North American Fish Populations Slowly Crawling Back From Disaster, NOAA Report Shows

By Veronique Greenwood | May 16, 2012 2:15 pm

A snow crab

If you’ve ever read up on the environmental impact of your eating habits, you know that eating fish can be a dicey prospect. Having been overfished for decades, many wild fish populations are on the brink of disappearing.

A new report from NOAA shows that one attempt to deal with this problem of severely depleted fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006, seems to be helping, at least a little bit. The act states that each year, NOAA must give status updates on all fish populations within 200 miles of the US Coast. If the fisheries are hurting, fishermen must stop catching those fish until their numbers recover. Over the last 11 years, 27 previously precarious fish populations have been announced recovered; this year, the six lucky winners were the haddock in the Gulf of Maine, the Chinook salmon along the coast of Northern California, the snow crab of the Bering Sea, the summer flounder on the mid-Atlantic coast, the coho salmon on the coast of Washington, and the widow rockfish in the Pacific.

Overall, NOAA takes these recoveries as a sign that the law is doing its job; according to a metric called the fish stock sustainability index (FSSI), things have been steadily improving for US fish stocks since 2000. But it’s not necessarily a sign to order snow crab tonight. To be declared recovered, a Pew Environmental Group employee told the NYT’s Green Blog, a fish population only has to reach 40% of the numbers it had historically. That seems pretty far from true recovery.

Image courtesy of nelgdev / flickr

  • AC

    Moving baselines . . . . .

    Let us know when fishstocks approach 1850 levels, ok?

  • floodmouse

    I am sad because I like to eat fish, and I hardly ever eat fish anymore. (If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.) Is there any kind of resource available that tells you what types of fish are okay to eat from season to season without causing overfishing? Too bad I can’t get my hands on one of those giant invasive catfish they are trying to exterminate from native waterways. That would keep me going for a while. :)

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @floodmouse, yes, there are a bunch of “seafood guides” out there on the web that provide good info. Here’s one from the Monterey Bay Aquarium that lets you print out a card to put in your wallet with your region’s sustainable seafood options:

    I think this is the national guide:

  • Julian Alien

    NOAA is full of it,and so is this article.The fish population will not get close to 1850 populations until we go back to 1850 human populations.Every fisherman I talk to says that the numbers counted are in no way represented by the actual fish out there.These scientist geeks from the federal government knows nothing of what is really going on out there and are always cooking the books to expand the bureaucracy.If they were really concerned about feeding people and saving the environment they would pay people to hunt invasive species,rip out 99 percent of all the seawalls in the U.S.A., and deploy the Navy to capture the Chinese,Russian,and Mexican trawlers fishing our waters.The only purpose of this unconstitutional bureaucracy is to put the small coastal fishermen out of business so they lose their boats and homes.In comes golf courses,condos,and mega trawlers to serve you old chemical laden fish sticks.Look at the seafood section of your local grocery store and check where the products are coming from for proof.

  • Paul Hickey

    It’s time we tell our congressmen to “Wake UP”. Yes we the people elect our representatives but that doesn’t mean we too are morons. If the researchers were making any attempt at being honest, they would look at the impact society and its proximity to the water has on fish populations. As more and more people live near the sea and thereby alter the chemistry of the water, the chain of life is also altered. I’ll use pompano as an example. The 1994 gill net ban which put 10,000 fishermen out of work resulted in a “ZERO” increase in pompano stocks. Why? It didn’t increase the food supply of the pompano, it didn’t increase the food supply of the sand fleas which have declined or gone elsewhere because of altered water chemistry. Predation actually increases the numbers of fish to balance with the food supply. Has anyone noticed that we are not having an issue of being over-run with sand fleas? Did Juan Ponce DeLeon have to walk across the backs of fish to get ashore? No!
    The federal government is more interested in creating conditions whereby Guatemala and Panama can sell their red snapper here at prices lower than than American fishermen. Why else would we be prohibited from even fishing where we might catch a red snapper? It’s easy to answer, substitute oil for snapper and Brazil for Panama in the preceding sentence.
    The answer lies in taking regulatory power away from the federal government and putting it in the hands of the fish houses who have in their interest the health of the fish stocks in our waters. Call bullshit on the interstate commerce clause of the constitution. If a fish house is selling fish to New York, then “that” shipment is subject to the interstate commerce clause, not the life cycle of the seafood that may never leave the state. Floridas fish belong to the people of the state of Florida and nobody representing the state of Iowa should have any say in the matter.
    The folks at NOAA are the same people who would have you believe that the ice in your glass of water will cause the water to overflow as it melts. It’s time to kick them out of our state and revoke the rules, regulations and fines which by the way are not laws (only congress can make laws) but which in this country we are still somehow subject to and yet as is evident over and aver again their rules have never resulted in the intended result. You can find the same result in every endeavor of the government when they overstep their authority and oppress us with regulations that serve only to get them re-elected.

  • Paul

    @ + Julian: To say that NOAA is “full of it” and that fishermen (read: guys who have made a living from fishing and don’t want their livelihoods screwed with despite the fact they are probably over-fishing for profit) are the true arbiters of actual fact is as ridiculous as accusing NOAA in the first place. One cannot look at the world as your own private universe and say “I am free to do whatever I want and make as much money as I can gorge into my pockets and damn everybody else” when you live on a polluted, over-populated finite ball floating in an inhospitable vacuum. The oceans were NOT populated with fish just to feed Man, despite what the human-male-authored Bible sez…the whole ball of wax is a system and when the system is upset, it will have to recover, like any system will. Personally, I can’t wait for fish to fish and deer to hunt.


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