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New Rules on Environmental Reviews and Fishing Could Help Gulf of Mexico and Fish Rebound

For Immediate Release

Houston, Texas— Federal data show that in 2007 nearly three out of ten Gulf of Mexico fish species for which there is adequate information were overfished or were caught faster than they can reproduce, a condition known as overfishing. For 67 percent (36 out of 54) of the species in the Gulf that the federal government oversees there is not enough information to know whether the populations are healthy or not, according to a report released by Environment Texas today.

“With depleted numbers of red snapper and great amberjack, declining loggerhead sea turtle populations, and an annual dead zone, the Gulf of Mexico is in trouble,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “It’s very troubling that almost thirty percent of the Gulf’s fish species are overfished. But even worse news is that we only know how healthy a third of our fish are at best. We are fishing blind on the other two thirds.”

The report, The Gulf: From Overfishing to Healthy Waters, analyzed data through the end of 2007 from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the government agency that manages the nation’s marine fisheries in coordination with eight regional councils. One of the eight regional councils is the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council which recommends annual catch limits and rules for fishing in federal waters in the Gulf.

Environment Texas found that of the Gulf’s fish for which there was adequate information, 29 percent (2 out of 7 fish stocks) were overfished and 31 percent (4 out of 13) experienced overfishing. Overfished typically means that a fish species has been reduced to below 20 or 25 percent of its original population. When eight out of ten fish of any one kind are missing from the ocean it has profoundly negative effects on the rest of the ocean’s ecosystem. The overfished species overseen by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council include red snapper and greater amberjack. The stocks experiencing overfishing are: red snapper, greater amberjack, gag grouper, and gray triggerfish. Most have been prized by generations of Gulf fishermen but species like red snapper have been depleted to less than 2-3% of their original numbers.

The nation’s primary marine fish management law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, was signed into law at the beginning of 2007. The law requires regional councils to use more conservation minded standards in deciding how much fish can be caught sustainably and strong environmental reviews of the impacts of its decisions on fish, other marine animals and habitat to ensure that its decisions improve the whole ecosystem not just optimize the amount of fish caught.

Metzger noted that new rules on overfishing and environmental impact assessment should help the Gulf Council do a better job at managing fisheries. Strong new rules will help rebuild overfished fish species more rapidly; will prevent any new ones from being damaged; could force essential work on assessing the health of additional fish stocks; and should result in more balanced decisions because the health of other fish and marine animals must be assessed in the environmental reviews.

Metzger added, “The Gulf Council has begun to set more sustainable catch limits and fishing rules that will help fish rebound. Recent decisions to set tighter limits on red snapper and shrimp bycatch show that the Council can take strong positions that will help to restore the Gulf.”

He said, “Unless the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposes strong National Standard 1 rules on overfishing to back up the Council’s recent decisions and strengthens rules for doing environmental reviews of fishery decisions we fear that the Council could reverse direction and backslide into its old ways.”

Environment Texas called on the Bush administration and the Gulf Council to support new fishing rules that:

  • Set conservative numerical annual catch limits for fishermen that will prevent overfishing.
  • Require the annual catch limits to be established by independent scientists, not industry participants sitting on the council.
  • Establish consequences for overfishing.

For environmental reviews, Environment Texas urged the Gulf Council and the Bush Administration to:

  • Make clear that National Marine Fishery Service is the lead agency in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
  • Retain the existing forms of NEPA documentation and process that have been established over the past thirty years of practice.
  • Ensure that the public involvement process allows sufficient time for meaningful input.
  • Allow the public to comment on alternatives raised by decision makers after the initial phase of comments.

“If the new rules on fishing and environmental reviews are strong enough, five or ten years from now we won’t be talking about overfishing, we’ll be out on the water enjoying a healthy Gulf filled with sea life. That’s our vision for the future of the Gulf,” concluded Metzger.