Sunday, April 23, 2017

FLUKE: GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE

Fluke regulations have been particularly contentious this year.

Six years of poor recruitment has led to a declining stock, which is now estimated at just 58% of the target level.  In a July 2016 report, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee warned that

“the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken.”
Thus, it was clear that harvest would have to be reduced to avoid forcing the stock into an overfished state, and to avoid forcing the National Marine Fisheries Service from imposing the significantly more restrictive regulations that would then be needed to fully rebuild the overfished stock.


However, the Committee also recommended that the Council  not adopt such coastwide regulations, but instead work with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which would adopt “conservation equivalent” regulations which would also achieve the needed reduction, while allowing states to adopt regulations that were best suited for their local fisheries.

Since anglers located in the heart of the fluke fishery—the states of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey--collectively caught nearly 85% of all recreational landings in 2016, it was pretty likely that regulations in those states would look a lot like with the Monitoring Committee had proposed.

ASMFC prepared a Draft Addendum XXVII to the Summer Flounder, Scup, Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan for Public Comment,  which laid out some possible regulatory alternatives. 

If ASMFC had opted to adopt state-specific regulations based on alleged summer flounder landings in the base year of 1998, 2017 regulations in the three core states would have been extremely restrictive, ranging from a 2-fish bag, 21-inch minimum size and 53-day season in Connecticut to a 3-fish bag, 18-inch minimum size and 81 day season in New Jersey.  However, no one having any real experience with East Coast fishery management believed that such regulations would ever be adopted

That’s because ASMFC had grown concerned that, for various reasons, the state-by-state management approach did not treat anglers in all states equitably, with regard to access to the resource.  As a result, beginning in 2014, fluke were managed on a regional, rather than state-by-state, basis, which led to consistent regulations, and a more equitable distribution of angling opportunities, being shared among states belonging to a given region.

Draft Addendum  XXVIII reiterated the concerns that gave rise to the regional management approach, saying

“Heading into 2017, the Board continues to have the same concerns about disproportionate impacts among states from the use of 1998-based allocations and state-by-state management measures.”
Thus, it was almost certain that some sort of regional regulations would be adopted.

The Draft Addendum proposed a number of regional management measures.  The most severe would impose 2-fish bag limit and 18-inch minimum size, along with a very short 59-day season, on the Connecticut/New York/New Jersey region.  However, that option would also result in a 49% reduction, which was substantially more than was needed, so once again, it was a very unlikely candidate.

The likely options looked a lot more like what the Monitoring Committee had come up with:  3 fish, a 19-inch minimum and either a 96-day or 99-day season.  Such regulations were a lot better than either the state-by-state or the other regional option.  However, they didn’t quite allow for a season that ran from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and thus were shorter than a lot of anglers and angling-related businesses would have liked.

There are some members of the angling community who seem to oppose any additional restrictions, no matter how badly they’re needed.  And we all know members of the community who, when discussing fish, tend to exaggerate things a bit.

Thus, we saw a lot of bad information being spread about the reductions associated with Addendum XXVIII.

However, although such restrictive regulations were an utter fantasy, they were a fantasy that quickly spread through the angling community and caused much unnecessary angler and consternation.


“something in line with a two-fish bag limit for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and perhaps even Rhode Island, a 19-inch minimum size and a three-month season spanning June, July and August at best,”
and began by telling anglers

“I’m about to really tick you off.”
Lost amid all of the posturing, “alternative facts” and manufactured outrage was the really important news: Fishery managers employed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Division were quietly putting together a case for regulations that were less restrictive than anything else proposed by the Council, ASMFC or NMFS.

The proposal ultimately appeared in Draft Addendum XXVIII as “Option 5,” which would impose the same 3-fish bag and 19-inch minimum size on the Connecticut/New York/New Jersey region that was suggested by both the Council and ASMFC, but couple that size and bag with the same 128-day season that the states have enjoyed since 2014.  Other states would be required to increase their minimum size by one inch, and adopt a bag limit of no more than 4 fish.

