Sunday, December 4, 2016

THE FIRST TEST


When I wrote the piece, I concentrated on the hype and misdirection that characterized The Fisherman article.  What I didn’t mention was its author’s admission that comments sent in to NMFS, no matter how vehement, will have no impact on the decisions made by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council at its December meeting.

He wrote

“Those public comments collected by NOAA Fisheries through November 30 will be reviewed, analyzed, discussed, debated and ultimately ignored during the fisheries management hearings in Baltimore in December…
 “The angler advocates at the American Sportfishing Association and Recreational Fishing Alliance say an act of Congress or response from the incoming Trump administration will ultimately offer the only salvation; even that will be difficult due to the way the federal fisheries law is written.  It doesn’t matter whether you pulled the lever to the right or to the left in November, the fact is the incoming administration and Secretary of Commerce are the only ones who can make a final legal and regulatory decision to help stave off dire socioeconomic impacts from these massive cuts to the fluke fishery.”
With those words, The Fisherman article effectively acknowledged that summer flounder may prove to be the new administration’s first test with respect to fisheries matters.

Whether it will pass or fail such test is completely unknown.

Of course, “pass” and “fail” are subjective concepts, and I suspect that my definition of “pass” is in every way opposite any definition that might be adopted by the American Sportfishing Association or any other person or group willing to sacrifice the long-term health of the stock in exchange for a bit more short-term income.

So to make it clear what I’m talking about, the administration will “pass” the test if it takes a position that is completely in accord with the advice provided by fisheries biologists, and with federal fisheries law’s mandates to avoid overfishing and rebuild stocks that are, or are likely to become, overfished.

It will fail if it elevates economic concerns above the science and the law.

In theory, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and its prohibition against overfishing, should keep the incoming administration from doing anything too outrageous. 

While the administration could push the limits of the law, and adopt an annual catch limit that is imprudently high, if it sets such limit so high that overfishing is likely to occur, it would violate the standard established in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, and open itself up to a court challenge.

The question then becomes whether the administration cares, and whether it might even want to invite such a lawsuit.


“When the news broke this morning that Donald J. Trump had been elected to serve as the 45th president of the United States, the Recreational Fishing Alliance’s Executive Director Jim Donofrio couldn’t have been more pleased.
“’The RFA was the only sport fishing organization in the country that supported and publicly endorsed Mr. Trump right from the beginning,’ explained Donofrio.  ‘He obviously understands business as well as anyone, and we quickly realized that an administration under his leadership would benefit the recreational fishing industry, particularly those in the manufacturing sector such as boat and engine builders and tackle companies, which have been operating under increasing governmental restrictions for years.  We believe these businesses will now be better able to improve their products and expand their markets as we move forward.’
“The RFA is also optimistic that the new administration will provide a more balanced approach to managing the country’s marine resources.  ‘The days of the environmental zealots running the show are, for the most part, over,’ continued Donofrio.  ‘I think we’ll start to see a more balanced approach between access to our resources, responsible stewardship, and common sense conservation.  This, of course, has always been a major goal of RFA, but in many arenas it’s been an uphill battle.  So, we’re excited about this new direction, and look forward to some positive changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act that will benefit our sector, along with a new attitude toward fisheries management.’”
If the Recreational Fishing Alliance has accurately gauged the temper of the incoming administration with respect to fisheries matters, it is not impossible that it will intentionally seek an early confrontation with conservation advocates, in order to force a lawsuit that will, when the administration loses, provide support for a call to Congress to emasculate the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of federal fisheries law.

From all of the information that’s publicly available, it seems likely that the president-elect has little experience with any fish that has’t already been dressed, prepared and laid out on a plate, so Magnuson-Stevens issues aren’t likely to be a high priority for him.  It’s also unlikely that they’re important to the probable incoming Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, a 79-year-old billionaire bankruptcy specialist who made his fortune investing in the debt of distressed companies and helping such companies return to profitability.

Thus, the fate of summer flounder and the rest of America’s fish stocks may well depend on who is ultimately appointed as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries.

Usually, such position is awarded to either an attorney with extensive experience with marine resource issues, such as the current Assistant Administrator Eileen Sobeck, or to a scientist, such as Ms. Sobeck’s predecessor, Jane Lubchenco.

Both such possibilities offer grounds for both hope and concern. 

A career government attorney such as Ms. Sobeck, who has served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, is likely to be relatively even-handed, relying on the science and the law and be less concerned with political dogma.  On the other hand, should counsel for the fishing industry, an industry lobbyist or the congressional majority get the nod, the conservation community and America’s fish stocks are probably in for a very tough four years.

