« February 2007 Table of Contents
Alaska, the top U.S. seafood source, is a blueprint for
By James Wright
February 01, 2007
Well past midnight on an otherwise quiet Saturday in
December, the House of Representatives passed a long-awaited
bill that reauthorized and strengthened U.S. fishery-management
laws. To surprised seafood skeptics from Cape Cod to the
Aleutian Islands, the lame-duck action was literally an "act of
Talk of augmenting the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation
and Management Act (MSA) had been anything but quiet over the
past several years. The law, enacted in 1976, hadn't been
amended since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and had
become outdated thanks to scientific and technological
advances. Despite their differences, commercial fishermen,
seafood professionals and environmentalists for once could
agree that strict harvest limits and a deeper commitment to
science-based management were long overdue.
While the latest MSA reauthorization isn't perfect, U.S.
seafood suppliers and buyers say it's better late than never
because several storied domestic fisheries are skating on thin
ice. New England's once-plentiful groundfish stocks are
depleted. It's become a chore for buyers to source true
American red snapper.
Domestic stocks of large pelagic species like swordfish and
bluefin tuna have dwindled. About 19 percent of U.S. stocks are
considered overfished or depleted, according to the National
Marine Fisheries Service; the hope is that new regulations can
help these fisheries rebound.
Seafood sustainability concerns extend well beyond the
United States. But will the world's fisheries collapse by the
year 2048, as predicted in the Nov. 3 issue of the journal
Science (see SFB Dec. '06, p. 1)? Although scientists worldwide
roundly panned the study, the subsequent media coverage of the
doomsday forecast may have given Congress the impetus to pass
meaningful measures quickly.
The eco-buying movement is gaining momentum in the seafood
industry, fueled by consumers' growing awareness of not only
where their food comes from, but also how it was raised or
harvested. Retailers are choosing value-added seafood products
with eco-labels to attract knowledgeable customers, while
restaurants are plugging their seafood's origins and catch
methods on their menus.
More than ever, purveyors are required to prove the fish
they sell is sustainably harvested. Stronger enforcement of
catch limits and other science-based decisions called for in
the latest MSA reauthorization will be necessary with consumer
confidence in seafood at stake.
The MSA is critical to the economic health of U.S. fisheries
as well: Domestic landings account for only about 10 percent of
U.S. seafood consumption. Without a stronger regulatory
framework to sustain marine resources, buyers may have to rely
even more on sourcing seafood overseas.
"The main goal [of stronger legislation] is to increase
domestic production by rebuilding stocks. As they're rebuilt,
there's less need to import seafood," says Sen. Ted Stevens
(R-Alaska). "It's also incredibly important because of the
growing awareness of the [health] value of eating seafood."
Theodore Fulton Stevens is not only the longest-tenured
Republican in the U.S. Senate, where he's served since 1968, he
may be the foremost steward the seafood industry has ever
known. Representing Alaska, which is synonymous with wild
seafood, it's always been in Stevens' best interest to champion
the industry's cause.
"We have half the [U.S.] coastline and half the fish, after
all," Stevens says.
In 1976, Stevens and Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, a Washington
state Democrat, penned the MSA, the most significant piece of
fisheries-management legislation in the nation's history: The
law established eight regional fishery management councils and
an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that prohibits foreign vessels
from fishing within 200 miles of the nation's coastline.
With the EEZ, the United States claimed the largest ocean
territory in the world - and the tremendous responsibility to
Three decades and countless debates about the health of U.S.
marine resources later, Stevens and Sen. Daniel Inouye
(R-Hawaii) last year authored an amended bill that bridged gaps
between economic and environmental concerns.
Rarely does fishery legislation satisfy NGOs, but
Environmental Defense, National Environmental Trust and the
Natural Resources Defense Council each endorsed to varying
degrees the bill's aggressive stance to end overfishing,
rebuild depleted fisheries and end illegal fishing in
international waters. Nonetheless, Oceana was quick to question
"Senator Stevens has again demonstrated his uncanny ability
to make snowballs out of fog by passing this legislation," says
Dr. Michael Hirschfield, Oceana's chief scientist and senior
VP. "This legislation seems to be more about who gets to catch
the fish in the ocean, not about how we can make sure that
there will always be enough fish for them to catch."
Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of the new law
is a shift toward dedicated access privileges, or individual
fishing quotas (IFQs), a controversial technique adopted by
Alaska to manage its halibut, sablefish and king crab
fisheries, to name a few. In short, a fishery's total allowable
catch (TAC), which is established by a regional council's
scientific committee, is divided and allocated to fishermen
based on historical participation; some fisheries allot quotas
to processors as well. These quotas can then be leased or sold.
