Thursday, May 5, 2016


I’m lucky.

I live in a coastal town, I own an offshore-capable boat and I’m a decent enough angler that I can usually find a fish or two when I go out on the water.  That means that when I want to eat fish, I either have something just-caught and fresh sitting on ice, or have enough vacuum-packed memories of previous trips waiting for me in the freezer, so I don’t have to admit defeat and buy fish caught by someone else.

Most folks aren’t quite as fortunate.

They end up buying fish, either in stores or in restaurants.  And their luck doesn’t get too much better there, because labels can be deceptive, and what they think that they’re buying isn’t necessarily what they actually get.

Back in 2012, the conservation group Oceana conducted a study designed to quantify the level of marketing fraud inherent in the retail fish business.  What they discovered came as a shock to many people.  According to Oceana,

“Everywhere seafood is tested, fraud has been found.  In fact, Oceana and others have recently found shocking levels of mislabeling in the Boston (48 percent), Los Angeles (55 percent) and Miami (31 percent) areas.  Oceana also investigated seafood labeling in the  New York City area…Oceana found that 39 percent of the 142 seafood samples collected and DNA tested from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues were mislabeled, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.”
The mislabeling ranged from a few occasions of merely using a colloquial name not approved by the FDA (e.g., calling tautog “blackfish,” the name that prevails along the waterfront in the New York City metropolitan area) to more egregious examples, such as using the misleading term “white tuna” when marketing escolar, a sort of snake mackerel that is frequently caught as bycatch by pelagic longliners and which, when eaten in any quantity, can cause folks to suffer sudden, unexpected, uncontrollable bouts of projectile diarrhea as orange as Donald Trump’s hair.

You’d probably want to know if you were buying something like that

The Oceana researchers also found a lot of more mundane dishonesty, where low-priced fish were held out to be more expensive varieties. 

Lesser fish sold as “red snapper” and “wild salmon” provided the most common examples of this sort of scam.  A variety of fish was sold as red snapper, ranging from Pacific rockfish, called “red snapper” in California, to less desirable species of Atlantic snappers to such things as farmed tilapia and various inexpensive bottom fish.  Ersatz “wild salmon” was some sort of farmed salmonid, generally either Atlantic salmon or rainbow trout.

Such dishonesty in labeling has consequences, both to the consumer, who might be getting a lower-quality and perhaps less than wholesome product, and to the resource itself, as mislabeling allows illegally-harvested seafood to be slipped into the chain of commerce.  Unscrupulous fishermen will often pass off a protected species as something else, just to be able to sell it, or find a way to get illegally-harvested fish into the market, where they will be indistinguishable from fish caught by honest harvesters.

Recent law enforcement actions in New York and Massachusetts provide examples of both problems.

On a larger scale, so called “IUU”—illegal, unreported and unregulated—harvests plague fisheries throughout the world.  Fish from dubious sources is “laundered” by unscrupulous dealers and, once integrated into the stream of commerce, is foisted upon an unsuspected public.

Thus, for reasons of both commerce and conservation, it makes sense to track shipments of fish from the ports where it’s landed to the shops and restaurants where it is sold at retail.

That’s why Ocean has followed up its earlier work with a new report.  Entitled “Fish Stories:  Success and Value in Seafood Traceability”, it notes that

“The first step in ensuring that seafood is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled, is traceability.  Traceability increases transparency and accountability in the seafood supply chain by ensuring that information such as how and where fish are caught or farmed follows the fish from boat to plate.”
The report goes on to describe a number of existing traceability programs, including one that I’ve seen in action, the “Gulf Wild” certification developed by the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholder’s Alliance.

Not too long ago, I stood on the dock at Katie’s Seafood Market in Galveston, Texas, watching commercial boats land their day’s catch of red snapper.  

As soon as the fish were delivered, each one was marked with a “Gulf Wild” tag, which bore a unique number and scannable QR code.  At any time of the day or night, a consumer who purchased any of those fish could enter the tag’s data into a computer and learn all of the pertinent details, including the species of fish, the captain and boat that landed it and the port where it was landed.

We can only surmise what things would be like if all fisheries were subject to a similar system.