The same can be true of an academic or fisheries scientist.
While Magnuson-Stevens has been widely supported by the fisheries science community, there are still biologists who believe that any fish that dies of old age instead of being harvested is essentially wasted, and that fish stocks should be managed primarily for their economic benefit.  Thus, we still have biologists saying that

“The substance of the 1996 reauthorization [of Magnuson-Stevens] was driven by a burgeoning political influence of conservation groups.  The act was moved from simply defining principles of fisheries management, such as estimating maximum sustainable yield to avoid overfishing, to concepts like ‘rebuilding’ stocks that were thought to be overfished, and to protecting the ‘environment’ thought to be degraded by fishing.
“The language and its interpretive guidelines became excessively prescriptive, which resulted in limiting the flexibility of managers to take an optimal course in regulating fisheries.  Heaped on top of this were operationally counterproductive concepts like ‘overfishing’ and ‘ecosystems’ that, while sounding substantive, have in fact little substantive, strict scientific definition.
“The 1996 changes that were heralded by the conservation groups in fact generated a ‘perfect storm.’  This was due to the confluence of the 1996 amendments, largely unexplained declines in some groundfish stocks, significant under-fishing amounting to losses of hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and the catch share program…”
Such scientists, although relatively rare, take a position not unlike that of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, and would not be likely to support the rebuilding and conservation of America’s fish stocks.

And that assumes that the next Assistant Administrator for Fisheries doesn’t come from a non-traditional background, such as the fishing industry itself.

But regardless of who ends up in that position, it will be the fisheries issues that exist on every coast which will test the mettle and the intentions of the incoming administration.  

By an accident of timing, 2017 summer flounder catch limits may very well be the first test of them all.





Thursday, December 1, 2016

AND SO IT BEGINS...

For three years, life at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council was fairly peaceful.

It managed its fisheries well, and even found enough time to extend federal protection to a host of forage fish and deep-sea corals.

The fluke wars that had troubled the Council throughout between 2000 and 2010 or so, with all of their hype, hypocrisy and vituperation, seemed a thing of the past.

But history has a way of repeating itself, and it appears that the Second Fluke Wars have begun.

In retrospect, the signs of the coming conflict were clear.  

After a successful spawn in 2009, recruitment dipped in 2010, and again in 2011.  A biologist I spoke with around 2012 predicted problems if it didn’t improve.

However, a benchmark stock assessment that came out in 2013 which assured folks that all was well.


Finally, the data could no longer be ignored.  Thanks to the lack of new fish entering the stock, the summer flounder biomass was falling, while fishermen, enjoying the bounty provided by the healthy 2008 and 2009 spawns, were beginning to overfish the stock.


At first, it appeared that the annual catch limit might be reduced by 43%; fishing-related businesses were outraged.  The Mid-Atlantic Council’s Science and Statistics Committee, hoping to forge the sort of compromise that might stave off a new war, reviewed their data and determined that a lesser, 29% reduction would still prevent overfishing.  That compromise, coupled with estimates of reduced fishing effort in key fluke-catching states, allowed regulations to remain unchanged in 2016.



The decision was the only one that they could make; with few new fish entering the population, they needed to reduce the number of fish being removed from the population in order to maintain an adequate spawning stock.

Still, it made the coming fight inevitable.  The upcoming reductions are big enough that they’re likely to cause some real economic discomfort to the recreational fishing industry, and the industry isn’t going down without a fight.

Thus, the first salvos of the Second Fluke War were fired a few days ago, when a piece in The Fisherman magazine (which always caters to the needs and desires of its advertisers), with the title “Will Angry Anglers Respond to Fluke Fiasco?” appeared.

Given that title, and a lead sentence that read

“I’m about to really tick you off,”
it was clear that the article, although billed as a “feature,” would be a lopsided propaganda piece intended to elicit a knee-jerk reaction from anglers and incite them to oppose the harvest reductions before they had a chance to think about why such cuts might be needed.

The author reinforced that impression when he continued

“Seriously, reading any further is just going to make you incredibly angry.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat this, the coastwide quota for summer flounder (fluke) in 2017 is expected to be cut by about 40%.  That means a shorter season, lower bag, an increase in size limits, or any combination of the three.
“Pardon my French, but I told you that you’d be pissed.”
Over all, it’s really a remarkable piece, requiring a reader to churn through two full pages (in the on-line version) of hype before, in the last full paragraph, getting just an inkling of why the harvest reductions are needed.  But even then, the article only mentions in passing that

“NOAA Fisheries is showing diminished recruitment of new fish,”
without revealing that the stock has experienced six consecutive years of below-average spawns (something that readers might want to know) and admitting that such poor recruitment will impact the future size of the spawning stock. 

The author even took pains to suggest that NOAA Fisheries could be responsible for the poor spawns, by asking

“could it be all the tinkering over the past 8 years, the increasing size limits and intensified harvest on broodstock fluke that actually impacted the overall biomass and recruitment numbers?”
There’s no evidence that managers actually did cause the problem, but the author apparently didn’t want to miss any opportunity to poison anglers’ views of the current management system.

