Sunday, October 11, 2015


I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for winter flounder.  They were the fish that my parents and I caught when I was young, the fish that made me an angler even before I entered grade school.

They were the fish that I caught with my friends when we walked down to the docks on days off from school, and then later, when we grew just a little older, from the first boats that we ran by ourselves.

They were the fish that I caught with my wife, before and after we married, and that we used to celebrate the coming of spring over the course of many years.

They were the fish that was always around if you knew where to catch them, that could always be counted on to provide a meal.

We caught them to excess back in the day, when bringing home a pail full of flounder was considered the norm, and a bulging burlap feed sack or a bushel basket loaded right to the rim was nothing abnormal when fishing was good.

Far too many flounder were wasted in those days gone by, fed to tomato plants rather than people when cleaning the fish grew overly onerous, or just tossed in the garbage at some point in time after freezer burn set in.

And as too often happens when folks waste what they have, the population crashed, doomed by overharvest and the fishing industry’s incessant fight against rules that might let it rebuild.

The piece was written in the same rosy tones that are typical for articles of its kind.  It announced that

“Winter flounder, aka blackbacks, have made an amazing comeback in the waters of Boston Harbor, marking a return to the type of fishing that drew busloads of anglers from as far away as New York in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Overfishing and pollution once decimated the fishery, but tighter regulation on inshore gill-netting and improvements to Boston’s sewage management system have spawned a return to the glory days of flounder fishing…”
It all sounds pretty wonderful.  And it would be, if it only were true.

Let me start out by saying that the winter flounder angling around Boston Harbor is probably the best flounder fishing to be found anywhere on the coast.

But let me finish up by saying that, compared to the sort of fishing that we saw back in the 1970s, it’s still not very good.

Yes, I know that statement contradicts a quote in the Sport Fishing article, in which Barry Gibson, a charter boat captain and former magazine editor who grew up in the region, insists that

“flounder fishing today is every bit as productive as it was 35 years ago.”
But I was alive and fishing back in the ‘70s, too.  Grew up in New England, graduated from a Massachusetts college in ’76 and worked in a tackle shop through the summer of ’78, and anyone who says that the fishing today matches Quincy (where you rented a boat to fish Boston Harbor) back in those years probably should get a checkup for Alzheimer’s disease.

Right now, the bag limit for Gulf of Maine winter flounder in Massachusetts is 8 fish, with a 12-inch minimum size.  Back in the ‘70s, there was no bag or size limit for winter flounder in New York or New Jersey, and catching just 8 would be a very bad day.  

In fact, ten years ago, when I quit fishing for winter flounder here on Long Island because the stock was showing signs of collapse, I averaged 10 fish—myself—per trip, so bringing home a mere 8 fish wouldn’t even be close to a good day by traditional New York standards.

For Quincy, back then, it would be pretty awful.

Folks didn't ride buses for four hours, each way, just to bring home 8 flounders for dinner.

Sport Fishing Magazine may say that winter flounder fishing has returned to its former quality up around Boston, but the folks who live there know better.  About two years ago, the Telegram, a local newspaper, addressed the situation, and what it reported is a lot closer to the truth.

“Boston Harbor’s winter flounder are decreasing in number and size…
“As [Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, Paul] Diodati’s data clearly reveals, the peak of recreational and commercial fishing harvests was back in 1982.  Since then, state water harvests have precipitously declined, in part because of combined overfishing from both commercial and recreational fishermen.
“In fact, recreational fishermen took more flounder than commercial fishermen during two years of the 1980s decline.  Surprisingly, the overwhelmingly beneficial cleanup of Boston Harbor, as well as other environmental changes, may have been even more significant factors in the area’s diminishing flounder fishing.
“The lessening of sewage discharge and cessation of sludge dumping in Boston Harbor began in 1991…The result of these anti-pollution measures was a greater than 90 percent decrease in organic material in the harbor’s bottom sediments.  That drop in pollution counterintuitively coincided with a precipitous drop in winter flounder populations.
“With less organic matter to feed on, tiny organisms like amphipods and polychaetes—species that constitute a critical amount of flounder food—declined significantly.  Sewage, it turns out, is good for benthic infauna, the basis for much inshore fish production and growth.
“Diodati notes that ‘While Boston Harbor appears to be a healthier system for winter flounder to reside in, as evidenced by a greatly decreased prevalence of skin ulcers and liver disease, their prey has been lowered significantly.  This likely means that Boston Harbor can no longer support the level of winter flounder abundance seen from 1960-1990.’ [emphasis added]”
We can argue about the beneficial aspects of sewage in harbor waters, and reasonable people may very well find other reasons for the Boston Harbor flounders’ decline.

