The U.S. is not harvesting as many fish as it could, driving up imports

How the U.S. fixed most of its overfishing problem
How the U.S. fixed most of its overfishing problem

In 2020, the global fishing industry reached an all-time record of production worth an estimated $406 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Fish is a key source of protein, making it essential in feeding the growing world population.

In the United States, New Bedford, Massachusetts, is the country's most valuable fishing port, bringing in a whopping $376.6 million worth of seafood in 2020.

"Fishing stocks did have a collapse in the '90s. It changed the species that we were offering. It changed the availability. It changed the pricing," Laura Foley Ramsden, fourth generation "fish mongress" of Foley Fish in New Bedford, told CNBC.

The collapse led to an amendment to the Magnusson-Stevens act of 1976, which is the primary law governing marine systems, and it ultimately made the U.S. into a world leader of fisheries management, outlawing overfishing and demanding population rebuilding.

Overfishing occurs when the fish harvest outweighs the maximum sustainable yield.

"You're fishing harder than would maximize yield, but it doesn't mean declining. It doesn't mean going extinct. It doesn't mean collapsing. It simply means fishing too hard," Ray Hilborn, professor of aquatic and fishery services at University of Washington, told CNBC.

In the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 90% of fisheries are now sustainably managed. As of June 2020, 47 fish stocks have been rebuilt like the chinook salmon and Atlantic sea scallops.

"There are some issues ... that have led to underfishing of annual catch limits in New England on certain species as a result of trying to protect other species. So, it's complex," Ramsden said. 

Underfishing, which has become common in the U.S., occurs when fish are harvested at a rate lower than would produce maximum sustainable yield.

Hilborn said as much as 20 to 30% of potential yield is lost by cautious management.

For example, when NOAA reported catch numbers for the greater Atlantic groundfish, only about 15% of potential catch, measured in pounds, was harvested between May 2021 and April 2022.

America imports anywhere from 70% to 85% of its seafood, according to NOAA. In 2020, the U.S. imported over 6 billion pounds of seafood worth over $21 billion, making for a national seafood trade deficit of $17 billion.

Some supply chains are murky. Many countries don't have data on trends and stocks because they don't have management systems in place, according to the FAO.

"Everything we do know suggests that, on average, they are fishing too hard," Hilborn said, adding that those dominant countries include China, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, India."

The U.S. imported $2.4 billion worth of seafood from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in 2019, accounting for about 11% of total U.S. seafood imports, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Not only would eliminating imports of so-called IUU seafood result in less imports overall, it would increase U.S. prices and increase total operating income of the U.S. commercial fishing industry by an estimated $60.8 million.

Watch the video to learn more about the U.S. fishing industry, market forces at play, the difference between overfishing and overfished, the role of climate and crime in global supply chains of seafood and what solutions may be on the table.