Back in 1918, U.S. Senator Hiram Warren Johnson reportedly said that

“The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

“Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”
Now, that’s a statement fit for the Fluke Wars, where folks with a vested economic interest in killing more fish feed a distorted version of the truth to trusting anglers, who are all too willing to believe in so-called “leaders” and are thus exploited to achieve others’ goals.

The truth took a hit when The Fisherman, perhaps trying to scare anglers into opposing the cuts, wrote that

“The result [of the proposed reductions] would be something in line with a two-fish bag limit for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and perhaps even Rhode Island, a 19-inch minimum size and a three-month season spanning June, July and August at best,”
since anyone who took the time to familiarize themselves with the issue would know that Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council staff already determined that coastwide measures

“that include a 19-inch minimum fish size, 3 fish bag limit, and open season from June 1-September 15”
would be enough to keep harvest below the 2017 annual catch limit.

And no, it’s not just The Fisherman who’s writing such decieving things.


“NOAA Fisheries and the Mid-Atlantic Regional [sic] Fishery Management Council are considering cutting 2017 summer flounder recreational quota by up to 40%.
“Unfortunately, this decision is being based on an outdated benchmark stock assessment from 2013.”
Aside from the questionable accuracy of those statements—the “recreational quota,” more properly the annual catch limit, will be cut by 30%, not 40%, and it’s questionable whether a three-year-old stock assessment, particularly one that is updated every year, can be reasonably considered “outdated”—it's striking that ASA’s release didn’t mention the summer flounder recruitment issue at all, thus effectively misleading anglers by withholding information that they need in order to make an informed decision on the issue.


“Rebuilding efforts increased that stock size to historic levels of abundance in 2007.  Since that time, the stock has displayed average to below average recruitment and the spawning stock biomass has dipped…”
While that still doesn’t capture the full extent of the recruitment problem, RFA at least came close to admitting that the problem exists

What is somewhat reassuring is the fact that at least some anglers seem to be able to see through all of the smoke.

On the Water Magazine reprinted the American Sportfishing Association release on its website.  Two of the three people who later left comments on the site clearly didn’t agree with ASA.  One observed that

“Article is a bit lacking…Seems the inshore folks like me get very few keepers, lots of shorts, maybe it is a good time to shorten the season rather than hike the size limits again.”
The other wrote

“I’m all for massive cuts to recreational (AND commercial) flounder.  It seems like the entire coastal policy is set up with no consideration for the fish stock.  Instead, it seems like it is based on how many fish and how small a fish they can catch in NY and CT.  The last 3 years have seen a drop-off in recreation catches here in RI…I love flounder.  It’s my favorite fish to catch and eat.  I need one or two 18-22” fish from a day’s outing to feed my family.  The fact that the limits have been down in the 16”-range and up at the 8-fish range is unacceptably high to ensure the quality of the stock.”
Anglers such as those, who actually take the time to think about summer flounder management, and aren’t stampeded onto the “no harvest reductions” bandwagon, pose a real problem for the American Sportfishing Association and similarly-minded groups.

And that’s a good thing, because the fluke, like all of America’s marine resources, belong in the end to those anglers, and to every other angler and every other citizen of the nation alive today, and in a very real way, even to those yet unborn, who should all have the right to experience the joy of fishing in a vital, abundant ocean, and not in one that has been plundered for an industry’s short-term gain.

The Second Fluke War has already started.  It promises to be a brutal affair, fought with deception and guile.  Yet in the end, if anglers don’t allow themselves to be deceived or distracted, but instead focus only on facts and the future, victory can still be theirs.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

OF OIL, COAL, BLUEFIN TUNA--AND YOU

Times of change can be times of worry, particularly after a presidential election brings change to the White House, in the form of a new governing party and a president-elect who, in philosophy, experience and style, is very different from his immediate predecessor.

Opponents of the winning candidate often bewail his victory in apocalyptic terms.  Whether the winner was Ronald Reagan or Barak Obama, there were those who predicted that the incoming administration signaled the end of America-as-we-know-it, and foretold the onset of a world that was dark, sinister and—most threatening of all—different from what went before.

The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump was certainly no exception to that rule.  Some who opposed his election claim that the new administration is a threat to Americans’ civil rights.  Others, who supported the losing candidate, feel that it will be bad for organized labor.  Still others express concerns about the new administration’s approach to foreign policy.

We can only wait and watch as things unwind, in order to learn whether such fears were justified, or merely the sort of sour-grapes musings typical of those who did not win the race.

Probably no one feared a Trump victory as much as the various people and organizations that support clean air, clean water and other basic environmental issues.  Now that he has won, they, too, are warning of a coming cataclysm.  

