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Two-Thirds of Depleted Fish Stocks Rebound Under Federal Fisheries Law

Fish StocksNew York, N.Y. – Sixty-four percent of once-overfished, monitored fish stocks nationwide have been rebuilt or made significant progress, thanks to additional protections added to the federal fisheries law in 1996, according to a report released on March 13 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This has translated into an economic boost to segments of the fishing industry, with gross commercial revenues for the rebuilt stocks up 92 percent (54 percent when adjusted for inflation).

“Healthier fish populations mean healthier ecosystems, and a healthier fishing economy,” said NRDC senior attorney Brad Sewell. “When depleted fish stocks are allowed to recover, we see higher and more stable commercial fish landings over time, create more opportunities for sport fishing, and ensure the fresh, local seafood we love will be on our plates for years to come. Fortunately, we have learned how to help bring back struggling fish populations back from the brink, and we know how to build on that success in the future.”

NRDC’s report, “Bringing Back the Fish: An Evaluation of U.S. Fisheries Rebuilding Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act”, evaluated all U.S. ocean fish stocks that received rebuilding plans under amendments to the federal fisheries law in 1996, collectively known as the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), that also had sufficient information available in order to evaluate their progress. Of these 44 stocks, 64 percent nationwide – 27 fish stocks – stood out as rebuilding success stories. Twenty of the 27 have been designated rebuilt or have met their rebuilding targets entirely.

Rebuilt fisheries are critical to healthy fishing economies. The report found that the increase in gross commercial revenues for the 27 rebuilding successes were worth a total value of $ 585 million annually (on average from 2008 to 2010).

Recreational anglers have also benefited from rebuilding. Angler trips over the last decade along the Atlantic Coast, for example, are up 41 percent from the 1980s, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the recovery of important sportfish, such as summer flounder, black sea bass and scup in the Mid-Atlantic, has been critical to this success. In the Mid-Atlantic alone, the Fisheries Service estimates that the increased number of angler trips from the 1990s to the 2000s amounted to an additional $ 1.4 billion in economic activity and 18,660 jobs.

Rebuilding all U.S. fish stocks will ultimately increase commercial fishermen’s dockside revenues by $ 2.2 billion a year – a 50 percent increase from 2010 revenues, according to a 2011 estimate from the NMFS. The total estimated economic benefits would amount to as much as $ 31 billion and 500,000 new jobs, as a result of growth in related industries, such as restaurants and seafood processors, wholesalers and retailers, according to NMFS.

This recent success is particularly notable in light of the fact that many global fisheries are in decline. In 2009, the World Bank estimated that international commercial fisheries are losing $ 50 billion annually. By contrast, in 2011, U.S. commercial fisherman saw their highest landings since 1994, worth more than $ 5 billion, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Despite this success, a handful of legislators have repeatedly introduced bills in Congress aimed at weakening the federal rebuilding requirements.

“The U.S. has emerged as a global leader in rebuilding overfished stocks, setting a model for how it’s done,” said Sewell. “Given the track record, efforts to undermine this success are misguided and irresponsible.”

While the majority of the evaluated stocks have been successful in rebuilding, eight of the 44 stocks evaluated have made limited rebuilding progress, and another eight stocks have shown very little progress at all. These were disproportionately found in New England, South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. The main reason for poor or limited rebuilding success in the report was continued overfishing of a stock while it was undergoing a rebuilding plan.

The report also notes that many stocks have either received plans that do not satisfy SFA standards, or have not received rebuilding plans at all even though they may need them. This includes stocks lacking recent formal population assessments, stocks not under federal management plans, and stocks managed under international agreements.

Regional Snapshots

Mid-Atlantic: Excellent Progress – In the Mid-Atlantic, six once over-fished stocks are now designated as rebuilt or meet rebuilding targets. These include black sea bass, bluefish, golden tilefish, scup, spiny dogfish, and summer flounder (designated as rebuilt in 2012, though the most recent assessment shows it still a little short of the rebuilding target at 95 percent). Of concern are the region’s species that are recognized to be significantly depleted but lack rebuilding plans because they have not been put under formal federal management, such as river herring, shad, menhaden, and Atlantic sturgeon.

Pacific: Very Good Progress – In the Pacific, seven of eight overfished stocks are fully rebuilt or making significant rebuilding progress: bocaccio, canary rockfish, darkblotched rockfish, lingcod, Pacific Ocean perch, widow rockfish and yelloweye rockfish. The rebuilding of one rockfish stock, cowcod, continues to proceed very slowly, with a 2068 target date for rebuilding.

New England: Mixed Progress – Of the 44 stocks analyzed in this report, nearly half – 21 stocks – were from New England. Indeed, it was the collapse of this region’s groundfish populations in the 1990s, which was estimated at the time to have cost the region $ 350 million annually, that largely spurred the SFA’s passage. Today, 12 of these stocks are rebuilt or making significant rebuilding progress, including Acadian redfish, American plaice, barndoor skate, Georges Bank haddock, monkfish, red hake, sea scallops, scup, silver hake, spiny dogfish, windowpane flounder and yellowtail founder (southern New England). The remaining nine stocks are still struggling to rebuild. These stocks include the region’s two iconic cod stocks (Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine), two yellowtail flounder stocks (Cape Cod/Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank), Gulf of Maine haddock, Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic winter flounder, and white hake. Continued overfishing is a key culprit of rebuilding shortfalls in most instances. Recently implemented annual catch limits in the region should allow these stocks to turn the corner.

South Atlantic & Gulf: Poor Progress – The report showed that the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions have seen the least rebuilding success. Only one fish stock from this report across the two regions – red grouper in the Gulf – has been successful in rebuilding under the SFA. Populations of four other stocks evaluated in the report – red porgy and black sea bass in the South Atlantic, and red snapper and greater amberjack in the Gulf – are recovering more slowly than anticipated (a new assessment due out soon for red snapper may show a brighter picture). The relative lack of success is due in significant part to continued overfishing during at least portions of the stocks’ rebuilding plans. There is also concern that many stocks in these regions have not received rebuilding plans, even though it is possible they need them, because of the lack of a recent formal population assessment. This includes some stocks that are widely recognized to be depleted, such as speckled hind and warsaw grouper.


In the 1990s, many of the nation’s fish populations were in severe decline because of overfishing. The most alarming and publicized example was the collapse of many of New England’s iconic groundfish stocks, such as cod, haddock, and flounder. Without clear legal rebuilding requirements, short-term yields were prioritized over long-term rebuilding success, leading to continuing decline and degradation of entire marine ecosystems.