Certainly, the antics of the “Codfather” up in New Bedford, who was recently arrested for allegedly shipping illegal New England groundfish, could not have occurred.  As described in the Boston Globe,

“He called all the fish haddock, even if they weren’t.  The dab fish.  The gray sole.
“If the fish inspectors weren’t watching when his boats came into the docks at New Bedford, according to the authorities, fish mogul Carlos Rafael labeled every species of the fish he caught as the cheaper, more common haddock—while secretly trading hundreds of pounds of more coveted species for bags of cash.
“The goal:  evade the federal quota on the more coveted fish.”
Closer to home, I can only think how such a catch-tracing system would benefit our local tautog population.  The fish used to be common on every rockpile, wreck and reef off Long Island; they supported a relatively small, yet active, recreational fishery, but had little commercial value.  Then, perhaps 35 years ago, live blackfish began being sold in urban ethnic markets; prices for live fish spiked, and spawned an active illicit fishery that quickly decimated the population.

Ever since, law enforcement has been fighting a largely unsuccessful battle to rein in the illegal tautog harvest.  Recently, the Atlantic States Marine FisheriesCommission has begun seriously considering a program that would requirefishermen to tag their tautog when caught.  Such tags, if made part of a broader traceability program, might well prove the critical first step to rebuilding the stock.

Traceability is an idea whose time has definitely come.  It has no downside for honest fishermen or fish dealers, and can provide some real benefits to both consumers and the resource itself.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


Ever since the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership published its paper, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” in early 2014, and since the National Marine Fisheries Service held its Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit, where TRCP’s vision was widely discussed, a couple months later, the question of a saltwater recreational fishing policy has remained in the news.

Much of the discussion has centered around the allegation, raised in the TRCP report, that federal fisheries managers concentrate on optimizing commercial fisheries, and ignore recreational fishing needs.

That charge was taken seriously enough that NMFS has since spent substantial time and effort to produce a specific recreational fishing policy, which was released a few months ago.

The policy states, in broad terms, concerns that had been expressed to NMFS by some representatives of the recreational fishing community over the years.  It probably represents a helpful base from which to proceed when dealing with recreational fishing issues, but it doesn’t really address the core question:

What do saltwater recreational anglers need?

The TRCP report actually lays those needs out quite nicely when it says that

“Recreational fishing is founded on conservation, sustainability and opportunity…
”What recreational anglers want and need is wide-ranging, dependable access to healthy and abundant fish stocks.”
Unfortunately, a lot of the people who claim to speak on behalf of recreational anglers, including the majority of the organizations that contributed to the TRCP report, haven’t heeded those wise words too closely, subordinating “conservation, sustainability and…access to healthy and abundant fish stocks” to increased harvest in the short term.

Now, federal fisheries managers are getting their chance to address saltwater anglers needs.  Last week, in furtherance of its recreational fishing policy, NMFS issued a series of Regional Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy Implementation Plans.

At first glance, they look pretty good, and seem to recognize what the recreational saltwater fishery needs if it is to thrive.

It needs fish.

Yes, there are other things that have to be considered, too, but of all of the fishery’s needs, fish stand at the head of the list.  Nothing else comes close.  Without fish, in some abundance, everything else is just the confetti that blows through the streets after the parade has gone by.

NMFS seems to get that.

I didn’t read through all of the regional plans.  Instead, I only read the two that encompass my typical fishing activities, the plans for Atlantic Highly Migratory Species and for the Greater Atlantic Region.  I also read the plan for the Southeast Region, as I find myself chasing fish down in Florida and in various places in the Gulf of Mexico on a semi-regular basis.

In all three of those plans, the need to

“Promote public access to quality recreational fishing opportunities”
is clearly spelled out.

The means of doing that differs a bit from plan to plan, but the cornerstone remains conserving, rebuilding and maintaining fish stocks.  The exact approach differs from place to place.  In the Greater Atlantic Region, where the long-term depletion of New England’s groundfish stocks remains a seemingly intractable problem, NMFS is intent on developing

“management measures that are consistent with scientifically sound limits that are designed to maximize recreational opportunity within catch limits.”
“Maximizing” recreational opportunity is still going to mean that, for a while, a lot of folks in New England are going to be disappointed in the amount of fish they bring home, because rebuilding stocks of cod and winter flounder is going to be a long, painful and difficult process.  Success is not assured.  Yet, unless appropriate, science-based measures are put in place, recovery will never happen, and the recreational fishery will, for most persons, become merely a memory.

