Sunday, July 27, 2014

MEANINGLESS MOANING ABOUT MENHADEN

It was maybe 40 years ago. 

The bluefish had come in early that spring, and were tearing apart the big schools of menhaden (we called them “bunker”) that bunched up in the harbors.  I had been catching more than my share, and offered to take a local tackle shop owner out for a taste of the action. 

We met at the dock before dawn, surrounded by the charcoal gray murk of a pea soup fog.  I’ve always felt comfortable running in fog, so getting to the fishing grounds wasn’t much of a problem, but once there, finding the fish became a bit of a challenge. 

I usually found the blues by watching for menhaden exploding out of the water; with visibility down to around 30 feet, that became a little tough to do.  Instead, I shut down the engine and listened.

If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that I was approaching a waterfall, or maybe the churning rapids of a whitewater river; someone who had never seen bluefish rip into a bunker school would find it hard to believe that mere fish could be responsible for the continual splashing roar that echoed through the fog. 

In minutes, we were among them, and had maybe an hour and a half of the fastest kind of action with bluefish averaging 12 or 14 pounds, and topping out around 16.  Then we had to quit, so my morning's companion could open his shop, where he had new stories to tell—more or less continuously—for the next week or so.

Such intense feeding frenzies continued for another decade or so, then began to slow down.  There were a lot of reasons why they slowed down, but a lack of menhaden was certainly one of them.

Recently, thanks to anglers and other marine conservationists coming together for a common cause, and thanks to some cooperation at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the health of our menhaden population is beginning to improve. 

I could see graphic testimony of that off Long Island this June, when abundant schools of menhaden tolled in a bunch of big striped bass, which in turn attracted masses of anglers so large that I had difficulty weaving my boat through the fleet in order to make my appointment with bigger critters farther offshore.

The cause and effect is, and always was, pretty clear:  Abundant menhaden attract an abundance of gamefish, which in turn attract an abundance of anglers who, finding themselves catching fish, make more trips and spend more money on boats, fuel and tackle.

It seems like a win-win for everyone—even for the menhaden, since their key role as forage fish means that anglers, and others, will go out of their way to help the population recover, and to keep it healthy once it does.

And the menhaden does need protection, for there are folks out there who are always trying to find ways to kill as many fish as they can.  It seems that the menhaden’s increasing abundance doesn’t impress those folks at all…


“The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Peter Baker recently declared the new catch limits on Atlantic menhaden a “success” based on the results of the last year’s menhaden harvest…But such a declaration depends on a very limited definition of “success.”  In the year since these cuts went into effect, issues of transparency, equity and disparities in enforcement persist…
“Viewed from this perspective, the 2013 Atlantic menhaden fishing season is unfortunately not one that can clearly be labeled a “success.”  Along the coast, a number of troubling scenarios highlight inequities in harvest cut enforcement that merit serious consideration by fisheries managers.  To ignore these problems threatens not only the species’ sustainable management, but also the legitimacy of those tasked with upholding these commercial harvest cuts.”
Those two paragraphs marked the beginning and end of Landry’s essay; in between were a collection of—let’s be kind—trivial and somewhat self-serving statements that make a futile attempt to blemish what was really a significant and long awaited conservation victory.

I’ll go back and address what Landry wrote between his opening and ending paragraphs later.

For now, it may be more worthwhile to discuss what happened between the day that I took that shopowner out for bluefish 40 years ago and last month, when the striped bass blitzed the menhaden schools off Fire Island.  It will certainly put Landry’s comments in the proper context.

It’s all about menhaden abundance which, according to ASMFC’s 2012 Menhaden Stock Assessment Update, increased throughout the 1970s and peaked in the early 1980s.   However, according to the “Beaufort Assessment Model” (named after the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Beaufort laboratory, which has done considerable menhaden research), it was all downhill after that, with the biomass of the population bottoming out in 2011.

The long slide didn’t go unnoticed.  Dick Brame, Atlantic States Fisheries Coordinator for the Coastal Conservation Association, once told me that he started getting involved with menhaden management in the early 1990s, when some folks in the South Atlantic states started complaining that they were having trouble getting enough menhaden to use as king mackerel bait.  

However, the effort to try to conserve menhaden didn’t get off the ground until much later, because of a big problem at ASMFC—and that was the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board itself.

Over the years, the structure of fishery management boards at ASMFC evolved, until they finally took the shape they have today—every state that declared an interest in a species has the right to sit on that species’ management board.  Three members from each interested state, including the state’s salt water fisheries director, a governor’s appointee and a legislative appointee, would have seats on the board, with each state casting a single vote representing the majority view of its caucus. 

Back in the ‘90s, every one of ASMFC’s species management boards, except one, was structured that way. 

That sole exception was Atlantic menhaden.

ASMFC completed the inaugural Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden in 1981, and assured that the foxes would have control of the henhouse by creating an Atlantic Menhaden Management Board composed of six state representatives, six representatives of the menhaden fishing industry and one representative from NMFS.  Such management board would be advised by an Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Board, composed of state, industry and NMFS representation, as well as a Atlantic Menhaden Implementation Subcommittee, made up of three state fisheries managers and three industry representatives.

With the menhaden industry having parity with state scientists on every menhaden management body, perhaps it’s not surprising that the introduction of such first menhaden management plan contained the lines

“The Atlantic Menhaden Management Board has given due consideration to the magnitude of the menhaden resources, the useful products derived therefrom, and the current diverse management authorities vested in the several states from Maine to Florida in development of this management plan.”
That first plan also gave lip service to the menhaden’s importance as a forage fish, but given the makeup of the various boards, that clearly was not the managers’ first priority.

That was made pretty clear by the management plan’s “Long-Term Objective,” which was to

“Achieve the greatest continuing yield from each area by determining the age at which menhaden should be harvested and eliminating other restrictions which do not contribute to the management goal [emphasis added].”
However, states have a responsibility to their citizens, and not merely to the menhaden industry.  As a result, a number of jurisdictions began placing restrictions on the commercial menhaden fishery, which included substantial closed areas in a number of states.  That didn’t make the industry happy, so in 1986, ASMFC issued a supplement to its Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan which contained the admonition

“Laws and regulations existing in 1981-82 are still in place and ‘new’ ones have been enacted which conflict with the long-term objective…and do not contribute to the ASMFC coastwide management plan for Atlantic menhaden.
“The major state actions which go beyond the 1981 FMP…are area closures in New York, New Jersey, Delaware and North Carolina.  These closures, in conjunction with national and international economic factors, have seriously affected the viability of the Atlantic menhaden fishery in spite of improved stock conditions.  Since 1981, plants have closed permanently in New Jersey and North Carolina.  Another North Carolina plant did not fish during Fall, 1985.  One of the two Virginia companies has stated that it may not participate in the Atlantic fishery in 1986…
“We strongly recommend that participating states take the steps necessary to assure that their regulations or laws are consistent with the management plan.  We ask that the fishery directors…provide the [Atlantic Menhaden Management Board] with a listing of the existing regulations and laws pertaining to Atlantic menhaden…along with a statement of the rationale for each action…Also, we recommend that each state director refer any pending or future regulation or statute (bill) which bears upon the Atlantic menhaden fishery to the [Atlantic Menhaden management board] for comment.  This procedure would…try to reduce or eliminate those existing regulations and statutes which are not consistent with the plan [to achieve the greatest continuing yield from each area][emphasis added].”
Just in case somebody didn’t get the point, the Supplement also included a request for proposals to study “the socio-economic aspects of the Atlantic menhaden fishery, and analysis of the socio-economic impacts of selected public and private-sector management decisions and alternatives.”

Yes, the foxes get pretty testy when someone tries to take their nice, fat chickens away…

However, in 2001, folks decided that it was time to give those chickens a break.  At that time, I was a volunteer with the Coastal Conservation Association, had the privilege of working with Dick Brame and a number of others who decided to bring the foxes under control, and had the pleasure of watching the process unroll.

Folks had figured out that an Atlantic menhaden management board made up of five state fisheries directors, five menhaden fishing industry representatives, a representative from NMFS and a representative of the National Fish Meal and Oil Association—even if augmented by one legislative and one governor’s appointee, along with two “public representatives”—probably wasn’t going to put the health of the menhaden resource and its importance as a forage fish at the top of its list.

Folks had also figured out that the Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee, which contained a hefty percentage of menhaden fishing industry representatives, might not be completely unbiased when it came to deciding on the health of the stock and the quantity of fish that such menhaden fishing industry would be able to harvest in any given year.

So they prevailed upon ASMFC to adopt Amendment 1 to the Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan, which changed the management structure so that menhaden are now managed like any other fish.

Getting from there to the point that upset Mr. Landry was, as they say, just a matter of history, although history doesn’t quite record all of the time and effort put in by a lot of unsung heroes to get to where we are today.

The fact that it took eleven years to produce Amendment 2 to the Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan, the first menhaden plan with rigorous, science-based reference points governing harvest, gives a hint of how much work it took to get there.

But only a hint.

Amendment 2 required the coastwide menhaden harvest to be reduced by 20%, and divvied up the harvest among the several states.  Virginia, where Omega Protein—Mr. Landry’s employer—has its plant, was allocated 85.32% of a 170,800 metric ton harvest. 

That’s 320,598,432 pounds.


So it’s pretty clear why Mr. Landry was complaining about “inequities in harvest cut enforcement” that “threatens not only the species’ sustainable management, but also the legitimacy of those tasked with upholding these commercial harvest cuts” after New York allowed its menhaden fishermen to go about one million pounds over quota (which they really didn’t do, as New York was given unused quota by Massachusetts and North Carolina to account for the difference).  

I mean, that’s one million pounds, nearly 0.35%--that’s thirty-five hundredths of one percent—of the amount of menhaden caught by Omega—or, to put it another way, maybe less than the amount that probably leaks out of their nets and gets lost in the transfer process over the course of a season
.
The Maryland situation involves a few more fish—who knows, maybe a whole one percent of what Omega Protein kills every year.

If that small amount “threatens…the species’ sustainable management,” then what does the 286 million pounds killed by Omega do?

And if those small complaints are the worst thing that Mr. Landry can say about menhaden management, then it’s time that he admits the truth of what the rest of us have been saying for a very long time.

Amendment 2 to the management plan was a big step forward.

In fact, Peter Baker was right.

It was a “success.”



Thursday, July 24, 2014

MANAGING FOR LIFE

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is, without question, the most comprehensive and most successful fishery management law in the world.

Under its aegis, at least since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 became law, overfishing has been sharply reduced and many overfished stocks have been restored to health.

However, like anything crafted by man, Magnuson isn’t perfect.  Its biggest flaw may be that it manages dead fish, rather than live ones.

This is what I mean.

Under Magnuson, management parameters are ultimately defined in terms of yield. Overfishing is

a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis,”
while National Standard One says that stocks should be managed for “optimum” yield, which is
“the amount of fish which—
(A) will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems;
(B) is prescribed as such on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor; and
(C) in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield in such fishery.”
It’s all about “yield”—how many fish may be safely killed, rather than how many fish ought to be kept alive.

Yes, I know that an overfished stock is generally defined in terms of biomass—live fish in the water—but even there, an overfished stock is one that is too small to produce maximum sustainable yield.

Despite the references to “marine ecosystems” and “ecological factor” in the definition of “optimum” yield, when you get right down to it, the effectiveness of management actions is measured in terms of dead fish, not live ones.

Think what management would look like if we took the other tack, and managed for life instead.

I’m writing as an angler, so let’s consider a popular angling species—it might be bluefish, king mackerel or perhaps Pacific rockfish—and think about what the populations should look like.

First, as I and others have written before, anglers want fish in abundance.  That means keeping enough fish in the water that anglers, throughout the species’ range, have a good chance of encountering some at any time during the season.  What constitutes “some” fish will differ from species to species—you would expect to catch a lot more Spanish mackerel than, say, cobia—but whatever the species, the chances of an encounter would be pretty high.

But mere abundance is just not enough.  We’d also want to give some of those fish a chance to live long enough to get big. 

That’s inefficient from a commercial perspective, where any fish that dies of old age is deemed wasted and a population that quickly produces big numbers of little fish may be more profitable than one in which harvest is delayed to produce larger individuals.  However, anglers have always been intrigued by big fish, and the sort of management that produces big fish is also the kind of management that leads to the healthiest stocks. 

That’s because a population that includes a good number of larger individuals, the sort that fisheries scientists sometimes affectionately refer to as “BOFFs”—Big, Old, Fat Fish—usually has a spawning stock made up of fish of many different sizes belonging to many different year classes.  Such a stock, which is not dependent on just one or two year classes for its spawning success, is inherently more resilient and better able to shrug off transient environmental conditions that lead to a few years of poor recruitment.

Thus, rather than managing for “optimum yield,” which pegs harvest at or near the highest sustainable levels without regard for the structure of the stock, managers should instead be seeking “optimum” abundance and an “optimum” stock structure, by setting a “permissible harvest level” which assures that such an optimized stock can be created and maintained.

And no, that is not some sort of radical dream.  It’s more or less how whitetail deer are managed today, with tools such as doe permits to manage abundance and recruitment, minimum antler requirements to allow some bucks to grow old, etc. 

“Quality deer management” has been around for a long time, and maybe it’s past time for “quality fish management” to make its appearance.

Once we accept the fact that fish are wildlife, it all makes perfect sense.

A different approach is needed for creatures near the base of the food web, which provide the food that other fish, as well as birds and marine mammals, need to survive.  They’re lumped together in the broad category of “forage fish,” although some are not fish—squid and many crustaceans come to mind—and some are not simply forage.  Atlantic mackerel feed people as well as bluefin tuna, while Pacific pollock are critically important to both commercial fishermen and Steller sea lions.

In such cases, managers first need to ensure that there are enough fish around to fulfill their role in the marine food web.  Then, there needs to be enough left over to provide a sustainable and well-structured breeding population.  After that, once again, the “permissible harvest level” kicks in.

It’s trendy to call such approach “ecosystem management,” but that’s probably a misnomer.  Ocean ecosystems are vast, complex systems that encompass everything from viruses to blue whales, and no one is capable of managing all of that.

And calling for “ecosystem management” always brings out the clowns who pretend to go along, then follow up by claiming that the red snapper—or the cod, or striped bass or red drum—are getting too numerous, and throwing the ecosystem out of whack, and that in the name of “ecosystem management” they should be allowed to go out and kill a bunch to bring things back into balance, forgetting that fish got along just fine, without that kind of “help,” for something like 450 million years.

No, I think it’s better to just refer to it as “live fish management,” or maybe more simply, “managing for life.”

Because life, in all its diversity and its abundance, is the ultimate good.



Sunday, July 20, 2014

ADAMANTLY OPPOSED TO ABUNDANCE

New York’s black sea bass season opened last Tuesday, and I was eager to get out and put some fish in the box.  

Yesterday, with the work week behind me, I finally ran out to one of my favorite wrecks, where the sea bass were fat and abundant.

It was great fishing.  I had my 8-fish limit in about 40 minutes; probably less time than it took me to get to the wreck.  The fish had some shoulders, too.  The biggest one weighed over four pounds.  I probably could have stayed out a bit longer and been a bit pickier, and come in with nothing much under three; however, I wanted to keep a few smaller ones to steam Chinese-style, with black beans, ginger and soy.

There were clouds of sea bass on the depthfinder, and that was a good thing to see, because once the season opens, anglers hit the fish pretty hard; by fall, the clouds will be gone and the average size will be quite a bit smaller.  

Exuberant abundance at the start of the season means that there will still be some fish around at its end.

The size and number of the black sea bass available to anglers today is testimony to the effectiveness of the conservation provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and their ability to restore real abundance to a fishery that had fallen on hard times not so many years ago.

One might think that everyone in the angling community would be pushing to restore all of our fish stocks to similar levels of abundance, but I learned earlier this week that’s just not the case, when someone pointed me to the blog of an organization that didn’t mince words, and but came right out and deemed current calls for of managing for abundance “crap.”

The blog appears under the aegis of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, and seems dedicated to the principal that if you can’t say something bad about someone or something, it’s best to say nothing at all (the link that I provided above leads to the single post being discussed here, but you can click on this link if you feel the need for a second helping of vituperation).

It’s made up of the same kind of black helicopter stuff about environmental organizations trying to impair recreational fishing that folks have been trying to sell to anglers for years. 