There was some doubt about the viability of such rules, as they would only address the 30% reduction required by the declining stock, and not address any purported overfishing in 2016.  In a December 8, 2016 letter to the Chairman of ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board, Marine Division Director James J. Gilmore, the following explanation was made

“There seems to be a poor relationship between the recreational measures (derived from calculations based on the [Marine Recreational Information Program] and the performance (as estimated by MRIP)…Under 3 years of consistent regulations from 2014-2016, coastwide harvest estimates in numbers of fish have ranged from 1.6-2.5 million fish, varying as much as 50% between years.  When we consider a smaller geographic scale, this variability increases to 66% between years in the CT-NJ region, and an average of 139% at the individual state level.  It is difficult to say how much of this variability is due to estimation vs. actual harvest magnitude…
“Given a declining summer flounder stock biomass, lower catch limits have been recommended by the SSC and adopted by the Council.  More conservative recreational measures must be adopted along the coast in order to take fewer fish.  Given the variability discussed above, it is impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy the impact changing measures will have on recreational harvest estimates.  Adopting more conservative measures should reduce harvest; we just do not know how much with any degree of confidence.
“We suggest a simple approach to decrease the number of legal fish available to anglers.  Real reductions in mortality can be achieved with a size limit increase of one inch across the board for every state and region.  Increased seasonal restrictions will also reduce harvest, though the change in season length needs to be significant in order to achieve meaningful reductions.  Additionally, the seasons in some regions are already highly restrictive (128 and 132 versus 245 and 365 days).  Cuts to the length of season will be more painful to some states and regions than others.  We are not, therefore, recommending cuts to seasons in regions with significant restrictions already in place.  The impact of reductions in the possession limit are harder to calculate, but have the advantage of reducing our exposure to the inflammatory potential of any single intercept…Our suggestion is that no state or region have a bag limit higher than another, and that bag limit not exceed 4 fish.”
It was a bold proposal, as it effectively said that, given the limitations of MRIP as currently implemented, the evidence of overfishing in 2016 was not convincing enough to mandate remedial measures.  There was a lot of uncertainty as to what ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Technical Committee, or NMFS, might say about the measure.

Most of the answer to that came in a January 20, 2017 memorandum from the Technical Committee to the Management Board, which adopted New York’s analysis and stated, in part, that

“The [Technical Committee] agreed that Option 5 was more likely to achieve a ~30% harvest reduction than Options 1 through 4 were likely to achieve a 41% reduction, mainly due to the fact that given all of the variability in the information on which the reduction calculations are based, the ability to achieve a more modest goal is believed to have a higher probability of being realized than a more conservative goal.  Option 5 is based upon broad strokes to reduce harvest through universal minimum size increases and consistent lower possession limits.  In addition to decreasing the number of fish harvested, the minimum size limit increases may grant some protection to younger year classes and it is hoped that smaller possession limits will decrease MRIP variability by dampening the inflammatory potential of heavily weighted intercepts.  The measures proposed in Option 5 also continue the progress toward equitable access that have occurred under regional management thus far…While the reduction value of changes to bag and season can be ‘calculated’ as part of the standard methodology, the actual impact on harvest and harvest estimates is far less certain.  We have seen that variability in actual harvest and in harvest estimates is high, and large reductions in a small number of states/regions may not be realized whereas the broad measures in Option 5 are more likely to be effective in at least some portions of the coast.”
Given that endorsement, Option 5 was adopted by ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board.  The only remaining question is whether NMFS would go along
.
Last week, anglers got the good news that NMFS has issued proposed regulations that would allow states to implement Option 5.  The notice stated that

“We propose to continue the ‘conservation equivalency’ approach, in which states develop state or regional minimum sizes, possession limits, and fishing seasons that will achieve the necessary level of conservation.  Both the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recommended continuing conservation equivalency.
“For state waters, the Commission has reviewed measures submitted by the regions and certified that they are, in combination, the conservation equivalent of the Federal coastwide measures that would prevent overfishing.”
So, thanks to some groundbreaking work by James Gilmore, his colleagues Steven Heins and John Manascalco and other folks at the New York DEC, fluke anglers in the Connecticut/New York/New Jersey region will be able to enjoy the same season as last year, that runs from the middle of May through mid-September, in exchange for what, given the state of the fluke stock, is a relatively modest increase in the size limit along with a reasonable bag.

They won’t have to suffer through the draconian rules imagined by some in the angling press, nor the more restrictive regulations that were actually being contemplated by the Council or ASMFC.

As they drift the fluke grounds this summer, it would be nice to think that fishermen might give some thanks to the team at the DEC’s Marine Division who, amid all of the hype and hollering, quietly and effectively came up with a way to protect the fluke, while maximizing anglers’ opportunities to enjoy the resource.