Other fishery-management techniques include gear restrictions,
closed fishing areas and limited days-at-sea, all of which have
found measures of success.
The MSA reauthorization underscores "greater use of
market-based systems for fisheries management," or dedicated
access programs like IFQs. Seafood buyers may encounter
interruptions in supply but the goal is more consistent
availability as stocks rebuild.
The major knock against transferable quotas is the
possibility that big corporations will only get bigger and that
fewer boats on the water means fewer fishermen at work.
Consolidation is reshaping the seafood supply chain; for
example, the rationalized crab fisheries in Alaska are now
controlled by as few as six major corporations, several of them
owned by Japanese conglomerates ( SFB Sept. '06 Top Story, p.
1). However, a Dec. 13 report from the Alaska Department of
Labor says that fish-harvesting jobs increased in 2005, the
first year of the crab rationalization program. Not only that,
but occupational hazards in the old "derby-style" fisheries
were greatly reduced. "In 2005 there were fewer crabbers
working, but they were employed for more months harvesting the
king crab quota," the report said.
IFQs make enforcing catch limits much simpler, says David
Benton, director of the Marine Conservation Alliance in Juneau,
who adds that input from the regional councils' scientific
committees "must be at the forefront" of how catch levels are
"To make it work you need good science and you need good
monitoring and enforcement on the other end," says Benton.
"Limited entries, IFQs - one size does not fit all. Those are
good management tools that work in a lot of instances. But each
[plan] needs to be designed and tailored for each individual
Help on the way?
The 1960s were salad days for red snapper in the Gulf of
Mexico; average landings of 12.5 million pounds each year
earned the species national appeal. But the coveted fish, which
can live to age 50 and require several years to reach
reproductive potential, simply couldn't keep up with the heavy
mortality rate imposed by commercial and recreational
"Once you overfish a stock like that it takes a long, long
time to rebuild all the year-classes that have been reduced,"
says Wayne Swingle, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico
Fishery Management Council in Tampa, Fla.
After decades of steady decline, red snapper landings fell
to about 4.3 million pounds annually from 1990 to 2004 and for
the past two years the annual quota has gone unmet. This
January, the Gulf Council implemented a limited-access program
for red snapper, similar to ones employed in Alaska. Swingle
says the plan, which meets new MSA guidelines, will facilitate
a gradual comeback.
"[IFQs are] designed to reduce overcapitalization of the
fishery," Swingle says. "We expect some participants will buy
out other participants and it will be a smarter, more efficient
fishery." The Gulf Council also cut the 2007 commercial red
snapper quota from 4.65 million pounds to 3.5 million
For years, commercial red snapper fishermen could only fish
during the first 10 days of each month until the annual quota
was met. Thus, a flawed pattern of inconsistent pricing emerged
for buyers: Prices started high as each month began, only to
come down after four or five days. After the 10th day of the
month there would often be an oversupply of cheap fish
available at questionable quality.
Jeff Freeman, president of Sea Source in Morristown, N.J.,
buys "many thousands of pounds" of snapper each week, both
domestic and imported. Although the old system had its quirks,
he says nobody knows how availability will play out under the
new rules that govern the fishery. There could be interruptions
in supply and harvesters could get "buried in paperwork"
instead of fishing, he says.
"We're in virgin territory here. But the quota system should
hopefully provide a more level buying opportunity for
everybody," Freeman says. "One [potential] difficulty is
collusion, which leads to restraint of trade. As importers, we
can't get together and say 'we're not going to buy snappers for
two weeks' to drive prices down. That's illegal."
Swingle and others in the Gulf have high hopes for the
recovery of red snappers. Far up the East Coast, however, where
Atlantic cod landings pale in comparison to past levels, the
situation isn't quite as hopeful.
The New England groundfish industry - traditionally a hot
source for cod, haddock and flounder - has gotten so bad in
recent years that the head of Maine's Portland Fish Exchange
says the display auction may not survive past 2007. Groundfish
landings through October last year at the nation's only
publicly owned nonprofit seafood auction were the lowest on
"Going back 10 or 15 years, we didn't do a good job of
putting regulations into place and [fishermen] resisted some of
the techniques and restrictions," says PFE President Thomas
Valleau. And, because so many fishery council members have
commercial interests in the fisheries, "in a way it was like
asking somebody to remove their own appendix. Even after we
realized [the necessity], we weren't able to come to a
consensus," he says.