It confuses the concept of “managing for abundance,” which is intended to provide more and larger fish for anglers to catch (although it also creates a more stable age and size structure in fish populations), with a report entitled Oceans of Abundance that was crafted by a group of environmental organizations that support catch shares as a management strategy. 

Assuming that readers will be gullible enough to go along, the blog then makes the next jump of illogic to warn

“That means fish tags, auction houses, and state-run access lotteries as our future of recreational fishing, all in the name of abundance!”
Let’s be serious here.  Can you imagine using fish tags on a porgy boat?  And scup are already one of the most successful examples of “managing for abundance” that we have…

After some additional blather that attempts to link managing for abundance with catch shares and label it all an environmentalists’ plot, the blog goes on to identify those supporting abundance as “well-spoken, hip conservationists,” and members of some “angling elite” who “[rip] a page from the 21st century progressive’s handbook” in order to seduce folks into believing that having a lot of fish in the water is a good idea, and wraps up the entire process by saying

“In other words, asking for abundance is another way of saying ‘please, take away my right to fish.’”
One could respond by saying that “opposing abundance is another way of saying ‘please, don’t let me catch many fish,’” but that’s probably too obvious for words…

At any rate, the blog’s assertions would probably come as a pretty big shock to the nation’s largest angling organizations, as well as to the primary trade associations representing the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries because, as it turns out, they want folks to manage for abundance, too.

If the Recreational Fishing Alliance had attended the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit that NOAA fisheries hosted back on April 1st and 2nd (I believe that I saw RFA members and at least one of their regional spokesmen there, but the national leadership was noticeably absent), perhaps it would have been aware that “managing for abundance” was anything but a sinister plot to chase anglers off the water; it was one of the central talking points at the Summit, clearly supported by the leaders of the fishing tackle and boatbuilding communities, as well as by spokesmen for the anglers themselves.

In February, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership issued a detailed report entitled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries”.  A number of important recreational fishing and boatbuilding organizations, including the Center for Coastal Conservation, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association (the trade association for the fishing tackle industry) and the National Marine Manufacturers Association were contributors.  That report explicitly endorses managing for abundance, saying

“What recreational anglers want and need is wide-ranging, dependable access to healthy and abundant fish stocks…
Recreational anglers are more focused on abundance and size, structures of the fisheries, and opportunities to get out on the water [emphasis added].“
It doesn’t, however, endorse catch shares, because the folks who wrote the “Vision” report actually understand the difference between the two.

No, “managing for abundance” isn’t just for environmentalists anymore.  In fact, it never was.

Speaking at a previous recreational fishing summit, held a number of years ago, Bob Hayes, General Counsel to the Coastal Conservation Association, offered what was probably the best working description of the “managing for abundance” concept, saying that

“Anglers want to be able to catch a lot of fish, with some big ones.”
That’s what I found on my sea bass wreck yesterday, and I thought that it was pretty good.

For who could say that kind of fishing is bad? 

That is, who other than the RFA?

But then, RFA always seems to forge its own path.


Hastings named it the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act”, but the bill is so bad that the conservation community is calling it the “Empty Oceans Act”.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership says that the bill

while the Center for Coastal Conservation—which represents both the American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, among other groups—issued a press release declaring “Recreational Fishing and Boating Community Underwhelmed By House Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization Bill.”

But, contrary to the comments emanating from most of the recreational community, RFA calls H.R. 4742


Yes, RFA forges its own path.  But that path seems to be getting pretty lonely these days.

There is a unique service on the Internet that can be found at www.guidestar.org.  Anyone can go onto that site and, once registered (registration is simple and free) find Form 990s—the tax return filed by tax-exempt organizations, including 501(c)(4) advocacy groups such as RFA—for any not-for-profit corporation with significant income.  When those returns are filed, the signer states, under penalties of perjury, that they are “true, correct and complete”.

So we can pretty much assume that anything that a Form 990 says is true.

When one takes a look at RFA’s Form 990, a couple of things jump out pretty quickly.  The first one is that the Recreational Fishing Alliance has quite a bit more money going out than coming in.  The 2012 tax return, which is the last one available on the Guidestar site, shows a loss of $109,824 for that year (expenses of $693,286 on revenues of just $583,462); the 2010 and 2011 Form 990s show losses of $52,613 and $111,197, respectively.

Over the long term, RFA’s 2012 tax return shows an accumulated loss of $359,027; RFA apparently hasn’t shown a profit since sometime before 2008, when it experienced yet another loss of $135,676.

So whatever the organization is selling on its blog and elsewhere, it doesn’t appear that a lot of folks are buying…

That’s probably a difficult thing to accept for RFA, which bills itself as a


yet, according to Schedule C of its 2012 Form 990, spent just $4,700 on lobbying in 2012, for “various election campaign donations” (by contrast, the Coastal Conservation Association, which as a 501(c)(3) organization cannot spend unlimited funds on lobbying, still managed to devote $497,829 to that purpose in the same year).

But it appears that RFA has not given up trying to sell its message and grow its membership base.  In 2012, for example, its Form 990 shows that it spent $130,664—twenty-seven times as much as it spent on lobbying, and 22% of all revenues received that year—on “Advertising and Promotion” and another $93,647 on “Dues Processing”.

Who knows how successful those efforts will be for an organization that calls managing for abundance “crap” and believes that the “Empty Oceans Act” is “a bill worth supporting.”

Maybe they’ll convince anglers that their cause is the right one, and become profitable once again.

Or maybe they will stand on the shore as a modern-day analogue of old King Canute, and try to halt a rising tide of support for “managing for abundance” with declarations that such notions of management are “crap”—and share that ancient sovereign’s lack of success.

Time will tell which turns out to be true.

But if I were a betting man, I know which outcome I’d put my money on.




Thursday, July 17, 2014

SCIENCE IS MEANT TO BE USED

We hear a lot about “best available science” in fisheries management. 

It’s what decisions are supposed to be based on, and in the federal system, they are.  National Standard 2, included in the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, says that

Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.
If the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a regulation that wasn’t supported by the science, there’s a very good chance that they’d be sued.  And that they’d lose.  It’s happened quite a few times before.

However, once you abandon the federal system, science loses its dominant role. 

Folks still give it a lot of lip service.  For example, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter states that

“It is the policy of the Commission that its ISFMP…be based on the best scientific information available…”
The problem is that ASMFC isn’t governed by the Magnuson Act, or any similar law, and there is no national standard that can be used to enforce those words.  To date, courts have not been receptive to legal challenges to ASMFC decisions.  So we end up in a situation where, even when good science exists, ASMFC can wait quite a long time before it adopts it—if it adopts it at all.

I was reminded of that earlier this week, when I attended a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council.

The Council was discussing the August meeting of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, which will debate a reduction in overall striped bass landings.  Such reductions were called for in a recent, peer-reviewed stock assessment, which found that fishing mortality was too high and that the striped bass stock was about to descend into “overfished” territory.

The stock assessment was presented to the Management Board last October, and represents the “best scientific information available”.  The only problem is that nine months have passed since the Management Board had the assessment, and ASMFC still hasn’t replaced the old, now-discredited data in its management plan with the new information.

That won’t happen until October—a full year later—at the earliest.  There is a slim possibility that it will never happen at all.

Part of the problem is that, before adopting the latest scientific findings, ASMFC has to go out and seek public comment on whether or not they should.

When you stop to think about it, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The only comment relevant to the issue would probably be a competing stock assessment, based on equivalent data that passed an equally rigorous peer review.  

The odds of someone making that sort of comment are impossibly high, and comments such as “You suits need to get out on the water.  There’s plenty of bass out there” don’t really add much to the discussion. 

But they do delay the process.

The Management Board was supposed to put the matter out for public comment after its February meeting, then decided to kick the can down the road until May.  At its May meeting, it apparently decided that kicking the can was so much fun that it did it again, delaying release of any draft addendum until August.

So public hearings on the science, which were originally planned for late winter, will now be held in late summer or early fall. 

Unless the can gets kicked one more time.

ASMFC’s failure to promptly adopt the best available science has real implications for striped bass management.
Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass contains five “triggers” which, if tripped, require the Management Board to act to end excessive harvest and/or to recover a stock that has fallen to undesirably low levels.