However, what local folks, and local fishery managers, seem to agree on is that the decline is fact, and that Boston Harbor’s flounder abundance has “precipitously declined.”  

We shouldn’t be arguing about that.

So while there’s nothing wrong with going up to Boston Harbor and taking home a few flounder, while enjoying the best winter flounder fishing that remains anywhere along the coast, there is something wrong—very wrong—about a magazine heralding what is historically pretty slow fishing as “a return to the glory days.”

It’s wrong because it encourages the “shifting baseline syndrome.”  That was first described, with respect to fisheries, by biologist Daniel Pauley in “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries,” where he wrote

“this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes.  When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline.  The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.”
What is true of fisheries scientists is true of fishermen as well; anglers who didn’t know Quincy in the ‘70s and ‘80s may well think that today’s fishing is, in fact, good.

And that is what makes articles such as the one in Sport Fishing so insidiously dangerous. 

While writers may feel that they need to strike a rah-rah, the-good-times-are-back sort of pose to make readers want to go fishing (and buy their advertisers’ goods), by doing so they create the false impression that today’s fishing is as good as it gets, and that there is no reason to try to make things any better.

By encouraging anglers to let their baselines shift, and believe that poor-to-mediocre fishing is in fact very good, writers and publishers merely help to assure that angling in the future will be far less rewarding, and so less enjoyable, than it was in the past, and help pave the way for the sport’s decline and perhaps its demise.

Instead, publications would do their readers--and in the long run, themselves--a far better service if, while encouraging them to make the most of what they have today, they also remind them of what they have lost, and encourage them to work to recover depleted stocks so that they may enjoy a far more abundant tomorrow.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


The black sea bass is an unassuming little fish that can be found along most of the Atlantic seaboard.

It tends to hang around wrecks, reefs and similar structure.  One of my friends, who is an enthusiastic diver, says that he never sees one more than five feet away from some sort of rock or debris, even if it’s as small as an old tire.  On the other hand, on good wooden wrecks, they can be extremely abundant; he tells of seeing them so packed into such pieces so tightly that they resemble sardines in a can.

And all of us who engage in wreck fishing can tell of clouds of sea bass that nearly blanked out the fishfinder screen and rose twenty or thirty feet off the bottom.

Such propensity to bunch up around wrecks, along with an extremely large 2011 year class, means that fishermen are seeing, and catching, a lot of black sea bass these days.  However, annual catch limits remain very conservative, due to a benchmark stock assessment, released in early 2012, that failed to pass scientific peer review.

The assessment failed for a number of reasons, including its inability to adequately address the species’ stock structure—although all black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina are managed as a single stock, in reality there are probably three different stocks of fish in that region, each of which may vary in terms of health and fishing activity—and life history as a protogynous hermaphrodite that begins life as a female and may—or may not—later transition into a male.

As a result of the failed peer review, black sea bass are considered a “data-poor species” and cannot be managed in accordance with biomass and fishing mortality targets.  

Instead, managers at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council have adopted what is known as a “constant catch” strategy which sets a very conservative annual catch limit that does not fluctuate from year to year.

At the Mid-Atlantic Council’s August meeting, a representative of the Council’s Science and Statistics Committee admitted that such strategy was a “blunt instrument” that required annual catch limits to be set lower than would otherwise be the case, since a constant catch approach is slow to react to the onset of overfishing.

However, low catch limits at a time of seeming stock abundance doesn’t go over too well with some sea bass fishermen, or with the for-hire boats that take such fishermen out onto the water.

The result have been attacks on fisheries managers, as well as on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which was responsible for rebuilding the black sea bass stock in the first place.  

