What the US can teach the world about protecting our oceans

From the South China Sea to the Arctic, the world’s oceans are fast becoming flashpoints for commercial and military tensions. But the seas also offer enormous opportunities to cooperate, including on the issue of where, when, and how much to fish.

For decades, the US has led the way in managing fisheries responsibly.  That has not always been the case globally, as some regions only more recently awakened to the need to better manage their marine resources sustainably.  When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosts more than 80 countries at the “Our Ocean” conference in Washington, DC on June 16, he should not be shy about touting America’s success in managing its seafood supply and promoting it as a model for conservation.

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Because of its health benefits and relative global abundance, seafood demand has grown explosively in recent decades.  According to the most recent United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data, annual global fish consumption has grown from 22 pounds per person in the 1960’s to nearly double that in 2012.   While farming fish can supplement supplies from ocean harvests, it will never supplant demand for wild fish.  These demands can challenge governments and industry to ensure skippers pull only allowable catches from the sea.

The U.S. fishing industry has taken a commendable, long view on supplying enough seafood to meet this surge in demand.  Working with major customers, seafood suppliers have raised sustainability awareness within the industry and among retailers and consumers.

The cornerstone of U.S. fisheries management is the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the  law that governs U.S. fisheries and which was last updated in 2006. U.S. “fish politics” is hotly debated within the seafood harvesting and processing communities, but, in the end, near consensus is achieved.  For instance, leading to the 2006 MSA reauthorization, Congress held 50 hearings, involving more than 250 expert witnesses, and the legislation passed by voice vote.  Congress is currently discussing an update to the 2006 amendments which will further fine-tune MSA.

Today, the fisheries budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), tasked with implementing the MSA, is approaching U.S. $1 billion. NOAA Fisheries has more than 3,500 staff, who have developed more than 800 regulations to implement MSA and related laws.  NOAA’s expertise is complemented by input from all stakeholders who seek input.

Fisheries management in the U.S. is conducted in an open, transparent, science-based, and participatory manner.  Opportunities for academics, researchers, industry, and conservation groups to engage in this scientific, management and political process are abundant.  Congressional staff held more than 500 meetings with a variety of interested before the last MSA reauthorization.  More than100,000 people commented on proposed NOAA regulations implementing the MSA law.  Nearly 1,000 people from across the fishery ideological spectrum regularly engage with the regional Fishery Management Councils, the groups which establish the science and fishing limits in 8 distinct areas around the country.  

This holistic, disinterested process adopted by the U.S. benefits harvesters, processors, retailers, and consumers. Harvesters can better understand their requirements, processors gain confidence in current and future seafood supply, retailers get insurance against activist "greenmail", and consumers get the comfort of knowing American seafood is guaranteed sustainable.

With the robust federal MSA system in place, the U.S. commercial fishing industry—coupled with actions by state and local governments—takes the day-to-day lead in protecting our healthy fish stocks. While this may sound like the fox guarding the henhouse, it’s actually a stereotype-busting process in which industry has taken a long-view of protecting what had once been a depleting resource. Rather than “fish, baby fish”, skippers and seafood processors use sustainability standards set by the FAO and hard science to determine stock size and catch limits, and in so doing save their own business for the future.

The results are unquestioned. In Alaska, where the majority of fish in the U.S. are caught and processed, there are no overfished stocks. And the U.S. now ranks second worldwide in terms of fishery sustainability based on the UN FAO’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, trailing only the much smaller Norway.

Maybe the greatest compliment to our system comes from abroad.  European Union Commissioner for Fisheries, Maria Damanaki, paid tribute to the U.S. system in January for its “great achievements in managing fisheries in accordance with the best available science and ending overfishing, based on the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The U.S. has shown us the way on sustainability.”

When Secretary Kerry welcomes government officials and experts from more than 80 countries to discuss these issues, he should proudly urge the rest of the world to follow our lead in fishery management and create a winning solution for all.

Connelly is president of the National Fisheries Institute, the nation's leading advocate for the commercial fish and seafood community.