Overfishing by industry has been called one of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” This is a term used when a group of people with a similar interest compete, rather than co-operate and blindly destroy their end goal. It is the entire fishing industry that ultimately suffers when all of the fish are gone.
This happened to the codfish industry in New England in the 1990s. The famed New England cod, as well as haddock and flounder were fished nearly to extinction. US President Clinton responded by declaring the situation an emergency and assigning lawmakers the task of replenishing the stock.
So, in 1996, strict measures were added to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Because experience showed that counting fish populations and governing compliance with catch limits is an imperfect science, another amendment to the act was passed in 2006 closing loopholes allowing exceptions to allow catch targets to exceed a calculated “maximum sustainable yield.“
Ongoing assessment of fish populations
Quantitative measures were added, requiring the critical steps to help fish stocks recover by first, mandating regular assessment of which fish populations that are overfished, and creating an official list of overfished species in U.S. waters. The requirement of regular assessment has been interpreted as ongoing, so the government has authority to make changes to the quotas when fish stocks are found to be depleting more rapidly than initially projected.
For overfished species, concrete plans are now required to allow them to recover to target population levels within ten years. Under this umbrella, the promotion of “essential fish habitat” was born and assistance programs to coastal areas to establish such have been implemented.
The fishing industry in the US has risen to the challenge and made marked improvement in rebuilding its fish stocks. Further lessons have been learned in the process. For example, one of the ways fish stocks have been successfully rebuilt is to allow a no-fishing zone for the period of time required for a population to safely recover and breed for a few generations .
The role of the Marine Stewardship Council
A non-governmental association, the Marine Stewardship Council has helped to raise awareness of these findings and spur further regulations and innovations to help fish stocks recover.
The MSC has helped in two very important ways:
- They have helped to identify what fishing gear can be used in support of replenishing fish stock.
The ocean is an interdependent environment and so destruction of any species along the food chain affects other species. Destroying the coral and other ocean ground habitats by trawling heavy nets impacts fish populations. Accordingly, in order to receive the prized MSC certification of sustainable fishing practices, a fishery must show compliance with this. Additionally, fishing nets must allow the release of smaller fish before the catch .
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has picked up the gauntlet. It works to the same end through their Bycatch Reduction Engineering and Marine Mammal Take Reduction Programs. Through these programs, they work with the fishing industry and other partners to develop regulations and fishing gear modifications to reduce bycatch of sea turtles, marine mammals, sea birds, and non-target fish .
- By creating awareness with their MSC certification, the council has brought consumers into the picture, a vital step in helping fish stocks recover.
In the supermarket, consumers choose fish with the MSC seal showing that the fishery complies with sustainable fishing techniques, thus giving them a competitive edge over those who have not shown compliance. And in those situations where there is no label to be had, like the fresh fish market or when dining out, the information is readily available to consumers through seafood buying guides  or an app .
Fishing rights system
Another hard lesson learned in the process of helping fish stocks recover is that a strict quota system does not work. Fishermen push for the highest quota possible, skirting rules and competing with each other for a limited number of fish.
What works much better is the step of allowing a percentage of the total fish to be caught by an individual fishery. This is known as a “fishing rights system”. The quota is set based upon the best evidence at the time, so as evidence reveals changes in the total fish available, the amount that can be fished reflects this.
Accordingly, if the fishermen work together to promote best fishing practices, everyone wins. The tragedy of the commons becomes an arcane concept as this awareness of the benefits of cooperation is realized.