Sunday, August 21, 2016

ASMFC: STILL IGNORING THE OBVIOUS

Most of the folks who read this blog are concerned with fisheries management, and they construe the “fisheries’ part pretty literally, limiting it to things with backbones, gills and fins that swim freely through the salt waters.

But fisheries management agencies manage some other critters, too, and even though they’re not of direct interest to anglers, the way that they are managed can reflect on the general merits of the fishery management process.

From that standpoint, it’s probably worth the time to take a look at how the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is managing—if that’s the right word—the southern New England stock of American lobster.

Before going further, I feel like I should post one of those warnings that often come up before TV hunting and nature shows:  Some of the images that will be depicted are unpleasant, and may offend some people.

Start with the truth that southern New England lobster are not in good shape.  The most recent benchmark stock assessment, which came out about a year ago, noted that

“the inshore portion of the [southern New England] stock has clearly collapsed.  The SNE stock is clearly overfished according to both the model and the stock indicators…It is believed the offshore area of SNE depends on nearshore settlement as a source of recruits.  Therefore, the offshore is also in jeopardy and the Technical Committee and Review Panel believe that the stock has little chance of recovering unless fishing effort is curtailedby any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment has been observed.  [emphasis added]”
Then remember that the current condition of the stock didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. 

All the way back in 2009, another benchmark stock assessment found that

“Current abundance of the SNE stock is the lowest observed since the 1980s and exploitation rates have declined since 2000.  Recruitment has remained low in SNE since 1998.  Given current low levels of spawning stock biomass and poor recruitment further restrictions are warranted.”

“The [Technical Committee] recommends output controls as the best method to rebuild the SNE stock...
“A quota would be the most effective way to reduce harvest of lobster in the Southern New England stock.”
Such quotas are generally unpopular with fishermen, particularly in the northeast, because they have a direct impact on profits.  Fishermen may find a way around gear restrictions, days at sea and similar “input controls,” but when you need to take your gear out of the water when a quota is reached, landings and profits are going to fall.  It doesn’t help that a lot of the reason for the declining stock can be traced to increasing water temperatures, and not fishing pressure, making fishermen even more reluctant to reduce their harvest due to factors that they can’t control.

Thus, all ASMFC’s American Lobster Management Board had to hear the Technical Committee say was

“input controls can also accomplish rebuilding, but only if latent effort (traps and permits/licenses) are minimized or removed—and actively fished traps are reduced to a level where effort and catch are linear.  Input controls are less certain in obtaining catch reductions that may lead to stock rebuilding, an additional measure is needed to act in concert with effort reduction…The [Technical Committee] believes the recommended input and output controls may have substantial socio-economic and law enforcement effects, and suggests that the Socio-Economic and law enforcement Committees investigate effects of these controls to provide guidance to the [American Lobster Management] Board,”
and all hopes of putting an annual quota in place flew straight out of the window. 


As the 2015 stock assessment demonstrated, all such input controls failed miserably in their intended purpose of rebuilding the stock.  Instead, the inshore component of the stock collapsed and the offshore component is badly imperiled.

But ASMFC did not change its song.

Today, one year after the 2015 assessment came out, no additional restrictions have been placed on lobster harvest.  No one is acting quickly or imposing emergency measures, despite the assessment’s clear tone. 

At the August 2016 Management Board meeting, there was no hint that such Management Board had learned from its mistakes of the past.  Although it began moving forward with a new Addendum XXV to the management plan, supposedly in response to the benchmark assessment, it ignored the assessment’s conclusion that fishing effort had to be curtailed if the stock was to have any hope of recovery.
Instead, the Management Board decided that the goal of Addendum XXV was

“to respond to the decline of the SNE stock and its decline in recruitment while preserving a functional portion of the lobster fishery in this area.”
In addition, the new Addendum was only viewed as “an initial response” to the impending collapse of the stock.  So it’s pretty clear that no one is in a hurry to inconvenience the lobster fishermen while there’s still a few bucks to be made.

