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In a Sea of Despair, U.S. Fisheries Offer Reason for Hope

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OVERFISHING
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For fish aficionados around the world, these are not optimistic times.

It seems that every week brings fresh warnings from scientists about declines in the health of our ocean and the web of life it supports. A recent report by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean described an ocean besieged, with overfishing central in the list of problems driving potential "globally significant" marine extinction. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 70 percent of the world's fish stocks are either fully exploited or depleted. Across the pond, Europe's fisheries management system remains deeply troubled, with the EU's maritime commissioner apologizing just last week for an approach that has driven Europe's fish stocks to the brink of collapse.

In the midst of this sea of despair, an emerging success story stands out: the revitalization of America's fisheries. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual Report to Congress on the Status of Stocks, released this week, is the latest confirmation that we're on the right path. After two decades of contentious debate, sustainable management is taking hold around the country, reducing overfishing and rebuilding depleted stocks.

A science-based approach paired with devolved regional management has played an important part in turning the tide. Catch limits -- caps on the amount of fish removed based on a fish population's biological capacity -- are proving a critical tool. Where enforceable catch limits have been employed for a long period, such as in Alaska, overfishing is rarely a problem.

NOAA's report also provides further evidence that troubled fisheries can recover quickly under science-based management. In New England, for example, overfishing has been greatly reduced after just one year. Stocks such as Georges Bank haddock and spiny dogfish have been rebuilt, and New England fisheries are starting to see increased fishing quotas and higher revenues for the first time in years. That not only means more jobs in coastal communities and throughout the economy; it also means more fresh, sustainable seafood on the dinner tables of American consumers.

We're a long way from being able to declare 'mission accomplished' though. Forty U.S. stocks were still subject to overfishing in 2010, while 48 remained overfished. Political pressure to override science-based catch limits is building in some quarters, while budget cuts could yet deprive fishery managers of the resources they need. Nonetheless, it is clear that U.S. fisheries are running sharply counter to the global trend.

The heroes in this struggle are many: the bipartisan coalition in Congress who has strengthened our federal fisheries law and funded its implementation; fishery managers who have embraced more rigorous approaches; and the many fishermen who have been willing to sacrifice by reducing today's catch to invest in a more prosperous fishing future.

As we grapple with a looming crisis in global ocean health, we should acknowledge the remarkable marine conservation success that is now within reach here at home. If we stay the course, science-based management of U.S. fisheries could not only benefit American fishermen, coastal communities and seafood lovers; it could become a poster child of sustainability that shows the way to others around the world.

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