A recent study examining federal trends in fish stock assessments was released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on last Friday in response to requests from a bipartisan group of US Senators. The results of this study were highlighted on SavingSeafood.org and the Montgomery Advertiser, an Alabama-based online news source. Although the findings of this report are only preliminary, they confirm what many local fishermen have been claiming for years: the government, and in particular the National Marine Fisheries Service, conducts fish stock assessments with great disparities across different regions of the US, and has failed to supply adequate resources to adequately measure what is happening in the changing ecosystems of our local fisheries.
Recent headlines on declining fish stocks in the Northeast are certainly concerning, but as this GAO report points out, there may be more to the story than the number show. As it turns out, the numbers themselves could be dramatically off-target based on the lack of capacity of the National Marine Fisheries Service to allocate resources to perform reliable stock assessments equally across all regions of the US.
Not surprisingly, approximately half (467/1,001) of stock assessments conducted from 2005-2013 were in Alaskan waters, a fishery with great influence both financially and in Congress. “Federal officials say the disparity is due to several factors, such as regional differences in how counts are conducted, the complexity of the data, workload, staff capacity, and fish stock biology and status. Many of the Alaskan counts were simply updates of earlier surveys and didn’t require as much work, according to GAO.” So assessments are focused where they “don’t require as much work”??? Shouldn’t the resources and time go to fisheries where there are more variables, greater unknowns, and less stable fish populations??
The result of this disparity is that the more diverse and complex fisheries of the east coast saw far fewer resources and analysis for the stock assessment process. With the industry at the mercy of strict quotas set by the government- which are based entirely on these stock assessments- the significance this lack of attention has had on our local economy is drastic.
Take north Atlantic cod, for example. Back in 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared that this stock was well on its way to rebounding to historic levels based on spawning and distribution data from the 2008 assessment. Not two years later, the 2010 stock assessment completely reversed the 2008 findings, declaring that if cod were to be fished at 2009 levels, no fish would be left for future generations. How does a stock go from being on target for a fully rebuilt status to on the verge of extinction in a mere two years, you ask??? The local fleet wondered the same thing, especially considering their strict adherence to the meager fishing quotas that are set by the all-knowing National Marine Fisheries Service. While there is a great deal of controversy surrounding these cod figures, it’s clear to many that the answer does not lay in some mystery of the deep, but rather in the flawed stock assessment science, inadequate methods and lack of resources employed by the fisheries regulators in our government.
This latest GAO study only begins to shed light on the flawed process behind the government’s efforts to count fish. “The GAO report doesn’t settle that argument. The watchdog agency is beginning a second phase to examine ‘collection of fisheries data’ which might more directly address the science behind the counts.” Lets hope this study opens some eyes in Congress and demands more accountability from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Let’s also hope our local fishing industry is still around when the government finally figures out how to count fish.