Their fears are clearly being stoked by the words of the president-elect himself.

Donald J. Trump’s staff has created a website, www.greatagain.gov , which offers a foreshadowing for what a Trump administration will look like.  The site’s “Energy Independence” page includes the statements that

“Rather than continuing the current patch to block and undermine America’s fossil fuel producers, the Trump Administration will encourage the production of these resources by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters…We will end the war on coal, and rescind the coal mining lease moratorium, the excessive Interior Department stream rule, and conduct a top-down review of all anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama administration…”
I’ll leave it to others to decide how such a plan will impact America’s wilderness areas, the last remaining Appalachian brook trout streams and the troubled marshes of the Louisiana coast, and concentrate on the sort of things that I’ve always addressed before, the fish that swim off America’s coast, and particularly those of our offshore waters, such as the bluefin tuna.

The new administration certainly sounds like bad news for them.

Although there has been some recent scientific dissent, most biologists agree that all bluefin tuna that spawn on the west side of the Atlantic basin do so in a relatively small area in the Gulf of Mexico, and view the waters that flow over the outer continental shelf in the northern Gulf as an important nursery ground.

Unfortunately, the sea floor beneath, and up-current from, that nursery area holds large deposits of petroleum, and the methods used to extract that petroleum are not immune to mechanical mishap and human error.

That became tragically clear in the spring of 2010, when the BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and created the largest accidental oil spill ever recorded.  Such spill coincided with the peak of the bluefin tuna’s spawning season, which led scientists from Stanford University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the impacts.


“the timing of the oil spill directly overlapped with the maximum extent of adult bluefin tuna foraging and spawning activity in the Gulf of Mexico.  At its peak in May 2010, the spill covered more than 5 percent of the spawning habitat of the Atlantic bluefin tuna in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.
“Exposure to oil has previously been shown to have physiological consequences to the heart, and can cause deformations and death in eggs and larval fish, making it crucial to understanding the effects in order to assess the impacts of oil spills.  The effect of oil on spawning adult fish is not well understood but the crude oil may add stressors to all life history stages in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“The bluefin tuna population in the Gulf of Mexico has been struggling to rebuild to healthy levels for over 30 years.  These fish are a genetically unique population, and thus stressors such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, even if minor, may have population-level effects…”
Although we will hopefully never again see an oil spill as large as that created by BP and its Deepwater Horizon operation, an expansion of offshore drilling will inevitably lead to a host of smaller spills, both from the wellhead and as a result of transporting crude oil, which could have a significant cumulative impact on fish populations.

And don’t believe that only bluefins would be affected.  

Chemicals found in crude oil can affect a wide variety of fish and other animals.  As part of the study of the Deepwater Horizon spill, Barbara Block and her colleagues found that

“Crude oil is a complex mixture of chemicals, some of which are known to be toxic to marine animals.  Past research has focused in particular on “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” (PAHs), which can also be found in coal tar, creosote, air pollution and stormwater runoff from land.  In the aftermath of an oil spill, PAHs can persist for many years in marine habitats and cause a variety of adverse environmental effects…
“The researchers found that oil blocks the potassium channels distributed in heart cell membranes, increasing the time to restart the heart on every beat.  This prolongs the normal cardiac action potential, and ultimately slows the heartbeat.  The potassium ion channel impacted in the tuna is responsible for restarting the heart muscle cell contraction cycle after every beat, and is highly conserved throughout vertebrates, raising the possibility that animals as diverse as tuna, turtles and dolphins might be affected similarly by crude oil exposure.  Oil also resulted in arrhythmias in some ventricular cells.”
Thus, any increase in drilling on the outer continental shelf is likely to put not only bluefin tuna, but any other fish that is likely to have its eggs and larvae come in contact with crude oil (fish such as summer flounder, menhaden and bluefish, should drilling ultimately be allowed off the Atlantic coast) into greater jeopardy.

And it’s not hard to imagine that any compound that adversely impacts the hearts of animals as varied as tuna, turtles and dolphins is likely to be bad for people, too.

However, to see a more direct connection between the incoming administration’s proclamations on “Energy Independence,” fish and human health impacts, we need to take a look at the dirtiest energy source of all—coal.

The incoming administration clearly supports expanding coal mining, and that only makes sense if more coal is to be burned, as well.  Most opponents of coal object to such expansion because of the dangers posed by increased soot levels, acid rain and coal’s contribution to accelerated global warming, but there is another hazard that often flies under their radar.  That is the fact that coal often contains traces of mercury, and that burning such coal releases such mercury, a very toxic element, into the environment.

