Yvie Yao, MJLST Staffer
Atlantic mackerel, like sardines and herring, are small forage fish. Not only are they vital prey for seabirds and larger fish like bluefin tuna and cod, but also essential for the survival of ocean wildlife.
Although Atlantic mackerel are resilient to fishing pressure and bycatch risk, scientists announced this year that fishing activities along the coast have added too much pressure to the population of mackerel. That being said, Atlantic mackerel is overfished. On February 28, 2018, the federal government, unsurprisingly, declared that the catching cap for mackerel had been reached and the mackerel fishing season was officially closed for the rest of this year.
To prevent overfishing of a species, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires that local fish councils create a rebuilding plan as soon as possible, not to exceed 10 years. Conservative practices endorse setting a shorter rebuilding timeline with lower catch levels so that the species can recover as quickly as possible. Setting longer timelines with higher catch levels is risky. The species might be commercially inviable sooner than the projection and the council is less likely to reach its goal of rebuilding the under-stocked population. Moreover, low stock of the species is likely to negatively impact healthy and sustainable living of its predators in the ocean system.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act has been effective since it was first passed in 1976. Two amendments in 1996 and 2006 furthered the interest of fishery conservation, requiring local councils to place all overfished stocks on strict rebuilding timelines and mandate hard limits on total catches. These science-based provisions have recovered 44 fish stocks around the country and have generated $208 billion in sales in 2015 for fishermen.
However, this effective ocean fishery conservation law is facing challenges. On July 11, 2018, the House passed H.R. 200: Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act. The bill, if it becomes law, would change rules about requirements to rebuild overfished stocks and allow councils to consider changes in an ecosystem and the economic needs of the fishing communities when establishing annual catch limits.
Recreational fishing and boating industry groups vehemently support this bill. They argue that the proposed changes would give alternatives to local councils to manage fish stocks, save taxpayers money, and modernize the management of recreational fishing.
Environmentalists and commercial fishermen oppose this bill. They argue that the proposed bill would let local councils rehabilitate them as fast as practicable, rather than rebuilding stocks as fast as possible, leading to looser regulation. The bill would also remove annual catch limits for short-lived species and ecosystem-component species, where forage fish including Atlantic Mackerel fall into the category. This backtrack from science-based policy would further delay restocking of forage fish and might even drive some species to commercial extinction.
It is unknown whether H.R. 200 will be passed in the Senate. Another companion bill S.1520, Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, envisions the same goal as H.R. 200. Will we be able to eat Atlantic Mackerel in the next ten years? The answer is uncertain. Regardless, the vote against such bill is a chance to “affirm that science, sustainability, and conservation guide the management of our ocean fisheries.”