Smarter Fishing, More Sustainable Future

Why sustainable fishing efforts, especially groundfish, are increasingly more important in the 21 Century.

In the 21st Century, there will be environmental reckonings that humankind will have to overcome if life as we know it is to continue. Maybe that's a little alarmist, perhaps a tad dramatic, but sadly, it's true. Our fragile climate and the health of our fractured environment may be the most visible and well-publicized crises looming on the horizon, but how to feed an ever-expanding population with diminishing resources isn't lagging too far behind.

There are currently an estimated eight billion people on our beautiful blue planet. That number is predicted to peak at nine and a half billion by 2050—a short 28 years away. A large, growing population coupled with increased global temperatures, drought conditions, and other factors that are averse to agriculture means humanity is going to have to get creative if we're going to put food on the table.

With 71% of the planet covered in water, aquaculture and sustainable fisheries are viable and vital solutions that are already moving in the right direction, offering healthier, more environmentally responsible alternatives to those more harmful food production methods like big agricultural, massive livestock ranches and indiscriminate driftnet fishing.

"There's one ocean system; we all depend on it for the quality of our lives," explains Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. "You have a drink of water; you're drinking the ocean. You go skiing; you are skiing on the ocean. Everything we put into it ends up coming back around to us."

Protecting our oceans and increasing sustainable fishing are inextricably intertwined. They aren't just trending hashtags or in-vogue menu items in hip eateries; they are vitally important for our planet and the future of humanity.

"There is no such thing as sustainable seafood in a dying ocean," surmises Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which focuses its efforts on anti-poaching and direct-action marine conservation activism.

"We are literally eating the oceans alive, and there are simply not enough fish to continue to feed an ever-expanding population of humanity," he continues.

What Is Sustainable Fishing?

So, what is "sustainable fishing," and how do we define it? Well, it depends on where in the world you are. Different countries and cultures have different perspectives on how the ocean's bounty should be harvested, but in the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines sustainable fishing as a practice that "respects marine ecosystems and adapts to the reproductive rate of fish to maintain a balance and ensure the survival of all species. Uses selective methods. Sustainable fishing rejects the indiscriminate capture of fry and endangered species or those without commercial value."

Before taking a deep dive into the current and future states of sustainable fishing in the U.S. today, it's worth taking a quick look back. For most of man's time on Earth, we've been able to live in balance with the ocean's resources. It's only been in the last couple of centuries—as populations have increased alongside sailing and fishing advancements—that overfishing became an issue. Indigenous cultures were astutely aware that their survival depended on their ability to manage local fish stocks.

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Sustainable Fishing: A Very Brief Historical Perspective

Conducting extensive research in Polynesia, and specifically the island of Morea off Tahiti, archaeologist Jennifer Kahn has traced pre-European contact fishing practices back to 1000 A.D. She's found the extensive use of fish traps made from a thick vine known as le'le'. It's a similar technology that indigenous cultures around the world developed in their nearby bodies of water. It's basically a basket with an inward-leading funnel that was most likely baited to attract fish. The fish come in, they don't come out. Dinner is served.

"The Hawaiian Islands had fish traps all over the place," Kahn explained in a recent interview. "And people argue that the very large fish traps were supported by the chiefs. They could have used the fish captured as another form of tribute, but also for having lots of food for warriors. Economic control, in other words."

"Money, economy, and ecology are all the same," concurs Cousteau. "If you manage the planet like you manage your business and live only off the interest that is produced by the capital, it can go on forever. Today, we're going way beyond and gobbling up the capital, especially as we add another hundred million people to the planet every year."

In the case of the Māʻohi, the native people of Morea, when Europeans introduced iron nails, Kahn found they almost immediately stopped making fishhooks out of shells and started using the iron to make bigger, stronger hooks. The practice of making fishhooks out of shells quickly died off completely as the Māʻohi's ways of harvesting fish were forever changed. It's a small example but indicative of how one technological advancement can have a ripple effect over time. Now think of radar fish finders and all the modern tech that goes into commercial fishing. It's not just dropping a line in the water and hoping for a bite. Much international commercial fishing is asking to clear-cutting old growth forests–once it's wiped out, it's not coming back.

How Fish Make It To Market

Unlike ancient Polynesia, today's fishing practices aren't governed by tribal chiefs but rather complex domestic and international agencies and regulations. The primary law that governs marine fisheries in the U.S. is the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Adopted in 1976 under President Jimmy Carter, the law took a four-prong approach to managing national fisheries. Its initial goals included:

- Extending control of U.S. waters to 200 nautical miles offshore.

- Phase out foreign fishing.

- Prevent overfishing (most notably by foreign fleets)

- Allow overfished stocks to recover, as well as conserve and manage fishery resources.

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, NOAA has taken the lead in developing a National Standard, which features detailed guidelines for sustainable fisheries and is constantly being updated as new scientific research comes to light.

"U.S. fisheries are among the world's most sustainable," reads a NOAA statement released in 2022. "They are a global model of success in responsible management, and U.S. success directly influences international standards and practices." 

Leading by example is a big part of the national strategy. In 2022, the NOAA Fisheries Office of Habitat Conservation received $8.4 million in Community Project Funding to invest in various partners who are endeavoring to implement seven large-scale habitat conservation projects around the U.S. The overall objectives will be to support the nation's fisheries, continue to help with the recovery of threatened and endangered species, as well as develop more resilient coastal ecosystems.