Mercury moves through the food web, and tends to concentrate in large predatory fish.  A table provided by the United States Food and Drug Administration lists the mercury content in a number of popular food fish, and discloses that the highest levels are found in Gulf of Mexico tilefish (average concentration1.45 parts per million), swordfish (0.995 ppm), shark (0.979 ppm), king mackerel (0.73 ppm) and fresh or frozen bigeye tuna (0.689 ppm).

A CNN article from March 2016 discusses the importance of the issue, noting that

“The [Environmental Working Group] tested 254 hair samples from women of childbearing age from 40 states who reported eating as much or slightly more fish than the government recommendations over a period of two months.  The study found that 29% of the women had more mercury in their bodies than the [Environmental Protection Agency] considers safe, 1 part per million…
“The study found that mercury levels in women who frequently eat fish are 11 times higher than in women who rarely eat seafood…
“Mercury exposure during pregnancy can significantly alter the developing brain and nervous system of the unborn baby and cause lifelong deficits in learning, memory and reaction times, according to the study.  There are also issues for women who are not pregnant and men:  Mercury can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes, according to the World Health Organization…”

Researchers at Stony Brook University’s (New York) School of Marine and Atmospheric Science analyzed tissue samples from more than 1,000 Atlantic bluefin tuna caught between 2004 and 2012, seeking to determine whether the level of mercury contained in the fish had changed over that time.

It turns out that the average level of mercury had, in fact, fallen, by an average of 19%.

That reduction tracks a 2.8% decline in the burning of coal in North American that occurred between 1990 and 2007, which was paralleled by a 4.3% drop in the amount of mercury found in the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.  The study also noted that the amount of mercury in the air over the North Atlantic Ocean dropped by 20% between 2001 and 2009.

No direct relationship has yet been established between the reduced mercury levels in bluefin tuna, the reduced use of coal in North America and the reduced levels of mercury in the air and ocean.  However, the correlation is difficult to ignore.

And if mercury levels are dropping in bluefin because of the reduced use of coal, there’s also a decent chance that they could be dropping in bigeye, swordfish and other popular food fish as well.

That would bode well for the health of future generations.

However, it is a change that could be easily undone if the incoming administration carries through with its “Energy Independence” plan.

For increased offshore drilling and increased use of coal wouldn’t just be bad for bluefin tuna.


It would be bad for me, you, and for descendants who you haven’t yet met, for they have not yet been born.  

We've made our share of mistakes, and probably deserve the life we now have.  But those unborn kids, at least, deserve a fair shake at the start.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A GOOD DEATH

A couple of weeks ago, there was a big fish kill out around Shinnecock, here on Long Island.

It seems that there was a big—a very big—school of menhaden moving through Shinnecock Bay.  A bunch of bluefish found them, and chased the menhaden into the narrow confines of the Shinnecock Canal, where they became trapped after a falling tide caused the canal’s locks to close.

The tide continued to drop as October’s “super moon” pulled the water down to some of its lowest levels of the year.  It didn’t take long for the trapped menhaden to pull most of the oxygen out of the confined waters, and once that happened, it didn’t take very much longer for untold thousands of menhaden to suffocate and die.

What followed was an epic fish kill.

It could have been worse.  Local officials, alerted to what was going on, began to periodically open and close the locks, allowing fresh, oxygenated water to flow into the channel and allowing rafts of dead fish to float out into the bay.   Thanks to such quick action, a lot of the menhaden managed to survive, and escape into open water.

Still, a lot of them died.

A handful of local baymen arrived at the canal, hoping to gather up some of the dead fish for bait.  They reported that, as they ran through the waterway, the depthfinders on their boats showed a completely flat bottom.  In truth, its contours hadn’t changed.  Instead, so many dead fish had fallen to the bottom of the canal that the holes were filled in, and what once was a fairly rough bottom now appeared as an even plain of soon-to-decay bodies.

Out on the Internet, observers were quick to warn of disaster, and speculated as to what sort of chemical spill, algae bloom or other insult to the canal’s water quality lead to the deaths.  In their minds, such a mass dying could only be due to human intervention.

Folks who’d spent a lot of their time on the water knew better.  Menhaden are a forage fish that, when stocks are healthy, appear to be ubiquitous, with every bay, creek and tidal basin holding big schools of the fish from early spring into November.  When winters are warm, as last winter was, some will stick around all year.

When you have that many fish hanging around in shallow water, eventually, some are going to die.  In the case of menhaden, they tend to die in a very showy and spectacular (and often malodorous) fashion.

I grew up on Long Island Sound, in the town of Greenwich, Connecticut.  Back in the late 1960s and 1970s (and, from what I understand, through the 1980s and 1990s, too, though I left town in ’83 and so lack the personal knowledge), big schools of menhaden clogged the local harbors every summer.  

Every year, it was only a matter of time until schools of bluefish pushed a bunch of menhaden into thin water near the top of the tide where, just like the menhaden in the Shinnecock Canal, they suffocated and died once the tide fell.