“Support development of a benchmark black sea bass stock assessment”
is also a stated goal (although in a different section of the report which deals with fisheries science).

In the Southeast Region, fish are in better shape than they are in New England, but the problems typical of managing recovered stocks—most particularly recreational landings that increase at a rate faster than the population can grow—trouble a number of fisheries, most particularly Gulf of Mexico red snapper.  
Thus, the Southeast Region’s goals are worded a little differently, with NMFS seeking to

“Collect and employ sound data to support management decisions which may allow for increased public access by anglers. [emphasis added]”
To accomplish that goal, the agency hopes to

“Continue to conduct and support stock assessments for federally managed species, including red snapper, gag grouper, black sea bass, and other recreational target species in the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean,”
and to

“Use the best available science to create consistent and predictable open seasons, while preventing catch limit overages, to allow recreational anglers to plan and pursue various species of fish throughout the year.”
Highly Migratory Species present a very different set of problems, as both the stock assessments and the management measures are conducted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, a body that actually does emphasize commercial exploitation and frequently ignores the wants and needs of the recreational sector.  

So in that case, NMFS’ priority shifts, and it must

“Seek to expand U.S. recreational fishing opportunities on internationally managed fish stocks, where feasible and appropriate, and promote the legitimacy and recognition of the economic importance of recreational fisheries within international fishery management bodies.”
Of course, human nature being what it is, there are plenty of anglers who won’t be happy waiting for NMFS to restore depleted fish stocks, or to be limited to scientifically-justified seasons and catch limits.  They want to catch their fish now, regardless of what science or ICCAT may say about the matter, and they find NMFS a convenient whipping boy when they want to demonstrate their discontent.

That sort of outreach is important on every coast, but is particularly necessary where such regional fishing organizations, in an attempt to achieve their own ends, seek to turn angler opinion against the federal fishery management process.  

The plan for the Southeast Region sets forth additional efforts needed to set that situation to rights.  Among other things, it intends to

“Work with interested shareholder groups to host regular roundtable discussions to strengthen relationships and share information,
“Work with and encourage fishermen and others to participate productively in the fisheries management process, to improve cooperation and trust among fishermen, scientists, and fishery managers [emphasis added],
“Communicate the scientific rationale for management actions to stakeholders by explaining the scientific methods and findings that support the resulting management decisions,

“Communicate legal obligations and process limitations to establish accurate expectations about potential agency action.”
Hopefully, those efforts will bear some fruit, despite the people and organizations that will do their best to throw sand in the gears and try to sabotage such initiatives.

But even if some success does accrue, we can be certain that there will be discontent.  People will always be people, and although anglers need healthy fish stocks if their sport is to thrive, they will also want to take more fish today than prudence allows.

If that wasn’t true, we wouldn’t need regulations.

Thus, as NMFS begins to develop concrete measures designed to implement each regional plan, perhaps anglers unhappy with the pace of NMFS' progress or the steps that it takes should seek some modicum of solace in the words of an old song, popular back when I was in my teens.

“You can’t always get what you want,
You can’t always get what you want,
You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometime you just might find
You get what you need…”

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico is probably the most contentions fisheries issue being debated today.  To say that the rhetoric gets heated is a gross understatement.

Like most fisheries debates, it includes a little truth, a lot of emotion and quite a bit of information that doesn’t quite line up with the known facts.

The debate also includes a lot of folks who tend to spin the “facts” (both those that are true and those that are created to fill a particular need) to serve their own purposes and shape public opinion to conform to their own.

So, before going any further, it probably makes sense to set forth a dozen truths that you can verify for yourself by clicking on each one and linking to reliable sources.

In short, what we’re dealing with is a successful fishery management plan that is well on its way to rebuilding what had been a badly overfished red snapper stock.  The adoption of a catch share system ended commercial overharvest, but until a court imposed accountability measures on the recreational sector, anglers continued to overfish on a regular basis.  Instead of trying to get their overfishing under control, anglers escape federal regulations by fishing within state waters, where the federal rules do not apply.  Recently, they have taken that effort one step further by asking Congress to turn red snapper management over to the states, where harvest does not have to be maintained at sustainable levels.