Such thanks was certainly earned.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

SADLY, NMFS' ASSESSMENT WAS RIGHT

Counting fish is a difficult job, and even the best stock assessment contains its share of uncertainty.
The 2014 stock assessment update for Gulf of Maine cod found that, depending on the model used, the current spawning stock biomass might be as low as 2,100 metric tons or as high as 2,400 metric tons, and that’s before any statistical errors are taken into consideration. However, for practical management purposes, any such errors shrink into insignificance, since the spawning stock biomass needed to support a healthy, sustainable stock is somewhere between 47,184 and 69,621 metric tons, again depending upon the model used, and the current spawning stock is, at best a mere 4% of that.

Thus, there isn’t much uncertainty about the state of the cod stock at all. Based on the best available data, Gulf of Maine cod are in serious trouble.
Fishermen, however, disagree. Rejecting the scientists’ data in favor of their own opinions about the stock’s health, they objected to harvest reductions imposed in response to the update. Vito Giacolone, the policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said, “The fish are in great shape and the only real constraint on catch is quota. Fishermen are seeing that across the board on a lot of the species…We’ve never had a greater gap between what the fishermen are seeing on the water and what the scientists are saying. Never.”

Some have argued that the scientists’ problem is that they use gear that isn’t good for catching the species in question. Gloucester, Massachusetts fisherman Al Cottone claims that the gear used in the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) fish surveys miss “the species that tend to stay on the bottom, like cod and flounders. Everything that attacks the bottom of the net is taking a hit, is that a coincidence? If we were seeing that every day in our fishing practices, we’d all say we have a serious problem. But that’s not what we’re seeing.”

In response to concerns about the accuracy of the NMFS surveys, and in an effort to support its struggling fishing industry, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to do its own survey, announcing that, “Given the poor stock of Gulf of Maine (GOM) cod, low catch limits, and many fisherman’s claims that the cod status is better than currently assessed, MarineFisheries implemented a new GOM Cod Industry Based Survey in April 2016.”

The first year of the survey has been completed, and the news is not good. As the Boston Globe reported, “in a milestone in the war over the true state of cod in the Gulf of Maine, Massachusetts scientists have reached the same dismal conclusion that their federal counterparts did: The region’s cod are at a historic low—about 80 percent less than the population from just a decade ago.”

The state survey was comprehensive. According to the Globe, “the state spent more than $500,000 to trawl for cod in 10 times as many locations [compared to the NMFS surveys]. Rather than sampling the waters twice a year, as [NMFS] does, the state cast its nets every month from last April to January, and kept them in the water about 50 percent longer. They also searched for the fish in deeper waters, where fishermen have said they tend to congregate.” Micah Dean, the Massachusetts scientist overseeing the survey, noted that “It was an exhaustive survey meant to provide an answer to the questions that the fishermen were posing. But the fish weren’t there.”

Fishermen, on the other hand, are steadfastly rejecting the Massachusetts survey’s results. Vito Giacalone declared, “The state survey literally does zero to improve our confidence. You can’t just sample anywhere. You have to go where the cod are supposed to be. Where these fish exist in the western Gulf of Maine is greater than it has ever been in my lifetime.”

Scientists say that cod tend to group together when the population shrinks, and that fishermen tend to emphasize the places where such bunches of cod remain abundant, and ignore all of the empty water elsewhere. But bolstered by their own observations and, perhaps, by confirmation bias—people’s tendency to embrace any information that supports their own beliefs, and reject information that contradicts them—fishermen remain unwilling to accept what the scientists say.

As noted in the blog Talking Fish, “it seems obvious now that those who disagree with the assessments will never agree. They no longer seem to only be blaming faulty assessments but the foundation of science itself.”

Unfortunately, such intransigence isn’t limited to Gulf of Maine cod.
In New Jersey, some recreational fishermen, abetted by various elected and appointed officials, are challenging NMFS’ most recent update of the summer flounder stock assessment.

Based on such update, which shows that summer flounder have experienced poor recruitment for six consecutive years, and that the population has declined to just 58% of its target level, scientists have determined that the annual catch limit must be reduced by 30% to avoid driving the stock into an overfished state.
In January, a group of New Jersey congressmen wrote to then-Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzger, requesting that the annual catch limit not be cut. According to columnist Al Ristori, writing for the website nj.com, the congressmen asked that NMFS “reexamine its methodologies and conduct a new benchmark summer flounder stock assessment before making any decision to reduce summer flounder quotas.”

