Every year on Earth Day, NOAA Fisheries joins citizens and organizations around the world in celebrating our planet and recognizing the need to care for our natural resources. After all, stewardship of our nation’s marine natural resources is the crux of NOAA Fisheries’ mission. It drives the work we do on Earth Day and every other day, too.
Thanks to world-class science, adaptive and accountable management, and dedicated enforcement, the United States is a global leader in responsible fisheries management. Regular assessments reveal that 80 percent of the stocks we monitor are at healthy sizes, and 92 percent are not subject to overfishing.
It’s taken decades of effort and investment, and the cooperation and sacrifice of U.S. fishermen, to get here. While our work continues, for Earth Day we can share some Earth optimism as we look back on our progress toward sustainable U.S. fisheries.
First, a Little History
In the mid-20th century, a post-war fishing boom increased the pressure on fish stocks around the country. In the following decades, catches peaked and then fell as fish populations decreased. Modern efforts to reverse the declines started with the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, which reserved U.S. waters for the use of U.S. fishermen. The law established regional fishery management councils and a process for creating fishery management plans subject to national standards.
But stocks continued declining through the 1980s. Some, like cod in New England, famously collapsed, taking with them the livelihoods of fishermen and the cultural staples of coastal communities.
In 1996, Congress updated the law to require an end to overfishing and mandated plans to rebuild overfished stocks. That set us on a path to recovering our fisheries which, strengthened by additional measures in 2007, continues today. Since 2000, we have rebuilt 47 fish stocks. Here are a few of those success stories.
The Story of Sea Scallops
The first stock officially declared “rebuilt” following this new process was the Atlantic sea scallop. Decades of intense dredging in the scallop beds of Georges Bank and, later, the mid-Atlantic Bight had pushed sea scallop populations to the brink. In the early 1990s, managers shifted gears, implementing gear regulations, fishing effort restrictions, and limits on the number of participants.
In 1994, three large areas in Georges Bank and Nantucket Shoals were closed to fishing to protect similarly stressed groundfish species. Since dredges can catch groundfish by accident, those areas were closed to scallop harvest, too. Soon after, additional areas in the mid-Atlantic were closed specifically to protect scallops. Scallops were formally placed in a 10-year rebuilding plan in 1997.
Giving the scallops a break worked wonders. By 1998, scallop biomass in the Georges Bank closed areas had increased more than nine-fold. Scallops were declared formally rebuilt in 2001, the first stock to reach that designation.
Today, sea scallops are managed sustainably through a combination of controls and rotating area closures. The sea scallop fishery is consistently one of the highest-valued fisheries in the country. In 2020, U.S. fishermen landed more than 48 million pounds of sea scallops, valued at more than $484 million. And through NOAA Fisheries’ Research Set-Aside Program, sales from a dedicated allocation of the scallop harvest fund research projects that improve scallop assessments, inform management decisions, and test out gear innovations.
Learn more about the scallop research set-aside program:
The Atlantic Sea Scallop: A Fishery Success Story
Watch a video to learn more about scallop fishing from Massachusetts scalloper Bob Keese:
The Story of Swordfish
In the first half of the 20th century, swordfish were mostly targeted by recreational fishermen using “handgear.” Those methods, such as harpoons and rod-and-reel, captured one fish at a time. Old black-and-white photos show anglers hoisting up enormous swordfish, which can grow to more than 1,000 pounds.
In the 1960s, a commercial longline fishery developed that caught swordfish more efficiently for market. But the longlines caught young swordfish just as well as mature swordfish, often before they could reproduce, and the population began to dwindle. The longlines also snagged endangered sea turtles, creating conflicts between the fishery and conservation goals. By the 1980s, the need for more research, monitoring, and regulatory action was clear.
Swordfish are powerful swimmers that migrate vast distances, posing a challenge for U.S. fisheries’ regional management structure. The same swordfish might swim from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Maine (through the jurisdictions of five Councils!) and then out of U.S. waters into Canada. Effective management of the population would require extensive coordination at the national and international level.
Recognizing this, in the early 1990s, Congress and the Secretary of Commerce moved the management of swordfish, tunas, and other far-ranging stocks into a Highly Migratory Species Program. Internationally, the United States pushed other countries to adopt measures we were implementing domestically.