The third trigger states that

“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.”
Since ASMFC’s 2013 Update of the Striped Bass Stock Assessment using Final 2012 Data found that the fishing mortality target was exceeded in both 2011 and 2012, the last years for which data is available, and also found that the female spawning stock biomass was below the target in every year since 2006, the Management Board must take action to end overfishing within one year, if the fishing mortality reference points from the latest stock assessment are used.

The same set of facts would also trip the fourth trigger, which states that

“If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [ten years].”
Nine months after the benchmark assessment was presented to the Management Board, no definitive action has been taken to end overfishing, and there has been absolutely no effort to create a plan that would rebuild the striped bass stock.

And the tragic thing is that such inaction can be justified by the argument that, until ASMFC formally adopts the fishing mortality reference points from the benchmark stock assessment, no triggers have actually been tripped, and no action is really required.

Any such argument violates the spirit of Amendment 6; its authors certainly never intended that the Management Board should frustrate the intent of the amendment merely by failing to accept the most recent science.  However, whether such argument violates the letter of Amendment 6 is something for ASMFC to decide.  

And that leaves the bass in a pretty bad place.

Still, despite its current troubles, the striped bass is probably in a better place today than the tautog was for most of the last two decades.  

Back in 1996, ASMFC’s Tautog Technical Committee advised the Tautog Management Board that fishing mortality threshold should not exceed 0.15 (about 14% of the population removed annually).  But the Tautog Management Board hemmed and hawed, encouraged by a recreational fishing industry—particularly the mid-Atlantic party boats—to impose less restrictive measures.

So half-measures went in, and the tautog stock, caught in the limbo of ignored scientific advice, declined.  

More half-measures followed, and they caused fishing mortality to peak at more than three times the recommended level, as bag limits got smaller, size limits grew larger and seasons shrank.  

In 2011—fully fifteen years after the Tautog Technical Committee first made its recommendation—ASMFC adopted Addendum IV to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Tautog, which finally set Fthreshold at 0.15.

By that time, here in New York, a season that had been seven months long had shrunk to a mere eleven weeks, the size limit jumped from 12 inches to 16, and the bag limit went from ten fish to four. 

The bait shops aren’t selling too many green crabs any more...

Which shows that waiting too long to adopt the best science is in the interests neither of fish nor of man.

For like a wrench, a hammer or a hacksaw—or any other tool in the box—even the best science isn’t much good to anyone unless it is actually used.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

DISCOUNTING THE FUTURE

The collapse of a fish stock rarely catches us by surprise—at least if we’re paying attention.

It usually starts out with fishing being a little slow in a lot of different places, although it remains quite good in others.  Then, after a few years, the complaints about bad fishing increase, and rumors of good catches are harder to come by.  Finally, after quite a few years of decline—which can be steady and unmistakable, or halting and harder to notice, depending on the stock involved—there can be no question that the stock has collapsed, and everyone shakes their heads in wonders aloud what went wrong.

Yet, although you can see the crash coming, it is rare that anyone ever gets out in front of the problem and successfully intervenes before collapse comes; instead, those who warn of future calamity are, if not ridiculed, then largely ignored, while many of those who admit that the stock is declining adamantly stand in the way of efforts to fix things.

Once things collapse, though, they call for relief.

Cynics would say that “it’s all about money,” and point to those who harvest fish for sale, but such attitudes aren’t limited to the commercial fishing industry.  The recreational fishing industry is rife with them too, and so are the ranks of ordinary anglers, who make no money from the fishery at all.

It’s a puzzling and frustrating thing for those of us involved with fish conservation, because it seems so illogical on its face.  “Why should a party boat captain,” we wonder, “Be willing to overfish a stock to the point of collapse, when a healthier stock would be better for business?”

It’s a classic question, and one that folks have been asking for a long time.  The answer lies in the tendency of people to  “discount the future” or, to be a little less formal, in the old adage that “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Folks tend to live in the “now.”

The concept is well-known to economists; it underlies just about every business decision.  But it affects a lot more than business, and a lot more than fisheries management.  Back in 1995, an economics professor named Timothy J. Brennan wrote an essay entitled “Discounting the Future:  Economics and Ethics” that examined the problem in a environmental context.

It starts with the concept that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, so if you want someone to forego taking a profit today—say, by not killing too many red snapper, striped bass or winter flounder—they have to believe that there is a bigger dollar waiting for them somewhere down the road.

That dollar has to be big enough to make delaying those profits worthwhile.  And even if it is, the fishermen have to believe that they’re actually going to collect it.

So when I sit down at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, and try to convince folks to protect the tattered remnants of the winter flounder stock, I probably shouldn’t be shocked when the folks representing the tackle shops object the the needed regulations.  

They say that even though flounder are scarce, they still bring some folks into the shops in the spring, and given how long it would take to recover the stock, they’re just not willing to pass up what little money they can get now—for a handful of hooks, some sinkers, a few boxes of bloodworms—in the hope of making far more from a recovered stock at some distant point in the uncertain future.

A very small bird in their hands, after all…

And that touches on another point in Brennan’s essay, the question of whether pure economics should govern all decisions, or whether there is an ethical burden placed upon today’s decisionmakers—perhaps on all of today’s society—to assure that those living far in the future, who we shall never know, should enjoy the same quality of life that we know today.

Do the folks sitting around the table at a Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting, for example, have the ethical right to decide that future generations of anglers shall not catch—or perhaps even remember—winter flounder, just because the current generation of tackle shop owners wants to sell a couple more hooks and sinkers—along with some bait, and maybe a rod and a reel or two—today?

I'll let you make up your own mind on that one...

But let’s leave the shops, the party boats and the commercial fishermen alone for a while.  We know that cash is a powerful motivation, and one that’s easy to understand.

So let’s look at the ordinary recreational fisherman, who receives no direct economic benefit from overharvest, and ask why so many of them also seem reluctant to reduce their current kill--say of big female striped bass--in order to achieve more abundance, and much better fishing, at some point down the road.

To some extent, it is again a matter of competing economic values.  Recreationally-harvested fish convey value to anglers, and some anglers may simply believe that the value of harvesting such fish today is greater than any additional value that might be gleaned from recovering the stock and harvesting more abundant fish five, ten or more years in the future.

But there are other factors that also come into play.  Some of those factors were discussed—although not in a fisheries context—in a doctoral dissertation written by Shane Frederick, a student at Carnegie Mellon University.  

He considered a number of other factors that lead to discounting future events, including the probability of the future event not occurring, the quality or duration of the future event, the “utility” or usefulness of the future event, etc.

Those non-economic factors may have a greater impact on angler attitudes than the mere desire to harvest a few fish now rather than waiting to take a few more later on.

For example, if you spend any time listening to anglers object to harvest restrictions, it’s pretty clear that probability—more precisely, their belief that a stock probably won’t be recovered despite tougher rules—is a big reason for their negative attitudes.  

At any major fisheries hearing, you’ll hear a host of reasons why conservation measures are a waste of time, ranging from “If we let the fish go here, they’ll just catch them in New Jersey [or any other state they might choose to name]”, "The commercial guys will just kill them if we don't," “The seals [or the cormorants, or the striped bass, or…] are killing them all” or the favorite claim that  “It’s just ‘The Cycle’ and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Quality and duration arguments usually pop up when stocks are really in bad shape and moratoriums are being considered—folks just don’t want to have to wait for three or four years to catch a fish again.

And as for utility, well, I can sort of understand that one, because the last time the striped bass began to collapse, it took about 20 years to recover the stock, and if the bass crash again and take as long to recover, I’m going to be in my 80s by the time they’re recovered, and my big-fish days might be nearing their end.  I might not get to enjoy such recovery at all.

Maybe that’s why I’m so intent on avoiding calamity…

But the bottom line is that, like it or not, fishery management is driven by politics and politics are driven by people.  And people are likely to discount the future when the future of any fish stock is on the line.

That’s why we need to be proactive, and put laws in place that proscribe managers’ ability to discount the future when stocks are in trouble.

And that is the core beauty of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  It protects the future by requiring managers to do the right thing, even if they don't want to.

And that is why H.R. 4742, Doc Hastings “Empty Oceans Act,” which would enshrine the practice of discounting the future in federal law, must be defeated.

Let’s contact our congressmen and make sure that a bad bill dies.