where assessments are available, the exploitation rate is about 40% of what would produce maximum sustainable yield. US fisheries management is now extremely conservative and while almost all attention seems to be focused on the few stocks where overfishing is occurring, we seem to be ignoring the fact that exploitation rate are now, on average, so low.
U.S. fisheries management has been successful at largely stopping overfishing and reducing the number of overfished stocks --- but since stopping overfishing is a means to an end, not an end itself, we must ask how is the US doing at producing food, jobs and revenue?
We can calculate the lost food production by comparing the long term yield under current fishing pressure with the long term yield under the fishing pressure that would produce maximum sustainable yield. We lose food production (and potential jobs and revenue) in two ways, by fishing too hard or fishing too little, and the Magnuson-Stevens act makes specific reference to both of these in its objectives. If we weight all stocks equally, I estimate (using NOAA stock assessments) that, as of 2005, we were losing about 9% of the potential US yield due to overfishing and about 30% due to underfishing.
The major threat to sustainable jobs, food and revenue from U.S. marine fisheries is no longer overfishing, but underfishing. However, many groups, particularly e-NGOs, are still actively pushing for less fishing pressure by giving a high priority to maintaining fish stocks at high abundance. I don’t see any part of the Magnuson-Stevens act that suggests being a high abundance is a priority for our nation’s fisheries management, but perhaps it is time for Congress to explicitly state the extent to which we wish to forgo food, jobs and revenue in order to have more fish in the ocean either because of their intrinsic value, or as food for marine birds and mammals.
We do know, that if our national objective were to maximize the profitability of fisheries, our management targets would be less fishing pressure than that which produces maximum sustainable yield, and if we could calculate lost profit by current US fishing pressure, the loss from economic overfishing would likely be higher than the 9% lost yield, and the loss from economic underfishing would be lower than 30%.
Some would argue that the current low fishing pressure is necessary to rebuild overfished stocks and once all stocks are rebuilt fishing pressure can rise again. Under the current management system this will never happen because some stocks are always going to be depleted due to natural fluctuations and climate change, and, as we add annual catch limits for more species, the problem will only get worse.
I urge NOAA to routinely calculate lost food production, lost jobs and lost revenue and report that information to Congress. I urge Congress to explicitly state the objectives of U.S. fisheries management in terms of food, jobs, revenue, economic profit, and maintaining high abundance of fish in the ocean as an end in itself.