Although the both the Technical Committee and the panel which peer reviewed the stock assessment agreed that fishing effort must be curtailed if there is to be any hope of restoring the stock, the Management Board refused to heed that advice.  The American Lobster Plan Development Team was instructed to draft a proposed Addendum XXV to the management plan, which would instead concentrate on increasing egg production.  Options to increase egg production anywhere from 0% to 60%--but no higher—will be considered, which is a fairly modest goal given that managers are dealing with a stock that is already partially collapsed.

And even those measures, whatever they might be, will be phased in over a two-year period, which won’t begin until after Addendum XXV is adopted by the Management Board, a process which, if it even occurs, could easily take a full year.

So, in the face of a collapsing stock, ASMFC is only willing to make an “initial response” that won’t be fully implemented until roughly three years from now.

That’s no way to rebuild a fishery, although it is reminiscent of the ASMFC dithering that ultimately led to the collapse of northern shrimp, another stock adversely affected by rising water temperatures.

On the other hand, if ASMFC was truly serious about trying to rebuild the stock, it should take its Technical Committee’s advice, offered seven years ago, and impose a hard quota on the southern New England lobster fishery that would guarantee whatever reduction is harvest is needed—back in 2010, independent biologists suggested 50 to 100 percent—to give the stock a half-decent chance to rebuild.

It would be a simple thing to do, given that commercial lobster landings are recorded by the affected states.  Merely take each state’s recent annual landings, and reduce them by the annual percentage.  Once the lobster quota is reached, all traps have to come out of the water.

Given the impact of the needed cuts on lobster fishermen, it would also make sense to pair such quota with a catch share system, which gives each fisherman within a state a set percentage of that state’s overall quota, which shares may be freely sold or leased to other fishermen within the state.  Under such a system, while the quota remains low, some fishermen would be able to make money from their shares without incurring the expenses of running a boat, while others would be able to profit directly from their participation in the fishery, which would be made economically practical by their ability to lease other fishermen’s shares.

It’s an obvious and very workable solution to the southern New England lobster problem. 


But knowing ASMFC, and its aversion to pinching any fisherman’s profits, it’s a solution that will be studiously ignored.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

FABLES OF MAGNUSON-STEVENS "REFORM"

It’s hard to argue that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the most successful, and most comprehensive, fisheries law in the world. 

Thanks to unambiguous language that requires federal fisheries managers to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks, Magnuson-Stevens has, in less than twenty years, fully rebuilt 39 once-depleted fish populations.  Because of the law, just 38 fish stocks are overfished today, compared to 92 in 2000; during the same period, the number of stocks subject to overfishing declined from 72 to a mere 28.

No other fishery management program in the United States, or in the world, has come close to doing as well.

Even so, Magnuson-Stevens has its detractors, mostly drawn from the ranks of those who, directly or indirectly, profit from the harvest of fish.  Commercial fishermen are the first folks that come to mind, but many of the largest and most successful commercial fishing operations support the law, realizing that their profits are directly linked to an abundance of product. 

On the other hand, some recreational fishermen, and much of the recreational fishing industry, haven’t yet digested that message, and are more interested in a bigger short-term kill than in healthy fish stocks and a sustainable long-term harvest.

The organizations that represent such recreational fishermen, along with a big piece of the fishing tackle and marine trades industries, sound like some of the least enlightened commercial fishermen in the country—folks like the New England trawlers who are driving the last nails into the coffins of southern stock winter flounder and Georges Bank cod—as they try to weaken the conservation and rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.

Their chosen vehicle is a bill known as H.R. 1335, named the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.”  It’s a bill so bad that its author, Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska), had to reassure his constituents—some of the most enlightened fishermen in the nation, who know what conservation is worth—that their regional fisheries management council could keep on doing the good work that it’s currently doing, and needn’t adopt the sloppy and ineffective sort of management that H.R. 1335 would allow.

When you support a bill that bad, you can’t help but play a bit loose with the truth, in an effort to support your position.
I was reminded of that the other day, as I thumbed through the July/August issue of Tide, the in-house publication of the Coastal Conservation Association, and came across a piece called “Fixing the Magnuson-Stevens Act,” written by Matt Paxton, CCA’s federal lobbyist.

I know Matt, and there are few people on Earth who know more about Magnuson-Stevens.  He was once a member of the late Senator Ted Stevens’ staff, and drafted a good part of the 2007 Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill.  But he’s in private practice now, and has clients who pay him to try to undo his earlier, very good work.