The attacks differ in vehemence and, at times, in rationality, but the following comment made a few years ago by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which typically speaks for the fishing industry, is typical.

“According to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) there are simply too many black sea bass along the East Coast which has led to too much angler success.  Because the stock is so healthy, NOAA Fisheries will have no choice but to shut the fishery down for the next four months while considering how to take a huge chunk of the allowable catch away from anglers in 2013.”
Ignoring for the moment that the statement was inaccurate—NOAA Fisheries had no intention of reducing the “allowable catch”, but merely was seeking ways to keep anglers from killing more sea bass than was deemed to be prudently “allowable”—it exemplifies the sort of overblown rhetoric that has characterized the debate, as partisans of greater harvest ignore the critical details of the situation while trying to elicit the sort of knee-jerk emotional response most likely to turn them against the current fishery management system.

The goal of such language becomes readily apparent a little farther along in the RFA’s comments, where the organization argues that

“credit for this fisheries fiasco can be given to the 109th Congress which convened from 2005-2007.
“’Congress reauthorized the federal fisheries law in 2006 by incorporating ridiculous, empty-headed logic pushed by environmental organizations, and for the past 5 years our legislators have refused to accept their responsibility for destroying the original intent of Magnuson,’ said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio, who called the federal fisheries law a ‘jobs killer’ as reauthorized…
“RFA has been pushing legislation in Congress to reintroduce some sensibility in fisheries management by incorporating some limited management flexibility into the federal fisheries law.  Specifically, Rep. Frank Pallone’s (D-NJ) Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding America’s Fisheries Act would effectively deal with rebuilding timelines, rigidly enforced [Annual Catch Limits] and accountability measures, while requiring a full review of the NOAA’s recreational data collection by the National Research Council…”
Pallone’s bill never made it through committee, much less through Congress, and it has since been replaced by Rep. Don Young’s (R-AK) arguably worse Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (H.R. 1335), which was passed by the House last May. 

However, while the bills' names and sponsors might change over the years, the basic motivation behind the legislation remains the same—a desire to give fisheries managers the “flexibility” to ignore the best available science (or replace it with fishermen’s anecdotal and self-serving tales), delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks, tolerate overfishing and not hold fishermen responsible when they overharvest fish stocks.

It is an effort to replace current law’s disciplined and generally successful approach to rebuilding and conserving fish stocks with something very close to the sort of lassiez-faire management that caused many stocks to collapse in the first place.

Based on past experience, we can be just about certain that if folks such as the RFA got their way, there wouldn’t be “too many black sea bass along the East Coast” for more than a season or two.

However, the fact that folks such as the RFA are taking a wrongheaded approach to the “flexibility” issue doesn’t mean that the current approach to black sea bass management can’t use a few tweaks that would allow anglers to take home a couple more fish.

A new benchmark stock assessment will be developed next year and, if it makes it through the peer review process, should affect regulations in 2017 or 2018.  However, managers have also been seeking a better way to manage the species in the interim.

Now, it appears that they may have found it.

Just yesterday, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council received a report from Council staff, reporting on a new modeling approach to black sea bass management that was proposed by a team of biologists comprised of Jason McNamee of the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife and Gavin Fay and Steven Cadrin, both of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. 

Using the new approach, which utilized a software suite designed for assessing data limited species, the team not only determined that the Allowable Biological Catch for black sea bass could be increased from 5.50 to 6.67 million pounds, but also that there was a better than 70% chance that such higher level of harvest would not result in overfishing.

Ultimately, the Council voted to adopt and implement the team’s new approach, and it is a near-certainty that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board will adopt it, too, when they meet in November.

It’s not the final answer to the problems that plague black sea bass management.  The researchers freely acknowledge that there are still plenty of uncertainties in the available data, and note that the new approach

“is only offered as a potential interim solution for specification setting, as a full analytical assessment process is underway for this stock…these data limited approaches should not be considered to the exclusion of a full analytical assessment.”
Still, the approach increases the Allowable Biological Catch by roughly 20%, while also providing adequate protection for the black sea bass stock.

But perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates that both the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and the procedures adopted by the NOAA Fisheries and the regional fishery management councils to implement such provisions, are flexible enough to allow innovative solutions to management problems caused by poor or perplexing data.

