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US fisheries: status, long-term potential yields, and stock management ideas.

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.

Status of US Fisheries

The most comprehensive source of information on US fisheries is the NMFS publication, Our Living Oceans, which considers 236 groups or "stocks" of fish, including about 450 different species. The US shares several of these fishery resources with other fishing countries because fish migrate into and out of US waters. The US also has some vessels that fish on the high seas and/or in other countries' jurisdictions, such as tuna fisheries in the western Pacific.

The total recent average yield, from 1989 to 1991, for fisheries of US interest is about 6.6 million metric tons (mmt) of fish or shellfish. This is about 7 percent of the global catch. The US proportion is about 5.0 mmt, placing the US sixth among fishing nations. In 1991, US commercial landings provided fishermen with $3.9 billion in revenues, which translated to tens of billions of dollars in business for the US economy. In addition, there are about 17 million Americans that participate in recreational marine fishing, producing economic and intangible benefits that contribute to the quality of life in this country.

Whenever possible, Our Living Oceans gives an estimate of each stock's Long-term Potential Yield (LTPY). This is the maximum average yield that could be taken in the long term if a proper balance were struck between fishing level and resource productivity (catching only what is produced, but no more). When this balance is achieved, a stock is considered "fully utilized." If more fishing effort is needed to maintain the LTPY, the stock is considered underutilized," and if there is more fishing effort than necessary, it is considered "overutilized." In addition, Our Living Oceans classifies stocks as below," near," or "above" the abundance level that on average produces the long-term potential yield. Stocks may be below or above the LTPY level because of either past or current over- or underutilization, respectively, or as a result of natural variability.

The long-term potential yield from all the fisheries of interest to the US is estimated as 9.5 million metric tons. This is about 40 percent higher than the recent average yield. Groundfish, or fish that live near or on the bottom, account for 48 percent of the LTPY, and highly migratory and coastal pelagic (living well off the bottom) species account for 43 percent. The remaining 9 percent is almost equally divided between anadromous (those that spend most of their lives at sea but spawn in rivers) and nearshore fish and shellfish. However, some of the potential yield is shared with neighboring countries and high-seas fishing nations.

The LTPY cannot simply be divided between US and foreign countries. As abundances change, spatial distributions may also change, which affects the relative availability of resources to US fishermen. Proportions may also change as a result of international fishery management agreements. However, if the LTPY is prorated between the US and foreign countries based on the yield's recent proportions, the "prorated US LTPY" would be 7.7 million metric tons, or 81 percent of the total LTPY. Most of the difference is accounted for by Pacific and Atlantic highly migratory species. The prorated US LTPY is about 50 percent higher than the US recent average yield.

By region, the largest long-term potential yield is off Alaska (40 percent), and the smallest is off the West Coast (11 percent). But, the order of potential value by region does not correspond to the order of potential yield. If the current commercial price is applied to the LTPY of each stock (which also includes some recreational catch), the estimated LTPY value is highest for the northeastern US. But there is also a difference when comparisons are made between regions for the value of the prorated US LTPY. In this case, the Alaska region also leads in long-term potential value.

To achieve the long-term potential yield, it is necessary to increase utilization of 12 percent of the stocks, maintain current utilization of 26 percent, and reduce utilization of as many as 28 percent. There is insufficient information to make a judgment for about 34 percent of the stocks. Abundances for 30 percent of the stocks must be allowed to increase to near the LTPY level, and abundances for about 10 percent should be expected to decline toward the LTPY level as they become fully utilized. For 29 percent of the stocks, abundances are near the LTPY level and should be maintained. But for 31 percent of the stocks, the abundances relative to LTPY are unknown.

By region, the northeastern and southeastern US have the largest percentages of overutilized stocks (45 percent and 33 percent, respectively). The traditional New England groundfish and flounder fishery illustrates the problem of overutilization instigated by foreign vessels, but more recently perpetuated by the US. None of the fish groups off Alaska are considered overutilized, but 20 percent are below the level necessary to produce the LTPY because of either historic overutilization or natural variability. The Alaska groundfish fishery is a good example of the transition of fisheries off the US from foreign to joint venture between US and foreign companies to domestic dominance.

