New Report: Gulf of Mexico Makes Little Progress Increasing the Number of Healthy Fish Stocks, Feds Hide Failures Using Shell Games

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Group Delivers Report as Congress Deliberates Nation’s Primary Fisheries Law

Environment Texas

CORPUS CHRISTI- Zero federal fish stocks managed solely by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council are known to be healthy, and this number has not changed since 2001, finds a new report released today by Environment Texas and the Marine Fish Conservation Network (Network).  Important game fish and menu items including red snapper, greater amberjack, and vermilion snapper continue to be fished at unsustainable rates despite the fact that the National Marine Fisheries Service lists them as overfished.

“The Gulf of Mexico is world renowned for great tasting seafood and first class fishing.  It is imperative that fishery managers follow the law and rebuild depleted stocks so that we can continue to enjoy fresh, wild seafood in our restaurants, keep professional fishermen working, and keep the Gulf of Mexico a destination for sport fishermen from all around the world,” said Tom Wheatley, Gulf of Mexico regional organizer with the Network.

Shell Game: How the Federal Government is Hiding the Mismanagement of Our Nation’s Fisheries, reveals that although the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) continues to tout a downward trend in the number of stocks that are overfished or experiencing overfishing, these improvements have primarily been due to finessing the data presented in its annual report to Congress on the status of fish stocks.  The Network’s analysis showed that 60 percent of the overfished stocks and 75 percent of the stocks experiencing overfishing between 2001 and 2004 were taken off the list due to administrative shuffling.  Nationally, only 91 ocean fish stocks – currently 13 percent of all federally managed ocean fish stocks – are known to be healthy, and this number has not improved since 2001.

“NMFS has not been clear with Congress or the American public because it consistently finesses the data to mask management failures from year to year,” said Lee Crockett, executive director of the Network, the largest national coalition devoted to promoting sustainable marine fisheries.  “We need to take a hard look at what is and isn’t working in fisheries management if we are to make any progress in the future.”

Shell Game also discloses that NMFS continues to allow overfishing to occur on 50 percent of the Gulf of Mexico’s overfished stocks, which prevents these already depleted fish stocks from rebuilding.  In some cases, like red snapper, stocks have remained overfished for years without NMFS taking adequate action to end overfishing and start rebuilding the stock.

The Network will submit the report to Congress and the U.S. House of Representatives Resources Committee chaired by Richard Pombo (R-CA).  Mr. Pombo is currently drafting legislation to renew and amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law that governs U.S. ocean fisheries.

The report also points out that regional fishery managers in the Gulf of Mexico do not have adequate scientific information or, when they do, they too often do not follow it when making management decisions.  As documented in the report, this management failure has led to continued overfishing and slow rebuilding in the Gulf of Mexico.  One House bill, the Fisheries Science and Management Enhancement Act of 2005, H.R. 1431, would require fishery managers to base all management decisions on sound science.  This common sense principle would help alleviate some of the management problems with overfishing and slow rebuilding that still exist today.

“It is in the best interest of the health of our oceans that science, not politics be our guiding principle for all management decisions,” said Luke Metzger, Advocate for Environment Texas.

Shell Game analyzes federal data and regional fishery management plans to find trends in how well fishery managers have implemented the mandates of the Sustainable Fisheries Act to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish stocks over the last five years.  The report recommends preventing overfishing by adopting enforceable annual catch limits based on scientific recommendations of how many fish should be caught.  It points out that regions, such as the North Pacific, that have used these annual catch limits have been more successful than regions, such as New England, that have tried to control overfishing with indirect management measures such as limiting the number of fishing days.

“Limiting catch of depleted stocks benefits fishermen because it protects the long-term health of this important ocean resource, and by extension helps create better fishing in the future,” said Kyle Crawford, President, International Big Fish Network.  “The only way to stop overfishing is to limit the number of fish that we catch.”

The use of annual catch limits is perhaps one of the most controversial issues facing Congress as it reauthorizes the Magnuson-Stevens Act.  The Senate Commerce Committee was unable to resolve this issue when it met to consider its bill, S. 2012, to renew the fisheries law in December 2005.  A delegation of Senators from New England objected to including enforceable annual catch limits in the bill despite strong support for them from Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI), the Co-chairs of the Commerce Committee.   The Network strongly supports the inclusion of these
limits in the final Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill.