Don’t gut rules that have restored Pacific fisheries

A school of rockfish gathers off the coast of Ventura in October 2003.
A school of rockfish gathers off the coast of Ventura in October 2003. University of California, Santa Barbara, file

Fish have always fed the multitudes. Indeed, seafood provides 4.3 billion people with 15 percent of their daily protein. As our global population grows from 7.5 billion today to 10 billion by 2050, the health of our oceans will have a tremendous impact on food security and political stability.

Here at home, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advised Americans to eat twice as much seafood to improve health and to accommodate our own growing population.

But just as the need for fish escalates, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is preparing to weaken National Standard 1, the science-based backbone of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law that in the last 10 years reversed rampant overfishing and restored many fisheries to sustainable levels.

Historians measure the rise and fall of empires over centuries, but you can trace the fall and resurgence of many U.S. fish stocks in my lifetime. Take rockfish. As a teenager diving off coastal California in the late 1990s, I saw how scarce rockfish had become, a decline that only took a few decades. By 2002, many species of rockfish had collapsed, forcing bans in some areas.

Fortunately, in 2009 the standard was implemented, requiring fisheries managers to act as soon as they identified populations in trouble. By 2015, canary rockfish had recovered. Similar success stories can be found across the country with 30 fish populations rebuilt to sustainable levels since 2007.

Under the current rules, fisheries are managed using annual limits on catch that prevent overfishing. The proposed weaker guidelines would allow managers to delay setting limits, or respond slowly to overfishing. Stocks that need rebuilding could be left to decline as managers would not be required to determine whether plans are actually working.

NOAA also proposes to alter regulations on “bycatch” – fish and other marine species not intended to be caught. I have seen the horrors of this practice diving near a shrimp trawler off the coast of Florida. As the fishermen picked out the shrimp, they shoveled crabs, fish, sharks and sea turtles back into the water, where their corpses littered the sea floor.

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, we have made substantial progress toward rebuilding fish populations, but we are by no means back to the levels of abundance once seen in U.S. waters. If these proposed revisions are implemented, our fisheries risk returning to the same era of uncertainty that may have benefited a few for a short time, but ultimately put many fishermen out of business. We cannot allow the willful decimation of our rich and bountiful marine ecosystems.

For three generations, my family has shown you the awe and beauty of the world beneath the waves. We have also witnessed the tragic depletion of our oceans. Restoring them will take time, courage and dedication to sustainable management.

We need leadership from NOAA, the Department of Commerce, the eight regional management councils, President Barack Obama and, most of all, the public. Consumers, with the power of the purse, must stand firm against these changes.

Philippe Cousteau is the founder of EarthEcho International, an environmental education nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at