Ristori said that proposed regulations “would all be an economic disaster for the N.J. [summer flounder] fishery, and many experts believe they are not necessary for a fishery which appears to be in relatively good condition. The goals set for full recovery were established on questionable data from long before there was management of the fishery—and may not be attainable.”
Such comments are effectively indistinguishable from the comments that New England fishermen made about cod….
Further down the coast, the same sort of things are being said about South Atlantic red snapper. A stock assessment released in April 2016 indicated that the spawning stock biomass, although slowly increasing, remained low—about 22% of the spawning stock biomass target.

Neither commercial nor recreational fishermen were allowed to harvest South Atlantic red snapper in 2016, in order to account for account for excessive mortality the year before, when fishermen killed more than twice the annual catch limit. The season may remain closed through 2017.

The season closure angers fishermen and for-hire vessel operators, who are seeing more snapper than they had in past years, and are confusing a stock that has improved from dismal to somewhat less dismal abundance with a truly recovered population.
A recent article on the website of TC Palm, published in southeastern Florida, quoted charterboat captain Glenn Cameron, who complained, “I think [red snapper are] brutally mismanaged. I believe the stock assessments are asinine. I don’t know where they collect their data, but there are productive bottom fishing spots I used to go to and don’t anymore due to all the red snapper there. I can’t catch any mutton snapper, mangrove snapper or grouper in some spots because it’s been polluted with red snapper.”

Another captain, Rich Kluglein, agrees, saying “It’s gotten pretty silly…They are on every rock along the 27 Fathom Curve. I’ve caught them as shallow as 55 feet of water.”
Again, it sounds a lot like what the New England cod fishermen are saying.
Yet all indications suggest that the New England cod fishermen are completely wrong.
There are no indications that the fishermen who pursue Mid-Atlantic summer flounder or South Atlantic red snapper are any more right.
Some fishermen will believe what they choose to believe, regardless of the facts that fisheries managers are more than happy to provide them.
But the nice thing about facts is that they remain true, whether one chooses to believe them or not.
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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/ 


Monday, April 17, 2017

A COURT CONSIDERS ALLOCATION

Allocation is arguably the topic that fisheries managers like least—and do their best to avoid.

It’s hard to blame them.

In the end, fisheries management is a zero-sum game.  The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires that an annual catch limit be established for each managed species.  In a mixed-use fishery—that is, a fishery that includes both commercial and recreational fishermen—annual catch limits are established for each sector, and the overall catch limit allocated between them.
Increasing the allocation for one sector necessarily means that the other sector shall get less.

It’s thus only natural for the folks who stand to get more to support the reallocation process, and for the folks who stand to get less to fight reallocation as hard as they can.

Recreational fishermen often believe that the allocation process has historically favored commercial fishermen, and have sought a reallocation of the overall harvest of several species. 

A 2014 report titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries”, which might be considered the manifesto of the recreational fishing industry and anglers’ rights community, had this to say about allocation:

“The Magnuson-Stevens Act should require the NMFS, in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), to develop guidelines and criteria that the regional fishery management council must consider for allocation of all mixed sector fisheries.  The allocation decisions must consider conservation and socioeconomic output..”
Perhaps in response to such comments, NMFS issued its “Fisheries Allocation Guidelines” in 2015 and the more formal Fisheries Allocation Review Policy in 2016.   However, the guidance contained in such NMFS guidelines was so vague—on one hand, they laid out a set of criteria to be used in making allocation decisions, and on the other, they stated that in any given situation, all such criteria may not apply and others, not included in the documents, might be relevant—that they provided little or no practical guidance at all.

Overriding every other consideration is National Standard 4 of Magnuson-Stevens, which requires that

“Conservation and management measures shall not discriminate between residents of different States.  If it becomes necessary to allocate or assign fishing privileges between among various United States fishermen, such allocation shall be (A) fair and equitable to all such fishermen, (B) reasonably calculated to promote conservation, and (C) carried out in such manner that no particular individual, corporation, or other entity acquires an excessive share of such privileges.”
Once again, the law provides no clear guidance, but rather provides a set of vague standards that must be interpreted, first by fishery managers, and later, perhaps, but the courts.

