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NOAA: Overfished Stocks on the Rebound

Climate
NOAA: Overfished Stocks on the Rebound

The number of U.S. domestic fishing stocks listed as overfished or threatened by overfishing declined to the fewest number since 1997, according to the 2014 Status of U.S. Fisheries report to Congress from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA has only been compiling the report since 1997, so that's the lowest number yet, which indicates significant progress in managing fishing stocks.

The Gulf of Mexico population of gag grouper has rebounded and was removed from the overfished list in 2014. Photo credit: NOAA

A stock is on the overfishing list when annual catch is too high; it is considered overfished when the population size is too low.

“This report illustrates that the science-based management process under the Magnuson-Stevens Act is working to end overfishing and rebuild stocks,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries. “While we have made tremendous progress, we know there’s more work to be done—especially as we continue to document changes to our world’s oceans and ecosystems. We will continue to strive toward sustainable management of our nation’s fisheries in order to preserve our oceans for future generations.”

The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MFCMA) was initially passed in 1976 to oversee fishing in federal waters. The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 amended the original legislation to define overfishing, require regular assessment of overfished populations and mandate plans for the recovery of overfished populations as well as the reduction of bycatch—unwanted marine life caught in the process of fishing.

The NOAA report cited two stocks that have rebounded enough to be removed from the overfished list—gag grouper in the Gulf of Mexico and North Atlantic albacore. The North Atlantic albacore and another five fish populations were removed from the overfishing list: haddock in the Gulf of Maine, gag grouper in the south Atlantic, snowy grouper on the southern Atlantic coast, Jacks complex in the Gulf of Mexico and Bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic.

Three fishing stocks were rebuilt to target levels in 2014: Gulf of Maine/Cape Hatteras butterfish, Gulf of Mexico gag grouper and Mid-Atlantic Coast golden tilefish. Including those three, 37 stocks have been rebuilt since 2000.

“Our agency wants to let consumers know that the U.S.’s global leadership in responsible fisheries and sustainable seafood is paying off,” said Sobeck. "We are moving forward more than ever with efforts to replicate and export stewardship practices internationally. As a result of the combined efforts of NOAA Fisheries, the regional fishery management councils and all of our partners, the number of stocks listed as subject to overfishing or overfished continues to decline and is at an all-time low."

Greenpeace lauded the progress that has been made and urged even greater efforts.

“The progress that has been made toward eliminating overfishing in U.S. waters is encouraging and a testament to the effectiveness of our federal fisheries policy, the Magnuson-Stevens Act," said Greenpeace oceans campaign director John Hocevar. "However, we still have a long way to go before we can rest on our laurels. Too little attention has been paid to protecting the habitat that sustains fish and other types of marine life, and too much industrial fishing relies on methods that are overly destructive. Bycatch remains a serious problem for many fisheries, sometimes with major implications for whales, sea turtles, and other protected species."

Hocevar cited some specific areas where improvement was needed, such as holding U.S. fisheries that operate outside federal waters, which includes most U.S. tuna fishing operations, to higher standards to reduce bycatch and let tuna populations rebuild. He also said that traceability needs to be improved, and fraud and mislabeling reduced, to increase public awareness about how seafood was caught. He seconded Sobeck's reference to the need to address the danger of climate change-driven changes to the oceans' ecosystems.

“As we are seeing with the collapse of the sardine population off the California coast, intentionally reducing fish populations by 60 percent or more can make them much more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change," said Hocevar. "We need to factor in the uncertainty associated with climate change, and use a more precautionary approach to setting catch levels and managing for healthy ecosystems."

“Today’s report shows what is possible when fishermen, conservationists and managers come together to chart a new course," said Matt Tinning, senior director of the U.S. oceans program at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Challenges remain in some U.S. fisheries, and too many coastal communities are still dealing with the damaging legacy of overfishing. But today’s report makes clear that we as a nation have turned the corner. It’s a model of success that we must sustain here at home, and which should be an inspiration to those struggling to combat the specter of overfishing around the world.”

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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