That means that the same folks who have been failing to live up to their obligations to conserve the stock are trying to paint themselves as victims, so that they can convince federal lawmakers to let them kill even more.

That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, so the angling groups needed to come up with a little creative misdirection.

It’s the same thing that’s done in a staged magic show; in order to create the desired illusion, a magician must divert the audience’s attention away from his right hand, that’s performing the trick, and convince them to watch his left hand, his hat or his bespangled assistant, so that they can’t perceive what’s really going on.

If, along the way, they can invoke a base emotion—jealousy, say, or maybe greed—to help sell the illusion, well, then they’ll try that, too.

“The end result of catch share programs is what we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico today, with a very few, select commercial shareholders wielding a disproportionate level of power and enjoying a year-round red snapper season while the public is left with just an 11-day season to pursue this abundant and popular fish.
“Proponents of catch shares argue that the system presents the best way to manage marine resources.  Left unsaid is that anyone who wants to enjoy that resource will have to buy it from a shareholder who paid nothing to own it in the first place.  In the red snapper program, less than 400 commercial shareholders “own” more than 50 percent of all the red snapper harvested in the Gulf of Mexico, and yet they don’t pay enough in administrative fees to even cover the cost of managing their own program…
“What kind of a fishery are we creating with this system for our grandkids, our kids or even for us?  The federal government is creating a situation in which the public is paying to give away our marine resources, and then forcing us to pay again and again to access those resources in the future.”
Reading that piece, it’s hard not to get angry at federal managers, who seem to be giving away the public’s ability to fish to red snapper, and hand permanent ownership of what had been a public resource to just a few hundred commercial fishermen.  Once you’re angry enough, it’s easy for you to accept the conclusion of the piece, which is that

“the states have never felt it necessary to hand over ownership of redfish or speckled trout, for example, to achieve good management…
“There are many problems with federal fisheries management and the primary one is that the feds have almost no idea how to manage recreational fisheries.  Embracing flawed programs to give those marine resources away for someone else to manage for their own benefit is not the answer.
“If you have a freight train running out of control sometimes the only solution is to cut the fuel line…”
And thus, the illusionist set the stage to end federal management of red snapper, and hand responsibility over to the states.

The only problem is that just about everything that Mr. Venker wrote, which led up to that conclusion, was at best misdirection, and at the worst, untrue.  But his words might get you so angry at (and perhaps jealous of) the commercial fleet, that you didn’t stop and think about the facts.

Like the fact that the catch share program only affects the commercial red snapper quota, and has nothing to do with the recreational quota at all.  Yes, you might be mad about the short federal red snapper season.  But the length of the recreational season isn’t caused by the existence of commercial catch shares; it would be just as short if the commercial fleet fished under a “derby” system, when every boat rushes out to catch as much of the overall quota as they can land during a relatively short season.  Either way, the commercial fleet would have the very same quota, regardless of how it was caught.

Mr. Venker contrasts a year-round commercial season with the 11-day recreational season, in an attempt to anger recreational fishermen; in fact, the comparison in meaningless.  Whether the commercial fishery is managed as a derby or through catch shares, the recreational season—and the recreational quota—will remain exactly the same.

Moving from mere misdirection to falsehood, CCA’s statement that “anyone who wants to enjoy [the red snapper] resource will have to buy it from a shareholder” is just plain untrue.  As mentioned earlier, the catch share system only impacts the commercial fishery.  You have to buy shares from someone (if you don’t have them already) if you intend to sell your catch.  If you fish recreationally, your fishery remains a “derby,” which is why the season must be so short (although at one time, CCA proposed that anglers buy tags at auction in order to fish for red snapper). 

It’s possible that the party and charter boat fishery will one day be governed by a catch share system, too, but anglers are already paying to go out on such vessels, so it’s not like paying to fish on a for-hire isn’t already the status quo.