It’s not the kind of chaotic flexibility championed by the RFA and some of the other industry groups, which would allow managers to allow overfishing, ignore scientific advice and risk driving fish stocks over the brink of collapse.

Instead, it’s a disciplined flexibility that doesn’t lock managers into a single, restrictive approach to regulating fishing mortality, but instead allows them to consider and implement new strategies that offer fishermen larger harvests in the short term, while still assuring that the long-term health of the stock will not be compromised.

And unlike the irresponsible approaches promoted by groups such as RFA, a disciplined flexibility, which benefits fish and fisherman alike, is a very good thing for us all.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


We were at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, sitting around a table and talking about whelks.

No, don’t stop reading…

Because in the end, biology is biology, and broad principles that apply to one species probably apply to others, whether or not they have shells.

At any rate, it appears that a lot of folks have been fishing for whelks in recent years, impelled by both a dearth of lobsters south of New England and a solid Asian market that’s keeping the prices higher than they were when whelks were only being sold for scungilli and the market was pretty small.

Fisheries managers from Massachusetts and Virginia have become concerned that too many whelk are being taken too soon, and that the number of mature whelk, which constitute the spawning stock, is falling too low.  As a result, every state in the region, except for New York and Connecticut, have adopted some sort of minimum size regulations.

New York is contemplating a minimum size as well, and that’s what we were talking about at MRAC that day.

As usual, the fishermen were objecting to any new rules, arguing that the data presented by state biologists were too uncertain to justify to restrictions, that fishermen were seeing plenty of whelks, that whelks in western Long Island Sound were reproducing just fine at smaller sizes, that…well, you get the idea.

The state admitted that its data was far from complete, but everything it had was pointed in the same direction—the average size of whelks was declining, too many were taken before they matured and, because of that, the whelks were headed for very rough times if the current trends continued.

The fishermen said that without better data, regulations impacting their incomes should not be adopted.

I finally pointed out that when data is slim, and managers only have a vague idea about safe harvest levels, regulations should incorporate far more precaution than might be required when managers have a more complete picture.

One of my MRAC colleagues immediately responded,
“Yes, because using precaution worked so well with black sea bass…”

He was trying to be sarcastic, suggesting that managers were somehow wrong in not allowing a bigger black sea bass harvest given the species' of apparent abundance, and would be equally wrong taking a precautionary approach with the whelks.

But the fact is, precaution is working well with black sea bass.

There seems to be a lot of black sea bass out there right now, largely because of a dominant 2011 year class.  There were certainly plenty of fish here off Long Island when the season opened last July.

But at the same time, fish such as black sea bass, which tend to bunch up on structure, can often seem more abundant than they actually are.  

The same wreck or artificial reef that teems with decent-sized sea bass when the season opens can seem pretty picked-over a month later; by this time of year, it’s very tough for anyone fishing one of the reefs off Long Island’s South Shore to put together a limit of fish.

The quick decline of the inshore fishery makes thoughtful anglers wonder whether there really are so many sea bass out there.

So maybe, when dealing with such data-poor species, a little precaution is warranted.  It’s better to kill a few less fish, and keep the stock healthy, rather than take more than we should and have to begin the rebuilding all over again.

I was thinking about such things last week, when I attended the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s scoping meeting for forage fish here on Long Island.

Forage fish are the glue that holds the food web together, the myriad small, plankton-eating fish that serve as food for everything from scup and summer flounder to the great whales.  

There are a number of important forage fish species; some, such as Atlantic mackerel and menhaden, support large commercial fisheries; biologists have at least some idea of their basic biology and how heavily they may be fished without causing problems.

But there are others—fish such as bay anchovy, sand eels and silversides—that don’t support large fisheries and, as a result, have been largely ignored by fisheries managers.  The amount of information that scientists have on such species would make black sea bass seem well-understood by comparison.

And it’s not just the forage species’ biology that we don’t know.  We also have no idea how many forage fish, of how many different species, are needed to maintain healthy populations of the fish sought by sport and commercial fishermen—not to mention how many are needed to maintain healthy populations of birds and marine mammals, all of which depend on abundant forage fish stocks.