Speaking for such clients, he wrote that

“Never before in the last two major reauthorizations of the MSA or over the 40 years of the Act’s existence has the entire recreational fishing community come together to speak with one voice.”
That statement is patently untrue, of course.

There are something like 8,800,000 recreational salt water fishermen in the country, and probably only 100,000 or so—about 1% of the total—belong to CCA, which is probably the largest salt water fishing organization in the United States.  

Even if affiliated recreational organizations, all also trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens, double, or perhaps triple, that number, it’s a pretty big stretch to say that “the entire recreational fishing community” is on the same side.  No matter how hard you spin the numbers, 3% is a very long way from “entire”…

Still, the story sounds good, regardless of whether it’s true.  

And I suppose they hope that if they keep repeating the same story long and loud enough, people won’t notice just how far out of the mainstream they really are.

Which brings us to the gentle dance that Matt performed when writing about the changes that H.R. 3094 would make to Magnuson-Stevens.  He describes them as

“providing certain exceptions for establishing annual catch limits to help ensure healthy fisheries are not unnecessarily closed.”
When you think about it, that statement just doesn’t make sense.

Magnuson-Stevens prohibits overfishing, which is defined as

“a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis,”
and requires all fishery management plans to contain

“annual catch limits…at a level such that overfishing does not occur in the fishery.”
It’s hard to argue that measures that prevent putting a fish population’s productivity in jeopardy are “unnecessary,” 

And, of course, annual catch limits are also an integral part of fishery management plans intended to rebuild overfished stocks.  It’s tough to explain how a stock in need of rebuilding can be described as  “healthy.”

But if folks don’t really think about what they read, they might still believe it just because it’s in print…

People who do think about what they read tend to be a nightmare for the Magnuson-Stevens reformers, particularly if what they read includes the text of H.R. 3094.  It’s impossible to read that bill and not know that it bodes nothing but ill for the future of recreational fishing.

Although it contains a number of offensive provisions, the heart of H.R. 3094 is a set of loopholes that would allow managers to delay—perhaps forever—the rebuilding of overfished stocks.  Under one provision, rebuilding could be delayed indefinitely if

“the cause of the stock being depleted is outside the jurisdiction of the Council or the rebuilding program cannot be effective only by limiting fishing activities.”
So if you’re managing salmon that run up dammed rivers, or winter flounder that spawn in state-managed estuaries, rebuilding times are whatever you want them to be.  And let’s not even talk about species—Atlantic cod, black sea bass, etc.—impacted by warming waters…

A second  loophole would put short-term economic gain above the long-term health of fish stocks, by providing relief from the rebuilding deadlines if

“one or more components of a mixed-stock fishery are depleted but cannot be rebuilt within the time-frame without significant economic harm to the fishery…”
That would pretty well doom the cod stocks, so long as there were still haddock to kill.  It’s easy to see the same provision being applied to halt the rebuilding of red snapper and various deep-water grouper that are now in pretty bad shape.

But if those two provisions aren’t enough to keep harvests too high, there is always a final catch-all provision, which would permit managers to delay rebuilding if

“the stock has been affected by unusual events that make rebuilding within the specified time period improbable without significant economic harm to fishing communities.”
It’s a great bit of drafting if you’re trying to avoid the burden of rebuilding stocks, since the marine environment is constantly changing, making “unusual events” of some sort an annual occurrence.  Whether we’re talking about rising sea temperatures or an outbreak of red tide, an upwelling of cold water, a lack of baitfish or a spike in the number of predators, there’s always going to be an “unusual event” of some sort that folks can use to excuse a delay.

So when Matt talks about “certain exceptions to establishing annual catch limits,” he’s not wrong, because with provisions such as the ones quoted above, we can all be very certain that there will always be exceptions to the requirement that annual catch limits be adopted and that stocks be promptly rebuilt.