Recently, we had a chance to see how a court might approach such standards, at least in the context of one particular case.

The matter was Guindon v. Pritzker, decided by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on March 3, 2017 (and so not to be confused with a case of the same name, decided by the same court, in May 2014).  It arose, as so much fisheries legislation has in recent years, out of the recreational Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, and problems related thereto.

More specifically, the matter represented a challenge to Final Amendment 28 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico, which was released in August 2015.  Amendment 28 changed the allocation of Gulf of Mexico red snapper from 51% commercial, 49% recreational to 48.5% commercial, 51.5% recreational, a 2.5% change.  

The 48.5%/51.5% reallocation was made in an effort to correct what the Gulf Council believed was an error in the original allocation, which was revealed when data collected using the methodology of the new Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), used to estimate anglers’ landings, indicated that MRIP’s predecessor, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, underestimated recreational harvest

The challenge was brought by a group of commercial fishermen and commercial fishing organizations, who argued that such reallocation was illegal.

The Court, in the end, agreed.  However, the written decision made it clear that the argument was a close one; it is thus worthwhile to take a long look at such decision, to understand what considerations ultimately swayed the judge to rule as she did.

The plaintiff commercial fishermen argued that Amendment 28 did not meet the allocation standards set out in National Standard 4. 

They also argued that it failed to conform to various sections of Magnuson-Stevens, including Section 407(d), which is specific to the Gulf red snapper fishery; Section 303(a)(1)(A), which requires federal management actions to promote the long-term health and stability of the relevant fishery; National Standard 1, which requires that conservation and management measures prevent overfishing while producing optimum yield;  Section 303(a)(14), which requires that the economic impacts of an allocation decision be considered, and that they be shared fairly among the different sectors; and Section 303(a)(9), which requires a fishery management plan to assess the conservation, economic and social impacts of management measures.

The plaintiffs prevailed only on the National Standard 4 count, but that was enough to have Amendment 28’s allocation change vacated by the Court.

So the question is, why did Amendment 28 fail to meet National Standard 4’s requirements?

Quoting parts of a decision in a 1991 case, C & W Fish Company v. Fox, the Court in Guindon noted that to pass National Standard 4 muster, there are

“three requirements that must be met whenever [a fishery management plan] allocates fishing privileges:  (i) the allocation must be fair and equitable; (ii) it must be reasonably calculated to promote conservation; and (iii) it must not allocate an excessive share of privileges to any particular group.”
The Court recognized that the fact that one sector might be disadvantaged in relation to another does not, by itself, invalidate an allocation, for

“inherent in an allocation is the advantaging of one group to the detriment of another.”
It also pointed out that a court even found that a fishery management plan which completely outlawed the sale of billfish, and effectively allocated all of the billfish resource to the recreational sector at the expense of commercial fishermen, complied with National Standard 4 because such action would benefit the fishery as a whole.

Yet it still found that Amendment 28 was fatally flawed, and failed to meet the “fair and equitable” requirement of National Standard 4.  The failure occurred because

“Amendment 28 enables the recreational sector to catch more fish in the future because they caught more fish in the past, in excess of applicable restrictions…Consequently, Defendants create a system in which one sector must demonstrate an increase in landings in excess of their quota in order to obtain an increase in their allocation.  The flaw in this system is that the commercial sector can never obtain an increase in their allocation because the commercial sector can never exceed their quota due to the [individual fishing quota] program…Amendment 28 therefore places the commercial sector at a permanent disadvantage by failing to take into account the [individual fishing quota] program and its impact on reallocation.  The Court cannot deem such a scenario fair and equitable as required by National Standard Four.”
In other words, recreational fishermen can’t repeatedly overfish their allocation, and then use that misconduct to justify a bigger allocation.

Amendment 28 only appears to consider fishing years between 1986 and 2014, when there was a lot of recreational overfishing.  In the context of those years, the Court’s logic is difficult to challenge.

However, the base years used to set the original 51% commercial/49% recreational allocation were, as the Court in Guindon acknowledges, 1979 to 1987.  There is nothing in Amendment 28 to suggest that the MRIP methodology was applied to such base years.  If it had been, there is the real possibility that such calculation would have shown that the recreational landings during the base years were higher than originally believed.  If that were the case, such data might have provided more robust grounds for reallocation.

But that is all speculation.

For now, Guindon v. Pritzker stands for the proposition that a sector which overfishes a public fishery resource can’t use its own misdeeds to justify a reallocation, particularly when the other sector has adopted a system that makes overfishing all but impossible.

That seems like plain common sense, but in this case, at least, it took a federal judge to figure it out.

   

Thursday, April 13, 2017

WHAT DO ANGLERS WANT?

Every now and then, my wife and I will be talking to someone who doesn’t fish. Upon learning that we do, and that we own a boat, a typical reaction is something like “That’s really nice. You don’t have to go to the store to buy fish.”
And one of us will respond with “No. And they only cost us about $200 per pound…”
While that $200 figure might be a little high, anyone who thinks that it’s typically cheaper to catch your own fish rather than buy them at the store is in for a big surprise. Between the price of the boat itself, plus dockage, fuel, maintenance, repairs, fishing equipment and perhaps bait and chum, recreational angling is not a low-cost endeavor.
For example, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) figures tell us that, in 2016, striped bass anglers in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region made more than 5.8 million trips, and took home about 1.6 million striped bass. Thus, the average striped bass angler needs to go fishing, and incur the related expenses, three or four times to bring home a single fish. That’s not a very efficient way to feed the family.

Shore-based anglers might spend a lot less money when they go fishing, but they also catch a lot fewer fish. While such anglers account for about 32% of all striped bass trips taken, they harvest less than 4% of the overall recreational landings.
If we look at other popular species, the results are about the same. In the southeast, red drum anglers make about 3.5 million trips, and bring home about 1.3 million drum; Mid-Atlantic summer flounder fishermen do somewhat better, but still need more than 3.7 million fishing trips to land 2 million fish.
Thus, while most anglers probably do enjoy bringing fresh fish home from time to time, those fisherman will, in the end, pay more for such fish than they would have paid for fillets in a neighborhood store. Along most of America’s coasts, few anglers fish just to save money on seafood.
There are also a number of catch-and-release anglers who rarely bring fish home at all. Some like to catch fish, but don’t like to eat them. Some have conservation-related concerns. And others fish for species such as bonefish, tarpon and false albacore, which provide plenty of sport, but aren’t considered “food fish.”
Given such considerations, the question arises: Why do anglers fish, if not for food?
A recent NMFS study, described in a paper titled “Determinants of Saltwater Anglers’ Satisfaction with Fisheries Management: Regional Perspectives in the United States,” tries to answer that question.

To find such answers, researchers sent surveys to anglers located along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Pacific (including Alaska, but not Hawaii) coasts of the United States, and analyzed more than 9,000 responses.
Anglers were asked how important it was for them to 1) catch fish, 2) catch as many fish as possible for food, 3) catch and release as many fish as possible, 4) catch a trophy fish, 5) target a particular species, 6) catch a full bag limit of their chosen species, 7) fish close to parking lots, rest rooms and similar amenities, and 8) see regulations clearly posted when they go fishing.
Current fisheries management debates, such as New Jersey’s ongoing efforts to derail NMFS’ planned reduction in the summer flounder harvest, or various recreational fishing organizations’ demands to increase Gulf of Mexico red snapper harvest, reinforce the impression that anglers are primarily concerned with taking fish home to eat. However, the study strongly suggests that is not the case.
It found that “Motivations to catch fish for consumption…did not significantly affect satisfaction with the management process in any of the regional models.” Instead, anglers were primarily interested in simply being able to catch fish; whether such fish could then be taken home was far less important. Anglers also wanted to be able to target particular species and, perhaps surprisingly, wanted to see fishing regulations clearly posted when they venture out.

When it came to the management policies themselves, anglers strongly supported habitat-related measures, and had a favorable view of regulations that restricted harvest and encouraged catch-and-release. Allocation-based management was not as important to the respondents, something that might be unexpected given the heated rhetoric devoted to issues such as prohibiting the commercial harvest of certain species, or so-called “sector separation,” that allots separate portions of the recreational catch limit to private and for-hire vessels.

And, despite how badly the fishery management system is criticized in the angling press, the study shows that anglers are, on the whole, at least moderately satisfied with the process. Federal management of Mid-Atlantic summer flounder and Gulf of Mexico red snapper is often criticized by some angling organizations, yet the study found that “there were no significant differences with mean management process satisfaction scores in the Mid-Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and New England, compared with scores in the rest of the country,” although the level of satisfaction was higher in Alaska and the South Atlantic, and lower in the Pacific states.

Fishery managers need to pay real attention to the disconnect between the dissatisfaction voiced by some purported spokesmen from the angling community and the broad approval of the management process expressed by the anglers participating in the survey.
Managers need to ask whether the constantly repeated complaints actually reflect the views of the typical recreational fisherman. As the study notes, “Oftentimes, managers create policies in response to anglers’ criticisms of current management. These anglers most likely represent a vocal minority of avid saltwater anglers whose views differ from the general angler with an average amount of experience.”
For the study confirms what responsible leaders of the angling community have been saying for a long time. Fishing isn’t very enjoyable without fish. Managers’ first priority must be to maintain healthy and abundant fish stocks, so that anglers have a realistic chance of catching their favorite species. Whether those fish must then be released, or are taken home, is far less important.

Thus, the constant demands of the “vocal minority” for bigger bag limits and lower minimum sizes should be set aside, and anglers provided with what they both want and need: A sustainable fishery that will thrive into the foreseeable future.
Our fish need that sort of management, too.
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This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/

Sunday, April 9, 2017

THE "MODERN FISH ACT": SAME WOLF, DIFFERENT SHEEP'S CLOTHING

Last week, national “anglers’ rights” organizations, aligned with the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries, heralded the introduction of new legislation in the House of Representatives which, if signed into law, would benefit—anglers rights organizations, along with the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries, at least in the short term.

The bill is called the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017,” which its proponents have shortened, for everyday use, into the media-friendly “Modern Fish Act.”  

It is sponsored by Congressman Garret Graves (R-Louisiana), who last session sponsored the infamous “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act” which would have taken away federal managers’ authority to manage red snapper in the Gulf, and handed it over to state managers who, not bound by federal law, would have no obligation to end overfishing, rebuild the stock or base their management decisions on the best available science.


That, in itself, is probably enough to suggest what the new bill would look like.

The language of the bill is not yet readily available to the public; however, I had the opportunity to view a preliminary draft that, with few if any changes, probably reflects the language of the bill that will be introduced.  Based on that draft, I was initially tempted to call the proposed legislation just another red snapper bill, and the players driving the process, both in Congress and on the advocacy side, suggest that red snapper issues contributed to its introduction.

However, the bill has implications for fisheries on every coast of the nation.  In what it proposes and in what it fails to propose, it could harm anglers and the fish that they pursue in my home waters of the northeast just as readily as it could undo years of progress and damage fish stocks in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

Like so much of the legislation inspired and promoted by the Center for Sportfishing Policy (formerly, the Center for Coastal Conservation), the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 is shockingly parochial, with a strong bias toward fishermen in the southeastern states.  That is particularly clear in its approach to allocation.

In many fisheries, on every coast, recreational and commercial fishermen have clashed over the issue of allocation.  The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Fisheries,” addressed the issue by saying

“The Magnuson-Stevens act should require the NMFS, in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences, to develop guidelines and criteria that the regional fishery management councils must consider for allocation of all mixed sector fisheries.  The allocation decisions must conservation and socioeconomic output.  To help provide necessary information for managers to consider, the NMFS must enhance its existing economic programs for mixed sector fisheries.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act also should require that the regional fishery management councils develop procedures for allocation reviews and adjustments based on those guidelines to occur at regular intervals.”
However, the bill’s language is nowhere near as expansive.  It only requires

“the Secretary of Commerce [to] enter into an arrangement with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico mixed-use fisheries…to provide guidance to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council on criteria that could be used for allocating fishing privileges…and to develop procedures for allocation reviews and potential adjustments in allocations based on guidelines and requirements based on this section  [emphasis added]”
and directs that

the South Atlantic and Gulf Councils shall perform an initial review within 2 years of the day of enactment of this Act of the allocations of all mixed-use fisheries in the Councils respective jurisdictions and a periodic review every three years thereafter.  [emphasis added]”
That’s all very well if you fish recreationally for red snapper, grouper, king mackerel or such down in the southeast, and you want to snatch a piece of the commercial allocation (which southern anglers often want to do).  

However, if you fish recreationally for summer flounder (allocation 40% recreational, 60% commercial) or scup (allocation 22% recreational, 78% commercial), and think that anglers deserve a bigger piece of the pie, you’re pretty well out of luck, as the folks supporting this bill don’t seem to concern themselves with anyone living north of Cape Hatteras.

Of course, a lot of the rest of the bill will affect anglers here in the northeast, and given what the proposed changes could do to our fisheries, we might be happier if the folks behind the bill just stuck to screwing up the red snapper stock…

The bill provides its greatest threat when it carves out exceptions to the requirement that annual catch limits be established for each species.  For example, a regional fishery management council would not be required to set an annual catch limit for

“a stock for which—
(i)                  fishing mortality is below the fishing mortality target; and
(ii)                a peer reviewed stock survey and stock assessment have not been performed during the five-year period that ends on the date of enactment of this Act.”

Let’s apply that to a real-world situation—the southern New England/mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder.

The last peer-reviewed stock assessment occurred in 2011, well outside of the five-year time window that would be created by the proposed legislation.  And according to a non-peer-reviewed stock assessment update released in 2015, the stock is not subject to overfishing.  Thus, should the proposed legislation become law, the New England Fishery Management Council would not have to set an annual catch limit for the SNE/MA stock of winter flounder.

Now, let’s look a bit more closely.

The SNE/MA stock of winter flounder is badly overfished.  

Spawning stock biomass in 2015 was estimated to be 6,151 metric tons, less than one-quarter of the biomass target.  And recruitment is heading downhill, from an estimate of more than 13 million age-1 flounder in 2005—already a small fraction of what it was in the 1980s—to just under 5 million in 2014.  In New York, according to  Newsday,

“Overfishing and habitat loss due to pollution have contributed to the decline of winter flounder in the region, but the new findings point to inbreeding as a contributing factor.
“Researchers found that as the population of winter flounder has declined, the likelihood that fish with similar genetic compositions will mate has increased.
“That’s troubling, scientists say, because inbred fish tend to be weaker and less able to survive.”
And yet the sponsors and proponents of the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act would allow recreational fishermen to exploit such an imperiled stock without being constrained by any annual catch limit at all.

It’s probably safe to say that such folk didn’t intend such a result, but it’s also probably at least as safe to say that, in drafting the bill, they never thought about such possibilities at all.  They should have, because the situation is not that unusual.  Once a stock becomes badly overfished, fish become so scarce that many fishermen no longer pursue them, so overfishing no longer occurs. 

That doesn’t mean that the stock isn’t still in very deep trouble.

But the most pernicious provision would allow annual catch limits to be eliminated

“for a sector of a fishery that is not monitored by a data collection system determined by the Secretary to be adequate for the development, implementation and enforcement of annual catch limits specific to that sector, based on the evaluation recommended by the National Academy of Sciences in its report Review of the Marine Recreational Information Program (2017) of whether the design of MRIP for the purposes of stock assessment and the determination of stock management reference points is compatible with the needs of in-season management of annual catch limits.”
The referenced report, which I discussed in a blog post last February, didn’t definitively opine on whether MRIP was an adequate tool for such purposes, and left that for managers, and perhaps a later analysis, to decide.  But what matters here is that, should the Secretary of Commerce be convinced that managers need more than MRIP to manage recreational harvest, there could be no recreational catch limit at all!

There would still be an annual commercial harvest limit, but recreational fishermen could be given carte blanche to overfish the resource without worrying about accountability measures tripped by exceeding the annual quota.
(That’s another reason why this proposed legislation deserves being called “another red snapper bill…”)

While MRIP may still need some tweaking, using MRIP is far better than being completely without a means of estimating recreational landings.

Of course, the bill does purport to seek additional information that could be considered when making fisheries management decisions.  The problem is that such information could only be sourced from

“(A)  Fishermen
  (B)  Fishing communities
  (C)  Universities
  (D)  Research Institutions”
and from no other sources.

That’s not just a case of the fox watching the henhouse, but one of the fox locking the henhouse door once he got inside; while fish are a public resource, belonging equally to every citizen of this nation,  the Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act would deny the great majority of the public—including SCUBA divers and dive operators, underwater photographers and conservation advocates—from providing information to help manage such public resource.

That’s wrong.  That’s the Modern Fish Act.

For the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 isn’t truly “modern” at all.  Instead, it’s a step backward, away from science-based management, away from responsible stewardship, away from the concept of public management of public resources.

It’s a return to the bad old days when it was expected that private persons would exploit public resources for private profit.

And in the end, just like in the old days, it will be the public who suffers when those resources are gone.