That was fine when Greenwich harbor was still an industrial waterfront, with fuel tanks, gravel heaps and small factories lining its eastern shore, and the sewer plant at Grass Island never reliably perfumed the entire harbor whenever the west wind blew.  But by the mid-‘70s, pricey condos (generally sold at times of high tides and southerly breezes) and corporate offices had replaced the harbor’s traditional businesses.

The aroma of rotting menhaden wasn’t acceptable to new residents, whose olfactory systems never had to endure such insults when they lived on Manhattan’s West Side.  

Thus, members of the Greenwich Police Department’s Marine Division were given dip nets and pails, directed to cease their usual duties, and told to scoop dead fish out of the harbor, until the condo dwellers could again step out onto their buildings’ balconies and not smell a summer sea breeze that smelled like—well, what a real summer sea breeze is supposed to smell like, when the ecosystem is functioning as it should.

Because menhaden are supposed to die by the thousands, and do so again and again.

Like any vegetarian, their role in the ecosystem is to consume the nutrients contained in plankton and push them further along the food web, either when live or freshly dead menhaden are eaten by other fish, gulls, mink and the like, or when rotting menhaden are consumend by myriad invertebrates, from snails and grass shrimp to lobsters and crabs, which feast on the remains of the dead.

Chris Paparo is a naturalist who lives fairly close to the Shinnecock Canal.  Along with being an outdoor writer and very talented underwater (and above-water) photographer, he holds a degree in marine biology, and thus is uniquely qualified to comment on the menhaden kill.  He notes

“It was an unfortunate event for the fish that perished on that day, but through their death will come life.  Fish kills such as this are a natural event.  Yes, it took place in a man-made canal, but they occur around the world in naturally-occurring “dead ends” (creeks, marshes, etc.).  And although it seems wasteful, it is a windfall for many organisms.  Mortality can be very high for young of the year animals such as gulls, osprey, eagles, raccoons, foxes, etc.  Mom and Dad are no longer there to supply them with nourishment, and as winter approaches food becomes difficult to find.  Additionally, the caloric intake needed to stay warm increases as the temperature drops.  Meaning they need to find more food in the coming months than they needed to find during the summer months.
“As devastating of an event this fish kill was, within twenty-four hours it was back to business as normal for the marine life of the Shinnecock Canal and many organisms now have a huge advantage going into the first winter of their life.”
It has been so for a very long time.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were wandering around the Wyoming back country, near the town of Kemmerer.  One morning we stopped by a fossil quarry, and spent half the day splitting limestone slabs, seeking to reveal the remains of creatures that had lived in and along the shores of a vast inland lake, that had stood in that spot 50 million years before.

What we found were the remains of fish, primarily two species belonging to the genus Knightia, extinct members of the herring family.


Knightia were small fish, while ranging in size from small minnows to a rare 10 inches, are generally found four to five inches long.  These herring-like fish probably fed on algae, diatoms, small crustaceans and insects.  Knightia themselves played an important part in the food chain as a food source for the larger fish in Fossil Lake.”

“From time to time, dozens of fish died simultaneously.  These mass mortalities may have been due to contamination of the upper water by hydrogen sulfide released by earthquakes or by seasonal turnover of lake waters; extremes of temperature or salinity; or stagnation caused by drought…”
The parallels to menhaden and menhaden kills are very clear.

We can be pretty sure that when Knightia died, other fish, and probably reptiles, birds and other creatures, fed on them, too. 

Fish kills have, for millions of years, been just another aspect of life.  So long as they are natural, they are nothing to lament.  Nor are they evidence that there are “too many” menhaden, and that there is no need to continue to conserve and manage the species, an argument that is too often heard.

Instead, menhaden kills, and the benefits that they bring, are nothing more than evidence that the system is operating as it should, and that managers should continue to manage the menhaden resource in a way that best assures that the species will continue to play its unique role in the food web throughout the foreseeable future.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

HEALING WATERS

A week or two ago, a friend of mine had a striped bass stolen by a seal.

Even down here on Long Island, that’s not too unusual, for harbor seals have become pretty numerous during the winter, and seem to be sticking around a little later each spring, while showing up a bit sooner each fall.

A lot of fishermen, particularly surfcasters, aren’t very happy to see the seals arrive, and get upset when one of them steals a bass.  That’s particularly true up on Cape Cod, where the numbers of gray seals—animals far larger than the harbor seals that we see on Long Island—have become extremely abundant, and make it difficult to land a hooked fish.

My friend runs a charter boat, and so it’s important that his customers can bring fish to the boat.  Even so, when the seal stole his striper, he wasn’t upset, and noted that “I thought it was kinda cool…”


And when you stop to think about things a bit, it was.