Though I’m not sure that’s exactly what he was trying to say…

But perhaps the biggest Magnuson-Stevenson fable is the assertion that states can manage fish stocks better than federal managers can.  Such claim is being used in an effort to pull species, most particularly Gulf red snapper, out from under Magnuson-Stevens’ aegis, so that folks can kill more.  
That particular untruth doesn’t appear in the Tide article, but shows up pretty often in the propaganda that the Magnuson-Stevens “reform” folks put out, where you see things such as

“Although there are some who want to make state-based management a controversial issue, they don’t know the states like we do.
“If you’re a Florida coastal angler, ask yourself how many times you couldn’t fish for spotted sea trout because it was ‘overfished’ and had to be closed?...”
While Florida anglers might not be able to recall too many problems with sea trout, a few miles west, in Mississippi, spotted sea trout anglers are having real issues with their state-managed stock.

It turns out that Mississippi’s sea trout, usually called “speckled trout” or just “specks,” have, in fact, become overfished.  While no one yet knows whether there will be a closed season, much more restrictive regulations are certainly needed.


“speckled trout in the Magnolia State are receiving too much fishing pressure, and regulations need to be tightened to rebuild the stock…
“Current spawning potential ratio of Mississippi’s speckled trout population is 10.2 percent…During a [Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources] debate on raising the SPR of speckled trout to 20 percent, biologist Matt Hill said it could be done, but some significant changes would have to be made.
“’It would then be considered a population that is overfished,’ he said.  ‘To stop that, we would basically have to cut the harvest in half.’”
The same article notes that

“Between 1981 and 2013, Louisiana’s [speckled trout] SPR value ranged between 8 and 20 percent, with a median value of 11 percent.  Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries fisheries biologist Jason Adriance told NOLA.com/The Times/Picayune in July the current SPR is 10 percent.”
So it looks like the state-managed specks in Louisiana are overfished, too.

Suddenly, state management programs aren’t looking so good--unless, of course, you believe that fishing stocks down to overfished levels is fine.

We can only wonder whether speckled trout stocks would have fallen so low if states such as Mississippi and Louisiana managed fish the way federal managers do. 

Would the stocks still be overfished if the states had established annual catch limits designed to assure that overfishing would not occur?  

Would the stocks have declined so badly if state regulators imposed greater harvest restrictions when anglers exceeded their hard-poundage quotas, to keep such quotas from being exceeded again?

It’s a pretty good bet that the answer to both questions is no, and that the speckled trout stocks would be in much better shape if state managers did the same sort of things that federal managers do.

Because despite all of the stories that the Magnuson-Stevens reformers tell, the truth is that Magnuson-Stevens is working, and that federal fisheries are, on the whole, the healthiest fisheries in the nation.


Figures, not fables, prove that is so.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

FOR THE GOOD OF THE WHOLE

Last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council held its August meeting.  That meeting is often a raucous affair, because it’s the time when the Council sets annual specifications for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and bluefish, and one or more of those species is always a lightning rod for discontent.

Such specifications were set at the meeting, and there was certainly some comments made.  However, the big news coming out of the Council wasn’t about the usual “big three” species—summer flounder, black sea bass and scup—that usually generate most of the controversy.  Nor did it involve bluefish, which looked like it was going to be a hot issue a few weeks ahead of the meeting.

Instead, the truly important story was that of the Council approving the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment, which will directly protect not the popular species that we all fish for, but the many small species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans that anchor the Mid-Atlantic’s food web and keep those popular species alive.

The amendment wasn’t intended to protect fish already covered by regional or federal fishery management plans, such as menhaden or Atlantic herring.  Instead, it was intended to “freeze the footprint” of fisheries targeting important forage species, and prevent the creation or expansion of any such fishery until enough data can be gathered to demonstrate that such new fishery will be sustainable, both in the individual species and in an ecosystem context.

The amendment broke new ground on the East Coast, although a similar amendment has already been approved by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Quite honestly, when the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment was first proposed some years ago, I wished the effort well, but didn’t give it much chance of succeeding.  

There was institutional inertia to be overcome; there had never been an amendment for largely unfished species approved by the Mid-Atlantic Council before, and it is always difficult to convince people to do something that’s new and different.

In addition, the concept of forage fish management didn’t sit well with owners of industrial fishing fleets, who were used to wringing substantial profit out of high-volume fisheries for low-value species.  

Omega Protein Corporation, a company responsible for the lion’s share of the menhaden harvest, both on the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, had its outside legal counsel prepare a “white paper” for the Mid-Atlantic Council, in which Omega did its very best to cast doubt on the value of forage fish management, and stop the Council effort in its tracks.

