After years of depletion, California's fish populations appear to be bouncing back. A study this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that hauls by fishing boats, which had been down as a result of years of overfishing, have been growing, along with earnings. The agency credits catch limits that were mandated by law in 1996 and slowly implemented over the next 15 years.
A February report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that of 44 severely depleted stocks of fish nationwide that were under federal oversight, 48% had rebounded to target levels and an additional 16% had shown significant progress — a total of nearly two-thirds.
There's even more encouraging news. A preliminary study by California marine scientists indicates that the populations and average physical size of several key species of fish have grown in the six years since the state established a patchwork of marine reserves off the central coast; in many of these areas, no fishing is allowed. There now are similar protected areas all along the coast.
These findings are preliminary and somewhat mixed. Not all sea life is doing better, in this state or elsewhere, and restrictions on fishing have been particularly hard for small commercial businesses. But overall, this is the most optimistic news on the subject in a long time, a promising sign that the ocean's environmental health will be intact, that the future of the threatened recreational and commercial fishing industries will be robust and that consumers won't need to rely on farmed seafood. Previous restrictions on fishing — such as limited seasons or requirements that fish under a certain size had to be tossed back — proved counterproductive in some ways. Fishing crews frantically brought in as much catch as possible during open season. Laws attempting to ensure that juvenile fish weren't caught led fishing operations to take the largest specimens out of the gene pool, so that some species began maturing to smaller sizes.
In contrast, catch limits and marine reserves appear to have yielded remarkable results in a very short time. Catch limits, when they are imposed and enforced correctly, stop overfishing and give stocks a chance to recover. (In many of the cases in which populations have not rebounded, part of the problem was that limits were set so loosely at first that overfishing still occurred.) California's marine protected areas, modeled on successful reserves in other countries, took things a step further by protecting the health of entire coastal ecosystems and acting as fish nurseries so that young fish had a better chance of surviving to maturity.
In addition, the international convention on endangered species, with 177 member nations and organizations, voted this month to sharply restrict overfishing of five species of shark. Tens of millions of sharks are killed each year for their fins, which fetch a high price for the Chinese delicacy of shark fin soup. In recent years, researchers have found that large sharks play an integral part in the balance of ocean life by keeping in check the population of mid-level predators that eat scallops, clams and other commercially valuable sea life.
Of course, restrictions have been hard on people who depend on the oceans' resources for their living. Some fishermen have gone out of business, and if the restrictions on fins from the five affected shark species is effective, more will lose their jobs, at least temporarily. Yet the fishing industry was already in grave danger, and on a much larger scale, before strong measures were adopted to restore the ocean environment. A healthier ocean provides more jobs and food.
Later this year, Congress will consider reauthorization of the law that mandated protection of the nation's fisheries. The two previous renewals, in 1996 and 2006, contained amendments that strengthened the law and created the catch limits credited with restoring many fish populations.
But this year, some Republicans are calling for changes that would weaken the law, including loosening catch limits on the most depleted stocks of fish, such as cod in the Northeast.
It would be a mistake to keep fish populations at imperiled levels. Congress should not waver from the long-term goal of healthy fisheries along all of the nation's coasts.