In an effort to sustain commercial and recreational fishing for the next several decades, the United States this year will become the first country to impose catch limits for every species it manages, from Alaskan pollock to Caribbean queen conch.
Although the policy has attracted scant attention outside the community of those who fish in America and the officials who regulate them, it marks an important shift in a pursuit that has helped define the country since its founding.
Unlike most recent environmental policy debates, which have divided neatly along party lines, this one is about a policy that was forged under President George W. Bush and finalized with President Obama’s backing.
“It’s something that’s arguably first in the world,” said Eric Schwaab, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s assistant administrator for fisheries. “It’s a huge accomplishment for the country.”
Five years ago, Bush signed a reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which dates to the mid-1970s and governs all fishing in U.S. waters. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers joined environmental groups, some fishing interests and scientists to insert language in the law requiring each fishery to have annual catch limits in place by the end of 2011 to end overfishing.
Although NOAA didn’t meet the law’s Dec. 31 deadline — it has finalized 40 of the 46 fishery management plans that cover all federally managed stocks — officials said they are confident that they will have annual catch limits in place by the time the 2012 fishing year begins for all species. (The timing varies depending on the fish, with some seasons starting May 1 or later.) Some fish, such as mahi-mahi and the prize game fish wahoo in the southeast Atlantic, will have catch limits for the first time.