For many years, seals were scarce in Long Island waters.  When I was a boy, growing up on western Long Island Sound (admittedly, on the Connecticut side, not on Long Island proper, although the waters were effectively the same), seals were seldom seen.  Every couple of years, an angler trying to catch winter flounder early in the spring would spot one, and when that happened, the story was front-page news in the local paper. 

Today, seals are regular seasonal visitors to Long Island’s waters, and appear in the sound on a regular basis.  And they are only one of a number of animals that have become more common in recent years.

Bottlenose dolphin, absent from western Long Island Sound for at least half a century, have returned to those waters.  

And for the past couple of seasons, humpback whales have also appeared, something that had never happened before at any point during my lifetime.

On the South Shore of Long Island, humpback whales, along with some fin whales and minkes, have been present right off the beaches for most of the summer.  As I write this, one humpback has entered the shallows of Moriches Bay, where it remains at a substantial risk for stranding in the bay’s skinny water.


And it’s not just marine mammals.

Osprey, which were seldom seem four or five decades ago, have become common.  The fish-eating birds seem to be nesting everywhere, from their traditional locations in waterside trees to dedicated nest platforms, utility poles, channel markers and even the signs on abandoned fuel docks.  And more and more often, anglers and other coastal habitu├ęs have seen bald eagles return to the shoreline, to feed on an abundance of baitfish that can now be found in Long Island’s bays and other protected waters.

Sharks have also become ever more abundant in Long Island’s coastal sea.  In recent years, fishermen have caught thresher sharks, some in the 500 pound range, within sight of Long Island’s beaches.  This fall, I’ve heard stories of thresher sharks slashing though schools of bait and churning up the surface inside Great South Bay.

In addition, scientists have confirmed that eastern Long Island waters are a nursery area for white sharks, perhaps the first such nursery ever discovered.

That sort of abundance doesn’t occur in a vacuum.  Long Island’s waters are seeing an increase in marine predators because they host so many of the forage fish that such predators need to survive.

Such forage can take many forms, ranging from vast shoals of sand eels that attract fish, whales and various sea birds well out in the ocean to schools of menhaden that provide food for striped bass, bluefish, birds and marine mammals within sight of Long Island’s shores, including in Long Island Sound.

To construct a building that lasts, builders must first build a solid foundation.  An enduring ocean food web also rests on a solid foundation, one made up of all of the various forage fish needed to support larger predators.

The good news is that fishery managers are taking steps to assure that a good forage base exists.

Earlier this year, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council adopted an omnibus amendment that would prevent the creation of new fisheries for forage species, or allow the expansion of existing fisheries, until such time as managers could determine with reasonable certainty that such new fisheries would not harm predator species that depend on such forage.


The seals that steal fish from anglers lines, the juvenile white sharks that feed within sight of exclusive Hamptons beaches and the humpback whales that rise up out of the sea, water and menhaden streaming from their not-quite-closed jaws, are all coming back to Long Island because, for the first time in a great many years, there are enough forage fish in local waters to support them.

Our waters are being made whole again.

As someone wrote in response to my friend’s report that he lost a bass to a seal, “The neighborhood is totally changing.”

There’s no doubt that is true.


And that is a very good thing.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

WHEN POLITICIANS ENGAGE IN FISHERIES MANAGEMENT

Over the past half-dozen years, the summer flounder stock has been having some problems, although most anglers probably didn’t notice until the last season or two.
Annual trawl surveys conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) revealed that summer flounder spawning success had been below average in every year between 2010 and 2015, the last spawning year included in the survey data. As a result, the population has declined and NMFS has had to take remedial action to prevent overfishing.

In the summer of 2015, biologists originally suggested that the 2016 annual catch limit for summer flounder would have to be reducedby 43%. That engendered strong opposition from the recreational and commercial summer flounder fisheries, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (MAFMC) Science and Statistics Committee (SSC) decided that they had a high degree of certainty with respect to the summer flounder data, and so could safely phase in the reduction and impose a smaller, 29% catch limit cut in 2015.

As it turned out, recreational summer flounder harvest was so low that it fell not only below that year’s annual catch limit, but below the reduced catch limit for 2016 as well. Thus, managers decided that no change in regulations would be required to further constrain anglers’ landings.
Unfortunately, summer flounder spawning remains below par, so the SSC decided that the annual catch limit for 2017 will have to be reduced by an additional 30%.
This time, there is no doubt that recreational regulations will have to be changed, and that doesn’t make representatives of the fishing industry happy. In New Jersey, the industry has apparently gotten a number of congressmen involved, and convinced them to interfere with the decisions of the SSC.