Fortunately, the members of the Mid-Atlantic Council saw through the smoke screen.  Through Council meetings and public hearings, through discussions in the press and in social media, they doggedly fought on to keep the Mid-Atlantic’s food web intact.

Thanks to their efforts, we’re not going to have to endure the sight of a big New England trawler, pushed off its traditional grounds by the collapse of cod and other groundfish stocks, deploying fine-mesh midwater trawls and scooping up tons of the sand eels that we need to support fisheries for everything from fluke to bluefin tuna, and selling them to fish meal plants for export to China.

Thanks to their efforts, the chub mackerel that have been so important to Long Island’s bluefin tuna and shark fisheries this season will, for the first time, be subject to real harvest restrictions, instead of being a part of a growing free-for-all that has seen more than 50 million pounds of completely unregulated landings hit the dock over the past five years.

Thanks to their efforts, well, we just don’t know what harm to the food web we won’t be seeing, as the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment prevents the creation of unsustainable and ecologically unwise fisheries for over 50 named species.

Yet the amendment is more than a closed and locked door that forever prevents the creation of new and potentially valuable fisheries.  Should someone want to move forward with a forage fish fishery, and can get over the first hurdle of demonstrating that, so far as scientists can tell, such fishery will not cause ecosystem damage, they will be able to apply for an Exempted Fishery Permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, that will give them further opportunity to prove that the contemplated fishery is sustainable.  If that fact can be proven to the satisfaction of NMFS, the fishery will be allowed to move forward.

Thus, the amendment takes a balanced approach to the forage fish issue, opting for precaution and protecting the ecological status quo in the first instance, but allowing fisheries to be created if they are demonstrably benign to the food web.

But the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment is important not only for what it says on paper, which is substantial in its own right, but about what it says about the mindset of Mid-Atlantic fisheries managers:  That they are ready to move on from traditional, one-size-fits-all single species management, and expand into the new and more challenging world of managing fisheries on an ecosystem basis, where the impacts on an entire network of life, rather than just commercially and recreationally valued fish species, will be part of the management equation.

That was confirmed later in the week, when the Council approved an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management Guidance Document, which defined such approach by saying

“An ecosystem approach to fishery management recognizes the biological, economic, social, and physical interactions among the components of ecosystems and attempts to manage fisheries to achieve optimum yield taking those interactions into account.”
The Guidance Document stated that the goal of an ecosystem approach is

“To manage for ecologically sustainable utilization of living marine resources while maintaining ecosystem productivity, structure, and function,”
and defines “ecologically sustainable utilization” as

“utilization that accommodates the needs of present and future generations, while maintaining the integrity, health and diversity of the marine ecosystem.”
That’s a very big step forward.

Taken together, the forage fish amendment and ecosystem approach guidance document represent a real watershed moment, and a lot to get done in a single meeting.  The annual summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and bluefish specifications pale in comparison, whatever they happen to be.


And once again, the members of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council prove themselves to be leaders, who pioneer new paths that the rest of the coast ought to follow.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

BLUEFISH: WHY NOT MANAGE FOR LIFE?

To date, salt water fishery management is largely about dead fish.
We worry about fishing mortality. We try to figure out how many fish can be landed without doing long-term harm to the stock.

What we don’t think about very often is how many fish we should leave alive in the water to make the best use of the stock.

Probably nothing illustrates that fact so well as Amendment I to the Bluefish Fishery Management Plan (Amendment), which was drafted jointly by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Bluefish are primarily a recreational species; the commercial fishery is relatively small. The Amendment recognizes that fact by allocating 83% of the harvest to the recreational sector and 17% to commercial fishermen.
But harvest doesn’t tell the entire story.
Many anglers don’t like to eat bluefish. While they make good table fare if bled and iced down immediately after they’re landed, and cooked in a way that masks the oil in their flesh, poor handling or thoughtless preparation can result in strong, fishy-tasting dishes that many people find nearly inedible.
However, a lot of anglers who don’t care to eat bluefish still like to catch them. They are one of the hardest-fighting fish found in coastal waters, strike lures with abandon and are widely available, often coming well within casting range of the shore. As a result, bluefish support an active catch-and-release fishery.
Catch and release fisheries need to be managed differently than fisheries driven by harvest. Anglers don’t care about how many fish they can take home, but do care about the number of fish that they encounter. Instead of being managed to maximize the poundage of fish landed, as is the case in food fisheries, release fisheries must be managed to maximize the number of fish that are left in the water for anglers to catch.
That concept has not yet been grasped by fisheries managers, who still think in terms of dead fish on the dock. So the Amendment provided that “If the commercial quota was less than 10.5 million lbs, the quota could be increased up to 10.5 million lbs if the recreational fishery was not anticipated to land their entire allocation for the upcoming year.”

