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Among the West Coast’s shrinking fish populations 30 years ago, the largely bottom-dwelling groundfish species were particularly hard hit by overfishing and were declared a federal economic disaster.
That spurred one of the world’s most aggressive fishery management programs, with an approach that includes science- and data-driven catch limits and no-fishing zones. Of 17 global regions with ocean fishery management programs examined in a new study by the University of Washington, the west coasts of the United States and Canada had the strictest approaches.
And of the 10 West Coast groundfish populations that were at risk because of overfishing, nine have rebounded to sustainable levels, while the tenth, the yelloweye rockfish, is recovering faster than expected.
There was pushback along the way from commercial fishing operators, many of whom initially saw the new rules reduce their hauls and income. But the effort has been declared a success in helping ensure the long-term viability of fisheries and fishing operations in the region.
“Rebuilding these overfished stocks was a painful process for West Coast fishermen,” said Chuck Tracy, executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which developed the fishery program. “This study shows that their short-term sacrifices paid off in the long run, leading to more sustainable fisheries for future generations.”
Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, said the fact that rebuilding goals were achieved more quickly than anticipated was evidence to many commercial fishermen that the program was more aggressive than it needed to be.
“But now that we’re here, guys are excited about the prospect of increased opportunity to harvest sustainable, highly regulated stocks and help reduce California’s reliance on imported fish,” said Conroy, whose group is the largest West Coast commercial fishing trade organization. He added that the federation is continuing to work with the Pacific Fishery Management Council to further ease restrictions.
Meanwhile, recreational anglers are finding some of the best California fishing of their lives.
Ken Franke, 61, said it’s nearly as good as when he was growing up in San Diego — and that it’s continuing to improve.
“It was difficult at the beginning of the program. But the outcome — I think everybody’s happy with how it’s evolved,” said Franke, president of the Sportfishing Association of California.
Dire world seas
The global trend is less encouraging.
In 1974, 10% of the world’s marine fish stocks were overfished and unsustainable. By 2017, that had grown to 34%, according to the most recent data available in a 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Meanwhile, 2018 saw a record haul of sea fish, and per capita consumption of fish has been increasing since at least 1950, the report says.
“There is growing evidence that when fisheries are properly managed, stocks are consistently above target levels or rebuilding, giving credibility to the fishery managers and governments around the world that are willing to take strong action,” says the report.
The University of Washington study set out to determine how to best do that, as is stated in the study title, “Identifying Management Actions that Promote Sustainable Fisheries.”
The 17 regions examined in the study accounted for about 30 percent of the global catch, according to lead author Michael Melnychuk, a University of Washington research scientist. They were selected in large measure because of the availability of good scientific data.
“Over half the world’s catch is not assessed to a reliable degree,” Melnychuk said. “Our best guess is that the situation in those areas is getting worse.”
Those areas include all or part of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Brazil, China, East Africa and West Africa, he said.
Keys to success
Effective fishery management techniques can vary from region to region. But enforced, science-based fishing quotas and harvest control rules that reflect ongoing changes in marine life — including natural fluctuations like El Nino temperature changes — are typically found in the most successful management programs, Melnychuk said.
On the West Coast, management has also included putting select areas off limits, restrictions on fishing overfished species, and limits on how deep trawlers can cast their nets, said John DeVore, a biologist with the Pacific Fishery Management Council. How those techniques are executed, he added, can make a big difference.
For instance, groundfish quotas initially were enforced based on the number of fish brought ashore. But boats might dump as much of half of certain fish back into the ocean when they exceeded species limits, and those fish often ended up dying, said DeVore, who contributed to the University of Washington study.
That’s since evolved to having regulatory observers on every trawler to ensure that what’s brought aboard is within limits.
“Disgarding is way down and economic efficiency is way up,” he said, noting that discards are now often less than 1% of the catch.
But ongoing adjustments can be a source of tension. For instance, the population of cowcod, a once-overfished groundfish species, was determined in 2019 to have been rebuilt, but 4,300 square miles set aside for that species remain off limits to fishing.
Industry representative Conroy estimated that 30% to 60% of the total commercial haul on the West Coast is groundfish, depending on the year and marine conditions. He said his trade group is pushing to have more of the cowcod conservation areas opened up.
But while the cowcod is no longer considered overfished, the fishery council has favored continued protections.
“They’re very slow growing fish so they take a while to rebuild,” DeVore said. “In our system, we err on the side of conservation.”
Fish or beef?
Depending on how they’re harvested, seafood can be an environmentally friendly source of protein and can even have a lower environmental impact than the agriculture necessary to provide 100% plant-based diets for vegetarians and vegans, according to a 2018 University of Washington study, “The Environmental Cost of Animal Source Foods.”
The study looked at various food sources’ impact in terms of energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and nutrient runoff, which is the cause of water quality issues.
It found that catfish aquaculture and beef created the most greenhouse gases, while farmed catfish, shrimp and tilapia used the most energy because of the need for motorized water circulation.
Scoring well in terms of low-energy use and low greenhouse gases emissions were fished anchovies, herring, sardines, pollock, cod and haddock, and farmed oysters, mussels, scallops, salmon and chicken. Additionally, seafood is a key source of protein in some impoverished regions where there are inadequate food supplies.
These roles of seafood in the world’s diet is a key reason why fishery management programs aim not for the largest population of fish possible, but, rather, a population that is consistently sustainable.
“Some would say that not fishing at all would allow populations to return to their maximum levels,” Melnychuk said. “But that wouldn’t allow for the fish to feed people.”