“In a bipartisan letter submitted Sept. 29 to assistant administrator for fisheries Eileen Sobeck, members of the United States House of Representatives stressed the importance of scheduling a benchmark assessment for summer flounder in 2017. Citing the socioeconomic value of the commercial and recreational summer flounder fishery and the incoming quota reductions proposed for 2017 and 2018 due in part to a lack of data, Rep. Tom MacArthur and four other representatives indicate that any delay in the assessment of summer flounder ‘would be a major mistake and threaten the health of the summer flounder population as well as the economy of the communities the fishery supports.’ ”
While it’s understandable that the congressmen want to appear responsive to their constituents, their involvement exemplifies an ongoing problem in fisheries management, which recurs each time politicians attempt to substitute their judgment for that of professional fisheries managers.
Summer flounder are assessed on a regular basis. The most recent benchmark assessments were released in 2005, 2008 and 2013, and the 2013 assessment has been updated in every succeeding year. The harvest reductions scheduled for 2017 and 2018 are being driven by six years of below-average spawning, and not by any lack of data.

The congressmen’s statement, although flawed, is probably based on arguments made by the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF), a New Jersey-based group which seeks “to safeguard and improve fishing access to summer flounder, for those who enjoy it and to ensure the survival of those who depend on it, through scientific and legislative means.”

Put in plain language, SSFFF has a broad policy of opposing harvest reductions and supporting harvest increases, and is willing to use political influence to do so.
SSFFF has hired scientists to demonstrate that male summer flounder grow more slowly and have shorter lifespans than females and has argued that, because of such disparity, NMFS should permit higher fishing mortality rates and set a lower biomass target and threshold than those currently included in the fishery management plan.
Sex-differentiated data was incorporated into the 2008 stock assessment, and when the 2013 assessment was being prepared, scientists at the stock assessment workshop were explicitly instructed to “Review recent information on sex-specific growth and on sex rations at age. If possible, determine if fish sex, size and age should be used in the assessment.”

The stock assessment review panel, composed of three internationally-recognized fisheries biologists, found that the 2013 benchmark assessment successfully addressed that task.

Conducting a benchmark assessment in 2017 would disrupt the existing assessment schedule, and require the assessment of other species to be delayed. It would thus seem unwise to do so, as such an assessment would have no impact on 2017 regulations, and there is no guarantee that even the 2018 annual catch limit would be materially changed as a result.
Thus, the timing of the next benchmark assessment is a matter better determined by scientists, based on their needs, than by politicians who are merely responding to someone’s complaints.
On the other hand, at least the congressmen seeking a new summer flounder assessment had a scientific justification for their request, and were merely asking the Northeast Fisheries Science Center to consider additional data. They weren’t trying to make basic scientific decisions themselves.

That wasn’t the case in 2015, when members of the United States Senate’s Appropriations Committee (Committee) issued a reportthat, although non-binding, gave specific directions to biologists trying to manage red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

The report read, in part
“The Committee is disappointed that NOAA has failed to implement procedures to adequately measure red snapper stocks in the northern Gulf—particularly in areas with physical structures such as offshore oil rigs and artificial reefs. NOAA is directed to begin incorporating fishery data collected on artificial reefs, offshore oil platforms, and any other offshore fixed energy exploration infrastructure directly into the agency’s stock assessments for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico…
“NOAA shall take into consideration any imbalance in the ecosystem that may be occurring between larger red snapper and other fish species before accepting amendments to existing regulations or implementing new regulations that directly affect red snapper quotas in the Gulf of Mexico.”
If anyone on the Committee had taken the time to read the most recent benchmark stock assessment for Gulf of Mexico red snapper, they would have quickly learned that research relating to red snapper abundance on artificial structures was included in the assessment process.

The Committee’s instruction to put greater emphasis on fishery data collected on such artificial structure could, if followed, distort the resulting data by emphasizing areas known to concentrate fish, and thus make red snapper appear more abundant than they actually were. While that might have been some Committee members’ intent, it certainly would not have been good science.
The Committee’s language referring to a supposed “imbalance in the ecosystem” created by “larger” red snapper also lacks scientific merit, and is all too familiar to anyone who has spent any time at fisheries meetings. There is always someone who complains that, because of restrictive regulations, “there are so many [pick your preferred species of fish] out there that they’re eating everything else in the ocean.”
It’s the kind of statement that must make folks wonder how any fish ever survived before people came along to protect them from their predators. And it’s the kind of statement that the Committee should never have made when it was writing up its report.

The fact that it did is just further evidence as to why politicians should not try to tell scientists how to do their job.
There’s an old proverb that says, “Let the cobbler stick to his last.”

That’s good advice for politicians who want to get involved in fisheries matters.
Let legislators stick to drafting laws, so that they can give us good bills such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens).

And let scientists stick to doing science and managing fisheries in the way that the authors of Magnuson-Stevens had always intended.
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This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/