Yesterday, we celebrated an achievement that altered the course of history in the United States 25 years ago – and you probably have never heard of it.
Prior to 1492, tens of millions of people with diverse cultures and dialects inhabited the Western Hemisphere. They hunted, foraged, and farmed to feed their families and communities – and those fortunate enough to live on the coasts benefited from healthy, abundant oceans full of fish.
504 years later, life in those same oceans became a shadow of their former vibrance. For decades, industrial overfishing took too many fish out of the sea, degraded underwater ecosystems, and drove entire species to extinction. Continuing business as usual risked emptying our oceans of life and depriving millions of their lives and livelihoods. Instead, an affable man from land-locked Arkansas picked up a pen.
On October 11, 1996, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Sustainable Fisheries Act into law, securing the future of U.S. oceans and communities dependent on them. The law amended the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to set in place a system that uses science to govern how we catch fish, helps to stop overfishing, and puts vulnerable species on the path to recovery.
The number of overfished stocks in federally managed fisheries dropped by nearly half, from 92 in 2000, to 49 just last year. Meanwhile, the tally of federally managed fish populations that have been rebuilt went from zero to 47. Well-known stocks like New England Haddock on Georges Bank recovered 403% from 2009 to 2016. To state it simply, when science-based management is put in place, fish can come back.
The U.S. – thanks to this law – has become a global leader in ocean and fish management and provides a model for other countries to follow. The Sustainable Fisheries Act governs fisheries management in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, ocean up to 200 miles offshore that is directly controlled by national laws. 95% of the world’s wild fish catch is landed in Exclusive Economic Zones. This means that by passing science-based policies, like the Sustainable Fisheries Act, country-by-country, we can put more fish in the sea and on the plates of hungry people.
Oceana is doing this right now in countries that control nearly one-third of the world’s wild ocean fish catch. If all coastal countries implemented these standards, a restored ocean could feed 1 billion people a healthy, wild-caught, seafood meal every day, forever. That’s sustainable, low-carbon food our growing planet needs. Consider that last year 38.3 million people in the United States faced food insecurity – 2 billion globally.
25 years since its signing into law, the Sustainable Fisheries Act has proven to be perhaps the greatest policy achievement for oceans in recent history. It is helping to steadily restore our oceans to better resemble those abundant and biodiverse environments of 1491.