Around the world, the status of fish and fisheries is grim indeed. Approximately 85 percent of global fish stocks are either over-exploited, fully-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. But rigorous management efforts have resulted in some American fisheries making a comeback.

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The new report by the National Research Council assessed 55 fisheries and found 10 that have been rebuilt and five that showed good progress toward rebuilding; only nine continue to experience overfishing. What about the rest? Eleven have not shown strong progress in rebuilding but are expected to rebuild if fishing levels remain reduced and a whopping 20 were not actually over-fished despite having been initially classified as such.

The report comes with a neat interactive online graphic to track the fate of fish populations in different regions over the years. By selecting particular species or geographic areas, users can watch, as for example, yelloweye rockfish becomes steadily overfished, as chinook salmon numbers – especially susceptible to changing environmental conditions – swing wildly back and forth, and the likes of lingcod, George’s Bank haddock, king mackerel and Bering Sea snow crab stage their marches toward recovery.

The report is fairly technical, so for a summary – and an explanation of what it means in practical terms for U.S. fish consumers – Discovery News turned to Chris Dorsett, Director of Ecosystem Conservation Programs for the Ocean Conservancy.

“If you look at a map of the United States and where overfishing is still occurring, it’s almost exclusively an east coast problem,” he points out. “And when I say east coast, I mean Gulf of Mexico as well. Where we have not seen success in terms of species recovering based on management actions, that could be due to climatic factors, which aren’t particularly good for productivity. It could be due to management regimes that aren’t particularly effective. But what exacerbates the issue is that, when you drive a population to an extremely low abundance level, environmental variability plays an even more meaningful role in the recovery of that population, so recovery is a little less predictable.”

As the classic case in point, Dorsett points to cod fisheries off Canada, which collapsed in the 1990s and subsequently saw catches slashed essentially to zero. Despite such drastic measures, neither the fish population nor the fishery has shown signs of recovery.

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As the NRC report notes, however, there remains some variation: fishing pressure is still too high for some fish stocks, and others have not rebounded as quickly as plans projected. To a large extent, argues Dorsett, that’s a function of natural variability in fish populations and their environments, as well as differences in the ways fisheries have been managed over the years.

In general, though, the news remains positive, increasingly so, and is reflected in the choices available to consumers.

“If you look at the recent trend line for rebuilding fish populations in this country, we’re making unprecedented progress in restoring populations and ending overfishing,” he explained. “In this past year, if you look at the National Marine Fisheries Service Status of Stocks Report – each year, they have to produce a report to Congress on the status of U.S. fisheries – you see a record progress in the rebuilding of fish populations, and we’re at an historic low in the number of species subject to overfishing.”

“Because of the law, we’re seeing more fresh, local seafood as populations rebuild,” Dorsett explains. “We’re seeing fishes like scallops in New England and lingcod on the west coast that have been rebuilt. That’s very good news for consumers. Overall, the U.S. is helping move more fish into that ‘green’ category in seafood guides, where they are sustainable. I think consumers should continue to be vigilant, but I think they should feel good that, by and large, fish populations in the United States are heading in the right direction.”

IMAGE: Monk fish display at Pike Place Market in Seattle, Wash. (Rick Friedman/Corbis).