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Fisheries Management

grays reef

(above photo: Black sea bass in Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary. © NOAA)

How many fish can we take from the ocean? How many should we leave? These are questions that fisheries scientists and managers try to answer.

Good fisheries management requires sound scientific data. Scientists collect data on the size of fish populations, the biology of fish, and how they interact with other species. Managers then use this information to set rules on where, when, and how people can fish, and what they can take. The goal of fisheries management is to ensure that enough fish are left behind so that their populations can replenish themselves and to limit fishing’s effects on ocean ecosystems.

U.S. Fisheries Management
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the primary law that guides the management of U.S. fisheries. Enacted in 1976, it claimed the waters out to 200 miles as the U.S.’s “exclusive economic zone” and by so doing eliminated the disastrous foreign fishing that had concentrated along U.S. coasts. But it also facilitated great expansion of U.S. fishing, until U.S. vessels were fishing as intensively as the foreign boats had been, driving many fish populations to ever-lower levels of depletion.

In the mid-1990s Safina Center founder Carl Safina explained what needed fixing, and he joined forces with several other conservationists to craft a sweeping set of amendments which Congress passed as The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. Since then, the law has withstood several challenges and has been strengthened. Under the current law, managers must establish plans to rebuild overfished (depleted) species as quickly as possible (typically in 10 years or less) and set catch limits to prevent overfishing (catching fish faster than they can reproduce). Because of this law many U.S. fish populations have been rebuilt to healthy abundances over the last couple decades and many U.S. fisheries are doing quite well today. The U.S. has become a world leader in fisheries management and has recently taken several actions to combat worldwide illegal fishing.  

Global Fisheries Management
Other countries that have sound fisheries management in place include Australia, New Zealand, and the Falkland Islands. The European Union is also working to improve the management of its fish resources, borrowing examples from the U.S. fisheries law. But there are many countries that lack budgets, personnel, or rule of law to really limit fishing. And the vast areas of the ocean located beyond any one country’s territory—known as the high seas—are poorly regulated.

Marine Reserves
Many scientists believe that perhaps the best way to prevent overfishing is to ban fishing in large areas of the ocean. These marine reserves or no fishing zones can provide safe havens for fish and allow depleted species to recover. And they can act like factories that can be the production areas for fishing elsewhere. Marine reserves also help protect important and diverse ocean habitats. World leaders have committed to protecting at least 10% of the ocean in marine reserves by 2020.

Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management
Traditional fisheries management has largely considered how fishing affects individual fish species. But recently scientists and managers have realized that we need to take a more holistic, big-picture approach if we want to keep fish and the oceans healthy. Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management takes into account the health of ocean habitats, and how factors besides fishing, such as climate change, affect fish populations. It also considers how species interact with each other, for instance predator-prey relationships and whether there are enough small fish to feed the large fish.

What You Can Do
The Safina Center’s seafood assessments consider management effectiveness as one of its four core criteria. Fisheries with no or ineffective management are rated “red.” Check out our Healthy Oceans Seafood Guide to choose seafood that comes from sustainable, well-managed fisheries.


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