Let’s put it this way:  Last summer, there was a big mass of sand eels about 40 or 45 miles southeast of Fire Island Inlet, New York.  

When I say “a big mass,” I’m talking about a layer of sand eels more than 120 feet thick, that extended for miles.  

Those sand eels held huge numbers of false albacore, skipjack and yellowfin tuna, along with some bluefin tuna, sharks and some scattered dolphin (of the mahi sort) and wahoo—plus shoals of cow-nosed rays, all sorts of (warm-blooded) dolphin, fin, minke and humpback whales and various sea birds.

If those sand eels weren’t there, none of the predators would have been there, either.

And the fishing would not have been good.

So it makes sense to protect the forage, even though we might not be quite sure how to go about doing that.

Again, there’s a need for precaution—and a lot of it, because if the forage fish crash, they can bring down the big fish that eat them as well.

So how much precaution is needed?

At the scoping meeting, I came up with a formula.  I told the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council representative that

“The amount of precaution needed to manage a stock is inversely proportional to the amount of data available to fisheries managers.”

Which means that for data-poor species such as black sea bass and the whelks, a lot of precaution is needed.

And for species such as the various forage fish, where data is effectively absent, the highest levels of precaution must be employed.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to prohibit any increase in harvest unless fishermen first make a clear and convincing case that such harvest will do no harm at all.

Yes, maybe that means that we forego some harvest that we otherwise could have enjoyed.

But as black sea bass teach us, it’s fine to be a little too careful, and fish on a healthy stock year after year.

That's far better than to be overly profligate in even one season, and risk catching nothing at all later on.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


