‘Unprecedented’ Turnaround For Nearly Two Dozen Fish Species Now Deemed Sustainable

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Nearly two dozen species of fish have been deemed sustainable seafood options once again after rampant overfishing left areas off the U.S. West Coast devastated, a marine watchdog group said on Tuesday.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program upgraded the status of 21 species of bottom-dwelling fish, including varieties of sole, rockfish and sablefish, to "best choice" or "good alternative" from the group's "avoid" classification.

The designations allow consumers, restaurants and seafood retailers to be confident in the sustainability of the once over-harvested species.

The change comes after fishing grounds off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington state were declared an economic disaster by the federal government in 2000. Overfishing in those areas brought some species to dangerously low levels and caused fishing income to drop sharply.

"The turnaround in such a short time is unprecedented," said Jennifer Kemmerly, director of the Seafood Watch program.

"Fishermen, federal agencies and our environmental colleagues have put so much effort into groundfish recovery, and now we're seeing the results of their work," she added.

The group attributed the region's revitalization to government-imposed fishing quotas, the creation of marine protected areas, and the use of better monitoring and control of catches.

Now, 84 percent of commercial groundfish caught off the West Coast are sustainable options, according to the Seafood Watch program.

"This recognition highlights the success of the West Coast groundfish catch share program," said Frank Lockhart, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's West Coast recovery efforts.

"Not only has it reduced impacts on the species we need to protect, but it has allowed fishermen increased flexibility to fish more effectively for the species they want," he said.

The West Coast's recovery mirrors improvements seen elsewhere in the United States following updates to the federal fishery law passed by Congress in 2006, the Seafood Watch program said.

(Reporting by Curtis Skinner)