The Gulf: From Overfishing to Healthy Waters

Released by: Environment America

Executive Summary

America’s oceans are home to whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish and an enormous variety of other sea life. But today our oceans are in trouble. Destructive overfishing, pollution, global warming and habitat damage are putting important marine animals at risk. Many populations are in serious decline. The result of this poor care for our oceans is a drastic reduction in fishing opportunities for commercial and recreational fishermen.

In the Gulf of Mexico, almost three in ten (2 out of 7 or 29 percent) federally regulated fish stocks for which there is adequate information are overfished.1 A little more than three in ten (4 out of 13 or 31 percent) federally regulated fish stocks for which there is adequate information are experiencing overfishing. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council or Council) presides over four fisheries that have experienced chronic overfishing in the past. Chronic overfishing is defined as overfishing for six or more years since 1998 when the fishing laws called for overfishing to end. These fish are vermillion snapper, red grouper, red drum and red snapper.2 Recently the Gulf Council reversed its earlier course and has begun to make the tough decisions required to end overfishing and recover depleted species. Most noteworthy, the Gulf Council has made progress with red snapper and greater amberjack.

The Gulf Council is one of eight regional fishery management councils that cover U.S. coastal waters. Together with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Gulf Council is supposed to determine how much of each type of fish can be caught on a sustainable basis and establish other types of fishing rules.

Aside from the significant percentage of overfished species, the other salient fact about the health of the Gulf is that most of Gulf fish have not been assessed and their status with regard to being overfished or experiencing overfishing is unknown. The Gulf Council exclusively oversees 54 fish, coral and crab/lobster stocks. The status of almost 90 percent (47 out of 54) of all stocks is unknown/undefined for being overfished and 67 percent (36 out of 54) is unknown for overfishing status. For the vast majority of stocks under its care, the Gulf Council is therefore making decisions in the dark. It does not know how good or bad its overall management regime is. This also means that fishermen could be driving some fish in the Gulf toward depletion and the Gulf Council would not know it. For example, fishermen caught millions of pounds of black drum the Gulf in 2006, but whether this fish is depleted or experiencing overfishing is not known.

In an effort to improve fisheries management nationwide, Congress revised the primary law governing fishing in U.S. oceans, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, at the end of 2006. The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires NMFS and the regional fishery management councils to follow new conservation standards. These rules, called National Standard 1, are now under development. The new law also required NMFS to revise its environmental review process to make it stronger and more integrated with decision making.

If the National Standard 1 rules are strong and the Gulf Council follows them, fish in the Gulf will improve. Strong, clear rules will lead to: (1) faster rebuilding of overfished fish populations like red snapper, (2) more conserving catch limits for all fish, (3) tangible consequences when fishing limits are exceeded, and (4) pressure to perform more stock assessments so that the health of more fish is known.

If NMFS strengthens the environmental review process to objectively assess the impact of different alternatives on other fish, animals and habitat in the marine environment, then the health of the entire Gulf of Mexico will improve, not just the numbers of individual fish species. But unless NMFS proposes strong National Standard 1 rules on overfishing to back up the Gulf Council’s recent decisions and strengthens rules for doing environmental reviews of fishery decisions, the Council could reverse direction and backslide into its old ways.