In 1999, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas established a 10-year international rebuilding plan for swordfish. Catch reductions and minimum size limits allowed the relatively fast-growing swordfish to rebound quickly. ICCAT declared swordfish rebuilt by 2009, a year ahead of target.
Today, NOAA Fisheries works with the industry to encourage and support sustainable harvest of swordfish while taking measures to reduce the bycatch of sea turtles, undersized swordfish, and other species.
The Story of Sole (Petrale Sole) and Other West Coast Groundfish
Compared to the northeastern U.S. stocks, the West Coast groundfish fishery was a late “boomer.” The fishing fleet grew by leaps and bounds in the 1980s, encouraged by high catches and government financing of boats and gear. Fishermen raced to catch as much fish as they could, and no one knew how much fishing these stocks could sustain.
NOAA Fisheries faced a different kind of challenge in managing groundfish off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington. The term “groundfish” includes species that spend part of their lives associated with the seafloor: rockfish, flatfish, “roundfish” like Pacific cod and hake, and other species. Some 90 species intermingle in the same kinds of habitats, so commercial and recreational fishermen are unable to target individual species. They can only deploy their nets, lines, or pots and see what comes up.
By the late 1990s, suffering groundfish populations led to low catches that put fishermen—and also fish-processing plants, fuel docks, and other supporting businesses—out of work. Many species needed rebuilding plans. Avoiding those species, though, required avoiding all of the fish in the mixed bag fishery. NOAA Fisheries implemented sweeping closures starting in 2002. It was difficult and disruptive; many fishermen left the business.
The fishermen that stayed worked with the Pacific Fishery Management Council to implement a strategy borrowed from other regions: a catch shares program. The total allowable catch for each species in the fishery is divided into shares and allocated to individual fishermen. Guaranteeing fishermen a portion of the catch in advance eases the “race for fish.” Fishermen must adhere to their quota for each species. If they catch their allocation of canary rockfish, for example, they must stop fishing for any groundfish until they can buy or trade for more shares of canary rockfish.
This work paid off. Today, nearly every depleted species in the West Coast groundfish fishery has been rebuilt. (Yelloweye rockfish remains in a rebuilding plan.) This progress has allowed managers to reopen areas and expand fishing opportunities for fishermen, who are developing new ways to bring their sustainably-caught fish to market.
Rebuilding Groundfish: A Brief Timeline
2000: West Coast Groundfish fishery declared a failure
2002: Closures begin
2011: Catch shares program implemented
2011: Widow rockfish rebuilt
2015: Canary rockfish, Petrale sole rebuilt
2017: Bocaccio, Darkblotched rockfish, and Pacific Ocean perch rebuilt
2019: Cowcod rebuilt
Learn more about the recovery of canary rockfish:
Canary Rockfish–A Story of U.S. Fisheries Management
Learn more about the recovery of bocaccio, darkblotched rockfish, and Pacific Ocean perch:
New Fishing Opportunities Emerge from Resurgence of West Coast Groundfish
Read a 3-part series on the history and recovery of West Coast groundfish fisheries:
West Coast Fisheries “Comeback of the Century”
Watch a video about how NOAA and fishermen collaborate on groundfish research projects:
Realism and Optimism for the Future of Fisheries
Recovering fish populations is neither easy nor permanent. Since 2000, at least six rebuilt stocks have declined back to the point of needing new rebuilding plans.
Fishing pressure is only one of many factors that drive the size and health of our fish populations and reproductive success from year to year. Others are beyond the control of either managers or fishermen, including:
Variable ocean conditions
Warming ocean temperatures
Environmental damage from polluted runoff and coastal development
A good year may help a rebuilding population bounce back more quickly, but a bad year can hasten a population’s decline.
At NOAA Fisheries, we know the answer lies in keeping our pulse on population trends, accounting for uncertainty, adapting management strategies to changes, and holding industry and ourselves accountable.
So much of our planets’ resources, and our very climate, are threatened by unchecked human activity. Our rebuilding successes represent an alternate path to sustainable resources use through cooperation, sacrifice, and ingenuity.