Overfishing 101: The Importance of Rebuilding Our Fish Populations Without Delay

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

This post is the fourth in a series, “Overfishing 101.” The entire series can be viewed here.

Overfishing — taking fish from our oceans faster than they can reproduce –has plagued fisheries for decades. South Atlantic red snapper, for example, have been subject to overfishing since the 1960s. Congress first attempted to deal with this problem in 1976 when it passed the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, now called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).

Although federal law has held fisheries managers responsible for ending overfishing since 1976, earlier versions of the MSA lacked hard deadlines and included loopholes that let managers set catch levels far higher than those recommended by scientists. Chronic overfishing devastated U.S. fish populations. This led to smaller catches and lower revenue.

So in 1996, Congress established a 10 year target to restore depleted populations to healthy levels. Unfortunately, the need for firm rebuilding timelines has not been embraced by some in the fishing industry, and they are now pressing Congress to add “flexibility” to the regulations.

The Problem with Being Too Flexible

Fishery managers are required by law to prevent overfishing and to help populations recover so that they increase to a size that will support the largest sustainable catch — a goal that benefits everyone, particularly fishermen. Therefore, if fishing interests succeed in preventing depleted, yet important, fish populations from rebounding, then we all (fishermen and conservationists alike) lose.

Time and again, we have heard short-sighted calls for flexibility in the timelines for rebuilding overfished populations. Responding to this intensely localized pressure, some members of Congress have introduced bills that would exempt fisheries from certain requirements. These proposals would create loopholes in the MSA and increase fishing pressure on diminished populations, jeopardizing their ability to recover and delaying critical economic and ecological benefits to fishing communities.

Making a Bad Idea Worse

Efforts to delay rebuilding plans are not only a bad idea, they’re also unnecessary because the law already allows for target exceptions in special circumstances. Obviously, exhausted fish populations could rebound in the shortest amount of time by simply closing that fishery, but this would pose severe economic hardships on fishermen. Therefore, the law uses a 10 year target for most populations to return to healthy levels — a time period that most scientists calculate is more than sufficient for a majority of fish populations to rebound (PDF).

The law also lets managers exceed the 10 year target in certain well-justified cases, including:

  1. When it’s necessary to accommodate the biology of the fish population and/or other environmental conditions;
  2. Management of a specific fish population falls under an international agreement in which the United States participates.

Because of the inherent flexibility in the MSA, more than half of all existing rebuilding plans already exceed the 10 year target.

This 10 year target is just that — a target. In many cases, a fish population can rebound in less time, but fishery managers still may set a 10 year rebuilding goal, more than the minimum needed, to lessen the impacts on fishermen and fishing communities. And on the other hand, if a fish population is biologically incapable of returning to healthy levels within 10 years, fishery managers may use a specific formula to calculate how much time would be needed to restore the population to a healthy size. In those cases, if justified by science, rebuilding timelines can stretch for decades.

Instead of seeking to weaken the current 10 year rebuilding goal in U.S. law, Congress should try to find ways to increase the quantity and quality of data so that we can make the most informed decisions possible. It is science that allows managers the flexibility to adjust management measures to account for variations in the species under federal management.

In my next post I’ll explore the economic benefits of ending overfishing and why we can’t quit just when the current law is beginning to work.

Take Action: Sign the petition to protect fish populations and keep oceans healthy.

Previous Overfishing 101 Posts:

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

Overfishing 101: How Ocean Fishing Populations Are Managed in the U.S.

Overfishing 101: How Ocean Fish Populations Are Managed in the U.S. (Part 2)


Photo: NOAA


W. C
W. C8 months ago

Thank you.

Janine Hofmann
Janine H6 years ago

Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
(Native American proverb)

Shelly Peterson
Shelly Peterson6 years ago

Signed this petition when it was still open....but saw the new one for wolves, signed and forwarded!!!
This article was a "Triple header!!!" Thankyou!

Sue Matheson
Sue Matheson6 years ago

thanks for this post.

Robyn B.
Robyn B6 years ago

Unless we address the human overpopulation problem, greed and ignorance will continue to rule in every industry that operates today. Setting scientifically determined targets with legislative loopholes is merely lip service and only compounds the problem.

Charles B.
Charles B6 years ago

overfishing shouls be stopped!

Sheila D.
Sheila D6 years ago

It's all about money. We need to stick to these goals, no matter what!

gary leigh
gary leigh6 years ago

We need to re-think this whole issue not just for our oceans but our lakes and streams. PBS did a piece on loss of salmon populations as a result of dams along california's rivers running north to south. It's worth seeing this show it outlines the impacts and what can be done.

Tami Mendoza
Tami Mendoza6 years ago


Simon Validzic
Simon Validzic6 years ago

The harm caused by fishing is not just to the species but also to the individual fish (and other marine animals, such as dolphins, turtles and seabirds). In this way, the consumption of fish is even worse than the consumption of meat (land animals).

Governments have no excuse for offering special protections and subsidies to animal killing industries. Why are other businesses and careers not entitled to special protection?

Vegans are just as entitled to express their views as anybody is to comment on any issue and I do not see why the anti-vegans immediately accuse us of "imposing our views on other people". There is no need for me to make more pro-vegan points here.