Such provision sends a bad message to anglers, telling them that there’s not much point releasing their bluefish, because if anglers don’t kill their entire quota, the commercial sector will just kill the fish instead.
That message was reinforced in a report by the Council’s Bluefish Monitoring Committee (Monitoring Committee), in which “The [Monitoring Committee] recommended that a transfer from the recreational fishery to the commercial fishery is applied so that the recreational harvest limit will equal expected landings, and the commercial fishery receives the maximum amount possible.”

Under current management, anglers who release bluefish aren’t rewarded with a more abundant bluefish population. They’re merely compelled to watch “their” fish be killed by someone else.
Such management seems to assume that fish only have value when killed, and that catch and release fishing has no value at all. The Council needs to take a step back and read the relevant provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens). They might be surprised to learn that the definition of “optimum yield” includes “the amount of fish which…will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities…”

The law places recreation on an equal footing with food production. Yet the Council’s Amendment and the Monitoring Committee’s recommendation don’t follow its mandate, and instead favor enhanced harvest over enhanced recreational opportunities.
If the word and the spirit of the law were truly observed, each sector would be able to make its own decisions on how its quota would best be utilized. The nature of commercial fishing dictates that the commercial quota be harvested. However, if the recreational sector effectively decides that the “greatest overall benefit…with respect to…recreation” is realized when some of the fish are harvested and some left in the water to be caught again, the Council should not override that decision by transferring anglers’ unharvested bluefish to the commercial sector.
That is admittedly a philosophical argument, but the quota transfers have also caused a very practical problem.
Quota transfers have occurred in every year since the Amendment was approved in 1999. Commercial fishermen have gotten very used to them, and some now seem to feel entitled to a share of the recreational quota. They seem to have forgotten that, should anglers begin keeping more bluefish, the transfers will go away.
For awhile, it appeared that would happen in 2016.
The Council approved a quota transfer for 2016, based on the assumption that recreational landings in 2016 would be the same as they were in 2015, and that 2015 landings would be about the same as they were in the year before. However, revised landing estimates released in June showed that recreational bluefish landings had spiked, increasing from 4.8 million pounds in 2014 to 6.2 million pounds a year later.

As a result, predicted 2016 bluefish landings were revised upward, too. The National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) said that, in response, it planned to cancel the quota transfer for 2016.

Basil Segos, Commissioner of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, wrote a letter to NMFS, asking it not to cancel the quota transfer and calling any such cancellation a “devastating blow to our commercial fisheries.” Bonnie Brady, representing the Long Island [New York] Commercial Fishing Association, also opposes NMFS’ cancellation of the quota transfer, saying that, “The precedent it is setting is the more troubling issue.”

Ms. Brady’s statement seems somewhat off the mark, since the real precedent was set when the Council inserted a quota transfer provision into the Amendment; that was the first and only time that such a provision appeared in a Council management plan. As for the rest of her comment, it’s not clear why Ms. Brady would find it “troubling” that the recreational bluefish quota might be landed solely by recreational fishermen.
However, NMFS ultimately backed off its position, announcing on August 1 that further investigation revealed that 2015 recreational landings were being revised downward again, and that 1.57 million pounds of bluefish will be transferred from the recreational to the commercial sector. Such transfer, while smaller than the 2.2 million pounds originally contemplated, should alleviate most of the commercial fishermen’s concerns.

