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Transcript: An End to Overfishing

[Music playing]

Rich Press: Reading the environmental news these days can really get you down. The climate is changing, sea levels are rising, and in many parts of the world, the oceans are being emptied out by overfishing. But there are a few good news stories out there, and here's one that you might not have heard about: In the United States, we've put an end to chronic overfishing. That means healthier ocean ecosystems and a brighter future for fishermen and coastal communities all along our coasts.

Overfishing is the practice of catching fish faster than they can reproduce, and decades of overfishing had left many of our fisheries in bad shape. But as of 2007, new amendments to federal fisheries laws required us to end overfishing, rebuild depleted stocks, and set sustainable catch limits for all the marine fisheries we manage. That's a big job. We manage over 400 stocks of fish and shellfish, and it takes a tremendous investment in scientific research just to figure out how well or poorly they're doing, to say nothing of bringing them back to a healthy state.

So how much progress have we made? And what are the remaining challenges? To find out, I spoke with Sam Rauch, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs at NOAA Fisheries. Sam's the guy who oversees our efforts to keep our fisheries sustainable, and I started by asking him...

So Sam, in our mission to end overfishing and rebuild stocks, how far have we come?

Sam Rauch: We have put our fisheries, since 2010, on a very sustainable footing, where overfishing has essentially ended. We are rebuilding the overfished stocks and making great progress with that. At the same time we’re doing all that, we have seen record numbers in terms of fish landings, fish revenue, and increase in jobs. So we’ve demonstrated that we can be good environmental stewards, at the same time as making a substantial contribution to the economy.

Rich Press: Right, so you mentioned that we’re on a sustainable footing, but the word “sustainability” can mean different things to different people. So when it comes to fisheries, what does sustainability mean to you?

Sam Rauch: Well, there are a number of parts to what it means. First of all, when we look at sustainable fishing, we manage for maximum sustained yield. We want to ensure a steady, high level of output from these fisheries, both in terms of seafood supply, economics, recreational opportunity, jobs, all of those things, we want to ensure we have a steady contribution to the economy year after year after year. So in order to do that, you have to end overfishing, rebuild the stocks.

But there’s also a very strong environmental component to that. We want to make sure that we leave enough fish for next year, for future generations. We want to make sure that in taking those fish out of the ecosystem, you’re preserving the ecosystem, you have a healthy ecosystem on which all of that is based. In terms of the fishing communities, our country is built, in part, on fishing communities up and down the coast. And we want to make sure that  tradition continues on into the future, so steady seafood supply, steady contribution to the economic health of the country, steady recreational opportunity, and enough fish for the future.

Rich Press: So we’ve ended overfishing, we’re rebuilding those stocks that haven’t yet been rebuilt. What does that mean, or what should that mean, for the American seafood consumer?

Sam Rauch: What the seafood consumer, when they buy U.S. domestic product, they know that it is sustainably caught, that it is responsibly managed. So the consumer has a certain degree of confidence that this product was well-managed, that the fishery is not devastating the environment, but it is managed in concert with environmental parameters and goals.

Rich Press: But you also mentioned that a number of stocks are still rebuilding and consumers can buy those fish. So how can that be? Why do I see red snapper at the supermarket if the stock is still rebuilding?

Sam Rauch: For the ones that you see on the shelf that are rebuilding, all those fish have an upward trajectory. They are growing. As long as the fishing does not undermine the overall goal of achieving a sustainable population at the end of the day, you can do that. Many of these stocks went into a depressed state over the course of decades or years of overfishing. It’s going to take a long time. Some of these stocks are quite rapid and can rebuild quickly. Other stocks are much more long-lived, and it’s going to take longer.

But our goal is not to put fishermen out of business. Our goal is to have a stable fishing economy. You don’t create that by ending all fishing immediately and then waiting for the stocks to recover, because they will no longer be any fishermen there to fish. So what you do is you bring both the fishing industry and the stocks back together, and so you allow fishing to go on, these fishermen are fishing in a sustainable manner, their fishing is not imperiling the health of the stock; it’s just taking a while for nature to take its course. The fishermen should not be penalized; the public can feel free to go and eat that product and know that we are on a good, positive trajectory in order to achieve our environmental objectives.

