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Overfishing 101: How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S.

Overfishing 101: How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S.

This post is the second in a series, “Overfishing 101.” Read the first post here.

Fish are an essential component of life in the world’s oceans, with the state of their populations serving as a bellwether of the health of ocean life overall. Unfortunately, many species around the world are in trouble.

Pollution, habitat destruction and overfishing (removing fish from the ocean faster than they can reproduce) have impoverished our oceans. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported recently that nearly a third of the Earth’s fish populations are overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion.

All too often, the discussion around the issue of overfishing has been limited to a small group of stakeholders such as fishermen, conservationists and scientists. To help open up this debate to the broader public, I’ve developed a short series nicknamed “Overfishing 101.” Here are some of the basics of why all Americans should care about how our ocean fish are managed.

Understanding Overfishing

Overfishing is a problem that affects the entire marine environment, extending far beyond just the species being caught. For example, in the Caribbean, depleted parrotfish numbers have been directly linked to the declining health of Caribbean coral reefs. Parrotfish eat organisms such as algae that grow on corals, ingesting bits of hard material in the process, which is excreted as white sand. Without this species, however, algae would take over corals, killing the tiny organisms. 

Today, 40 ocean fish populations managed by the U.S. government–including Caribbean parrotfish–are subject to overfishing. In New England, recent federal assessments found that 10 of 20 groundfish populations–species that live near the ocean floor, such as cod–are subject to overfishing. And nine populations in the South Atlantic–the majority of which are types of snapper and grouper–are also suffering from overfishing. To make matters worse, these are long-lived fish that reproduce slowly, and populations would take decades to recover.

On the other hand, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS),  the economic value of ending overfishing and rebuilding all of our depleted U.S. fish populations could add up to $31 billion in sales and support 500,000 new jobs. But to achieve the benefits of healthy fish populations, we must set firm catch limits that are based on science, and those limits must be enforced.

While many fishermen understand and support the need to sustainably manage fisheries, some within the industry balk at the limits necessary to achieve sustainability. They have begun lobbying Congress to revise the current laws and regulations. Weakening existing standards, though, would impair the health of our marine ecosystems for decades to come, making recovery harder and more expensive.

For example, lax management of South Atlantic red snapper allowed chronic overfishing for 50 years. This has reduced the breeding population to 11-14 percent of what scientists consider a healthy level. To reduce the number of red snapper taken, fisheries managers were forced to impose a moratorium, stopping all fishing for South Atlantic red snapper until the species makes measurable progress towards full recovery.

Weakening federal laws that govern the management of our ocean fish would not only have implications for commercial and recreational fishermen, but also countless others who depend on the bounty of our oceans for a livelihood and for recreation.

In my next post, I’ll explore how U.S. ocean fish populations are managed and why. And in subsequent parts of the series, we’ll examine why good science is so important to rebuilding depleted fish populations.

More about us 

The Federal Fisheries Policy Project leads efforts to ensure that Congress and the National Marine Fisheries Service effectively implement the law to end overfishing, rebuild depleted fish populations and protect ocean ecosystems. 

The campaign works closely with scientists, policy makers, fishery managers, fishermen and conservation organizations throughout the country to promote adequate funding and support current fish conservation mandates. 

To find out how you can help, please visit

Related Stories:

Overfishing 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding U.S. Fishery Management

Google Earth Video Shows Ocean Pollution Is A Global Problem

Fighting Fish Farms: Kona’s Goin’ Fishin’ Too


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Photo credit: Joachim Muller
NOTE: This is a guest post from Lee Crockett, Director of Federal Fisheries Policy at Pew Environment Group 

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12:22PM PST on Dec 18, 2011

There are no words i can say about this that show my real emotions except: disgusting

9:34AM PDT on Aug 25, 2011

Educate? A friend once said "You can tell the people the truth but it doesn't mean they will believe it". Some say they don't want the government to step in... until something bad happens. Rights? Is it really our "right" to kill at will? The oceans are the most important. If the oceans die WE DIE!

3:05PM PDT on Jul 5, 2011

The gov't needs to organize and act. Individual fishermen sometimes have urgent concerns that cloud their decisions.

8:22PM PDT on Jun 19, 2011


11:38AM PDT on May 21, 2011

I don't eat fish

2:23AM PDT on Apr 19, 2011

As a marine biologist, I would like to thank for your valuable post.

3:57AM PDT on Apr 16, 2011

We need to legislate balanced, sustainable practices not greed.

6:29PM PDT on Apr 15, 2011

GREED TAKES OVER ONCE AGAIN!! over fishing!! good work greedy people plenty fish in the sea? not no more since you don't know how to share!

9:12AM PDT on Apr 14, 2011

thanks for the info

7:07AM PDT on Apr 14, 2011

I do not agree with the author of this article. Government laws can do little to improve the situation. It is for the educated people of America and the rest of the world to introspect and change their eating habits. Become pure vegetarians, say no to fish, egg and meat. That is the only way for a sustainable, healthy and happy feature.

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