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Challenges to Our Fisheries
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by Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest- | 2008

The increased consumption of seafood has been affecting fisheries globally. By passing laws to stop overfishing, we will hopefully create sustainable harvesting that will in turn help the ocean’s ecosystem.

Believe it or not, we understand more about the planet Mars than we do about our oceans.  Yet, we derive so much from them that is necessary for our survival and crucial to our economy—particularly ocean fish and shellfish, which are important sources of protein for consumers in the U.S and around the world. 

Increased Consumption of Seafood Affects Global Fisheries

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that U.S. consumption of seafood is trending upward, and in 2005 we consumed an amount of seafood second only to Japan and China.  If all Americans were to follow the American Heart Association’s recommendations to eat at least two servings of fish per week, the United States would need an additional 1.5 billion pounds of seafood each year.  Since 80% of our seafood is imported, we have a significant impact on ocean fisheries worldwide.  As pressure on this resource grows, many of our ocean fisheries are in trouble—overfishing and habitat degradation have taken a toll on fish populations and impacted ocean and coastal ecosystems.  Effective, balanced federal policy and adequate funding is needed to support sustainable fishery management and healthy oceans.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), originally enacted in 1976, gives the U.S. sovereign rights over fishery resources in U.S. waters, which generally extend from 3 miles from shore to 200 miles.  The MSA originally focused on eliminating foreign fishing in U.S. waters and building robust domestic fisheries.  It effectively eliminated most foreign fishing in these waters, but its success in developing domestic fisheries led to the need for refinement in our laws to protect declining stocks.  Fish were being harvested at a higher rate than was sustainable, which is called ‘overfishing’.  During Congressional consideration of the 1996 reauthorization of the MSA, in a bill called the Sustainable Fisheries Act, I successfully included a provision to curtail overfishing.   Through this and other important changes, Congress strengthened the MSA with provisions that reduced bycatch of non-targeted fish, required identification and protection of habitats essential to fish, and addressed overfishing.

By the early years of the 21st Century, evidence of continued stress in U.S. fish stocks indicated a need for retooling of U.S. fishing laws to protect domestic and international stocks.  In 2001, when I became chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, I held several hearings to assess problems in U.S. fishery management and identify measures to resolve them.  I learned that scientists were concerned about the impact of intense fish harvest—including bycatch—on the ecosystems upon which stocks depended and on population dynamics of certain stocks.  Around the nation, fishery managers were concerned about the build up of capacity—or fishing boats—and were debating ways to manage this through the development of quota and other allocation programs.     

Sustainable Harvesting

I have always believed that fisheries should be harvested conservatively until science can support a greater harvest, and that managing living resources sustainably means considering their use in the context of all the living and habitat-related factors influencing the health of their populations.  From this ecosystem-based fishery management perspective, I began to craft legislation to accomplish this nationwide in 2002, when I also worked with the NOAA Chesapeake Bay office in the development of a multi-species fishery management model to help inform fishery managers about the impact of harvest of one species on the population of other species in the Bay ecosystem.  This model was the precursor for the current model being used to assess the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay and to rate and report its health to the public.  The Chesapeake Bay ecosystem health assessment model helps fishery managers assess alternative management scenarios effects on fish populations and will one day be able to use environmental indicators, like some of the Bay’s most important fisheries, to give scientists a picture of the overall health of the Bay’s ecosystem.  The development of sophisticated scientific tools like this will help support sustainable harvest of fisheries that can support healthy coastal economies.

The 8 Regional Fishery Management Councils, which manage U.S. ocean fisheries in partnership with NOAA, are developing approaches to ecosystem-based fishery management.  I took a leadership role in 2006 in reauthorizing the MSA to strengthen this approach in a proposal that would require NOAA to develop guidelines for ecosystem-based fishery management plans.  Although this did not make it into the final 2006 bill, I was able to help  end  overfishing by requiring all fisheries to be managed on the basis of annual harvest caps by no later than 2011 and to lead an effort to ensure the rebuilding of depleted stocks  within the 10-year time frame specified in MSA.

Challenges Facing  the New Fisheries Law

The newly reauthorized MSA faces several challenges.  As NOAA finalizes the rules to implement the new law, securing necessary federal funds could become increasingly difficult as the nation faces more and more needs for these same funds.  Also, pressure to relax the new law requiring the rebuilding of depleted stocks within a specified time period will likely increase.  Legislation to relax the new rebuilding requirements has already been proposed in Congress, so I am encouraging my colleagues and fishery managers to find ways to minimize the economic impact of reducing harvest of these stocks while making sure they are rebuilt and managed sustainably in the future.  As more people move to and use our coasts, coastal habitats are degraded.  It is critical that we develop market-based and regulatory laws to protect coastal lands at the federal, state, and local level.  Deep sea coral habitats, also very important to many commercial fish stocks, need protection.  While the new MSA provides for identification of and research on these

areas, future protections will be needed.  The new MSA strengthens the role of the U.S. in enforcing international agreements to protect migratory stocks and stocks harvested beyond U.S. waters, but it will be important to remain vigilant to ensure that these new authorities are effective in stopping illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in international waters.

Finally, coastal waters are already warming as a result of climate change, and this warming is causing highly evolved ecosystems—like coral reefs—to suffer injuries that could become catastrophic.  For coral reefs, the damage includes bleaching and increased acidification of surface waters from carbon dioxide absorbed by ocean waters.  Ocean birds and marine mammals, suffer loss of habitat and the fish and shellfish upon which they depend for food.  Significant shifts are already underway in fisheries that are important to our coastal communities.  We must not only do all we can to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases significantly, but we must also support the resilience of coral reefs and other ocean habitats through adequate federal, state, and local protection, and funding.  As I continue my advocacy outside the U.S. Congress as a citizen, I hope you will join me in working toward a sustainable future for our oceans and ocean fisheries. 


Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest represents Maryland’s 1st Congressional District.

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