Rich Press: You mentioned that we’ve ended overfishing and are rebuilding stocks. We really have made significant progress, especially in recent years. But that kind of progress, we’re not seeing that progress all over the world. What’s our role in terms of helping other parts of the world also reach sustainability for the oceans?

Sam Rauch: Yes, well, that’s a good question. The worldwide pattern is very mixed. There are some countries where their fisheries are very well-managed and others are not, and we deal with the rest of the world in two different ways – one, on the high seas, which aren’t the territory of any country, we collaborate through a number of international treaty organizations and try to reach good sustainable quotas that we and other countries can implement that will achieve some of the same objectives we’re trying to achieve in the United States.

When you’re dealing with fisheries in the waters of another country, our role is obviously much more limited. We will share technology with them, we will share management structures, we will share scientific advice. We will work with them to build their capacity. We will work with them to make sure that they are adequately enforcing their own laws. Many of these products that are unsustainably caught are then shipped back into the United States, where they compete on grocery store shelves with our own products, which are sustainably caught. So we want to make sure that we are leveling the playing field, that everybody’s playing by the same rules, and that they’re done sustainably. It’s a difficult problem. It’s a long-term problem. We don’t have nearly as good tools in the international arena that we have in the United States, but we’re working on all those issues.

Rich Press: Well, speaking of difficult, long-term problems, what do you see as the biggest challenge today, in terms of keeping our fisheries sustainable?

Sam Rauch: I think the biggest remaining challenge – at this point, I think we have a stable regulatory system. I think the biggest challenge is to provide more stability in it. We do react very quickly, as I’ve said, to overfishing. We might say, based on the last stock assessment, that the stock is declining and we need to cut the fishery, so we will implement a significant cut. The next year, because fish stocks are very fluid, the stocks could grow, and so you could have a very abundant stock the next year.

That bouncing back and forth of the quota is ecologically sound, environmentally sound, but it doesn’t do the fishermen that much good. They have trouble dealing with the rapid decrease and trouble dealing with the rapid increase in terms of their business relationships. That lack of stability is leaving economic value on the table, and so providing that stability without harming the environment is, I think, the next biggest challenge.

Rich Press: So Sam, what’s your vision for the future for fisheries? If you could look out 20 years, what do you hope fisheries look like in this country?

Sam Rauch: Well, I hope that we have maintained the current state of ending overfishing, that we do not allow overfishing to start recurring and crop back into the fishery. We get a great deal of economic value for it. It is our obligation as environmental stewards. So I hope that we continue that trend.

I hope that we have rebuilt most of our fish stocks. Currently, we are on a great trajectory to rebuilding them. I hope that  continues, and that we’ve actually achieved success so that we’re no longer in this state of stocks that are overfished and need to be rebuilt.

So that’s the environmental side of the equation. For the fishermen, I would like to see a system where they can go out and get loans because we’ve brought some stability, so that they have more certainty when they're doing their economic planning, as to how many fish they’re going to get out of that system, that they don’t have to wait till the last minute and wonder about what – so that we achieve some of the economic goals that we’ve set for ourselves. I also believe, as we go forward, our science is going to get better, our predictability’s going to get better, so that it will be less controversial, and as we get better, more stable science systems in there, we monitor more data, the economics are more set, it will be less controversial. There will be much more of a partnership and a science-based management. And I think the tools are there; we just need to actually implement it.

Rich Press: Thanks, Sam.

Sam Rauch: Thank you.

Rich Press: Thanks for letting me come in and talk to you.

Sam Rauch: All right. You need your microphone?

Rich Press: Yeah. [Music playing]

That was Sam Rauch, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs at NOAA Fisheries.

When it comes to sustainability, the choices you make as a consumer are important. If you have questions about the specific type of U.S. seafood you're eating, check out our seafood information website, that's www.fishwatch.gov. There you'll find profiles of almost 100 different stocks of U.S. fish and shellfish, including how each one is caught and managed, and you can decide for yourself whether you think it's sustainable or not.

Thanks for listening. Join us again next time for more stories about ocean life and ocean science. I’m Rich Press and you’re listening On the Line.


[Music playing]

You have been listening to the NOAA Fisheries’ podcast, "On the Line". Join us next time for a first-hand look at the people and the science behind managing our nation’s fisheries. For more information, visit NOAA Fisheries at www.fisheries.noaa.gov.

"On the Line" is a production of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Communications.
 

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