Magazine article Oceanus

US Fisheries: Status, Long-Term Potential Yields, and Stock Management Ideas

Magazine article Oceanus

US Fisheries: Status, Long-Term Potential Yields, and Stock Management Ideas

Article excerpt

Coastal waters support the world's richest fisheries, with 95 percent of the worldwide catch taken within 200 miles of shore. These fisheries account for more animal protein for human consumption than poultry, lamb, or beef. Fishing is also a valuable form of recreation. The worldwide number of marine recreational anglers is unknown, but there are about 17 million in the US alone.

Today fisheries are beset by problems that threaten the many benefits they provide. Marine fishery resources were once believed to be virtually inexhaustible. It is now clear that these resources are vulnerable to an overabun-dance of fishing vessels and fishermen, who are catching too many fish.

The worldwide fishery catch, including finfish and shellfish, has rather steadily for more than three decades. But most experts believe the recent leveling off of catch indicates that fisheries are now fully or overutilized, and producing near the global maximum sustainable yield. Along with the increase in catch, there has been a shift in the catch proportions from developed (wealthier) to developing (poorer) countries: Developing countries now account for more than half the worldwide catch.

Although fisheries worldwide are collectively harvesting the approximate maximum sustainable yield, many individual fisheries are declining or depleted, particularly in the North Atlantic. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization describes about one-third of the fisheries it tracks as heavily exploited, overexploited, or depleted. It also estimates that fishing costs exceed revenues by $16 billion annually, or 20 percent--that is, fisheries are losing money. The deficit, which is probably offset by government subsidies, occurs because the harvesting capacity (or number of fishing vessels) exceeds the available fishery resource. This situation is known as overcapitalization, and is an expected consequence of unregulated participation in fisheries (anyone who wants to fish, can). Today most fisheries are overcapitalized. Even when the total catch amount is controlled, the incentive exists for more and bigger vessels to race for the limited amount of fish, until fishing is no longer a wise investment.

US Fisheries: An Historical Perspective

Fishing is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of US industries. The first European visitors to North America were attracted by abundant coastal fishery resources. Fish were important to the Pilgrims in 1620 when they landed on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In addition to his other accomplishments, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson reported to the first session of Congress in 1791 "...on the subject of the Fisheries of the United States." And a thriving marine science community was born in 1885 when Spencer Baird established the world's oldest fisheries research laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Throughout most of history, marine fisheries have been essentially unmanaged, with the exception of a few regulations on fishing seasons, areas, or size limits. It was not until the 1960s, when large factory trawlers from Europe and Asia began fishing off US coasts, that the fishing industry and the public recognized that more regulation, or "fisheries management," was necessary. In 1977, the US extended its jurisdiction over fishery resources from 12 to 200 miles off shore. The law that extended fisheries management, known as the "Magnuson Act" (for Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington state), established eight regional Fishery Management Councils to formulate Fishery Management Plans to be implemented by the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The act's purpose was to end overfishing, which was primarily blamed on foreign vessels, and to encourage US fisheries to expand and replace foreign fisheries. Congress is now considering reauthorization of the act, which expires this year. It is timely to consider the US fisheries status. …

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