"Sustainable fisheries are the foundation of thriving fishing communities, healthy marine ecosystems, and a strong economy. Marine recreational fishing is a cherished American pastime and draws millions of anglers to support our coastal communities every year”, said Janet Coit, Assistant Administrator, NOAA Fisheries, in June of 2022.

Sustainable fisheries are the foundation of thriving fishing communities, healthy marine ecosystems, and a strong economy.

Coit knows of what she speaks. The Fisheries of the United States 2020 Report was released in May of 2022 and found that U.S. fishermen hauled in a whopping 8.4 billion pounds of seafood with a value of $4.7 billion. Outside of commercial fishing, the numbers for recreational anglers are hard to comprehend. Perhaps fueled by pandemic times and people just looking to get outside, recreational fishermen took nearly 200 million trips in 2020. They caught over a billion fish, but in a testament to functioning regulations, 65 percent of those caught were thrown back.

Top five most harvested fish and shellfish includes:

- Crabs ($584 million)

- Lobsters ($563 million)

- Scallops ($488 million)

- Salmon ($478 million)

- Shrimp ($435 million)

It's interesting to note that for all the success in the U.S. fish market, there was an eye-popping $21.4 billion in seafood imported in 2020, while only $4.4 billion exported.

The top six exports include:

- Whole or eviscerated salmon (primarily sockeye)

- Whole groundfish

- Surimi

- Lobster

- Caviar and roe

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The Story Of Groundfish

Number two on the above list is groundfish, which is an umbrella term for any species of fish that lives near the ocean floor. There are more than 90 species of bottom-dwelling finfish included in the federal Groundfish Fishery Management Plan, which has been in place since 1982. Rockfishes (about 60 species), sablefish, thornyheads, lingcod, Dover sole, and other flatfishes (not including halibut), Pacific whiting, and some sharks and skates are all considered groundfish. Currently, their populations are managed by both the state and the federal government.

"Not only are West Coast fisheries among the most valuable in the United States, but they also provide one of the best examples of how good management decisions help fisheries recover following periods of mismanagement or overfishing," reads a report from the Environmental Defense Fund.

"In 2000, the West Coast groundfish fishery—a multi-species fishery consisting of 90+ species—was declared a disaster. Today, it is internationally recognized for its successes in dramatically reducing bycatch and helping overfished species to recover, often years ahead of schedule."

The successful rebound of the groundfish population on the West Coast are due to several factors. Accountability is a big part of it. Through emerging technologies such as electronic monitoring, fish stocks are easier managed. Updated regulatory frameworks put a premium on innovation and efficiency. And improved equipment means there's less bycatch and less damage to the undersea environment.

There are more than 90 species of bottom-dwelling finfish included in the federal Groundfish Fishery Management Plan, which has been in place since 1982.

As Cousteau so astutely points out, the rules of economics are also a factor. There are a variety of market-based incentives through campaigns such as Positively Groundfish and Eat These Fish that work with fishermen to ensure the fish stock isn't being over-harvested, and the most abundant species are making it to market.

Legislation is another component of the solution. Just as this piece was going to press, the California Legislature sent a bill to Governor Gavin Newsome's desk that will prevent seabed mining in state waters.

"The Seabed Mining Prevention Act is a forward-thinking bill that will protect California's interconnected coastal and ocean environment, the associated recreation and tourism economy, and the culture and economic well-being of our state," said the Surfrider Foundation's CEO, Dr. Chad Nelsen. "Surfrider greatly appreciates Asm. Luz Rivas' leadership on this legislation and urges Governor Newsom to sign the bill into law."

Where Do We Go From Here?

As one can see, there is no silver-bullet solution when it comes to managing the planet's vital fisheries. It's a global issue. It's a national issue. It's a local issue. Thankfully, there are some success stories that we can look towards for examples and inspiration.

Issues as complicated as this with so many passionate stakeholders are never easy to solve, but where there's a will, there's a way. And as we push further into the 21st Century and issues of food supply become more real and more pressing, there's most definitely going to be a will to put food on the table. It's not a luxury; it's a necessity.

"There's one human family. We're all family. We need to get past the idea that things just go away when you put them in the trash," Cousteau says. "It's going to end up in the ocean one way or another, and it's going to kill things, and it's going to affect things, animals in particular. We catch those animals, put them on our plates, and then wonder why we are getting sick. Before, we didn't know about that, now we do, so more and more, we are able to sit down with all of the stakeholders, people with good intentions, and tell them that there are other consequences, and we need to be careful."

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Key Takeaways
  1. One of the biggest challenges to sustainable fishing practices is the usage of plastic netting and other fishing equipment. This is one of the most common types of waste found in ocean garbage gyres.
  2. Reducing or eliminating the consumption of seafood is the best way to marine populations do not become depleted due to overfishing and bycatch. Labels can be deceptive, by choosing to eat seafood, the consumer is responsible for knowing where it is sourced and how it is caught.
  3. Sustainable fisheries have the potential to become vital economic drivers. They are the foundation of thriving fishing communities, healthy marine ecosystems, and a strong economy.
  4. Sustainable fisheries often require small-scale catch, rather than commercial catching, in order to be sustainable. Most sustainable fishing practices can still be found within local, Indigenous fishing communities around the world.
  5. Innovation plays a critical role through emerging technologies such as electronic monitoring, updated regulatory frameworks that put a premium on innovation and efficiency, and improved fishing equipment, which results in less bycatch and less damage to the undersea environment.