The Atlantic sea scallop fishery, which extends from Maine to North Carolina, is an economic powerhouse in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Nearly 34 million pounds of sea scallops worth $424 million were harvested in the United States in 2014, making it the largest wild-caught scallop fishery in the world and one of our most valuable fisheries.
This wasn’t always the case. Following a decade of decline, sea scallop landings dropped to 12 million pounds in 1998, a 23-year low. The anemic 1998 harvest, which resulted in $74 million in economic losses, hinted at widespread damage to marine ecosystems in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic caused by overfishing.
Scallops weren’t the only stock in trouble. The 1990s were a difficult time for fisheries in the United States. The decade saw the collapse of Pacific and New England groundfish stocks after decades of overfishing. With 86 species classified as overfished in U.S. waters in 1996, policymakers scrambled to come up with a solution to address widespread fishery decline.
Lawmakers answered the call with the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006. These laws set the stage for sustainable fishing by requiring catch limits and plans to rebuild all federally managed fisheries. Timeframes for rebuilding a fish stock under the Act are typically ten years or less. To accomplish this, scientists establish fishery management plans for overfished species and institute annual catch limits to control overfishing. In a form of adaptive management, catch limits are adjusted based on data from ongoing scientific surveys. This science-based management structure has increased the effectiveness of rebuilding plans while limiting economic harm to the fishing community.
After more than a decade of rigorous, science-based management under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, U.S. fisheries are rebounding. By 2001, sea scallops had made a remarkable recovery due to a number of management measures. Closing critical habitat areas to fishing and initiating individual fishing quotas, a type of catch sharing program, in concert with management plans informed by scientific data, have created the conditions needed for recovery.
In the last 15 years, the number of federally managed fisheries with overfished stocks dropped by two-thirds, and 39 fisheries have been rebuilt. By the end of 2015, 89 percent of fisheries with annual catch limits in place had halted overfishing, and only 29 species in U.S. waters were classified as overfished. In addition to sea scallops, stocks of bluefish, lingcod, yellowtail snapper, black sea bass, and blue king crab have been rebuilt since 1996. The health of marine ecosystems has also improved as rebounding fish stocks stabilize food webs and increase biodiversity.
However, the recovery of these fisheries should not be taken for granted. According to Jane Lubchenco, the former administrator of NOAA, “no one should underestimate the difficulties of getting sustainable fisheries right. It is an immensely difficult process that takes a long time, the right incentives, and strong partnerships with fishermen.” Although ending overfishing will benefit everyone in the long run, some parties may carry a greater burden than others under rebuilding plans.
While the Magnuson-Stevens Act has fostered numerous successes, barriers to further progress remain. A significant minority of U.S. fisheries still lack adequate data on stock levels and overfishing pressures, limiting the ability of fishery management councils and NOAA to institute catch limits and track stock recovery. In addition, several fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and New England have been slow to recover even under rebuilding plans.
Despite these challenges, the track record of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is impressive. Margaret Spring of the Monterey Bay Aquarium described the Magnuson-Stevens Act as a “story of science coming from the sidelines to the forefront of decision making.” The future of sustainable fisheries in the United States and abroad will largely depend upon the role of science in fisheries management.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.