Overfishing: It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over


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

This post is part of Pew’s Overfishing 101 series. Previous posts can be viewed here.

Everyone loves a good comeback story, but sometimes a storyline emerges prematurely. Mark Twain famously responded to a press inquiry regarding his supposed demise by saying, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Similarly, declarations earlier this year that overfishing had ended in America provide a case in point.

In early January, the Associated Press released a story titled “Has Overfishing Ended? Top U.S. Scientist Says Yes.” Based largely on statements by Dr. Steve Murawski, a former National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) chief scientist, the piece was widely distributed and generated scores of articles around the country and beyond.

In fact, Murawski, now a professor at the University of South Florida, noted in the AP story that “we are the only industrialized fishing nation who actually has succeeded in ending overfishing.” Unfortunately, as illustrated by the NMFS First Quarter 2011 Status of U.S. Fisheries report, the struggle to end this enduring problem in U.S. waters isn’t over—at least not yet.

A job not yet done

Over the past 20 years, I’ve had the chance to work on fisheries management issues with the U.S. Coast Guard and NMFS, with Congress and in the nonprofit sector. The progress we have made on several fronts is quite remarkable. And I look forward to the day America can write the obituary for one of the most pernicious problems in our oceans.

Yet according to the latest NMFS report on the status of U.S. fisheries (PDF) released in March—after Murawski’s statements—39 of America’s most valuable commercial and recreational fisheries are still subject to overfishing. Moreover, 26 of these populations being fished at unsustainable levels are highly depleted. Setting annual catch limits based on the best available science remains a critical step toward rectifying these problems.

A system that’s working

As I’ve described in earlier posts, for decades managers allowed chronic overfishing of our nation’s valuable ocean fish populations, letting fleets catch them faster than nature could replace them. This has left us with depleted stocks, along with fewer jobs, lower incomes for fishermen and less American seafood on our tables. The environmental research group Ecotrust, in a recent analysis of the “lost harvest” in three regions of the United States, found that decades of overfishing cost fishermen in New England $149 million in direct revenue in 2009 alone.

Congress finally acted to end chronic overfishing in 2006 by adding strong requirements to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA)—the primary law that governs management of U.S. ocean fish. NMFS and the regional fishery management councils also have established science-based catch limits for populations experiencing overfishing that are designed to end this wasteful practice. NMFS has reported the agency and councils are on track this year to set precautionary limits for all other federally managed fish populations to make sure they are caught at sustainable levels. The challenge now is to ensure that these changes are made not only on paper but also on the water.

A story that can still have a happy ending

Mark Twain is credited with another applicable quote, later made famous by football coach Vince Lombardi: “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.” Plenty of hard work remains to ensure that strong catch limits are effectively implemented, enforced and adjusted to reflect the best available science over time. Congress also will need to provide ongoing funding for data collection, monitoring and analysis. This will allow us to verify that fishing is occurring at sustainable levels and will inform us when America’s fish populations rebuild to levels that can support thriving fisheries and ocean ecosystems.

Although overfishing persists in the United States today, the tools are now in place to end this shortsighted practice and enhance America’s future by making our country a world leader in sustainable fisheries management.

Read the rest of the Overfishing 101 series:

New England’s First Year of Fishing Under Sectors

Why Rebuilding Fish Populations Benefits Everyone

A Big Fish Story We Should Take Seriously (Video)

How Science Helps Managers End Overfishing and Rebuild Depleted Fish Populations

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

How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S.

How Ocean Fish Populations are Managed in the U.S. (Part 2)

The Importance of Rebuilding Our Fish Populations Without Delay

Why Ending Overfishing Pays Off in the Long Run

Why Ending Overfishing is Good for Both Fish and Fishermen Alike


Kayla Wolfaardt
Kayla Wolfaardt6 years ago

The answer. Stop buying fish. Its simple really. If you eat it - you are the problem.

Dan and Tina Partlow
Daniel P6 years ago

We can farm ( responsibly please) all the seafood we need. So why deplete our oceans of all life. We're only killing ourselves in the end. People don't ever hear about the balance of nature anymore, or should I say the unbalance!!