The notion that commercial fisherman “own” any red snapper is equally false.  What they own is a share of whatever commercial harvest NMFS permits in any given year.  In theory, that’s a good thing, because it incentivizes commercial fishermen to be good stewards of the resource; as the stock grows, their share of the harvest remains the same, but represents a greater quantity of fish (and, it should be noted again, the commercial sector hasn’t overfished since 2007, the year that the catch share program became effective).

The fact that commercial fishermen own a share of the harvest doesn’t even prevent NMFS from shifting allocation away from their sector and to recreational fishermen.  Since Mr. Venker wrote the piece quoted here, the allocation changed from 49% recreational/51% commercial to 51.5% recreational/48.5% commercial, meaning that the catch shares will now all come out of a proportionally smaller pool.

Three percent of the price for each red snapper sold is deducted from the commercial fishermen’s earnings, and used to fund the cash share program.  CCA complains that such revenues don’t cover the program’s costs, which may be true (I haven’t checked), but whatever the commercials are paying to manage the fishery, it is infinitely more than what red snapper anglers pay into the federal management system, which the last time I checked was something resembling $0.00 (federal excise taxes on fishing tackle are distributed to the states, not to NMFS), despite all of the expense angling organizations have cost the feds due to questionable lawsuits and such.

It’s actually hard not to wonder what the state of red snapper management might be if the many hundreds of thousands of dollars in member donations that the various anglers’ rights organizations poured into unsuccessful lawsuits, public relations and lobbying state and federal legislators had instead been invested in peer-reviewed science that could have cleared up some of the unknowns in snapper biology.

Of course, resolving some of those unknowns might not have helped the militant anglers’ cause…

For the problem with science is that it deals with fact, and leaves little room for misdirection.  Anyone who says that the federal management system will be “forcing us to pay again and again to access those [red snapper] resources in the future” probably wants to leave fact strictly alone because—and I’ll say this again—the catch share program doesn’t apply to private recreational anglers.

The only people who have to pay for access to the red snapper resource are commercial fishermen seeking additional quota, those who buy their fish at a store and maybe, at some point in the future, those who fish from party and charter boats.  The latter two groups would be paying for their access anyway, even in a derby fishery, so the only group with a right to complain are the commercial fishermen—and most of them seem to like things just as they are.

So it’s pretty clear that the people complaining the loudest about catch shares—the anglers’ rights community—in the end have the least to complain about.  And that’s why their whining gets so annoying.

I hear it time and again, the same organizations grinding out the same lines in an effort to attract more supporters and, it seems clear, in an effort to keep everyone from noticing that it is their members, and not those holding catch shares, that keep overfishing the stock.

It’s really time for the noise to cease and for people to speak with some honesty.  Allocations, and whether to change them, are legitimate policy issues.  If that’s what they want to talk about—in fact, if they want to abandon allocation completely and claim all of the fish for themselves—let them be men about it, and say so right out loud, instead of hiding behind these deceptions.

Let them put out their own list of facts, confirmed by links to objective sources.

If they can.  Which isn’t too likely.

The truth is a powerful spokesman. 

And when someone avoids the plain truth, or tries to reshape it?  Well, that speaks pretty powerfully, too.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


That such protection is needed is undoubtedly true.

However, the sort of protection that the editorial is seeking is a bit off the mark.

Apparently, Sweden is afraid of American lobsters invading its waters and outcompeting their European relatives, and is thus asking the European Union to ban the import of the New World crustaceans.

That has some of the good folks of Newburyport alarmed, causing their local paper to say that

“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Massachusetts congressional delegation need to make their voices heard in the deepening dispute between Sweden and the American lobster industry.”
Concerns have apparently arisen because the American lobster, Homarus americanus, and the European lobster, Homarus gammerus, are closely related; in addition, the American lobster is larger.  One spokesman for the Swedish Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science expressed concern that the American lobster

“pose several potential risks for native species, competing for space and resources, they can interbreed with local species and produce hybrid species, which we don’t know will be viable or not.”
It’s hard to tell whether such concerns are valid or not.  Richard Wahle, a professor at the University of Maine, is not buying in, arguing

“Attempts to introduce American lobster elsewhere have failed.  A newly introduced lobster would face a gauntlet of different species that it has no experience with.”
Given the similarities between the ecosystems on both sides of the North Atlantic, it’s not clear how many truly different species an American lobster would encounter while visiting Swedish shores. 