I recently read an editorial in a local angling newspaper that criticized the way summer flounder are managed.
It was written by Nick Cicero, a founding member of the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF). Back in the late 1980s, summer flounder abundance bottomed out, and overfishing was so bad that it was hard to find a fish more than two years old. Anyone who remembers the fishing back then, and compares it to what we have today, might think that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has already done a pretty fine job of saving the summer flounder fishery.
However, SSFFF disagrees, and is now striving to “save” that fishery by paying biologists to conduct studies that will, SSFFF hopes, allow anglers to kill more and smaller fish. As Mr. Cicero’s editorial makes clear, the goal of SSFFF’s efforts is to discredit NMFS’ rigorously peer-reviewed science, which is what allowed managers to successfully rebuild the summer flounder stock in the first place.
Yet the editorial doesn’t stop with criticisms of the science. It also criticizes the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the federal law that requires that “the best scientific information available” be used to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks. The editorial urges support for legislation such as H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, which would grant fisheries managers the “flexibility” to ignore scientifically sound stock assessments and allow stocks to be overfished without risk of legal sanction.
Instead of stock assessments based on statistically verifiable, peer-reviewed data, H.R. 1335 would
“facilitate greater incorporation of data, analysis and stock assessments from nongovernmental sources, includingfishermen, fishing communities, universities and research institutions into fisheries management decisions. [emphasis added]”
Under such a regime, the comments of a New England trawler who said, “I’m telling you, [the fish are] out there. We’ve had no problems locating codfish,” in an effort to stave off harvest reductions, could be given the same or greater weight than a peer-reviewedstock assessment that found that cod abundance has dropped to just three or four percent of target levels.
When we look at Mr. Cicero’s editorial, we see him promoting a lot of the same sort of questionable “science” that the cod trawler did.
He calls the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s recent decision to reduce the 2016 catch limit for summer flounder “unsubstantiated”; even though the Council based such reduction on a steady decline in summer flounder abundance that was caused by poor recruitment in the four years between 2010 and 2013.
Such data was clearly presented in the benchmark summer flounder stock assessment completed in 2013, and refined in the 2015 update of that assessment. However, if such professionally compiled analysis of hard data doesn’t represent the kind of “science” respected by SSFFF, they can be comforted by the fact that information provided to NMFS by anglers confirms the trend.
In Mr. Cicero’s home state of New Jersey, where regulations were not substantially altered for 2015, landings for the first six months of this year were down 64% from what they were for the same period last season, which certainly suggests that fewer fish were available to anglers. And the decline in first-half harvest wasn’t just a New Jersey phenomenon; coast-wide landings are also down, although by a more modest 15%.
Yet Mr. Cicero remains adamantly opposed to amending catch limits in response to a clearly declining population, saying
“Good smart management would include regulations and quotas that remain the same for a minimum of three seasons with 3 or 5 years being a better option. Just because you reduce mortality one year doesn’t mean that you’ll see an increase in young of the year; certainly striped bass science has taught us that?”
Strictly speaking, he’s right. Consistent regulations tend to lead to better angler compliance, both because anglers don’t have to keep up with changing rules and because constantly changing regulations give many anglers a sense that fishery managers don’t really know what they’re doing.
Of course, if regulations are set for multi-year periods, they must adopt lower harvest limits than rules established for only one year because, as Mr. Cicero suggests, a large biomass does not necessarily equate to good recruitment, so regulations adopted for the long term need to be conservative enough to allow for downside surprises, including recruitment failure.
That’s clearly the polar opposite of what Mr. Cicero is seeking, which suggests that he may not quite grasp how the science of fisheries management works.
But then, a number of his statements should cause some raised eyebrows. For example, he notes that
“there is significant proof showing that when adult populations are low that reproduction occurs at an earlier age and is often more prolific.”
That is partly true.
When a fish population falls to very low levels, younger individuals will often mature and spawn earlier than they would if the stock remained healthy. However, forcing a badly stressed stock to depend on such precocious individuals, which typically produce fewer and less viable eggs, for its survival is the antithesis of good fisheries management.
Mr. Cicero also appears to blame the recent poor recruitment, at least in part, on
“[t]he biomass of spiny dogfish that the NMFS overprotective regulations have spawned [which is] unfathomable as is the destructive effect of those predators.”
And then he says that
“Sea bass over-abundance has had its way with young of the year flounder, both winter and summer flavors.”
The fact that there are no credible scientific studies that might suggest such statements are true does not appear to trouble Mr. Cicero. It might not trouble some of the folks who sit on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council either, should a bill such as H.R. 1335 become law.
Under such law, baseless statements of that sort could easily be deemed “data, analysis and stock assessments from…fishermen” and incorporated into a fishery management plan.
That’s probably why Mr. Cicero ended his editorial by saying that
“Congress needs to pass pragmatic Magnuson Stevens Act reform (HR 1335 approved by the House) so we can move forward with a new set of protocols and manage our fisheries with a common sense approach.”
And that’s definitely why the rest of us, who care about maintaining healthy fish stocks for ourselves and for generations to come, need to work hard to prevent that “reform” from occurring.
For as summer flounder has already demonstrated, the Magnuson-Stevens Act works just fine as it is.
If we used “common sense,” we’d leave it alone.
Wrongheaded Cries for Fisheries "Reform" first appeared in From the Waterfront, the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.  From the Waterfront regularly publishes the thoughts and observations of fishermen on every coast of the United States, and may be found at

Sunday, September 27, 2015


A few days ago, I came across a press release from the American Fly Fishing Trade Association announcing the expansion of the “AFFTA Fisheries Fund,” which it describes as a fund established in 2014

“with the main objective of funding organizations and projects focused on fisheries conservation and education.
“’The Fisheries Fund is a unique opportunity for not only AFFTA, but everyone whose vocation or avocation is fishing, to give back.  To protect what we hold most dear…”
To date, the Fund has, among other things, supported efforts to restore steelhead and salmon habitat in Oregon, helped Trout Unlimited fight a proposed mine that would threaten an healthy, clear-running river in Montana and funded work to permanently end the threats to the spectacular Bristol Bay salmon and steelhead runs posed by drilling and mining interests up in Alaska.

All of its advocacy has been related to anadromous and strictly freshwater fisheries so far, but given the growing importance of salt water fly fishing, I have no doubt that if a worthy project came forward to help protect striped bass, redfish or tarpon, the AFFTA Fisheries Fund would give it serious consideration as well.

