Over dinner a couple years ago, one of the foremost coastal attorneys in the nation ordered poke at a Hawaiian restaurant. “Eat up!” he told me. “Consumable fish will be gone in fifty years.” The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)–an agency housed within the (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)–confirmed as much in its sixth annual “Our Living Oceans” report. The report, an annual report on marine life in U.S. waters, concludes that while the conditions of fisheries could be worse, fish populations continue to battle for sustainability in the face of structural and increasing deficits.
NMFS is the government agency responsible for protecting the marine life in U.S. waters through fisheries management (it canceled salmon season in Northern California a few years ago), conservation (it conducts research and implement restoration) and protect ecosystems through enforcement of environmental laws. NOAA is tasked with charting the sea, determining weather forecasts, studying climate change, maintaining sustainable fish populations (the NMFS piece), and more.
The report describes fish populations that are destabilized and diminishing. It indicates that the US, the third largest fish consumer on earth, is consuming fish at approximately 75% of long term sustainable yield, overall. Regionally, the story changes; the Southeast, Northeast and Gulf of Mexico are, statistically, tapped out. The Northeast and California Coast appear to be at approximately 75% of their sustainable capacity, and areas of both of these ecosystems have already wiped out their fish stocks. The most plentiful stocks–Alaskan and migratory fish–are being fished out at approximately 66% of long-term sustainable yield.
There are good reasons to consume at less than the long-term sustainable yield rate. Despite decades of work, NMFS reports that the maximum sustainable yield of 43% of fisheries in U.S. waters is unknown. In other words, for 43% of fish, scientists don’t know how much people can consume before a negative feedback loop is created that leads to extinction. Of the species where maximum sustainable yield is known, 20% are being overfished or fished at the maximum sustainable yield, 14% are being fished near their maximum sustainable yield, and 22% are being fished below their maximum sustainable yield. Yikes! So 34% of fisheries in U.S. waters are on the path to extinction, 43% may or may not be, and only 22% are being fished at a safe rate- that is, not near their long-term sustainable yield.
Part of the problem is the crescendo crash; many of the most endangered species are small fish, such as the infamous snail darter, or the delta smelt, minnows, etc. However, these fish are important food sources for larger fish further up the food chain. For Americans to maintain their current level of fish consumption at stable prices, entire ecosystems must be preserved to maintain the species consumers really care about.
NMFS has issued warnings on this issue numerous times before, with varying levels of pessimism. However, the message of ocean woe does not seem to be reaching consumers, who have embraced sushi with exponential affinity in recent years. Consumers may need the equivalent of a carbon tax on fish products to change consumption patterns. Until mass public awareness improves and action follows, NMFS’ reports will continue to get bleaker.