While the species might be different, many would certainly be merely local variations on a very similar theme; the European pollack, Pollachius pollachius, and the American pollock, Pollachius virens, for example, may be different species, but perform about the same role in the ecosystem, and could be expected to react to lobster in about the same way.

On the other hand, a lobster would probably be in greater danger of being eaten by an Atlantic cod or Atlantic halibut in European waters than off New England, simply because European fisheries managers have done a better job of protecting such species in their local waters than New England fishery managers have done in waters under its jurisdiction.

The same thing that motivated folks in New England to turn a blind eye to declining cod and halibut stocks—the opportunity to make a good short-term profit—is motivating folks in New England to call for federal intervention in the lobster dispute today.  Exporting lobster to Europe is a big-money business; Canadian and United States fishermen ship over about $200 million in lobster each year.

Massachusetts is second only to Maine in the size of its lobster fishery, so right at this moment, it has a real interest in using federal leverage to keep European markets open to Bay State lobstermen.

Unfortunately, in the long term, there may be a far more compelling reason to get the federal government involved in the lobster fishery.  In southern New England, that fishery isn’t doing too well.

Right now, that’s probably too much of a concern for the lobstermen of Newburyport.  They’re fishing on lobster that belong to the recently consolidated Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine stock, which is neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, and is at record-high abundance levels.

The southern New England stock, on the other hand, isn’t doing very well. 

American lobster are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service.  In 2015, ASMFC accepted the most recent American Lobster Benchmark Stock Assessment and Peer Review Report for management purposes.  The following quote from that document just how dire the state of the southern New England stock of American lobster actually is.

“Closer scrutiny reveals the inshore portion of the SNE stock has clearly collapsed.  The SNE stock is clearly overfished according to both the model and the stock indicators.  Fishing mortality does not appear to be extremely high and this supports the conclusion that biological factors have contributed to bringing the stock to this point.  It is believed that offshore areas of SNE depends on nearshore settlement as a source of recruits.  Therefore, the offshore is also in jeopardy and the Technical Committee and Review Panel believe the stock has little chance of recovering unless fishing effort is curtailed…It is noted that pre-recruits are not measured in the offshore surveys, so the effects of recruitment failure in the inshore would not be seen in the offshore until years later when the lobsters become available to the fishery and to surveys.  Hence, by any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment can be observed.  [emphasis added]”
As mentioned, American lobster are managed by ASMFC, through its American Lobster Management Board.  So, when faced with the above scientific advice, how did ASMFC’s Management Board react?

Certainly, not with urgency.  

Although the verbatim transcripts for Management Board meetings occurring after the benchmark stock assessment was released are not available at this time, perhaps due to recent problems with ASMFC’s website, a quick look at press releases issued by ASMFC since last August suggests that most of the Management Board’s time was spent drafting a new management plan for Jonah crab, a species frequently caught as bycatch in the offshore lobster fishery, rather than addressing the collapse of the southern New England stock.

In fact, the only mention of that imperiled stock comes in an August press release, which states that

“In response to the findings regarding the status of the SNE stock, the Board established a working group of Board and Technical Committee members to review the assessment and peer review findings and develop recommendations for Board consideration.”
Given the dearth of announcements since that point, one can safely assume that either the working group is still working, that it is still reviewing the assessment and/or developing recommendations, or that the Board is still considering any recommendations made.

And, one can also safely assume that as time ticks on while all that is happening, the southern New England stock of American lobster is continuing to collapse.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because the current state of the stock is also no surprise. 

All the way back in April, 2010, ASMFC’s American Lobster Technical Committee issued the report “Recruitment Failure in The Southern New England Lobster Stock.”  It warned that

“The southern New England stock is critically depleted and well below the minimum threshold abundance.  Abundance indices are at or near time series lows, and the condition has persisted.”
It advised that

“Given additional evidence of recruitment failure in [the southern New England stock] and the impediments to stock rebuilding, the Technical Committee now recommends a 5 year moratorium on harvest in the [southern New England] stock area…”
Provided with such dire advice, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission did…


As usual.
Well, that’s not completely true, because it did decide to reduce harvest by 10%.  However, it didn’t do so by such reliable means as, for example, a hard-poundage quota that would keep boats tied up to the dock, and away from the lobsters, once that quota was landed.

