Thursday, December 14, 2017

DINING WITH THE DEVIL


“He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon,”
lest they fall into his grasp.

Yesterday, the various recreational fishing groups who have been trying for years to change some of the core provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, proved the truth of that adage.

Over the past year or so, we’ve heard such groups tout a piece of legislation that they call the “Modern Fish Act,” more formally known as H.R. 2023, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017


“The current federal laws have never properly addressed the importance of recreational fishing.  This has led to shortened or even cancelled seasons, reduced bag limits, and unnecessary restrictions—none of which is good news for the recreational fishing industry.
“Fortunately, a solution is on the horizon.  On April 6, 2017, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, or the ‘Modern Fish Act’ for short, was introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate…”

“The Modern Fish Act addresses many of the recreational fishing community’s priorities including allowing alternative management measures for recreational fishing, reexamining fisherie, s allocations, smartly rebuilding fish stocks, establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit and improving recreational data collection.”
For those who don’t understand all of the catchphrases, “alternative management measures” mean alternatives to the annual catch limits established to prevent overfishing; “smartly” rebuilding fish stocks means delaying such rebuilding to allow more fish to be killed each year, to diminish “socioeconomic impacts.”   And “annual catch limits don’t fit,” among other occasions, when

“fishing mortality [for a stock of fish] is below the fishing mortality target; and a peer-reviewed stock survey and stock assessment have not been performed during the preceding 5-year period,  [internal numbering deleted]”
although how one can be sure that mortality is below target without performing a stock assessment is not completely clear—particularly because another provision would exempt fisheries which, in the opinion of the Secretary of Commerce, cannot be adequately monitored by the Marine Recreational Information Program.

The joint release quotes the president of the American Sportfishing Association praising the bill, which

“addresses the core issues within federal saltwater fisheries management that are limiting the public’s ability to enjoy saltwater recreational fishing.”
It of course goes without saying that when “issues…are limiting the public’s ability to enjoy saltwater recreational fishing,” the public might be buying less fishing gear, so it’s easy to understand why removing such limits are important to ASA.

Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, an umbrella organization to which all of the entities on the release, except the Recreational Fishing Alliance, belong, said that

“For decades, the recreational fishing community has been subjected to antiquated federal policies not designed to manage recreational fishing.  The time is now to update these policies so families can fully enjoy our nation’s remarkable marine resources and continue a proud American tradition on the water.”
But just what are the “issues” and “antiquated federal policies” that are allegedly keeping anglers off the water?  From what the release itself says, not to mention the text of H.R. 2023, annual catch limits that prevent overfishing, along with regulations that allow overfished stocks to be promptly rebuilt appear to be foremost among them.

Despite that, the supporters of the Modern Fish Act purport to support conservation.


“This new bill will give federal managers the tools and data they need to both improve access and promote conservation of our natural marine resources.”

“The role that anglers play as conservationists and our dedication to having sustainable fisheries in the future is often misunderstood or even ignored.”

“America’s sportsmen are the original conservationists, and we fully recognize the importance of keeping healthy, robust stocks of fish and game.”
And at one time, with respect to some of the groups issuing the joint press release, that was even true.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act was last reauthorized in the closing days of 2006.  

Back then, there were also two competing visions of what American saltwater fishery management should look like.  On one hand, there was the bill that was ultimately adopted, sponsored by the late Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who lent his name to the law.  On the other hand was another bill, H.R. 5018, introduced by Congressman Richard Pombo (R-California).

H.R. 5018 promoted what had come to be called “flexible” fishery management, which essentially meant management that was more tolerant of overfishing, less insistent on rebuilding stocks and generally friendlier to short-term profit than to the long-term health of fish stocks.  For example, it would have allowed stock rebuilding to be delayed if, among other things,

“The Secretary [of Commerce] determines that such 10-year rebuilding period should be extended because the cause of the fishery decline is outside the jurisdiction of the [relevant regional fishery management] Council or the rebuilding program cannot be effective only by limiting fishing activities; the Secretary determines that such 10-year rebuilding period should be extended for one or more diminished components of a multi-species fishery; or the Secretary makes substantial changes to the rebuilding targets after the rebuilding plan has been put in place.  [internal numbering deleted]”
Back in those days, I sat on the Coastal Conservation Association’s National Executive Board, and was Vice Chair of its Government Relations Committee.  I was very proud as I watched CCA’s counsel, in conjunction with Mike Nussman of the American Sportfishing Association, lead the recreational community’s fight against the ill-considered “flexibility” provisions of H.R. 5018, and for the strong conservation and management provisions of Senator Stevens’ bill (although, in fairness, it should be noted that neither CCA nor ASA supported annual catch limits for all species, or accountability measures for recreational fisheries).


“The bill does nothing more than delay the rebuilding of depleted populations…In that way, it is largely fighting last year’s—or perhaps last decade’s—fight.  For most important recreational species, rebuilding has either been completed or is well underway, and little is gained by stretching out the last few years of recovery periods that are already well underway.  The exceptions are those complexes of slow-growing, generally deep-water species which support a mixed commercial/recreational fishery:  New England groundfish, southern snapper-grouper and Pacific rockfish.
“…The extension of the rebuilding deadlines in the Flexibility Act are simply designed to drag out recovery in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue.”
CCA did criticize requirements that all overfishing be ended by 2011, what it believed were overly precautionary provisions of Magnuson-Stevens and a lack of good recreational data.  It also questioned the National Marine Fisheries Service’s ability to carry out the demands of the law.  But its opposition to “flexibility” legislation, and its commitment to conservation, was very clear.

But after that, things changed.  CCA helped found the Center for Sportfishing Policy (formerly known as the Center for Coastal Conservation).  In doing so, it abandoned its autonomy and found conformed its legislative positions to those acceptable to the rest of the Center members, which included various industry members who were at least as concerned with current income as they were with conservation.

Early in 2014, CCA and other Center members collaborated on an industry-oriented report titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” which abandoned CCA’s long-held position and instead embraced “flexibility,” calling for

“Creating reasonable latitude in stock rebuilding timelines,”
and suggesting that

“Instead of having a fixed deadline for stocks to be rebuilt…the regional councils and fisheries managers [should] set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
The notion that “flexible” rebuilding times “are simply designed to drag out rebuilding in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue” had officially gone by the wayside, although the statement was as true in 2014—and is as true today—as it was when it was made in 2010.

With the commitment to timely rebuilding abandoned, the Center for Sportfishing Policy, its members and temporarily affiliated organizations were free to approach federal legislators who were generally seen as hostile to conservation, in their effort to have the legislation now known as the Modern Fish Act introduced. 

Such effort probably reached its apex—or its nadir, depending upon one’s point of view—when the Center for Sportfishing Policy gave its 2016 “Conservationist of the Year Award” to Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.  Although Rep. Bishop is probably best known for his efforts to transfer federal lands, which are critically important to freshwater anglers and hunters, to state and local governments, who would in turn be free to lease or sell them to private interests, the Center announced that he earned the award

“for championing policies promoting healthy fish and wildlife populations and access to America’s land and waters.”
Yesterday, Rep. Bishop’s committee marked up a number of bills, including H.R. 200, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.  The Modern Fish Act was not considered; instead, some provisions of the Modern Fish Act were included in H.R. 200.

Whether such merging of the bills was initiated by the Center for Sportfishing Policy, or whether it was a sop thrown the recreational groups by a Committee intent on passing H.R. 200 is currently unclear.  However, despite the fact that H.R. 200 contains more egregious exceptions to the stock rebuilding provision than did H.R. 5018, which was so effectively opposed by the American Sportfishing Association and Coastal Conservation Association a decade ago, the Center for Sportfishing Policy is hailing the Committee’s favorable vote on the combined bill—even though its provisions weaken federal fisheries law so badly that members of the conservation community are calling it


“The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources voted to advance two pieces of legislation (H.R. 200 and H.R. 3588) today that threaten fish populations and the people who depend on them.  Departing from the 40-year tradition of building consensus around federal fisheries laws, the bills failed to attract any meaningful bipartisan support and have faced opposition from conservationists, fishermen, chefs, scientists and other groups.”
It appears that Center for Sportfishing Policy, its member organizations and affiliates have indeed supped with the Devil.


And it appears that they’ve gone straight to Hell.  

Sunday, December 10, 2017

GULF RED SNAPPER--WHEN THE COUNTING IS DONE


Recently, that survey has begun to move forward.  The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, which is administering the federal grant, has named a panel of 21 scientists, from both the academic and government communities, to perform the research; the universities have also chipped in another $2.5 million of their own funds to further the work.

Now, interested parties throughout the region are waiting for the work to begin and, even more, for the two-year project to end and its findings to be revealed. 

Militant red snapper anglers, who have spent the last decade or so howling at the National Marine Fisheries Service and complaining about its restrictive catch limits, obviously hope that the survey will reveal that there are far more red snapper out there than NMFS believes, a stock large enough to justify a much longer red snapper season and more liberal bag limit.  It was those hopes that led to the federal appropriation being made.

On the other hand, the federal stock assessment process currently used to estimate red snapper abundance, called SEDAR (from SouthEast Data, Assessment and Review), is a robust one.  

The last benchmark red snapper stock assessment was a massive document, roughly 1,000 pages long, that incorporated data from 33 separate research papers and 50 other Gulf red snapper-specific reference works, which was peer-reviewed by a panel of independent fishery experts.  (Note that a new benchmark assessment is pending, and is likely to be completed before the survey runs its course.)

While it’s possible that such a compendium of existing research could result in an inaccurate estimate of Gulf red snapper abundance, should it and the current survey show a substantial disagreement, there would probably be good reason to go back and check for errors in the survey’s methodology.  

There is little doubt that the methodology in the current survey is going to be different from that used in the most recent stock assessment.  An article in the Corpus Christi Caller Times says that the researchers

“will use remote-control underwater cameras to actually count fish on artificial reefs, oil/gas structures, salt domes, along thousands of miles of pipelines and on deep featureless ocean bottoms.  Researchers will employ electronic tags and scuba divers to gather greater insights…
“[T]he plan is to search places federal fisheries managers may have overlooked.  Hopefully this strategy to leave no habitat unturned will produce results that inspire confidence among most or all of the principals involved in the management battle.”
It would be nice if that turns out to be true.  And hopefully, the scientists working on the project—who are all recognized experts in their field—will successfully account for any biases caused by directing sampling effort at natural and artificial structures known to aggregate red snapper, as opposed to conducting more random sampling.  (Yes, sampling will also occur on “deep featureless ocean bottom,” but given that, by definition, there is nothing to aggregate snapper on a “featureless” bottom, surveyors will have to address and account for a situation in which some sampling is effectively random, while some is directed at areas known, or at least expected, to hold significant quantities of fish.)


“by tagging fish, reporting tags and working with scientists aboard their boats.”

“I’ll be pleased to see that the independent estimate is moving forward and including the expertise of recreational fishermen,”

“The local knowledge fishermen bring to this process is very valuable and meaningfully informs our study,”
the use of fishermen to assist with the research also injects another potential source of bias.  

Unlike scientists, who do their best to conduct surveys and collect data in a systematic and objective manner, fishermen tend to want to focus there efforts where they know there are fish to be caught, and thus can skew population estimates to the high side by avoiding areas where few if any red snapper are likely to be found.

And, as noted in the Caller Times article,

“Stunz said no corporate or private monies will fund this effort.  This does not necessarily suggest a lack of bias.”

“There are lots of constituents who want an independent abundance estimate that will be anxiously awaiting our findings,”

‘It is my hope that these independent scientists will be able to accurately determine the abundance of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico once and for all.”
Yet, although much is being made about the perceived independence of the survey scientists, it is hard to imagine any scientists more independent than those who work for NMFS, and conduct red snapper research in the Gulf.  They are salaried government employees; their careers do not depend on their abilities to attract grants or other sources of funding.  They derive no benefit from finding that Gulf red snapper stock still needs to rebuild, and they will derive no benefit when they can finally announce that the stock has recovered.


While such financial support doesn’t suggest that such researchers have any inherent biases—all university scientists depend heavily upon such private funding, from various sources, to conduct their research, and wouldn’t be able to function effectively without it—it does lend some weight to the argument that the researchers conducting the survey are not, in fact, any more “independent” than those who work for NMFS and made the original estimates of red snapper abundance.

So, in the end, there’s no way to predict what the researchers will find, or what will be done with their findings. 

It’s possible, but very unlikely, that they will decide that there are fewer red snapper in the Gulf than NMFS believes.  Or the survey could come up with an estimate that isn’t all that different from the estimate in the stock assessment.  And it’s also very possible that it will find that there are more red snapper in the Gulf than NMFS currently believes.

If the latter scenario occurs, the scientists will still have to decide what to do with the estimate of increased abundance.
 
Many fishermen would probably assume that more snapper will translate directly into more liberal regulations, but that’s not necessarily true.  If the new, high-tech sampling techniques find more red snapper in places where they weren’t expected to be, or at least not expected to be in large numbers, fishery scientists will have to decide whether such fish were always there, and whether estimates of past abundance will have to be adjusted upwards.

If there are more red snapper out there today than NMFS believes, were there also more out there in 1960, when the stock was last at healthy levels, and in 1990, when it was badly overfished?  

If there were more snapper out there back then, does that mean that the rebuilding target needs to be adjusted upwards, to reflect the true past abundance?  And could that lead to regulations at least as restrictive than those in place today?

No one can answer those questions today.  Everything depends on how scientists interpret any such new data.

But in the end, maybe the scientists won't matter at all.  

In addressing the start of the survey project, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said,

“American communities across the Gulf of Mexico depend on their access to, as well as the long-term sustainability of, red snapper.  I look forward to the insights this project will provide as we study and manage this valuable resource.”

With such a man in charge, will a finding of more red snapper necessarily lead to a bigger red snapper kill, regardless of the scientific nuances involved?

And if the survey estimates don’t find more red snapper, but are largely in accord with the stock assessment, will that lead to science-based red snapper management?

Or will “access” trump all, and Commerce continue down its current path of reckless exploitation of the red snapper resource, science be damned, at least until stopped by the courts?

In two years or so, we will know.




Thursday, December 7, 2017

FEDERAL FISHERIES LAWS SUFFERING DEATH OF ONE THOUSAND CUTS

Over the past two decades, federal fisheries managers have met with real success. Since 2000, the number of fish stocks subject to overfishing has fallen from 72 to 30. During the same period, the number of overfished stocks has declined from 92 to 38, with 41 of them now fully rebuilt.

The key to that success has been the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), and its requirements that fishery managers employ the best available science, halt overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks in the shortest possible time.

Should the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issue a regulation that fails to adhere to such standards, that regulation may be successfully challenged in the federal courts. While some complain that Magnuson-Stevens’ mandates are unduly strict, they help assure that fishery managers will take necessary, but politically unpopular, actions to conserve and rebuild fish stocks.

Unfortunately, a series of recent administrative actions have whittled away at the effectiveness of federal fisheries laws, including Magnuson-Stevens, and have threatened the health and continued recovery of saltwater fish stocks.
The first of such actions occurred in June 2017, when the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary) decided that the National Marine Fisheries Service should reopen the private-boat recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, even though such reopening would lead to substantial overfishing.

An email from Earl Comstock, the Director of the Commerce Department’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, to Secretary Wilbur Ross explicitly acknowledges that such reopening “would result in overfishing of the stock by six million pounds (40%), which will draw criticism from environmental groups and commercial fishermen.”

Although allowing such overfishing would clearly violate Magnuson-Stevens’ National Standard 1, which states that “Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing,” Comstock cynically noted that, despite such opposition, “Under the Magnuson Stevens Act a court can’t issue a temporary restraining order, so your action would remain in effect for at least 45 days before a court could act.”
Thus, one of the bedrock provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, its unequivocal ban overfishing, was knowingly and intentionally sidestepped by the agency that is charged with conserving and rebuilding the nation’s fishery resources.
Red snapper were also at the heart of another NMFS action that violated the spirit, and probably also the letter, of Magnuson-Stevens. In that case, NMFS approved an “Emergency Action Request” by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) to allow limited commercial and recreational red snapper fisheries in 2017.

South Atlantic red snapper had become badly overfished. After 2014, landings were prohibited because the mortality of snapper that were released, after being caught accidentally by fishermen seeking other species, exceeded the acceptable biological catch (ABC). However, after a new benchmark stock assessment was completed in 2017, NMFS told the SAFMC that basing the ABC on dead discard estimates of uncertain accuracy wasn’t a sound practice. That led to a situation where, although an ABC for red snapper could not be established, the SAFMC could still set an annual catch limit. The SAFMC, taking advantage of that situation, asked NMFS to open a red snapper season in 2017.

There was no data suggesting that opening such a season would, like reopening the recreational season in the Gulf of Mexico, lead to significant overfishing. However, there was also no data suggesting that opening the South Atlantic season wouldn’t cause overfishing. There just was no reliable data at all.

Magnuson-Stevens requires that “Conservation and management measures shall be based on the best available science,” and further requires that councils “develop annual catch limits…that may not exceed the fishing level recommendations of its science and statistical committee.” Yet instead of basing the South Atlantic red snapper season on “the best scientific information available,” NMFS actually based it on scientific information that was not available; that is, NMFS believed that the season could be opened “based on the uncertainty in the assessment” associated with various factors relevant to the snapper fishery, including the magnitude or the recreational discards, rather than on any quantifiable data.


It’s possible that NMFS could allow fishing for red snapper without harming the stock’s recovery. There is no question that the stock has been steadily rebuilding. Roy Crabtree, administrator of NMFS’ Southeast Region, has reportedly said that “When I look at the…data and see the upward trajectory, yeah, I have a hard time continuing justifying the closure.”

Thus, the mere fact that the season was opened didn’t generate criticism. Criticism arose because the SAFMC, wanting to open a season in what remained of 2017, placed an undue emphasis on speed. In its haste to act, the SAFMC failed to solicit its science and statistical committee’s views on whether the season should be opened, and also failed to seek the committee’s input on proposed regulations that would govern the reopened fishery.
Holly Binns, of the Pew Charitable Trust’s fishery conservation program, noted that “speed may come at the price of science, because the council doesn’t plan to have its science advisers review its decision. The advisers’ job is to provide guidance on the number of fish that can be caught while still preventing overfishing…Fishing for red snapper should resume only if scientists determine it can be done without jeopardizing a healthy future for this popular fish.”

That’s a reasonable comment, given that good fishery management is entirely dependent upon the use of good science. Unfortunately, the decision to open a South Atlantic red snapper season wasn’t the only Commerce Department action that ignored the importance of fisheries science. A decision that the agency made last July, affecting the summer flounder fishery, may have much graver and longer-lasting consequences.
In that case, the relevant law wasn’t Magnuson-Stevens, but the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act(Cooperative Management Act), a law which gives the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) the power to impose its fishery management plans on recalcitrant states.

Pursuant to the Cooperative Management Act, should ASMFC find that any state has failed to comply with the provisions of any of its fishery management plans, it must notify the Secretary of such finding. The Secretary then has 30 days to make an independent determination of 1) whether the state is, in fact, out of compliance, and 2) whether the provisions of the management plan are necessary for the conservation of the species in question. If the answer to both questions is yes, the Secretary is required to impose a moratorium on all fishing for the relevant species in the noncompliant state, until such time as the state comes into compliance.
Thanks to the Cooperative Management Act, which became law in late 1993, the chaotic web of inconsistent state regulations that had previously governed inshore fisheries was replaced by ASMFC’s cooperative management plans. Although individual states often disagreed with ASMFC decisions, few were willing to go out of compliance and have a moratorium imposed on their fisheries; on the rare occasions when a state did take such action, the Secretary had always supported ASMFC’s noncompliance finding.

That changed in July 2017, after New Jersey defied the collective decision of ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board and adopted regulations that fell short of those imposed by the most recent addendum to ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan. ASMFC found New Jersey to be out of compliance “based on hours of [Management] Board deliberation and rigorous Technical Committee review…[and on] Technical Committee findings that New Jersey’s measures were not conservationally-equivalent to those measures in” such addendum.

For the first time in the history of the Cooperative Management Act, the Secretary overruled ASMFC’s noncompliance finding, and supported the noncompliant state. A letter issued by NMFS, informing ASMFC of the Secretary’s finding, stated that “New Jersey makes a compelling argument that the measures it implemented this year, despite increasing catch above the harvest target, will likely reduce total summer flounder mortality in New Jersey waters to a level consistent with the overall conservation objective.”

However, NMFS’ letter, and the Secretary’s decision, are notable for the fact that, before overruling ASMFC’s finding, the agency failed to consult with its own local experts on the relative merits of New Jersey’s and ASMFC’s arguments.
John Bullard, regional administrator for NMFS’ Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Office, told the Boston Globe that “This is the first time that no one asked me for a formal recommendation. The secretary’s decision goes against long-standing protocol, and there’s a cost to that. There’s a reason to have regional administrators, because their experience and knowledge is valuable in making decisions like this one. This is an unfortunate precedent.”

Bullard went on to say that the “chain of command was broken with this decision…This is a system that keeps all states accountable to each other. We’re going to have to have to figure out how to repair that system.”
Certainly, such repair is badly needed, if the Cooperative Management Act is to function as Congress intended. However, given the Secretary’s and NMFS’ recent actions, it’s not clear that the agency is particularly concerned with carrying out the will of Congress, with respect to federal fisheries law.
In a recent speech to Alaska fishermen, Chris Oliver, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, said that the current administration is “looking at [regional fishery management] councils to take a step back and look at ways not to have a tendency toward micromanagement but to look at the big picture.” In accord with that philosophy, he has amended the planning document that sets out NMFS’ 2018 priorities to include goals such as “maximize fishing opportunities while ensuring the sustainability of fisheries and fishing communities,” “responsible fishing and resource development” and “regulatory efficiency.”

According to the seafood industry publication Undercurrent News, his priorities include giving regional fishery management councils additional flexibility, streamlining the regulatory process and expanding seafood production.

That being the case, we can probably expect to see more administration decisions that incrementally weaken the effectiveness of federal fisheries laws. And we can expect conservation measures to languish.
In fact, we’ve probably already seen one of the consequences of the administration’s policy at ASMFC when, in mid-November 2017, its Atlantic Menhaden Management Board ignored the comments made by nearly 160,000 citizens and failed to adopt interim ecosystem reference points, which would have imposed limitations on harvest based not on the mere sustainability of the menhaden stock, but also on the menhaden’s role as a forage fish for a host of predators.

The decision was both a surprise and a disappointment for conservation advocates, who had received many verbal commitments from management board members, who said that they supported such interim reference points.  However, the decision was praised by Omega Protein Corp., which harvests the lion’s share of the menhaden on the East Coast and opposed the interim measures.

Some management board members, after the vote, noted that implied threats by the Commonwealth of Virginia, where Omega is located, played a role. For example, one board member wrote “we’re bummed about the way this meeting went, and particularly the lack of spine the Commission had because they were afraid of VA going out of compliance. We can, for all intents and purposes, thank New Jersey for that.”

But New Jersey’s failure to comply with the summer flounder management plan would have had no impact on menhaden, had it not been for a sympathetic administration in Washington, that has condemned our federal fisheries laws to a “death of one thousand cuts,” undercutting their provisions a small bit at a time whenever the opportunity arises.
In doing so, they condemn our fish stocks to the death of one thousand cuts as well.
----
This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/


Sunday, December 3, 2017

THE THING ABOUT "GAMEFISH" LEGISLATION...


One of the bills wouldn’t shut the commercial fishery down, but would limit commercial harvest to those who can prove that they caught and sold at least 1,000 pounds of striped bass in each of the last five years.  Such legislation wouldn’t reduce the amount of striped bass that could be legally caught and sold in Massachusetts, as thestate’s quota, established by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, would merely be divided up among a smaller number of professional fishermen.

That in itself would be a big step, as Massachusetts is one of the minority of states that has retained an “open-access” commercial striped bass fishery.  Anyone who is willing to pay a nominal fee for the required license may participate in the fishery on an equal basis with everyone else, although a “control date” has been established, which allows the state to give different treatment to those who acquired their commercial bass permit after September 8, 2013.


“The ‘commercial fishery’ for stripers in Massachusetts is a farce.  Why would 74 percent of all commercial license holders have no reported landings?  Those fishermen may simply have wanted a license in case they decided to sell a fish or two.  But we believe that many of the 3,435 fishermen with zero reported landings are fish hogs who either want to use their license fraudulently to circumvent the bag limits that apply to everyone else, or make transportation of these fish legal until they can sell them—unreported, of course—for cash under the table.  Which is worse?  One is illegal, the other is simply reprehensible…As many as 98.98 percent of Massachusetts commercial striped bass permit holders are simply paying for their fishing fun by selling their catch—legally or illegally—or filling their freezers under the guise of providing for the public.”
It seems like an outrageous claim, but was substantially verified by Paul Deodati, then the director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who noted that

“The commercial fishery has also changed by attracting thousands of non-traditional participants who are lured by thoughts of subsidizing an expensive hobby.”
Adding a 1,000-pound harvest qualification would certainly go a long way toward cleaning up that messy situation.

A second bill would phase out all commercial fishing for striped bass by 2025, and make Massachusetts a so-called “gamefish” state for the species—a state where no commercial harvest is allowed.

And that is a very different matter, and opens up a very different debate.


“The lax commercial regulations and lack of enforcement is why so many people feel at liberty to break the law by selling to unscrupulous dealers, markets and restaurants.  In one case, a refrigerated truck was driving up and down the Cape Cod Canal, taking striped bass from a network of poachers for sale, presumably to the black market.”
The assumption is that the Massachusetts commercial striped bass fishery is just too corrupt to maintain in any form.

On the other hand, unscrupulous dealers, markets and restaurants don’t go away just because the commercial fishery is legally abolished.  I grew up in Connecticut, which was one of the first states to outlaw commercial striped bass harvest.  However, the harvest went on; it was an open secret that just about all of the fish that the “sharpies” weighed in at local tackle shops—and plenty more besides—were also soon weighed in at local restaurants and seafood shops, where cash was exchanged.  One restaurant just a couple minutes from the docks in Cos Cob was notorious for the line of anglers that always formed at its back door when bass were running well.

The problem is that striped bass migrate through the waters of many states, and commercially-caught striped bass often travel through many states as well, as they make their way from the ocean to someone’s plate.  Thus, for any state’s gamefish law to be truly effective, the commercial moratorium could not merely be local; sale must be illegal coastwide.


“Stripers Forever, a non-profit, internet based conservation organization, seeks game fish status for wild striped bass on the Atlantic Coast in order to significantly reduce striper mortality, to provide optimum  and sustainable public fishing opportunities for anglers from Maine to North Carolina, and to secure the greatest socio-economic value possible from the fishery.”
Efforts to secure gamefish status for striped bass met with some success in the 1950s and 1960s, arguably the “Golden Age” of saltwater fishing in the U.S., and again during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when strict regulations intended to reverse a collapse of the striped bass stock, coupled with the discovery of high levels of toxic PCBs in the flesh of many stripers, dealt a hard blow to the commercial fishery.  Since then, the effort has languished, with no new gamefish states coming on board.

But just suppose that the Massachusetts legislation is the harbinger of a new wave of striped bass protection, and that gamefish advocates get their way and abolish the commercial fishery.  Would that usher in a new era of striped bass conservation?


Start with the fact that the recreational striped bass kill is a lot higher than the commercial harvest. 

For the years 2014, 2015 and 2016, recreational fishermen killed an estimated 23.6 million, 16.9 million and 19.9 million pounds of striped bass, respectively, for a three-year aggregate harvest of 60,345,729 pounds of fish.  For the same three years, commercial harvest was 6.5 million, 5 million and 5 million pounds, or aggregate landings of 16,523,013 pounds—about 27% of the recreational total.  So if someone wanted to rein in the biggest source of striped bass mortality, the commercial fishery wouldn’t be the most logical target.

And then there’s the question of just what would happen if the commercial fishermen did go away.  Would the striped bass formerly caught by commercial fishermen just be allowed to remain, unmolested, in the ocean, to contribute to the spawning stock, making gamefish laws a real conservation measure?

Although it’s impossible to say for sure, there are good reasons to believe that would not be the case.

Striped bass are managed according a “control rule” that establishes a fishing mortality target of F=0.18, and a threshold of F=0.219; exceed the latter, and overfishing will be deemed to occur.  The control rule also includes a female spawning stock biomass target of 72,032 metric tons, and a female spawning stock biomass threshold of 57,626 metric tons; if female SSB drops below the threshold, the stock would be considered overfished.  

If commercial fishing was abolished, the fishing mortality would initially drop, and more females would remain in the spawning stock biomass.

In some states where there is no commercial fishery, such lowered fishing mortality and available biomass has already attracted recreational attention.  In New Jersey, for example, there is a so-called “bonus program” that allows registered anglers to kill an immature bass—a fish between 24 and 28 inches in length—in addition to the fish allowed under the general recreational limit.  New Jersey justifies the additional kill by saying that it

“is allowed a commercial harvest quota of striped bass under the Striped Bass Interstate Fisheries Management Plan [sic] as administered by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  Since New Jersey does not allow netting or sale of striped bass, this quota was transferred to the recreational fishing sector…
“The current allocation from ASMFC is 215,912 pounds to be distributed between individual anglers and party/charter boats…
“The Division of Fish and Wildlife initiated the program in 1990 [even before the still-rebuilding striped bass stock had been declared recovered] to allow the harvest of additional striped bass for New Jersey recreational anglers…”
If striped bass became a gamefish, would New Jersey do away with its so-called “bonus program because its commercial allocation had dropped to zero?  Or would it insist that ASMFC allocate the former commercial quota to the recreational sector, so that anglers could kill more and smaller fish?


Stripers Forever provides a good clue.


“In states with coastal commercial fisheries, the minimum legal size for anglers is 28 inches, which puts a bass for dinner out of reach of the great majority of rod and reel fishermen…With these highly restrictive angling regulations in place from Maine to North Carolina, fishery managers have made room for a large commercial quota at the expense of millions of recreational anglers.”
That certainly sounds like Stripers Forever believes that any former commercial quota would be employed to let anglers kill more and smaller fish, rather than enhancing the spawning stock.  

It later tries to blunt the impact of that statement by saying

“While it is important that anglers be allowed to catch and eat their own striped bass rather than be forced to buy them at market, converting any part of the commercial quotas to increase recreational bag limits—or even maintaining the current recreational limits—should depend on the successful pursuit of the conservation goals outlined above.”
While that sounds good, remember how striped bass are managed.  If the commercial fishery isn’t causing the striped bass stock to become overfished or be subject to overfishing—if the conservation goals are being met—nothing in the above statement would prevent commercial landings, if the commercial fishery is outlawed, from being replaced with recreational landings, while fishing mortality remains the same and anglers claim that no harm is being done.

Thus, when trying to decide whether the new Massachusetts gamefish bill, or any similar legislation that appears in any other state, at any other time, is worthwhile, it must first be put into context.

The allocation of marine resources between the commercial and recreational sectors is, first and foremost, a policy issue.  So long as stocks aren’t overfished and not subject to overfishing, neither the recreational nor the commercial fishery provides a better conservation alternative. 

So if policymakers want to make striped bass—or any other species—a gamefish, they can outlaw the commercial fishery and reallocate all of the fish to the recreational sector.  And after they do so, they can call it good natural resources policy, or good economic policy, or good social policy if they want to, and maybe they can even pull together some numbers that makes it look as if they’re right.

But they can’t just reallocate the fish and call it conservation.

For that term to apply, something actually needs to be conserved, and not just killed by a different set of people.  

Although there are a few who try to hide that detail.

“They tell all you children,
The Devil’s a villain,

But it ain’t necessarily so…”