Some Concerns

One of our purposes is to offer a "report card" on fisheries management. But rather than assign a letter grade, we leave readers to draw their own conclusions. One thing is clear: The US can do better.

Of the stocks for which we have sufficient information to judge their status, 43 percent are overutilized. These include some of the nation's most important fishery resources such as: New England groundfish and flounders, Atlantic sea scallops, Atlantic bluefin tuna, Atlantic swordfish, large coastal sharks, Atlantic menhaden, spiny lobster in the southeast, Pacific Ocean perch, North Pacific albacore, and many nearshore oyster, hard clam, and abalone stocks. Even some of the populations that are no longer overutilized are below the abundance level necessary to produce their LTPY, such as rockfish off Alaska and Pacific sardines.

One of the primary reasons the US extended jurisdiction to 200 miles in 1977 was to end overutilization of fishery resources. Recently, National Marine Fisheries Service scientists compared the 1977 fishery resource status (to the extent it could be determined) to the current status. The comparison indicates that overall there has been relatively little change, with improvement in some regions (such as Alaska) and deterioration in others (the southeast).

Overutilization not only leads to stock depletion; it is also a cause of economic inefficiency, as the cost of catching fish is too high and prices to consumers increase accordingly. The problems of overutilization and resource depletion are usually accompanied by overcapitalization, which exacerbates economic problems and intensifies pressure to continue overutilization. For example, a recent report on New England groundfish indicates that the resource could produce $350 million more in gross income annually and 14,000 additional jobs. A recent NMFS analysis indicates that the potential increase in net value of US fisheries is about $2.9 billion annually and hundreds of thousands of jobs. These are very crude first approximations, but they indicate the gravity of the situation.

One factor that hampers fishery management is insufficient scientific information. For example, the status of 34 percent of the fish stocks is unknown, and for populations where the status is known, the information is imprecise. This means that fisheries managers are either too restrictive and waste benefits in the short term, or they are not restrictive enough and jeopardize long-term benefits. In practice, imprecise information has been used to argue that fish are abundant, so fishing does not need to be restricted. Such arguments have led to many resource collapses.

The Future: Improving the Odds

Recall that the principle law that authorizes management of US marine fisheries, the Magnuson Act, is before Congress for reauthorization this year. It is tempting to blame the Magnuson Act for the problems facing US fisheries, but the issues are far more complex. First, it is important to recognize that the problems confronting US fisheries are common throughout the world. This is not an excuse, but it does imply that a legal framework for fisheries management that is unique to the US is not the primary problem. Of course the Magnuson Act can--and should--be improved, but fundamental issues need to be addressed regardless of how the act changes.

There are numerous examples of uncontrolled growth in fishing fleets until the catching capacity far exceeds the sustainable yield. A fleet will continue to grow until there is no longer an economic incentive for other vessels to join it. At this point, proposals to reduce catch (to conserve the fishery resource) are met with strong opposition, because most vessel owners cannot survive even a short-term catch reduction. Because scientific information on fish stocks is always uncertain, there is a tendency to make risk-prone decisions with hope that the situation is really better than the science indicates. This cycle of overcapitalization, economically and biologically unhealthy fisheries, and risk-prone decisions, in the face of uncertain scientific information, continues until fish stocks collapse, leaving acute economic and social consequences.

The best way to break this cycle is to control access before overcapitalization occurs. But it is never too late. Controlled access schemes can be designed to prevent overcapitalization from worsening, and to foster incentives for the needed reductions. It is also necessary for fisheries managers to make tough decisions that err toward conservation (risk adverse) rather than mortgaging the future (risk prone). However, unless the scientific bases of these decisions are reasonably precise (in the eyes of decision makers and the affected fishing industry), tough, effective decisions are an unlikely outcome. We believe that many of the problems faced by US fisheries today can be alleviated by employing a strategy that encompasses elements of controlled access, risk-adverse decisions, and an expanded scientific information base for fisheries management.

Acknowledgments: Our Living Oceans is the annual report of the US National Marine Fisheries Service on the status of living marine resources, including fish and shellfish, marine mammals, and sea turtles. It was prepared by more than 60 scientists and other staff. Numerous other individuals contributed indirectly. These are the people that deserve credit for most of the information in this article. Copies are available free of charge from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Research and Environmental Information, Room 6314,1335 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910.

