Federal fish law is on the hook for black sea bass recovery

The Pew Charitable TrustsMay 20, 2013 

In the South Atlantic, it's time to go fish for black sea bass. Fishery managers just raised the amount that can be caught this year after news that the species has recovered from decades of overfishing.

The black sea bass success story illustrates the strength of the nation's fishery law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. And as Congress hosts hearings to consider changing the law - including one on Tuesday (5/21) --members should not weaken the law but instead explore ways to build on past victories to help regional fishery managers meet future challenges.

For 30 years, fishermen were catching black sea bass faster than the species could reproduce, and continued overfishing drove the fish to dangerously low levels. In 1996 and 2006, new provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Act required regional fishery managers to restore depleted populations of black sea bass, as well as other species, and end overfishing. But lax implementation of the rules failed to prevent continuing declines in populations. In 2011, black sea bass fishing rules went on the books to include stronger consequences when fishing limits are exceeded, thanks in large part to hard work by several visionary members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

It hasn't been easy, or politically popular, but the push for annual catch limits and enforcement has enabled the council to begin reversing the damage done by overfishing. After more than two decades, researchers are now finding increases in the average size, age distribution, and number of spawning-age females among black sea bass. This growth in the capacity of the species to reproduce effectively promises more fish for the future.

Even better news is a scientific study completed in April, which found overfishing of the species ended after more than 20 years and the target goal for the population's recovery has been achieved. As a result, managers recently more than doubled the catch limit for this coming season from 847,000 pounds to 1.8 million pounds. This should have a significant positive impact for ports from North Carolina to Florida as fishing quotas and seasons increase. In fact, a study released last year concluded that overfishing of black sea bass cost the region roughly $138 million a year in combined direct and indirect economic losses.

To keep recovery on track, fishery managers will need new tools to tackle larger threats to ocean ecosystems. Even when the Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed in 1996, Congress and ocean experts recognized that ending overfishing was the top priority, but other issues needed to be addressed to protect commerce, recreation and conservation. Now is the time to turn our attention in that direction.

We must build on recent success toward restoring chronically depleted species and ending overfishing by moving our nation toward a system that manages fish for the benefit of entire marine ecosystems. This includes tightening requirements to protect habitat, minimizing the catch of non-target ocean wildlife and ensuring enough prey to meet the food needs of larger predators such as tarpon, whales and seabirds.

Thanks to strong, science-based catch limits, progress is finally being made in rebuilding South Atlantic fish populations that have been struggling for decades. Congress should use the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization as an opportunity to manage fishing activities in a way that protects and restores marine ecosystems.

Today, the United States has one of the best fishery management systems in the world. We've come too far in efforts to restore black sea bass and other species to sit back now and let new challenges to the health of our ocean fish populations go unchecked.

Holly Binns directs fish conservation programs for The Pew Charitable Trusts in the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Caribbean.

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