"I think the groundfish industry is in the process of
recovering, but it's going to take three to five years for it
to return to a reasonably robust and commercially viable
state," continues Valleau, adding that the exchange has lost
money the past three years. "We see a major recovery," Valleau
says. "Our feeling is this is just the beginning."
No pain, no gain
Clem Tillion, a charter member of the North Pacific Fishery
Management Council after the MSA was ratified in 1976, now
enjoys semi-retirement in Halibut Cove, Alaska. The outspoken
former commercial fisherman and Alaska legislator knows how
politics impact seafood supplies.
Tillion has devoted his life to fishing and fisheries
management and follows the industry closely still, taking pride
in Alaska's seafood success stories. For example, the National
Fisheries Institute in McLean, Va., lauded the new MSA for
using Alaska as a sustainable-seafood model. "Alaska's
fisheries are among the best managed worldwide," said NFI
President John Connelly in a Dec. 9 statement. Tillion agrees
that Alaska is indeed a blueprint by which many other domestic
fisheries can be shaped. But he notes that, in the days before
original MSA, radical change and long-term vision weren't
widely accepted ideals in communities that depended on
"When we introduced the first limited-entry program for
salmon in 1973, my kids got beat up in the playground, my
wife's tires were slashed. I needed a police escort to get to
work," Tillion says, alluding to how Alaskans' passion for
fishing was a hurdle in the quest for sustainability.
"Our [fishery] resources were so low we had to amend the
state constitution," he continues, adding that in 1961 Alaska's
fisheries were declared a national disaster, albeit man-made.
"And we didn't do anything about halibut until we were down to
a two-day season in southeast Alaska. The fishery was
A long-term approach, however, has proven to be what the
state and its seafood industry needed, as Alaska is now one of
the largest seafood sources in the world: Its 900,000 square
miles of ocean territory yield more than 5 billion pounds of
"We have eight times more salmon in Alaska now than in 1959
when we became a state," Tillion says. "It wasn't painless; we
closed Cook Inlet for 15 years. We're now 54 percent of all
fisheries in the United States. It wasn't an accident."
Tillion says strict adherence to scientific recommendations
is key in setting catch limits for all
"You never solve your political problems by taking more
[fish] than the scientists say we have," says Tillion. "The
basic job [of commercial fisheries] is to put food on the
table. The purpose of fisheries is not to provide jobs. You
serve the fishermen best if you keep the resource healthy."
Sustainability is top of mind with major seafood buyers like
Wal-Mart, Costco and Whole Foods, which makes conservation
within the MSA a key selling point for suppliers. The Marine
Stewardship Council of London, created in 1997 by Unilever and
the World Wildlife Fund, certifies fisheries around the globe
as ecologically sustainable through an auditing process ( SFB
Jan. '07 Top Story, p. 1). Any product bearing the MSC
eco-label leverages its origin from a well-managed fishery.
And Alaska has certainly proven its mettle on the
sustainability front. Of the 22 MSC-certified fisheries
worldwide, six are in Alaska: Alaska salmon; pollock in both
the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands; BSAI
Pacific cod freezer longline; U.S. North Pacific halibut and
"If I look at [the MSA] with my Alaska lens, it tells me
we've done a good job up here," says Benton. "Looking at it
nationally, there will be some growing pains in the fishing
industry, hopefully not too great. If indeed we can turn around
some of these stocks, we'll see a brighter future."
An eye on supply
The 2006 MSA extends U.S. influence into international
waters by authorizing the secretary of commerce to deny port
access to countries that engage in destructive, illegal and
unreported fishing practices. Additionally, President Bush, as
part of his U.S. Ocean Action Plan of 2004, recently joined a
global effort to place tighter restrictions on bottom trawling
in the open ocean.
But the MSA reauthorization is mostly about keeping the
domestic seafood supply viable. With demand for seafood at a
record high - Americans consumed 16.6 pounds of seafood in
2004, according to NFI - the opportunity to capitalize is
The United States is ramping up aquaculture production to
meet growing seafood demand and reduce its dependence on
imports (see Newsline this issue, p. 8); nearly 90 percent of
the U.S. edible-seafood supply is imported, according to
statistics from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Offshore
aquaculture is a priority for the Department of Commerce and
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which hope
to quintuple production by the year 2025. Still, wild-caught
fish are a vital cog in the seafood supply chain. The MSA's
goal is to keep it that way.
"There will be conservation challenges, but the system has
changed for the better," says Benton. "It will benefit the
consumer in the long run."
Assistant Editor James Wright can be