Fishosophy: Overfished or Depleted?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)

Contrary to what might have been true when Shakespeare had Juliet speak those words in the 1590s, how things are called is far from meaningless today. This is particularly so due to the increasingly pervasive and influential social media driven by sound bite journalism, text messages maxing out at 255 characters and Tweets at 140. When so much of contemporary communication and contemporary thought is dependent on so few words, those words, their exact meaning and their precise use have become critically important.
This is a photo of the totoaba or totuava (Totoaba macdonaldi) is a marine fish of the drum family (Sciaenidae) that is indigenous to the northern half of the Gulf of California
Thus it was with great relief that I saw that one of  the amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson Act) offered by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings deals with one of the most prejudicial examples of misnaming that has penalized commercial and recreational fishermen and our fish stocks for years.

This proposed amendment and a handful of others are contained in the draft Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (available at This draft legislation addresses a number of the concerns that independent fishermen – both recreational and commercial – and the businesses that depend on them have had since the original intent of the Magnuson Act has been so severely distorted by a handful of foundations, the powerful agenda-driven ENGOs that they support and the fishing organizations that have been co-opted by them.

In subsequent blogs I will be addressing some of the other draft changes.

Currently the Magnuson Act defines any stock of fish that is not at a high enough level to produce the maximum sustainable yield (msy) as being “overfished.” This is regardless of whether it is fishing that has reduced the stock to this level, or of whether cutting back on or curtailing fishing will return that stock to a “non-overfished” condition.

This law is without question the most important piece of legislation that deals with domestic fisheries management. Not only is it important because it controls the management of virtually all of the fisheries in our federal waters; it also has an overwhelming influence on the management and the managers of the fisheries in state waters (generally within 3 miles of the coast). Considering the pervasive influence of the Magnuson Act on the management of our domestic fisheries, to suggest that it’s equating “not enough fish” to “overfished” contributes to a blame-it-all-on-fishing mindset is a monumental understatement.

Obviously this is an ongoing public relations nightmare for the domestic fishing industry (and an effective weapon for anti-fishing individuals and organizations). But more than that, the almost completely fishing-centric focus on marine resource management that it is responsible for has had an undue influence on federal fisheries policy for most of two decades.

Not enough fish? No matter what the underlying reason, it must be the fault of the fishermen because that fishery is classified as “overfished.” There’s no need to look any farther than that. What a gift to the anti-fishing activists.

At this point, and without Congressman Hastings’ much needed amendment, neither pollution, degraded habitat, oil well blow outs, overzealous application of Corexit, ocean temperature shifts, low egg/larval/fingerling survival nor any other factors count because the fishery is “overfished.” Obviously fishing must be to blame and just as obviously cutting back on fishing–making the fishermen who must be responsible for the “overfishing” pay for the environmental affronts of others–is the only way to restore the overfished stocks. Just as obviously the activists aren’t the only ones who benefit from this word play.

The tragic situation that the New England groundfish stocks, the New England groundfishermen, the New England fishing communities and a bunch of New England seafood lovers are facing is about as good (difficult as it is for me to use “good” to refer to anything having to do with the current groundfish debacle) an example of how off-target our fishing-centric understanding of “not enough fish” can be. In the groundfish fishery fishing effort has been cut back significantly and repeatedly and the stocks have yet to make a comeback.

Quite simply and accurately, Chairman Hastings’ draft legislation substitutes “depleted” for “overfished” wherever it appears throughout the Magnuson Act.

To what benefit? Most simply, this will take the management focus off fishing where overfishing isn’t a factor, encourage the consideration of other factors in determining why there aren’t enough fish in a particular stock and encourage the adoption when appropriate–when fishing isn’t to blame–of measures other than reducing fishing to return a stock to levels that will produce the maximum sustainable yield.

What’s the downside? If you’re not on a career track that depends on demonizing fishermen and/or fishing or if you aren’t responsible for any of the many other factors that negatively affect our fisheries, there isn’t one. Overfishing will be as unacceptable with this change as it is without it, but it will provide our fisheries managers while attempting to restore stocks to the MSY level the wherewithal to consider and, we should all hope, deal with other negative factors as well.

It’s going to be interesting to examine the “reasons” that the antis come up with for opposing this long overdue and entirely justified change.

Nils Stople