Overfishing among threats to Gulf of Mexico

MOBILE, Ala. — For years, millions of people have traveled to summer retreats along the Gulf of Mexico, with many ultimately putting down permanent sandy roots on the coast.

One of the problems the population boom has created is overfishing in Gulf waters, which has endangered marine ecosystems and fisheries that are the source of multimillion-dollar recreation and fishing industries.

Officials say efforts to rebuild the populations are under way, but many environmentalists accuse the government of lax enforcement of regulations meant to protect against overfishing.

Chris Dorsett of Austin, Texas, director of Gulf of Mexico Fish Conservation for The Ocean Conservancy, said fishery managers in the Gulf and elsewhere have ignored the law and allowed unsustainable fishing for many important fish.

"It's time to follow the science and put Gulf fisheries on the road to ecological and economic recovery," he said.

"Had they managed our red snapper fishery responsibly our catch levels could be almost three times higher than current levels. We can and must be better stewards of our coastal ecosystem."

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, federal officials have a mandate to protect fisheries from overfishing, which is defined as the harvesting of fish quicker than they reproduce.

Four species in the Gulf of Mexico are still described as being overfished — greater amberjack, red grouper, red snapper and vermilion snapper.

The goal is to end overfishing for red grouper this year, red snapper by 2009 or 2010 and vermilion snapper by 2007.

Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, said it takes time to rebuild fish stocks now that an estimated 153 million residents live on the nation's coastlines.

"It's not going to happen overnight," she said. "They did become depleted in several decades of overfishing.

"It wasn't until about the year 2000 that the rebuilding plan based on the 1996 law became effective."

A study in a recent issue of the journal Science says damage to marine ecosystems has accelerated over the past 150-300 years with population growth, luxury resorts and homes and expanded industry.

In areas where conservation efforts started in the last century, signs of recovery are apparent, according to the study, which was partly supported by the Lenfest Oceans Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

National Geographic's July issue takes an in-depth look at threats to the coasts, illustrating its report with a ghostly two-page photo of Hurricane Katrina's destructive blow to the west end of Dauphin Island off the Alabama coast.

Katrina also damaged shrimping grounds and oyster beds in its path.

According to the report, the Southeast's coast is the healthiest in the nation despite agricultural runoff and a population growth of 160 percent from 1980 to 2000.

The Northeast coast, with its dense population, is in the poorest health, according to the magazine, which relies on data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a June report to Congress on the 2005 fisheries, the NOAA said it has made progress in rebuilding overfished stocks and ending overfishing with help from its regional councils.

The work continues: The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council — one of eight regional councils — is considering additional red snapper regulatory actions, such as commercial and individual fishing quotas and reductions in total allowable catch and bycatch.

Nationwide, the NOAA says 54 stocks of specific species and complexes are overfished and 45 stocks and complexes are subject to overfishing. A complex is a grouping of different species that are similar.

Scientists at the Lenfest Oceans Program say most fish resources are in poor shape 10 years after passage of amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which also requires ailing fish stocks be rebuilt as quickly as possible.

But the mandate that overfishing be immediately halted as part of a rebuilding plan has not been met, said Andrew A. Rosenberg at the University of New Hampshire's Ocean Process and Analysis Laboratory.

"Congress could strengthen accountability in the law," he said.