Bright lights, shops bursting with souvenirs, the laughter of children, the smell of caramel popcorn complete with sunlight sparking rays off the emerald saltwater as America’s largest charter boat fishing fleet bobs in the marina—the “world’s luckiest fishing village” is open for business.
A couple of weeks ago I went on a mackerel fishing trip out of St. Petersburg, Florida, with a 35-year commercial fishing veteran. It was a beautiful day and there was the slightest tinge of autumn out on the Gulf of Mexico, and we quickly caught the day’s order of Spanish and King mackerel. Heading back through John’s Pass I asked my friend, who also fishes for Gulf snapper and grouper, how business has been and without missing a beat he said “The last two years have been the best of my career.”
A successful fishing trip depends on more than just the number of fish in the sea. It is dependent upon a multitude of complicating factors including the weather conditions, your ability to catch fish and even lack of engine problems to name a few.
Like a fishing trip, sustainable management of our fisheries requires more than just counting the number of fish in the sea. A sustainable catch level requires an understanding of the environment they live in. Fish need suitable habitat to live, other fish to eat, and will eventually become prey for bigger fish, including humans. Furthermore, fish live in a dynamic, changing ocean. When fisheries managers consider these ‘complicating’ factors in the setting of sustainable catch levels, the process is called ecosystem-based fisheries management.
In June of 2013 the international body that manages tuna fish in the Eastern Pacific Ocean drafted and approved a resolution to protect whale sharks. The resolution isn’t groundbreaking; the New York Times didn’t report, Anderson Cooper wasn’t on the scene, and Greenpeace didn’t raise the flag. In fact, in the year it took to make U.S. compliance official via rulemaking in September 2014, even the fish-heads and whale shark lovers here at Ocean Conservancy barely noticed. This is a good thing.
Too often fisheries management is mired in relatively small, but high-profile, fights. The fact that the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) quietly prohibited tuna fishermen, who hail from many nations around the Pacific, from using whale sharks as de facto Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) marks another small but important step towards saving some of the world’s most iconic species and preserving a healthy ocean.
Together Americans are solving a problem—overfishing—and we can’t afford to stop now. Ending overfishing means sustainable fishing for generations to come. It means healthy seafood on our dinner plates and sustained livelihoods across the country.
Our nation’s vital fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation & Management Act, has already helped rebuild fish populations like New England scallops, Mid-Atlantic bluefish, Pacific lingcod and Gulf red snapper. A new report by the National Research Council says 43 percent of overfished populations have been rebuilt already or will be rebuilt within a decade. And if we continue to allow the Magnuson-Stevens Act to work, another 31 percent of these populations are on track toward rebuilding as well.
The report also highlights the challenges and complexities of trying to evaluate fisheries science and make decisions about catch limits and other management measures. In the face of those challenges, however, we are seeing success and must continue on this path for the long haul.