Such an industry-wide commitment to conservation is admirable.  It’s also a classic example of doing well by doing good, for as I noted in a blog that I wrote eighteen months ago, if you want to have a fishing industry, it helps to have fish

By funding conservation projects, AFFTA is helping to assure that future generations of anglers will get the opportunity to enjoy some of the pleasures that we already know, while at the same time assuring that their businesses also survive.  For if the fish disappear, the fishermen will disappear shortly thereafter.

AFFTA’s wise actions contrast with those of the American Sportfishing Association, the trade organization that represents the greater part of the tackle and angling-related industry.  ASA sees a threat to angling’s future, too, and created an organization called “Keep America Fishing” designed to help perpetuate the sport. 

But where AFFTA concentrates on protecting the fish and the waters they swim in, Keep America Fishing announces on its Internet home page that it is

Protecting the fish appears optional—or perhaps undesirable, given that ASA supports H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, a bill just about identical to one introduced in the previous session of Congress that was so bad that conservationists called it the “Empty Oceans Act.”

Although H.R. 1335 would allow managers to perpetuate overfishing for an indeterminate amount of time, and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks, ASA calls House passage of the bill last spring

“a victory for recreational anglers,”
and insists that

“the Senate version of the bill still must [be] passed.”
The whole notion of assuring healthy fish stocks in the future, in order to assure a healthy fishing industry as well, seems to have escaped ASA.

Even when it comes to such a simple issue such as litter, ASA’s views seem skewed.  It tells anglers to clean up soft plastic lures, and not leave them littering the waters, which is a good thing.  But the motivation isn’t to perpetuate beauty or to have anglers clean up their mess so that the next angler can enjoy unsullied waters, but rather the cynical

“Our waterways are being littered with worn-out soft plastic lures.  If this habit doesn’t stop, we are giving the environmentalists and politicians adequate ammunition for making fishing with these lures illegal.”
So it seems that the whole notion of doing something just because it is right has escaped ASA, too..

Maybe that’s why, while AFFTA’s Fisheries Fund is helping to fight drilling and mining that could destroy pristine waters in places such as Alaska and Montana, ASA has no problem cozying up to someone such as Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, who has criticized actions by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the Bristol Bay fishery, and  has actually sponsored legislation that would take away much of the agency’s authority to do so.  

The same legislation would remove the EPA’s authority to veto permits for “mountaintop removal,” a form of coal mining which is much what it sounds like—a process in which overburden removed from above Appalachian coal seams is dumped in the valleys and cool mountain streams which, often right up until then, held populations of rapidly-disappearing native brook trout.

And killing more fish is, I suppose, good for ASA’s members’ business—at least until the supply of fish starts to run out.

It always leaves me more than a little amazed that so many bright people—and the folks who run ASA certainly fall into that category—can’t look ahead for more than  a season or two, and realize that the health of the fishing industry is directly related to the health of fish stocks.

Maybe it’s because the industry, and its allies in the marine trades business, are so caught up in their pretty fishfinders and GPS units and such, which make it easier for even mediocre anglers to find a few fish when populations are down, that they don’t understand that there comes a point when fishing becomes so poor even the best electronics can't help.

And maybe that’s why the fly guys get it right.  They still keep things simple.

“fly-rodders are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.  The technique we use makes it harder to catch large fish, and we are the first to see the effects of a decline.”
That makes a lot of sense.

And what AFFTA is doing makes a lot of sense, too.

What doesn’t make sense is that rest of the angling industry hasn't yet reached out to lend AFFTA’s conservation efforts a hand.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


For the past couple of years, we’ve been hearing angling industry interests down in the Gulf of Mexico crying out, calling for the federal government to cede its authority to manage red snapper and hand such responsibility over to the states.

A joint industry letter written to key United States senators early this year stated that

“We support Senator David Vitter’s Red Snapper Management Improvement Act, S. 105.  Last Congress, we supported several other bills fixing red snapper for Americans, including Congressman Jeff Miller’s Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act, H.R. 3099.  These bills give the states the responsibility to manage this fishery in a manner that ensures not only a robust, healthy resource, but one that is not systematically put out of the reach of ordinary citizens.  With their proven track record managing fisheries and recovering stocks such as red drum and speckled trout, and with superior recreational data collection systems, the states have earned the trust and respect of Gulf Coast anglers and conservationists…”
While the assertions made in that letter are open to question, that’s not the point.