Doing that might hurt someone’s profits.

“Given the critically depleted condition of the SNE stock, the American Lobster Board approved Addenda XVII – XXII, which implement a suite of measures to reduce exploitation and allow the SNE stock to rebuild.  These measures include a v-notching program, trap reductions, closed seasons for certain areas, and a trap consolidation/transferability program.  Throughout 2014, the American Lobster Board monitored the monitored the progress of the SNE [Lobster Conservation Management Areas] in achieving the required 10% reduction in exploitation in order to address rebuilding…”
Some of the LCMA’s achieved the reduction and some did not, but even for those that succeeded, “success” was meaningless, because a 10% reduction in landings is a very different thing than a 5-year moratorium.  As the 2015 benchmark stock assessment showed, ASMFC’s minimal actions did nothing to improve the health of the stock.

And that’s why the Newburyport Daily Times got the story wrong, but the headline right, when it declared “U.S. Needs to Protect Lobster Fishery.”

For the states have demonstrated that they lack the ability and/or the will to protect it themselves.

If the southern New England stock of American lobster is to be rebuilt, at least to the extent that oceanographic conditions allow, a federal fisheries management plan will be needed.

Unlike ASMFC, federal fisheries managers, acting pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, are required by law to rebuild overfished stocks promptly, and within a time certain.  Federal fisheries managers must base their management measures on hard science, not merely on the fear of lost income.

There would have to be a hard annual catch limit, and not merely “soft” restrictions on landings based on reducing the number of traps or v-notching females.

And should a federal Science and Statistics Committee, the equivalent of an ASMFC technical committee, say that a moratorium is required to rebuild the stock, that annual catch limit will be set at zero, for as long as is necessary to get the job done.  Any effort to impose a token 10% reduction, which may or may not actually be achieved, would be clearly illegal, and subject to a review in the courts.

Such factors explain why federal fisheries managers have been successful in rebuilding a number of overfished stocks, when ASMFC’s more “flexible” management measures have resulted only in failure.

They also explain why some in the fishing industry—regrettably, including the recreational fishing industry—are pushing so hard to amend Magnuson-Stevens, to make it look more like the ASMFC model of management.  

For if ASMFC’s flexible approach doesn’t do much to build fish populations, it does a good job of building folks’ profits, at least until the fish stocks collapse.

And for a lot of the industry voices, profit is their sole concern.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Right now, striped bass are headed up New York’s Hudson River, preparing to spawn.  Folks who don’t fish for stripers are often surprised.  They think of the Hudson as something dead, and not the vitally important river that it was, is and always should be.

In truth, the Hudson’s bad reputation is overdone, and also very far out of date.  Not very long ago, as time is measured by species and rivers, the Hudson was heading toward a tragic demise.  Sewage dumped into the river, along with varied industrial wastes, led to hypoxic “dead zones” where fish could hardly survive, much less reproduce.

Up through the 1970s, as striped bass populations declined all along the coast, manufacturers such as General Electric allowed polychlorinated biphenyls—usually just called “PCBs”—to leak into the river from factories building transformers and other electrical parts.  The chemicals spread through the food chain, accumulating in the larger predators.

Things got so bad that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation shut down the commercial bass fishery not only on the river but, for a while, in all of the State of New York, in order to prevent people from consuming PCB-tainted bass.  Over the years, the PCB-producing factories were all shut down, and a massive remediation project has removed PCB-laden silt from the river.  The commercial striped bass fishery in some New York waters reopened long ago.

“Women under 50 years of age and children under 15 should not eat any fish from the Hudson River downstream of the Corinth Dam.”
Everyone else is warned not to eat fish from a long section of river running from above Albany well down toward the ocean due to remaining PCB contamination, and to eat fish from the lower reaches of the river just one time each month.

Warnings even apply out past the river’s mouth, although in New York’s salt waters, younger women and children may safely consume one meal of striped bass each month, while all other persons are advised to limit their monthly intake to just fourer servings.

