Biology in the News Explained

Will we manage to create sustainable fisheries?

Nearly finishing a bipartisan process that began under President Bush, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just set 2012 catch limits for all managed species, the first country to do so.

It has been apparent for the last few decades that if overfishing continued at the rates it has reached with mechanized and technological fishing, fish would soon become a scarce commodity.  Indeed, the skyrocketing prices that bluefin tuna have recently fetched in Japan are an example demonstrating that eating any tasty fish species could become a luxury to be experienced only by the 1% if steps are not taken to preserve stocks for the long term.

Bluefin tuna, Courtesy Jon Hanson and Wikimedia Commons

The best part of the new rules is that they were developed not as top-down regulations with no input by those affected, but by regional councils which take local interests into account.  But although that should help reduce opposition to the rules, there’s no way to eliminate it.  Charges of lack of scientific rigor in developing the rules are generally self-serving, because fish population estimates can be inaccurate, because they are dependent on assumptions that are difficult to verify.  All environmental regulations are automatically political these days, so attempts are already underway by congress to make the regulations toothless.  (Arguments that underestimating a sustainable catch level has far more benign long-term consequences than overestimating it are not the type that resonate well with politicians.)

Of course, such regulations will work much better if other countries follow suit (especially if there were to be an international agreement to suspend the absurd subsidies supporting fishing fleets), and there is more of a concerted effort to quell poaching.  It should also be obvious for there to be an accompanying trade agreement so that the U.S. isn’t hypocritically importing more and cheaper fish of the same species that we are tightly regulating for our own fishermen (and thus putting them at a competitive disadvantage), but because trade agreements are subject to congressional whim and as political as environmental regulations, don’t expect progress on that front anytime soon.

Still, it’s a welcome first step.  Because even the most pandering politician cannot spin depleted fish stocks away, it is one of the few laws that everyone should be able to find reasons to support.  Let’s hope it doesn’t become a victim of election-year congressional craziness.

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