NOAA 99-4
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Scott Smullen
1/12/99

MARINE FISH STOCKS ON THE MEND

Under a proposed series of amendments to existing fishing law, the foundation to more effectively manage marine fish stocks and protect fish habitat nationwide will be complete by this summer, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service announced today.

While it is too early to say exactly how fishing may or may not change in a given area or for a particular species, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials believe the goals of the Sustainable Fisheries Act's new management strategy will result in measures that will better protect fish habitat, reduce bycatch, and make fishing practices more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

"We are in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct overfished conditions and better protect many important fisheries. Fishermen, their communities, and all who are concerned with conservation of the ocean are relying on us to succeed," said Terry Garcia, Commerce Department assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA deputy administrator. "The Sustainable Fisheries Act represents a major policy shift by the federal government to ensure that we achieve the greatest long-term benefits to the nation from our fishery resources."

Citizen managers of eight regional fishery management councils around the country have acted upon or drafted 58 amendments to the nation's existing 39 fishery management plans. The councils have submitted 33 of the 58 amendments for review by NOAA Fisheries managers to ensure SFA requirements are met and that the measures fully protect the resource. If the draft amendments are inadequate according to SFA requirements, the agency will return these to the council for necessary modifications. Regulatory actions on these amendments will be completed by the agency over the next seven months. In the next phase, some amendments will require proposed rule changes that will alter fishing practices over the next two to ten years. For overfished stocks, in the event that council amendments are inadequate or delayed beyond a reasonable time, the agency will act to prevent overfishing and rebuild stocks.

The holistic approach of the Sustainable Fisheries Act was mandated by the 1996 reauthorization of the nation's primary marine fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Some of the 58 amendments to the fishery management plans are still being hammered out after more than 24 months of sometimes conflicting input from environmental groups, fishermen, state wildlife agencies and others.

NOAA Fisheries and the councils have sought extensive public input from all concerned citizens, holding nearly 100 public meetings nationwide. When fishermen and environmental groups asked for more time to comment, the agency agreed and even conducted more hearings to gather additional input. Agency officials point out that this additional input has extended the implementation process.

"The process of modifying regional fishery management plans to include essential fish habitat provisions, reducing bycatch, and eliminating overfishing, is a monumental task and a huge workload," said Rollie Schmitten, director of the NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. "While the NOAA Fisheries budget has grown, including funds for the regional councils, the dollars to implement the provisions of the Sustainable Fisheries Act have not kept pace with the requirements placed on both council and agency fisheries managers."

Concurrent with its efforts to fulfill the demands of implementing the SFA, the agency has also implemented an extensive list of fish conservation accomplishments that follow the SFA's risk-averse approach to management. NOAA Fisheries has proactively protected and managed the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery by requiring cone- shaped bycatch reduction devices in the tops of shrimp nets to reduce the incidental catch of immature red snapper and other finfish. Without this action, the red snapper fishery would likely have been severely reduced. Fishery managers and Alaskan fishermen also worked together to save endangered sea birds from longline hooks by developing new baiting techniques that deploy gear underwater. Managers have expanded the use of closed fishing areas off New England and Mid-Atlantic coasts to rebuild overfished stocks of several fisheries, including cod, haddock, flounder and scallops. Reduced quotas in the shark fishery have resulted in less bycatch of Atlantic bluefin tuna. There's now a new requirement for lobster fishing in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands that allows fishermen to sell all their catch and prevents small lobsters from being wasted. In the international arena, the U.S. has championed seabird bycatch reduction and more effective local shark management, and is working to reduce global fishing fleet overcapacity.

Another important gauge of NOAA Fisheries' record of accomplishments during the past two years is an impressive list of scientific peer reviews of agency science and management by the National Research Council that conclude the agency is using the best available scientific information and state-of-the-art assessment techniques.

Congress and the public requested the independent reviews of the science used by NOAA Fisheries to manage stocks of New England groundfish and Gulf of Mexico red snapper. The NRC concluded that the agency uses the best available science, and its scientific assessments and methods of management are sound. In addition, the NRC supported agency actions in requiring bycatch reduction devices in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery, and its overall work to improve the sustainability of marine fisheries. The NRC also recommended Congress lift its ban on the use of Individual Fishery Quotas as a management tool that the regional fishery management councils could use to reduce overfishing.

In its November 1998 report to Congress on the status of marine fish stocks, NOAA Fisheries said that 100 species reviewed are overfished or are approaching an overfished condition, while another 200 species are not overfished. NOAA officials said that while this number is expected to increase because the definition of overfishing is being strengthened, the prognosis for their long-term rebuilding under more strict conservation management has never been better.

"The agency has come a long way in two years under constrained funding and a limited time frame to implement a long list of changes to existing fishery management plans. These changes to fisheries management will impact fishermen in every port and therefore require significant public input and participation to be completed. Congress recognizes the importance of public participation and depends on the council process to provide the agency with a wealth of views and knowledge. With those thoughts in mind, the regional fishery management councils and NOAA Fisheries staff have accomplished much in a relatively short time," said Schmitten.