Hudson River striped bass may travel as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as North Carolina.  Yet however far they may travel over the course of the year, the conditions that they face in just a short length of river will determine the success of their spawn and the fitness of their flesh as food.

And as the striped bass swim back to the Hudson, they do not travel alone.

American shad and river herring (the latter a term that encompasses both alewives and blueback herring) are heading upriver also, seeking out their spawning grounds.

At one time, to steal a phrase from author John Waldman, rivers all along the Atlantic coast, including the Hudson, “ran silver” with hordes of fish.  But that, sadly, is a thing of the past.

The Hudson’s run of big shad—some of the largest and oldest shad on the coast, which returned to the river multiple times—has collapsed.  A fish that once provided cheap protein for the masses of immigrants that came to Manhattan, and prized, costly roe for New York’s moneyed elite, now is so scarce that both the commercial and recreational fisheries have been closed.

The shad were hurt in the Hudson by dead zones and dredging that degraded their spawning grounds, and by long-term overfishing as well.  Shad runs on other rivers faced similar problems; in addition, many were blocked by impassible dams.  And those were only the problems that faced shad during their spawning runs; during the rest of the year, which shad spend in the ocean, large numbers of them were killed as bycatch by fishermen targeting mackerel and Atlantic herring.

River herring suffered the same fate as shad.  Although they once ran up just about every creek and river that flowed into the sea, and thus had far more potential spawning grounds, dams in the rivers and bycatch in the sea caused their numbers to fall sharply as well.

Yet the problems of striped bass, river herring and shad are not as great as those faced by salmon, which spend most of their lives out at sea, vulnerable to threats from many sources, and reproduce in rivers with myriad problems.

On the U.S. East Coast, Atlantic salmon are all but gone.  

They travel far during their time in the ocean, to waters off Greenland, where local netters decimate their numbers; even those that survive are threatened by a warming northern ocean that impacts their ability to feed.  When they return to their natal streams, they face the same problems that frustrate too many other anadromous species; dams block upstream passage, and what spawning habitat remains accessible is vulnerable to pollution and other forms of degradation.

In the United States, the Atlantic salmon’s range has already shrunk from rivers throughout New England to just a few streams in Maine.  It has been listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act.  The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, working in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is drafting a plan to rebuild the stock to sustainable levels, but under the best circumstances, the process will take around 75 years.

Pacific salmon pose a more intricate puzzle.  They form a complex web of not only individual species, but unique salmon “runs” within the same species that differ somewhat from river to river, and have their own management needs.  Some individual runs are “endangered”.  Others are completely healthy, at least at this time.

The threats that the Pacific salmon face are varied, ranging from a lack of water, caused by both drought and the demands of irrigation in California to pollution discharged from hard-rock mines, including mines located upriver in Canada, impacting pristine Alaskan streams.  Dams, increasing water temperatures, siltation and competition from hatchery fish all place additional burdens on native salmon populations.

The bottom line is that anadromous fish—those that spawn in the rivers but live in the sea—are facing serious threats wherever they are found.  Countering those threats, in order to conserve the healthy stocks and rebuild those that have declined, is going to take a new approach to the management process.

It’s not just about regulations adopted by NMFS, pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, that protect fish at sea, nor is it about the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates harvest of shad, river herring and striped bass when in state waters.  State regulation of in-river fisheries isn’t enough.

To adequately protect anadromous fish stocks, everyone must step out of their silos, which protect certain fish in certain pieces of water, and work hand-in-hand to adopt a comprehensive, integrated management approach that reaches out from the heads of natal rivers into the heart of the sea, and assures that wherever the fish may wander through the course of their lives, they will be given sufficient protection.

It will not be easy to get there.  No law provides for such comprehensive management today (although, in dire circumstances only, the Endangered Species Act comes somewhat close), and adopting an integrated approach will step on many jurisdictional toes.  Stakeholders will undoubtedly be wary of any new management layer, while bureaucrats will undoubtedly object when “outsiders” invade what they consider their own personal fiefs.    

Yet, if runs of anadromous fish are to thrive, there is no viable alternative.

For so long as one dam on a river can keep salmon from spawning after long years at sea, and one mid-water trawl in the ocean can destroy all of the alewives that a river produced in a year, such fishes’ future must remain insecure.