U.S. commercial fishermen landed record amounts of fish last year, including in the Gulf of Mexico, where fisheries appear to have partially rebounded from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to a government assessment issued this week.
The annual report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that U.S. seafood landings in 2011 were at a 17-year high, with a value of $5.3 billion. They were up 1.9 billion pounds and more than $748 million from 2010, the report found.
Among the positive trends: red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, which became subject to catch share limits in 2007. Thanks to those limits, fishermen are catching bigger fish, officials said. They’re catching them in parts of Florida where they've long been absent, said Roy Crabtree, the Southeast regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries.
"Red snapper in the Gulf is a success story," he said. "We’ve ended overfishing, and I think we’ve seen a lot of improvement in the stock."
The report found that catches in the Gulf of Mexico last year were at their highest volume since 1999, after a steep drop-off in catches in 2010, when waters were closed for part of the fishing season because of the oil spill.
Other fisheries have had problems, though, including groundfish in New England. The report also notes fishery disaster determinations for Chinook salmon in Alaska’s Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and Cook Inlet, and in Mississippi’s oyster and blue crab fisheries. The long-term effects of the 2010 Gulf oil spill also remain unknown, Crabtree said.
But environmentalists are celebrating victory where they can, particularly in the rebounding red snapper and grouper populations of the Gulf of Mexico. Limits have put some depleted species "on the road to recovery," said Holly Binns, the director of the Southeast fish conservation campaign for Pew Environment Group.
"What that means for fishermen is more fish," she said. "I think it’s a real cause for optimism. I think it’s a sign that this new approach we have, where we set limits that are based on science, and we enforce those limits, is a real effective way to return those species to health."
The report also notes that about 91 percent of the seafood that’s consumed in the U.S. is imported. Some of that is caught by U.S. fishermen and then exported overseas for processing before being re-imported. (About half of imported seafood is farmed.)
Seven years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, "the fishing business was not a good business to be in," said commercial fisherman John Schmidt of Madeira Beach, Fla., who owns several boats that fish for grouper.
He praised management changes that led to year-round seasons for grouper. There’s been some "complaining, squawking and political junk," he said, but the fishermen who knew the fisheries also "knew something had to be done."
"When we went fishing, even though there was an allowable catch number, a lot of time we didn’t catch that many because they weren’t there," Schmidt said. "The value of red snapper and grouper has gone up, and it’s a better way to deliver fresh fish year-round. We’ve been rebuilding our fisheries."
Where seafood comes from is important because Americans eat so much of it from outside U.S. waters, where fisheries management may not align with this country’s standards.
In general, most U.S. fisheries are better managed than those in other parts of the world; Australia, New Zealand, Norway and, to a degree, Iceland are the only peers, said Michael Hirshfield, the chief scientist for Oceana, a global ocean conservation group. European Union and Asian fisheries aren’t considered as well-managed, he said.
"Yes, it’s true that we’re eating fish from all around the world, and there are certainly questions about how sustainable it is," Hirshfield said. "But it’s also true that we’re exporting a lot of fish."
U.S. consumers can feel better about "not plundering our own fisheries" to send the fish overseas, Hirshfield said.
The report found that Alaska’s Dutch Harbor was the busiest port in the nation for the 15th consecutive year, bringing in 706 million pounds of seafood valued at $207 million. New Bedford, Mass., had the most valuable catch, worth $369 million. That’s due mostly to its sea scallop fishery.