Even so, with the bluefish quota transfer so recently in the news, there could be no better time for the Council to reconsider its quota transfer policy.
Eliminating the transfer would finally allow recreational fishermen to utilize, but not necessarily kill, their entire quota, and maximize recreational opportunities, as Magnuson-Stevens intends. It would also end the commercial sector’s risky dependence on a transfer that might not always occur.
More importantly, ending the quota transfer would be a signal to anglers, letting them know that fisheries managers finally understand that live fish in the water can, in the end, have at least as much value as dead fish on the dock.

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"Bluefish:  Why Not Manage for Life?" originally appeared in "From the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/


Sunday, August 7, 2016

WHITHER MENHADEN?

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held its annual meeting last week, and it’s probably fair to say that setting the 2017 menhaden quota, was the hottest item on the agenda.

Menhaden management is not a new topic at ASMFC.  I’ve been working on it since I first got involved with ASMFC issues back in the mid-1990s, and folks that I know at the Coastal Conservation Association have worked on it longer than that. 


After that, things moved forward by fits and starts, in a highly politicized process that pitted anglers, conservationists and some small-scale commercial fishermen against large-scale commercial operators that can wipe out an entire menhaden school with just one set of their nets and are willing to commit substantial resources in order to swap current regulations for others that will maximize the industrial boats’ short-term kill.

 Scientific uncertainty as to the health of the stock hasn’t been helping the process. 

A stock assessment released in 2011 provided more questions than answers.  It found that there was little or no clear connection between the size of the menhaden stock and the number of young-of-the-year fish recruited into the population.  No population model seemed to provide a good fit for the species.  However, based on the information available, biologists determine that, although the stock was not overfished, overfishing was probably occurring.

An update to the stock assessment conducted in 2012 agreed with the conclusions of the previous assessment, but contained the comment that

“Overall, the retrospective pattern and a number of other issues cast considerable doubt on the accuracy of the estimates from this update stock assessment.”
Concerns about the quality of menhaden management led ASMFC to adopt an amendment to the management plan in late 2012.  That amendment adopted more biologically justifiable reference points for use in determining when the stock might be overfished or experiencing overfishing.

More importantly, the amendment recognized that menhaden were a very important forage fish, which were preyed upon by a host of fish, birds and marine mammals, and that as a result of such status, the reference points adopted in the amendment were only for interim use, until ecologically-based reference points, which would take account of the menhaden’s role in the coastal food web, could be developed.

ASMFC clearly stated that

“the Amendment is designed to minimize the chance of a population decline due to overfishing, reduce the risk of recruitment failure, reduce impacts to species which are ecologically dependent on Atlantic menhaden, and minimize adverse effects on participants in the fishery.”
In order to achieve such goals, the amendment reduced harvest by 20% until a new benchmark stock assessment, which hopefully provided a better picture of the health of the population, could be produced.  It would be an understatement to say that the big industrial harvesters were not happy.

Thus, when the new stock assessment was being prepared, the reduction industry made sure that they were a part of the process.  Their goal was to demonstrate that there were more fish in the population than biologists believed, in order to justify an increased harvest.

They did that by arguing that the samples used by scientists to determine the size of the population did not survey all age classes equally; that older, larger fish were being missed by the samplers.  As things turned out, there was evidence to support such claim, with four different sets of data capturing older fish that were not showing up in surveys of the menhaden fishery.  As a result, when the next stock assessment was completed in December 2014, it depicted a much healthier stock than did its predecessors.

Now, ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board is trying to figure out how to deal with that conclusion.

Last June, using data based on the most recent stock assessment, ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Technical Committee determined that there was no chance of overfishing occurring, even if harvest was increased by 40% in 2017.  Naturally, that energized the industrial fishing interests, with Jeff Kaelin, a representative of Lund’s Fisheries of Cape May, New Jersey, stating

“We’re focused on the science.  If the science supports an increase, we want to take it.”
But whether or not the science supports an increase depends very much on a person’s point of view.

If someone’s sole concern is whether harvest can be increased in 2017 without exceeding the overfishing threshold, the answer is certainly yes.  However, the same stock assessment that relied on a larger than previously believed number of large fish in the population to support such an increase also showed that recent recruitment hasn’t been all that good; it found that the number of small fish in the population was relatively low.

Thus, killing a lot of fish in 2017 could possibly lead to a problem a few years down the road.