Will Rogers
Will Rogers6 years ago

Bernard c. The point is, if we temporarily ban fishing like the 'accidental ban' on fishing off the Somali coast. (pirates scaring off the factory fishing trawlers) fish stocks will come back. This is a fact. Not an opinion. And the point.
...And no matter how much of a control freak you cant change facts, or you don't like the way I put it?
Also, most of the pirates are ex fishermen who already have boats and motors and AK47s, these guys can sail without sophisticated navigation and sonar equipment. And I doubt very much that a pirate sloop costs more than the modern SUV that the middle classes favour. 
As for calling the pirates my chums, I disagree. They are acquaintances at best. Just the other day on a lake near me I saw a Somalian child's paper boat attempt to scupper a Pedalo fail. Buts it's only a matter of time eh?

Yvette T.
Past Member 6 years ago

Solution? Never eat fish!

sandra K.
Ruxandra K6 years ago

Too many of us. Not enough room for them. Human overpopulation drives species extinct.Unsustainable human population increasing at exponential rates is destroying what little is left of this planet fast, exterminating all non-human species. We live much longer and we breed much more. Until we join forces together to protest against human breeding, species will continue to disappear under our eyes. Zero population growth is the only solution. Our silence is what is allowing the human race to massacre the rest of the living world. We are happy just to whinge and whine in writing, knowing very well that will achieve nothing, because we lack the courage and high moral standards to take real action on overpopulation. The malignant tumour called Hhuman race has now methastisised and is rapidly killing its host, planet Earth and all life forms. We must start protesting and drawing massive attention to this issue, on a global scale.A real, effective and bold anti-overpopulation movement must be urgently initiated.Our complacency and silence are our consent. Certainly not mine, and certainly not in my name.

Hartson Doak
Hartson Doak6 years ago

I grew up on Casco Bay in Maine. The shoreline was wall to wall fish packing plants. They fished the sardines to near extinction then moved to menhaden. They fished the menhaden to near extinction and moved on to cod. They fished the cod to near extinction. There was then nothing left of commercial value. ALL the packing plants closed. The people were thrown out of work. The owners of the packing plants left with their pockets full off cash. Ignorance and greed, ignorance on the workers part about what was happening to the fishery. Greed, well we know who had that.

Bernard Cronyn
6 years ago

Will R. thanks for your elucidating reply. Could I ask you a couple of questions; have you ever spent time in Africa amongst Somali people speaking a language they understand? Have you ever been a victim of criminal activity and sustained injury or extreme threat? You see if you can say yes to both those questions it would tend to colour your opinions. Have you any idea what a high-speed seaworthy inflatable (favoured by your pirate chums) with a couple of 100 horsepower outboards on the back costs? Add to that the cost of AK47’s ammunition, RPG’s, LMG a few belts of ammo, marine Satnav, Satellite mobile phones and many gallons of petrol and you have a lot more outlay than many middle class people in the USA or UK can afford. I do not care what type of criminal is around, whether they kill babies, hi-jack yachts, illegally fish or pinch money from the public posing as bankers, I personally, if not you, fail to drum up excuses for their bad behaviour. By the way much of the proceeds from Somalian piracy is used to buy weapons for more killing in the Somalia faction wars and only a small proportion filters down to the common herd – but that's OK then Will.

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago


Pat Vee
Pat Vee6 years ago

When there all gone its too late,much more protected, unpoluted sea and fresh water areas,are needed now,all around the globe.

Saleem K.
Saleem Khan6 years ago

What about OVER EATING? Hmm? Ever wonder why there IS over fishing? HUMAN beings EAT TOO MUCH...isn't that obvious? So if we as a nation reduce consumption by 50% we would reduce over fishing and oner hunting etc by 50%. Think about it. Medical expenses would decrease by 50% and you would have a lot more money to do better things with. Of course this is an over simplification simply for pointing out how simple it actually is. Think about it.