The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Number of overfished U.S. stocks at an all-time low

The United States reaffirmed itself as the global leader in sustainable fisheries with the release of NOAA’s Status of Stocks 2017, the annual report to Congress on the state of U.S. fisheries.

Importance of the Magnuson-Stevens Act

Federally managed fisheries in the U.S. are regulated by the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), a science-based framework for management. The policy goals of the MSA are like most other fishery management goals: to ensure sustainable fish populations, maintain and improve livelihoods for those working in the sector, and to maximize fishing opportunities & profit.

The MSA was enacted in 1976, but its mandate that harvest levels are science-based weren’t fully implemented until 1996 with the Sustainable Fisheries Act that amended the MSA. Since 1996 (and with another important amendment in 2006), the MSA driven the rebuilding of U.S. stocks; now, the U.S. is the global leader in fishery sustainability.

The most recent report to congress indicates just 9% of stocks are subject to overfishing (more are caught than should be) and 15% of stocks are overfished (population is low). Three stocks were added to the rebuilt list, meaning that management was successful in bringing the stocks from overexploited to fully sustainable.


However, all of the largest U.S. stocks are sustainable: by weight, roughly 99% of American wild-caught seafood is sustainable. You can pour through the data here. Read more about the scientific explanations behind overfishing, overfished, and rebuilding stocks in Seafood 101, here.

U.S. fisheries are managed by 8 different regional management councils. Each are unique and have their own scientists, mangers, and stakeholders working towards compliance with MSA.


Other highlights from the report:

  • The number of overfished stocks is at an all-time low.
  • With three rebuilt stocks, the West Coast groundfish fishery now has zero stocks on the overfished or overfishing list.
  • S. commercial and recreational saltwater fishing generated more than $208 billion in sales and supported 1.6 million jobs in 2015 (most recent numbers)
  • You can check the status of your U.S. caught seafood using NOAA’s Fishwatch.

Read the full report here.

Picture of Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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3 Responses

  1. People often mistake ‘overfished’ for ‘threatened’. You should make a distinction between overfished in a biological sense and an economic sense. Furthermore ‘overfishing’ may be desirable on a one- species level in order to ensure MSY on a mixed fisheries level. The concept used fail to acknowledge that fishing is a ‘mixed business’. The consequences may be adverse management that does not sufficiently spur selective behaviour.

  2. It’s certainly good news that such a high proportion of US stocks are now sustainably harvested, but in terms of lessons about how to achieve this, there may be more to learn from the failures than the successes. What is different about New England that results in so many unsustainable stocks there, including some, like Atlantic cod, that would in the past have been regarded as one of the largest US stocks? The Magnuson- Stevens act is clearly not a panacea and before anyone starts blaming climate change, they should take a look at the recovery of the North Sea cod over the past 15 years, during which it has had a very similar experience of increasing temperatures.

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