Sustainable Fisheries Act Failing to Protect Fish

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 11, 2001 (ENS) - Five years after Congress hailed the new Sustainable Fisheries Act as "the hallmark of conservation of fisheries throughout the world," the destruction of fish habitat and decimation of fish populations continues. While there are some regional success stories, the body of evidence points to significant problems with implementation of the Act.


A fish container filled with the variety of fish caught by a trawler during a normal season (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
A report released today by the Marine Fish Conservation Network details the successes and failures of the Sustainable Fisheries Act. The five year review found that most fisheries now operate virtually unaffected by any additional requirements, despite the Act's aim of reducing damaging fishing practices on essential fish habitat.

"Congress was very clear five years ago," said Phil Kline, fisheries program director at American Oceans Campaign, a member of the Network. "The fisheries service and managers were to stop wasting our ocean resources and put conservation first. They didn't get the message."

"So far NMFS and the management councils have made little attempt to follow the letter or the spirit of the law," Kline added. "They're not doing their jobs at the expense of fish, fishermen and taxpayers."

Many fisheries continue to rely on bottom trawls to catch fish, even though there are in many cases alternative fixed gears that can be used with less impact on fish habitat, finds the report, "Caught in the Act." Other fisheries that rely on bottom tending mobile gear continue to trawl and dredge throughout federal waters in all types of habitats, including those that are easily damaged by these fishing practices.


A section of sea floor before a bottom trawler passed through (Two photos Keith Sainsbury courtesy Marine Conservation Biology Institute)
While regional councils have designated fish habitat that is essential to fish reproduction and survival, the lack of protections afforded to essential fish habitat prevents proper implementation of the Sustainable Fisheries Act goal to reduce damaging fishing practices in essential fish habitat.

"Many fishermen are trying to fish responsibly, but their efforts are all but pointless," said Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federations of Fishermen's Association. "When federal managers don't do their job and the law's loopholes let irresponsible practices continue, fishermen's hands are tied and our ocean resources haven't got a chance."

The Marine Fish Conservation Network (MFCN) says the problems with implementing the Act start with the eight regional fisheries management councils. The MFCN report argues that these councils have made little attempt to follow either the letter or the spirit of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, and continue to abuse its technical loopholes.

Many of the councils have failed to adequately define the basic parameters necessary to properly manage the nation's fisheries, the report says. One, the Caribbean Council, has just submitted its first plan to eliminate overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, and minimize bycatch - just short of three years after the original Sustainable Fisheries Act deadline.


The same section of sea floor after being trawled
The crisis is compounded by lack of leadership on the part of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the MFCN says. The agency that oversees fishing in federal waters has approved many management plans that do not comply with the Sustainable Fisheries Act's strict conservation mandates, and has allowed needless delays in implementing these plans.

In one example detailed in the report, while the New England Council established overfishing thresholds and rebuilding target for its groundfish stocks, its Sustainable Fisheries Act amendment failed to take the necessary measures to comply with these targets and thresholds.

The New England Council has also failed to submit rebuilding plans for overexploited skate species, including the barn door skate - currently being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act - more than a year past the legal deadline for doing so. The Act`, while requiring action, has no remedy for weak action.

Even when NMFS rejects a plan, the councils drag their feet in making needed revisions for years and the agency does little to expedite the process, the report argues. As of September 2001, most councils with rejected plans had failed to bring them into compliance, despite having two years to do so.

The MFCN report charges that holes in the legal framework supporting the Act's provisions prevent its effective implementation.


Non-selective fishing methods like trawling can damage fish habitat and survival rates. The 95 percent of the catch in this photo that was not shrimp died on deck and was shoved overboard. (Photo by Elliot Norse courtesy Marine Conservation Biology Institute)
For example, loopholes in the law allow NMFS regulations to permit overfishing of depleted fish stocks if those fish are caught along with other fish stocks that are not overfished.

Because of these loopholes, NMFS and the fisheries councils have avoided action to minimize the bycatch of unwanted species by claiming they do not have enough bycatch data. At the same time they have ignored the legal mandate requiring better collection of bycatch data.

Fisheries managers have identified essential fish habitat, as required under the Act, but loopholes allow managers to take almost no action to protect these habitats from destructive fishing practices - the one area managers directly control.

The MFCN report comes at a time when bills are making their way through the House and Senate to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the country's primary marine fisheries management law.

"It's a critical time for our ocean resources, Congress has to act now," said Lee Crockett, executive director of the MFCN. "Our fish stocks, our fishermen and fishing communities can't afford further delay. Inaction now means an even greater burden for our fisheries, fishermen and taxpayers in the foreseeable future."


A white-tipped shark caught in a fishers' net (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
The more than 115 organizations that make up the Marine Fish Conservation Network, representing environmental, commercial and sport fishing, marine science and aquarium interests, are urging Congress to eliminate loopholes and strengthen the Magnuson-Stevens Act with science and conservation based provisions in the next year that: