Fisheries’ Future

The ocean is changing. Can sustainable fishing policies catch up?

By Lauren Thacker

Changing marine habitats and populations, the economics of commercial fishing, and the livelihood and tradition of fishing communities: this is a present-day story of the relationship between the ocean and the people who live and work by its waters, and the efforts to make that relationship sustainable. A huge aspect of those efforts is combating illegal, unreported, and unreg­ulated (IUU) fishing.

IUU fishing—a broad category encompassing activity from foreign vessels harvest­ing in U.S. waters without a license to recreational fishers not following regulations for their striped bass haul—is a complex problem at the state, national, and international level.

“There’s a vision for an ocean that is governed equitably,” says Kelly Kryc, Ph.D., M.S. ’98, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “An ocean that is fair to all participants who would like to benefit from the resources that it has to offer.”

“The United States has the strongest domestic fisheries laws in the world. We hold our industry to a higher standard.”
Kelly Kryc, Ph.D. ’98, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Fisheries, NOAA

Resources, she explains, range from oxygen we breathe to how we manage extractive activities. In order to realize a vision of equity, extractive activities must be sustainable.

Professor of Oceanography Jeremy S. Collie says that setting sustainable fishing goals first requires determining how abundant a particular species is. You look at the stock size and reproductive rate and from there, determine what fraction of the species can be harvested while maintaining species reproduction.

It’s a relatively straightforward formula that is used to create state and national regulations. Enforcing those regulations gets tricky. Tricky enough that in 2022, the Biden administration issued a National Security Memorandum stating that “IUU fishing and related harmful fishing practices are among the greatest threats to ocean health.” The memorandum went on to list other threats of IUU fishing: forced labor, human trafficking, the undermining of U.S. economic competitiveness, and the exacerbation of environmental and socioeconomic effects of climate change, to name a few.

The problem is so complex that the Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement (MSAFE) Act, passed in 2019, established an interagency group to combat it. Kryc chairs the 21-agency, federal-government- wide working group.

“The ocean, its governance and the science behind it falls under the authority of many agencies,” Kryc explains. “We have certain tools at NOAA, but we don’t have the ability the United States Coast Guard has to interdict vessels, nor do we have the ability to do on-the-ground diplomacy like our partners in the State Department or USAID. Collectively, I believe that we have the ability to bring all of that to bear against IUU fishing.”

Still, it’s a challenge. “I don’t think anyone in the GSO audience will be surprised that the Earth is big and the ocean is big,” jokes Kryc. “It’s difficult to identify who is partici­pating in what.”

Building international relationships is one strategy in making the ocean, if not smaller, then more governable.

“The United States has the strongest domestic fisheries laws in the world. We hold our industry to a higher standard,” Kryc says. “We champion the U.S. model internationally because we feel that if other countries had the same stringent standards, IUU fishing would be easier to combat.”

She outlines a five-prong approach to combat IUU fishing internationally: Advance sustainable fisheries management through work with regional fisheries management organizations; improve monitoring and surveillance of fishing activity; improve the traceability of imported products; stop IUU fish products from entering the U.S. market; and impose consequences for IUU fishing.

While this strategy is global in scope, it plays out in local markets. Jason McNamee, B.S. ’96, Ph.D. ’18, sees that firsthand. He’s the Deputy Director of Natural Resources in Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management and is a member of the New England Fisheries Management Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee and the lead delegate to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for Rhode Island.

Regional Realities

Port states like Rhode Island are key to acting on the approach Kryc and the MSAFE working group have developed. Because the United States is a large market with stringent standards, international fisheries have an incentive to meet those standards in order to sell their product on U.S. soil. So, Rhode Island ports have a responsibility to know where international and domestic product is coming from and to bar illegally harvested product from entering the market. Sellers, too, have a responsibility to ensure that the type and amount of fish they put on the market falls within the regulated limits.

“Our current regional structure does not line up with where fisheries are occurring. …This is our climate change story.”
Jason McNamee, B.S. ’96, Ph.D. ’18, Deputy Director of Natural Resources, R.I. Department of Environmental Management

McNamee says that in practice, combating IUU in Rhode Island fishing involves spot checks at both seafood dealers and individual fishers to ensure product is accounted for. The amount of domestic marine products, like cod, squid, and, in Rhode Island specifically, quahogs, don’t exceed catch limits are among the matters investigated during these site checks.

“The hope is that these random spot checks create a disincentive to participate in illegal activity. We work with our communications team to publicize that we have found people in violation of our fishing rules and also publicize the imposed fines for the violation. At the state and federal level, we’re under-­resourced—in particular in our enforcement divisions—and can’t be everywhere all the time. But, we try to get the word out so people think twice,” he says.

Even with state agencies and the whole of the federal government looking to halt IUU fishing and support sustainable oceans, overfishing and other harmful activities persist. Kryc, Collie and McNamee identify two major reasons for that: IUU fishing can be economically advantageous for those who participate, and climate change means that the regulations don’t always keep up with fish distributions.

Collie says, “Some countries subsidize their fisheries to harvest in other parts of the world and on the high seas. Without funding, these operations might not be profitable. So, how do we regulate fishing on the high seas?”

Kryc adds, “If a country’s flagged vessels are IUU fishing, they have a distinct economic advantage. This is why traceability is important, but it’s tricky. It’s very easy to re-flag a ship or hide the identity of its owners. This is one of the challenges that the MSAFE working group is taking up: how do we determine the beneficial ownership of vessels?”

McNamee sees the economic stressors on a local level. He says that a lot of people want to adhere to regulations but feel pressure to break them. So when, for example, there is a 1,000 pound per vessel per day limit on cod, the rule-following vessel adheres to that amount. But if a nearby ship doubles that, that vessel dramatically increases its profit.

“At the root, it’s an equity issue,” he says. “People almost feel compelled to break the rules in order to be competitive.”

He points out that the pressure to underreport catches creates a vicious cycle. As Collie explains, limits on particular species are based on that species’ abundance. Those numbers are continually monitored. He supervises the GSO Fish Trawl survey, a weekly survey of the bottom fish and invertebrate community in Narragansett Bay. It’s one of the longest continuous records of fish and invertebrate abundance in the world. But if the number of fish harvested is incorrect, then scientists and policy makers don’t have accurate numbers. The discrepancy may mean that catch limits are lower than they need to be.

In Narragansett Bay, working the Fish Trawl on board Cap’n Bert.

McNamee explains, “In some cases, knowing about those additional fish that are being harvested would increase the size of the population and would make the quotas go up, because to be able to sustain that level of harvest, the population must be larger. People might think that underreporting means gaming the system to their benefit, but in fact, they’re doing just the opposite.”

Data-Driven Policy

The Fish Trawl survey also provides insights into how climate change and warming waters impacts species abundance and sustainability.

“One of the most important things (the Fish Trawl) shows us is how the community has responded to climate change.”
Jeremy S. Collie, Professor of Oceanography, GSO

“Often, we lose sight of the past. The Fish Trawl is an important baseline for assessing the abundance of the population over time. One of the most important things it shows us is how the community has responded to climate change,” says *Collie. “Because we have six decades of data, we can track how species have been affected by climate.”

And the impact on marine life has been significant. In fact, Collie calls it “the most important driver” of change in the 21st century. Warming waters have changed reproductive rates, a key factor in determining sustainable fishing quotas, and have driven species north in search of cooler temperatures. Habitats change, predator-prey relationships change, and suddenly the same stretch of ocean looks quite different.
As the ocean changes, policies regulating it should too. But that’s not always the case.

Rhode Island provides examples of both changing marine populations and lagging policies. McNamee explains that Rhode Island used to be home to “classic New England fisheries” with abundant cod, pollock, haddock, and winter flounder. But over the past few decades, those fish have moved north or simply declined and the state’s surrounding waters see squid, summer flounder, scup and black sea bass, all traditionally mid-Atlantic species.

“The good news here,” says McNamee, “is that as the traditional species have left, the new species have kept our fisherman afloat–pardon the pun!”

The bad news, he says, is that it takes science and regulations a while to catch up with what’s happening in the water.

“A lot of the theory that fisheries science is based on is this notion that there’s a stationary productivity level in the population. And what climate change does is make that not stable,” explains McNamee. “Instability makes it hard to assess populations.”

Policies must face this challenge head on in order to make meaningful progress toward sustainability. McNamee points to regional fisheries management, one of the five prongs of the federal approach that Kryc outlined.

“Our current regional structure does not line up with where fisheries are occurring. If we are to develop policies to combat IUU fishing, this needs to change,” he states. “Because of where squid was traditionally found, the Mid-Atlantic Council governs squid regulations. But now, Rhode Island is the largest lander of squid on the East Coast, and we don’t have a seat on that council. This is our climate change story.”

Kryc echoes his concern: “As the biogeography shifts, as we see different species moving into different niches that are opened as a result of climate change, I think that that will call into question our entire fisheries management systems. Are we managing without taking climate change into account, or are we set up to manage the fisheries of the future?”

In March, Kryc attended the Our Ocean 2023 conference in Panama. With other members of the MSAFE working group, she represented the United States in an effort for countries to come together and take action to protect the ocean and earth against global warming, unsustainable practices, illegal fishing, reckless pollution and the loss of marine habitats.

Kryc says, “The 2023 Our Ocean Conference was a great opportunity to discuss U.S. leadership in fisheries management and transparency, both domestically and internationally.” Looking ahead, she hopes confer­ence organizers will work to break down silos and encourage holistic discussion. She adds, “It will take collective ocean action on sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, habitat restoration and marine protected areas to effectively combat climate change.”