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  • Writer's pictureBen Martens

The truth about America’s fisheries: A response to panic in the media

The fishery system is complicated. It’s complicated for the fishermen, who have to comply with the phonebook-sized reams of regulations that change every year and modify their equipment and fishing strategies to match. It’s complicated for the scientists, who must rely on spotty data and statistical models to determine the health of fish stocks. It’s complicated for the managers, who have to balance the demands of a healthy marine system with the needs of struggling coastal communities. It’s also complicated for the consumers, who are bombarded with different recommendations about what seafood they ought to eat or avoid, for reasons of health or environmental conservation.

And because fisheries are so complicated, it comes as no surprise that many articles on the fishing industry are overly general and at times misleading. This is not to suggest that journalists are intentionally trying to mislead their audiences: rather, it is difficult to communicate fisheries news concisely without losing important details and nuances along the way. In late January 2016, a widely-shared article entitled “The Planet's Fisheries Are in Even Worse Shape than We Thought” was published on The Huffington Post. The piece was based on a recent publication from Nature Communications that released updated catch reconstructions for the world’s fisheries. The findings of the report, written by Dr. Daniel Pauly and Dr. Dirk Zeller, suggest that global marine fishery discards are higher than official reports indicate. This misrepresentation, the authors say, stems from lack of oversight on a broad swath of industrial-scale fleets, illegal fisheries and small scale fisheries. In their Nature article, Pauly and Zeller insist that better data-collection tools are desperately needed in order to understand the world’s fisheries.

The Nature article heavily emphasized the need for data collection and information sharing in the international community, but those conclusions were overshadowed in the mass media by another prevailing narrative: based on Pauly and Zeller’s analyses, global fish stocks are in “even worse shape” overall than previously thought. Unfortunately, the article seemed to lead people to the false conclusion that troublesome facts about internet was that “global fish stocks” meant “all fish stocks” leading to more confusion and misinformation about fisheries . The reality of many individual fisheries is quite different than that of “global fish stocks”, and while it is addressed in both the Nature Communications and Huffington Post articles, this fact has seemingly fallen by the wayside in the public discussion.

It’s true that, worldwide, many fish stocks are currently faring worse than previous years’ data had suggested, mainly due to a historic lack of reliable data as well as ineffective or nonexistent management. However, at present, many fish stocks in United States waters are in the process of rebuilding. This is due to the improved management and data collection practices that have been developed in the U.S. since the implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976.

It is important for anyone invested in fisheries to keep the state of international fish stocks in mind. However, generalizations about struggling or mismanaged global fisheries must not be incorrectly applied to fisheries in the United States—especially community-based, small-scale ones. These types of misconceptions undermine the important work being done throughout the United States to build sustainable fisheries and fishing communities. This was also acknowledged in both the Nature Communications and Huffington Post articles, where Dr. Pauly states that although “throughout most of the world, there is effectively no management," it is important to remember that, in a global context, “U.S. fisheries are an outlier.”

This is because the Magnuson-Stevens Act is working: from just 2000 to 2015, thirty-nine overfished stocks were successfully rebuilt in United States waters and, as of 2015, out of the 199 fish stocks monitored in the United States, only 16 were experiencing overfishing, and only 29 had population biomass levels below the goal threshold. This goes to show that effective management can mitigate even some of the most serious problems facing our world’s fisheries.

Stories about the fishing industry can sometimes seem like one piece of bad news after another. But amongst the serious problems plaguing many of the world’s fisheries, it’s enormously important to remember the good news, too. We as an industry need to remind consumers that not only is it OK to eat seafood, but eating local and US caught seafood is good for your health, the coastal communities that fishermen support, and the marine ecosystem that our nation has worked so hard to rebuild and sustain.

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