In the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. fisheries were so overfished that fishermen were steaming farther and longer to fish, only to return with smaller catches. Now, decades after laws were successfully put in place to revive our fisheries, fishermen are once again finding it harder and harder to find fish, and many economically important fish stocks are depleted and are not rebuilding. This lack of rebuilding and chronically depressed stocks doesn’t just impact me personally; it affects my whole community.

Perhaps most concerning is that the federal agency with the power to save our fisheries isn’t telling the whole story when it should be sounding the alarm.

Every year, NOAA Fisheries issues a report known as the Status of the Stocks to document the health of U.S. fisheries. This serves as, among other things, a means of accountability for fisheries management and a benchmark for fishermen, providing valuable information about the fisheries we depend on. While this year’s report shows incremental signs of improvement, with one stock being rebuilt, this isn’t a full picture of the dire situation at hand.

The truth is that many fisheries are falling through the cracks. From coast to coast, fish populations are showing signs of stress, and fishermen are far from reaching our quotas - a sign that typically means a fish stock is in trouble.

Nearly a fifth of fish populations remain overfished. In the Gulf of Mexico, where I’ve worked as a fisherman for over 45 years, four stocks are overfished, and two stocks are experiencing overfishing, meaning they are being caught at a rate faster than they can reproduce.

Just the other day, I was looking back at some old photos showing several happy people at the dock with some really big cobia. Back then, those fish were as reliable as the sunrise, providing excitement and bounty for those who sought them. Fast forward to today, and the scene couldn’t be more different. The cobia that were once a staple of our springtime fishing has become almost non-existent. In fact, I know of only a few that have been harvested in the Destin area this year, and that's only one glaring example:  

Despite managers' efforts to rebuild critical Gulf stocks, many stocks that are important to fishermen, both commercial and recreational, are either failing to rebuild or showing signs of decline. Greater amberjack—which has been experiencing overfishing every year since at least 1996 and was declared overfished in 2001—is on its third plan following previous failures to restore it.

These management failures aren’t just lost opportunities for fishermen – trips not taken and money left on the table – they are impacting the communities that were built around thriving fisheries long ago and continue to rely on them today.

Destin, Florida, my hometown, has been deeply influenced by its fishing heritage, and its local economies still rely on fisheries. When I ran for mayor and won the election, my campaign was grounded in my roots as a multigenerational fisherman. I raised my sons to fish, and they now operate seafood restaurants in the area and take pride in serving fresh Gulf seafood.

Our businesses and the communities we serve are directly impacted by fishery management decisions. There’s a lot at stake, and the incremental progress we’re seeing from NOAA Fisheries is not enough to sustain our fisheries and the communities that depend on them. We need proactive, not reactive, actions and decisive policies that prioritize long-term sustainability over short-term gains.

First and foremost, fisheries management decisions must be based on science, not politics. Especially in mixed-use fisheries here in the Gulf of Mexico. This means NOAA Fisheries must ensure that rebuilding plans developed by the Regional Fishery Management Councils are effective, based on science, and, crucially, adaptable when they fall short. Swift identification and correction of issues within these plans are essential for preventing the further decline of fish stocks.

Moreover, we need a better understanding of both the ecological and human factors that are preventing our fisheries from rebuilding. This includes considering the effects of changing ocean temperatures, pollution and water quality near shore and offshore, and habitat destruction, which all play roles in the health of fish stocks.

If we want thriving fisheries that can sustain current and future generations, NOAA Fisheries needs to tell the full story and act accordingly. The future of our fisheries and fishing communities depends on it.

Capt. Gary Jarvis is a commercial and charter fisherman from Destin, Florida.

National Fisherman Viewpoints: Presents the author's personal viewpoints and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the publication, its editors, or its affiliated organizations. The author's perspectives are presented here as a means of fostering open dialogue and diverse discourse on the topic at hand. The publication does not endorse or take responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or implications of the content within this article. Readers are encouraged to engage with the ideas presented critically and to form their own informed opinions based on a range of sources and perspectives.

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