Can the U.S. have its fish and eat it too?

Leatherback turtle consuming a jellyfish. (NOAA's National Ocean Service)
January 09, 2017
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2016 was a banner year for marine conservation, including the addition of nearly 450,000 square miles to the U.S. marine national monument system and the passage of a new rule in December to combat seafood fraud in imports.

Yet a new review in the Journal of Marine Policy makes the case that, in some instances, fishing restrictions in the U.S. can lead to unintended consequences by creating a spike in negative impacts elsewhere. The paper’s authors – fishery experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), California Sea Grant and the New England Fishery Management Council – compiled evidence that when U.S. fishery production drops, nations with poor environmental track records can end up increasing their catch to meet consumer demand.

This means that, in addition to reducing the market share of domestic fisheries, increasing imports from less regulated fisheries can lead to a rise in environmental damage elsewhere of much larger magnitude – due to issues like higher bycatch, mislabeling, or poaching. This unintended transfer of negative environmental impacts is referred to as leakage.

“This issue has been around for twenty to thirty years, and fisheries [science] is just now getting on board with understanding this is an issue,” said the study’s lead author Mark Helvey, a retired assistant regional administrator for sustainable fisheries with NOAA.

U.S. regulations increased sea turtle bycatch worldwide

Although leakage has been well documented in the timber industry, its demonstration in fisheries is still rare. Case studies of the U.S. swordfish fishery suggest that closures along the U.S. west coast and Hawai’i led to a net worldwide increase in bycatch of sea turtles.

One of these case studies, led by review co-author Dr. Dale Squires of NOAA, estimates that partial closures of the West Coast drift gillnet swordfish fishery led to a bycatch of 1,457 endangered leatherback sea turtles worldwide from 2001-2012, compared to 45 turtles if the U.S. fishing grounds had remained open.

In another case study, closing the Hawaiian swordfish fishery from 2001-2004 to reduce sea turtle bycatch led to an estimated additional 2,882 sea turtle interactions abroad. Once the fishery reopened with new requirements, the increase in Hawaiian swordfish production allowed for an estimated 1,841 fewer turtle interactions worldwide.

Smart seafood choices can reverse the trend, authors say

The authors identify several solutions to avoid leakage in marine conservation, starting with the consumer.

By buying seafood raised or caught in the U.S., consumers can bypass many of the serious issues that have plagued some fisheries abroad. U.S. fisheries follow high environmental standards required by U.S. conservation law, meeting or exceeding the sustainable fisheries guidelines set by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

Buying domestic seafood also allows consumers to have a say in how that seafood is produced through policy decisions, and allows participants in America’s fisheries to build a livelihood based on sustainable fishing practices.

At the policy level, state and federal regulatory agencies must take these unintended consequences into account when setting policies to protect sensitive marine life like sea turtles. Expanding domestic aquaculture can also help increase the U.S seafood supply. Cooperating on policy and technology exchange internationally – already underway through multiple programs at NOAA – can reduce potential negative impacts of imported seafood.

“This paper is really about encouraging people to think about seafood as coming out of a natural resource system that needs to be conserved – not preserved, but conserved – in order to sustain that food supply,” said co-author Dr. Carrie Pomeroy of California Sea Grant.

“Conservation and protecting ecological systems is really important and valuable, but we have to acknowledge that it can’t always be done at no cost,” said Pomeroy. “There are ways in which our best efforts to do the right thing on one scale can create bigger problems on another scale. We need to fully account for and minimize these impacts in decision making.”

The authors will present their findings at a OneNOAA Science Seminar open to the public on January 10, 2017, 9-10am PST. Visit for information to join the webinar.

About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Our headquarters is at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego; we are one of 33 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.