Depleted Pacific fisheries need better protection

Warner Chabot, Lee Crockett

Thursday, May 10, 2001

IF YOU'RE A SEAFOOD lover, chances are you're familiar with the Chilean sea bass -- as a nice dinner. You may not realize, however, that its wholesale price has tripled in the past two years, not only because of its popularity, but also because it has become severely overfished. If we're not careful, we may very soon see Pacific fish, such as red snapper and rockfish, both staples on Bay Area dining tables, suffering the same fate.

In fact, there are 14 Pacific fish stocks that are overfished, a sobering fact considering that congressional subcommittees have begun hearings on amending the law that theoretically protects the nation's marine fish stocks and their habitats. Stronger laws are urgently needed because more of America's saltwater fish are at risk today than ever before.

The collapse of fish stocks isn't isolated to the Pacific Coast. It's happening along all of America's coasts. The culprits are clear: the overfishing of already depleted stocks; habitat destruction by pollution and development; and the unintended catching and killing of other kinds of marine life, known as bycatch. In the North Pacific alone, bycatch wastes the equivalent of 1 billion meals each year.

Much of the blame for the situation can be traced to inadequate management by the National Marine Fisheries Service. A quarter-century ago, Congress gave NMFS the responsibility of developing fisheries and conserving fish. Yet, according to the agency's own report to Congress, 92 of the stocks it currently manages are overfished. Of those, 57 continue to be fished at unsustainably high levels. The report also shows that for the fourth year in a row, the number of stocks that have fallen to unsustainably low levels or are being fished at unsustainable rates or both has increased from 98 to 107, or 43 percent of the species managed.

These statistics, however, are dwarfed by what isn't known, as NMFS lacks adequate information about the status of more than 700 species, or 78 percent of those it's required to help conserve. It wasn't supposed to be this way. When Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996, it was hailed as a landmark piece of wildlife conservation legislation that would significantly improve the way NMFS did its job. Yet more than four years later:

-- Overfishing has been allowed to continue.

-- Fishery rebuilding plans cover too long of a time frame and are thus too risky.

-- Bycatch is not being quantified or minimized.

-- Essential habitats have been identified, but too little has been done to protect them.

-- Too often, inadequate management plans are approved, or if rejected, revisions take too long.

The first changes to the law that congressional subcommittees will consider would help increase fish populations by prohibiting overfishing of all stocks in any mixed-stock fishery and requiring estimated catch levels to include buffers. Other ideas are aimed at tightening the definition of bycatch, dedicating additional resources in order to monitor and collect accurate catch and bycatch statistics, requiring fisheries managers to take action to reduce bycatch and protecting essential fish habitats by providing clear guidelines on what is legally allowed. Congress should also look at rules that would approach fish management from the view of the ecosystem, rather than species by species.

It may be difficult to do anything about the plight of the Chilean sea bass,

but the National Marine Fisheries Service can make a difference for the fish stocks within our own waters. The hearings on Capitol Hill signal a good time to remember that if we do nothing, we risk losing everything.

Fish rap

Congressional hearings on amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law that protects fish stocks, are being held during May.

-- Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., who chairs the Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans Subcommittee of the House Resources Committee, will hold hearings today in Washington, D.C., to discuss reducing fishing to let the fish populations grow.

-- Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who chairs the Oceans and Fisheries Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, held hearings on Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs), which fall under Magnuson- Stevens, on May 3.

-- To comment, please contact: Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, 2245 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515,(e-mail link at gov/gilchrest); Sen. Olympia Snowe, 154 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20510,

Warner Chabot is vice president of regional operations for the Center for Marine Conservation in San Francisco. Lee Crockett is executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, in Washington, D.C.