98 species are overfished, report says

Tuesday, November 2, 1999

By Associated Press

A record 98 species are being depleted through overfishing. The Commerce Department says the list might be misleading, because some of the fish may be victims of language, not trawlers.

The department's third annual report under the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act said the 98 species reflect the addition of 18 new species and the removal from last year's list of 10. In addition, five species are identified as approaching overfished status.

Gordon Helm, a spokesman for the department's National Marine Fisheries Service, said the increase may reflect a new definition of overfishing that takes into account both fishing mortality and stock size.

As required by the 1996 law, a fishery is considered overfished if fish are being taken faster than the stock can replenish itself or if the stock size is too small to be sustainable at current fishing levels. In previous reports,depleted stocks weren't necessarily classified as overfished.

The new definition also resulted in reclassification of dozens of species previously considered "not overfished" as being of "unknown status."

Last year, the department identified 200 species as not overfished and 544 species as unknown. Now, it says 127 species are not overfished, and the status of 674 is unknown.

"As we continue to learn more about the health and status of the nation's marine stocks, this year's report also demonstrates the limitations of our knowledge," said Terry Garcia, assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere.

Given the large number of species with an unknown classification, fishery managers need to make conservative decisions to "protect these stocks from overfishing," Garcia said.

Justin LeBlanc, a vice president at the National Fisheries Institute, said new fishing restrictions are not warranted because management plans put in place since 1996 haven't had a chance to work yet.

"You don't want to go to drastic cuts in harvest levels ...simply because you don't know the status of the stock," LeBlanc said. The institute represents commercial fishermen, processors, brokers, importers and exporters.

Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, said the report "provides the clearest picture of the precarious state of the nation's fisheries we've seen to date."

The first report, in 1997, identified 86 species as overfished and 10 approaching that condition. It said 183 species were not overfished and 448 were of unknown status.

The report is available on the Commerce Department World Wide Web site at http://www.nmfs.gov/sfa.