NOAA: US a leader in long-term sustainable fisheries management

Published on
February 10, 2016

With the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) approaching its 40 year anniversary as the primary marine fisheries management law guiding U.S. conduct in federal waters, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) has uncovered further evidence of the legislation’s powerful impact.

A recent peer-reviewed self-assessment conducted on behalf of NOAA Fisheries indicates that the standards governing the United States’ fishery management system under MSA exceed the criteria established in the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s ecolabelling guidelines. This according to Dr. Michelle Walsh, a former NOAA Fisheries Knauss Fellow and current member of the Marine Science Faculty at Florida Keys Community College, who spearheaded the evaluation.

The fisheries management system within the United States excels particularly when it comes to responsiveness and science-based criteria, Walsh and her team discovered. What’s more, the system manages to incorporate social and economic components that prove essential for fisheries to establish long-term, effective stewardship, the assessment found.

While the system meets all of the requirements laid out in the FAO’s “Guidelines for the Ecolabelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries,” Walsh identified the following key areas where the management algorithm was particularly formidable:

  • Complying with national and international laws
  • Developing and abiding by documented management approaches with frameworks at national or regional levels
  • Incorporating uncertainty into stock reference points and catch limits while taking actions if those limits are exceeded
  • Taking into account the best scientific evidence in determining suitable conservation and management measures with the goal of long-term sustainability
  • Restoring stocks within reasonable timeframes

The results of the assessment help to set the United States apart as a global and industry leader when it comes to successful, longer-term, sustainable management, said Alan Risenhoover, the Director of the Sustainable Fisheries Office for NOAA Fisheries.

“It shows that the U.S. is in fact a world leader in the long-term sustainable management of our fishery resources around the country. What that means is it’s a long-term process. A lot of schemes look at the current status of a stock whereas we have a process that looks at the status of that stock over time and reacts when there needs to be changes – whether you need to reduce harvest, you need to change the location harvests are in or maybe you may even need to increase the harvest,” Risenhoover explained to SeafoodSource.

To remain effective, the architects and perpetrators of the U.S. fisheries management system must consistently measure themselves “against other countries’ programs, and make sure the U.S. has the most robust system in the world,” said Risenhoover; MSA helps in that effort.

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, fisheries management exists as a highly participatory system. Eight regional councils around the country – comprised of industry representatives, academic representatives and environmental groups – are able to contribute to the decision-making process, increasing the likelihood that the steps taken on behalf of the system consider what is best for “not only for the stocks but the fishermen,” Risenhoover said.

“The Magnuson-Stevens Act has this dynamic public participatory process based on science – our management follows that science. It’s transparent, it has the public involved, it has the industry involved through these eight regional councils around the country, and it’s this continual process of monitoring the stocks and reacting as we need to and it’s producing results over those 40 years,” he added.

U.S. fisheries also benefit from the MSA’s focus on another realm of sustainability: socioeconomics.

“One of the three legs of sustainability here in the U.S. that the FAO doesn’t take into account that this system does, is the socioeconomics. In addition to biology, in addition to ecology – some really critical criteria – you have to also have that socioeconomic sustainability to help that long-term effort. And I think that’s another strength that the MSA has really provided for the nation’s fisheries,” said Laurel Bryant, Chief of External Affairs for the Office of Communications in NOAA Fisheries.

According to NOAA data, the number of depleted stocks that are subject to overfishing are at-or near all-time lows. Nevertheless, there will always be more work and more evolution ahead. Three areas for improvement for the U.S. system were identified in the evaluation, including:

  • Addressing nationwide implementation of ecosystem-based approaches to management
  • Incorporating broader food web considerations within individual fish stock management schemes
  • Considering long-term changes in productivity

“Sustainable management is an ongoing process – it’s not static, you just don’t do it once. It does change over time,” concluded Risenhoover.

Following the completion of its self-assessment, NOAA Fisheries contracted the Center for Independent Experts (CIE) to independently validate the assessment’s approach and detect any bias within NOAA Fisheries’ self-assessment. The results presented by the organization are based on the average of the four independent assessments that took place – one conducted by NOAA Fisheries’ and three from the independent CIE reviewers, NOAA said.

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