BOSTON (AP) — A record number of fish populations have been rebuilt in U.S waters, even as problems continue to threaten the future of the high-profile New England fishing industry, according to a federal report released Monday.
Six species that were once considered overfished have rebuilt to optimal population levels in waters from the Bering Sea to the Atlantic Coast, according to the annual report to Congress by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries arm.
The report also said just 45 of 219 fish populations (21 percent) were considered overfished in 2011.
Still, 13 of those stocks are in New England. That's the most, by far, of any geographic region.
Emily Menashes, acting director of NOAA's sustainable fisheries office said, overall, the report shows, "We are turning the corner on ending overfishing."
But New England is defying the positive trends and it's unclear how that can change, said NOAA's Galen Tromble.
"It's a challenging situation and there aren't any easy solutions," he said.
The report looks at fish populations on both coasts and off Alaska and Hawaii, using the most recent data, generally two to three years old, Menashes said.
The six fish species now considered rebuilt include Bering Sea snow crab, Atlantic coast summer flounder, Gulf of Maine haddock, northern California coast Chinook salmon, Washington coast coho salmon and Pacific coast widow rockfish.
In the last 11 years, 27 U.S. marine fish populations have been rebuilt, according to the report.
Tromble said that reflects years of effort by fishery managers and sacrifice by fishermen to follow rebuilding plans started 10 or 15 years ago.
"We're starting to see the results of those," Tromble said.
Regulators on Monday also touted a dropping percentage of species where "overfishing" is occurring — from 16 percent in 2010 to 14 percent in 2011. That simply means fishermen are fishing too hard on fewer species now.
It differs from the falling percentage of species considered "overfished," which is down from 23 percent to 21 percent. The drop in that category means there are fewer fish populations in such poor shape that managers must devise a plan to protect them.
Still, there's not much good news in that category in New England. Its 13 overfished stocks in 2011 compare to six in the next highest region, the Pacific. The North Pacific (off Alaska) counts just 2 overfished stocks, and the Mid-Atlantic just one.
Just this month, New England fishermen absorbed a 22 percent cut in the catch of cod in the Gulf of Maine and an 80 percent cut in the yellowtail flounder catch on Georges Bank.
The lower catch limits present a huge problem for already stretched New England fishermen, because they prevent them from going after the more abundant fish the cod and flounder swim among. Fishermen have predicted catastrophe for the industry by next year unless something changes.
Tromble said New England is unique because the fish off its coast have been under pressure for so long, both from the industry's early beginnings and the foreign fleets who heavily fished its waters until the U.S. government kicked them out in the mid-1970s.
Also, he said, fish reproduction on important stocks has recently lagged in New England, compared to other regions, and it's unclear why.
To many fishermen, the problem is flawed fishery science. Their doubts have recently been fueled by radical shifts in the population estimates. The cut in Gulf of Maine cod, for instance, came just four years after scientists said the species was robust.
"It's a dynamic environment out there and the data that we have from the fishery reflects that," Tromble said. "So sometimes we get results that aren't what we expect. We've just had an unusual amount of that in New England recently."