And that’s when the only concern is the mere sustainability of menhaden harvest.  When we look to the real future of menhaden management, management based on biological and ecological reference points, the science does not clearly show that harvest can be safely increased.

When managing under such ecological reference points, harvest is not the first thing on scientists’ minds.  Instead, they initially have to determine the volume of menhaden required to sustain the species’ role in the coastal food web; that is, how much menhaden is needed to support fully-restored populations of striped bass, bluefish, king mackerel, red drum, weakfish and predatory fish, along with the ospreys, bald eagles, bottlenosed dolphins, humpbacked whales and various other birds and marine mammals that feed on menhaden on  a regular basis.

After that’s figured out, the appropriate amount of fish must be set aside to provide necessary ecosystem services, before harvest can even be considered.  Only after that is done should managers begin to look at how many menhaden may safely be harvested while still assuring that the population can not only sustain itself in the long-term, but also provide forage for all of the predators that benefit from an abundant menhaden population.

Since the needed science is still being developed, no one knows how many menhaden may be safely harvest under such criteria, but it’s a pretty good bet that the number will be a lot lower than current harvest.

Thus, conservation groups and anglers say, ASMFC shouldn’t be in a hurry to increase landings now.  As the Chesapeake Bay Foundation notes,

“Some advocates for the fishing industry are urging an increase in the quota, arguing that the [most recent] assessment shows a healthy population.  [Chesapeake Bay Foundation] and others are urging caution and more thorough analysis to ensure there are enough menhaden to serve as forage for other species in the coastal ecosystem.
“While the population does appear to be in better condition than previously thought, it is still a long way from being healthy and certainly a long way from fulfilling all the forage needs of striped bass and other predators.  The new assessment only shows the status of the menhaden population independent of other species and not its robustness within the food web.”

“An analysis conducted by scientists at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission finds that the coastwide Altantic menhaden quota can be substantially raised without impacting the sustainability of the species.”
The Coalition release notes that

“In 2015, the ASMFC’s Atlantic menhaden stock assessment found that the menhaden stock was healthy and sustainably managed, with the species neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.  It also found that fishing mortality is at an all-time low, and that menhaden fecundity (egg production) has been strong in recent years.”
However, the release fails to tell readers that the stock assessment also found there is no strong link between egg production and the size of any particular year class, or that relatively few young menhaden have been recruited into the population in recent years.  It also completely failed to address the menhaden’s role as an important forage fish, or the consideration that managers should give to the menhaden’s important place in the food web.

Thus, the two sides were arrayed for a confrontation at last week’s meeting. 


Although the meeting ran on for well over three hours, neither side could make any headway.  Conservationists repeatedly frustrated industry efforts to substantially increase their kill, while lacking the single key vote that would allow them to obtain a plurality of the vote needed to put a conservative menhaden quota in place. 

The only thing that the two sides could eventually agree on was to postpone the rest of the discussion to the Management Board’s October meeting.

That put the pro-conservation folks in a bad place.


“all of the reasonable people want a quota of some sort.”
He also indicated that there would be a lot of informal politicking between now and October to get enough votes behind one of the proposals, to adopt such a quota.

Still, folks such as Venasse have a stronger hand, for if ASMFC fails to adopt a 2017 menhaden quota, states with important menhaden fisheries will feel free to relax restrictions on harvest, something that, under any set of assumptions, could not be good for the stock.

So now everyone finds themselves caught up in a big game of political chicken, in which each side is trying to force the other to blink and offer a generous compromise. 

The industrial harvesters worry that conservation advocates will find a way to pick up just one more vote, and then be able to freeze landings at the current level.

The pro-conservation folks, on the other hand, must worry that no compromise will be reached, and that the lack of any coastwide quota will allow states such as Virginia and New Jersey will unleash their industrial fleets, and decimate the menhaden resource.  Or, in the alternative, they worry that the threat of such unfettered harvest will coerce one more state to enter into a compromise that will still up the kill by 20% or more.

It’s a bad place to put the fishery.


But it still could end will if managers changed their focus from dead fish to live ones, and took no action until folks figure out how many menhaden must remain in the ocean to assure a sustainable fishery not only for menhaden, but for everything that feeds on them as well.