What is really interesting is how the rhetoric surrounding the issue, particularly the attacks leveled against federal fisheries managers and the claims that the states could manage fish better, parallel attacks that have long been leveled against federal land and resource managers in many western states.

Out West, the attack on federal stewardship have been led by the mining, energy, timber and ranching industries, along with the host of politicians that are well-supported by such folks’ campaign contributions.

In the Gulf, the attack comes from the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries and the politicians…  Well, let’s just say that the Gulf industry groups have come together under an umbrella known as the Center for Coastal Conservation, which says of itself

“The Center for Coastal Conservation’s role is to affect public policy…with broad abilities to pursue political solutions.   The organization…focuses on having an impact in the national political arena, particularly Congress and national regulatory agencies.
“…the Center has established the Center for Coastal Conservation Political Action Committee (Center PAC), so that its members can fully participate in elective politics…”
“Fully participate,” of course, means “make campaign contributions”…

So what we ultimately end up with is a recreational fishing and boating industry that seems to have a lot in common with the folks seeking to bring more mining, more drilling, more grazing and fewer trees to America’s public lands.

Given that is the case, it might make a lot of sense to take a closer look at what’s going on west of the 100th meridian.

Earlier this year, there was an article in The Salt Lake Tribune, a Utah newspaper, headlined “Bishop, Stewart launch action group for states to take over federal lands.”

The article goes on to explain that

“Two Utah congressman are launching a ‘Federal Lands Action Group’ to identify ways Congress could to push a transfer of lands to state and local governments.
“GOP Reps Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop announced the new working group…and said that it would hold a series of hearings with experts on public lands policy with the end goal of introducing legislation to move the federal units into state and local control.”
And yes, that’s the same Rob Bishop who was one of just three cosponsors of H.R. 1335, the so-called “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” which would seriously weaken the conservation and rebuilding provisions of current federal fisheries law, so there’s more than a casual connection here.

At any rate, the Salt Lake Tribune went on to quote Congressman Stewart as saying

“The federal government has been a lousy landlord for Western states and we simply think that the states can do it better.  If we want healthier forests, better access to public lands, more consistent funding for public education and more reliable energy development, it makes sense to have local control.”
That’s not very different from a statement made by the Coastal Conservation Association (an “anglers’ rights” group that helped to organize the similarly-named Center for Coastal Conservation and, like the Center and Congressman Bishop, a supporter of H.R. 1335), which argued that

“State-based fishery management has been proven to be far more effective than the federal system and has engineered some of the greatest conservation victories in the country.  Whereas federal management of red snapper has been marked by crisis after crisis, the states have proven far more capable of not only conserving and managing robust fisheries, but also providing greater access to those resources for their citizens.”
When you have different people in different places saying about the same thing about the management of natural resources, it’s not unreasonable to believe that their motivations are about the same, too.

What are those motivations?

“the federal land can be developed for oil shale, logging, raising of cattle and for recreation.”
Thus, it’s not very surprising to see the Coastal Conservation Association argue that the states should take over red snapper management and abolish “overly restrictive” regulations that restrict landings

“and are negatively impacting the thousands of recreational fishing dependent businesses all along the Gulf coast.”
For Congressman Bishop and Senator Hatch are far more interested in the short term profits of energy, logging and ranching businesses than they are in intact ecosystems, clean, flowing waters or the survival of imperiled species such as the sage grouse.  

And the Center for Coastal Conservation is far more concerned with the short term profits of the recreational fishing and boating industries than it is in the long-term health of red snapper.

At first glance, the Western politicians and the Gulf angling industry seem to be dealing with very different issues.  But if you listen closely, you’ll realize that they’re just singing different verses of the same old song.

They all are trying to replace responsible federal stewardship of publicly-owned natural resources with weak, politically-driven state management that will put those resources at risk so that resource-dependent industries can pocket a little more cash.

Yes, it’s the same old song, but these days, it sounds badly off-key, particularly to sportsmen who know that they, like the nation, do not own the fish, the game, the land or the oceans, but merely hold them in trust for not only their children and grandkids, but for the children and grandkids of other sportsmen who are not yet born.