New (Coastal) Directions for Naval Oceanographic Research

THE UNITED STATES NAVY, primarily through the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and its corporate laboratory (Navy Research Laboratory) and sponsored universities, has long been a primary supporter of ocean science and technology. Its interests have led to American world leadership in a number of aspects of oceanography. Thus, the Navy's involvement has been, and continues to be, important to the health and direction of the ocean sciences.

The past two or three years have brought great changes to the US Navy's mission because of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the challenges presented by conflicts in newly independent states and in developing countries. The new mission was recently enunciated in a white paper entitled "From the Sea: a New Direction for the Naval Service," signed by the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. It departs from previous plans by proposing a heavier emphasis on amphibious operations and makes few statements about the traditional Navy mission of ocean-wide sea-lane control. This document has led to a new coastal or littoral emphasis, which affects ocean science research because it assigns new naval importance to understanding the ocean from the surf zone out to the adjacent ocean, and to such strategic regional areas as the Mediterranean.

The impact of the Navy's new emphasis on the ocean science community was discussed at a January 1993 National Research Council Ocean Studies Board meeting with officials representing both research and operational sectors of the Navy. Some of the important new themes discussed include the following: * ONR is now actively involved in funding

marine environmental quality research to

provide advanced technologies for improving conditions in harbors and estuaries that may have been affected by naval operational activities, at naval bases or in other areas. * The high performance of modern weapons

and surveillance systems is increasingly

dependent on environmental considerations,

such as atmospheric visibility. This

places a greater stress on weather and ocean

prediction and on improved instrumentation

to characterize the highly variable littoral

region. It is also increasingly important

to understand, during the design phase,

how systems will be affected by oceanic and

atmospheric conditions. * A wide range of oceanic conditions, such as

wave height or bottom conditions, affect the

ability of the armed services to conduct

amphibious operations. These need to be

better understood and predicted on an operational

time scale. * The use of remote sensing to acquire surveillance

information and environmental data

is crucial to achieving these capabilities. The

Navy must be capable of knowing the operational

environment in forward areas and

be able to forecast this environment for

weapon-system performance and operational

activities at sea and over the beach. * Close cooperation between Navy and academic

ocean scientists will become increasingly

important as funding to Navy laboratories


Relations between the Navy and the academic community have always been good, and all parties want to maintain the constructive relationship. New definitions of Navy needs imply a different emphasis to the relationship, but should not disturb the healthy underlying partnership.

Michael P. Sissenwine has been the Senior Scientist of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland) since 199 1. He is responsible for providing scientific oversight for diverse research programs conducted by more than 1, 000 NMFS scientists and support staff in 29 laboratories throughout the country. He specializes in population dynamics, renewable-resource management, and fisheries ecology. His involvement in fisheries research has a pragmatic basis rather than a natural attraction. His decision to attend the University of Rhode Island was too late to quality for financial aid in his first year, but he was recruited into a research assistantship by a faculty member who was ahead of his time in recognizing the value of mathematics in biological and ecological research. Since then, Sissenwine has become fascinated by the relationship between research and policy in fisheries management. In fact, he views fisheries as a mesocosm of many complex scientifically based policy issues.

Andrew A. Rosenberg worked for six years in London as the Deputy Director of the Renewable Resources Assessment Group at Imperial College. His research there Included the development and implementation of an assessment and management system for the Falkland Island squid fishery, studies on Antarctic krill, the development of length-based methods of fish stock assessment, analysis of multispecies fisheries in the North, Barents, and Mediterranean seas, and the impact of acid rain on fish stocks in Norwegian lakes. He moved to NMFS in 1990 as the Fishery Management Council liaison for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, where he took a primary role in transmitting scientific advice to managers. In 1992, he became assistant to the NMFS Senior Scientist on stock assessment issues, conducting reviews, and serving as scientific editor for Our Living Oceans. His research interests are in stock assessment methodology and fishery management.
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Author:Sissenwine, Michael P.; Rosenberg, Andrew A.
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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