By John Pappalardo
Every year NOAA, meaning the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration as opposed to the guy with the ark, ships to Congress a report with a straightforward title:
“Status of US Fisheries.”
The report has some Biblical aspects, meant to be the definitive word delivered from on high so to speak. It always offers big-picture info, for example that commercial and recreational fisheries created 1.7 million jobs across the nation in 2022, and generated $253 billion in sales.
How those eye-opening stats are generated is an interesting question, but even more interesting are oversight numbers on the fish stocks we pursue.
For example, this year NOAA informed Congress – meaning us – that they are keeping track of 492 stocks from Lubec to Key West, Sitka to San Diego, Tampa to Galveston.
Within that total, NOAA says they are able to assess whether we are “overfishing” 355 of them. They also are able to assess whether 249 are “overfished” or not.
The semantic nuance is important.
“Overfishing” means that in NOAA’s judgement, right now we are harvesting more fish than the species can reproduce to maintain what they call “maximum sustainable yield.”
“Overfished” means we did that in the past, stocks are down, but we aren’t doing it anymore because we’ve changed our limits to help drive a recovery.
Of those 355, NOAA reports we are overfishing only 24 species.
And of the 249, NOAA says only 48 species are in the overfished category.
That sounds great, and NOAA highlights that we are not actively overfishing more than 90 percent of all stocks, while more than 80 percent of all stocks should not be considered overfished.
Here’s the problem:
Fish that fishermen care most about, the most valuable ones that drive the markets, of course are the handful that fall into these overfishing and overfished categories.
Cod, lots of flounders, halibut, Atlantic salmon, wolffish, hake, herring, all are considered “overfished.”
Far as “overfishing” goes, the story is better. In our region, only codfish on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine, red hake anywhere, and haddock in the Gulf of Maine fall into that category. But still, we’re talking premier species.
Of course this makes sense; targeted stocks are bound to be under more pressure. But it also means celebrations of dramatic success in fisheries management – hey, 90 percent of our stocks are healthy! – should be taken, like a fillet, with some grains of salt.
The other lingering question, of course, is about the data’s quality. I’ve said it before but what the heck, I’ll say it again:
Believable snapshots of a world as complicated as the oceans, with all the living things in it, are very hard to take. The people who try are well intentioned, and often most competent. But still we miss a lot, and we can misinterpret a lot. Fishermen are on the water and understand what’s happening better than anyone; the more they are engaged in creating these stock assessments, the better the annual “Status of US Fisheries” will reflect reality, and the better our management will become.
One more note, and this no one disputes:
Because this assessment has been annual and going on for a long time, it’s possible to see big trends. Perhaps the most dramatic is with black sea bass, a beautiful and tasty fish that was rare to see around here – until now.
The status report confirms that from 1974 to 2019, the black sea bass population has shifted 140 miles north – which might not seem like a long way by car, but by fin, it is. What was a mid-Atlantic denizen is now abundant in Nantucket Sound.
There is only one plausible reason for this: Rising water temperatures are drawing black sea bass north.
Even the most skeptical among us should accept the evidence, and admit that there is only one plausible explanation:
Climate change, global warming.
(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)