Sunday, September 15, 2019
The great debate over the so-called “Modern Fish Act” ended nearly a year ago, and the arguments made by that bill’s supporters have largely faded into the past. Even so, the law that was finally adopted byCongress was so watered-down and weakened, compared to what it’s proponentsoriginally wanted, that we can expect the same issues to crop up again as soon as an opportunity arises.
In fact, they have already returned to Congress as part of H.R. 3697, the latest iteration of the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, a perennial effort to weaken federal fisheries laws and create loopholes in the current law that could delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks, allow overfishing to continue, and dilute the science used to drive fishery management decisions.
The good news is that H.R 3697 has little or no chance of being passed, or even considered, in the current Congress, and that so long as control of the House of Representatives doesn’t shift in the 2020 elections, it’s not likely to be passed or considered (because it or something very like it will almost certainly be introduced again) in the next Congress, either.
Thus, the angling-industry groups and anglers’ rights organizations that aggressively promoted H.R. 200, last Congress’ near-identical counterpart to H.R. 3697, over the course of the past year have not been very eager to support the current bill. Out of all of the angling groups that supported H.R. 200 last year, only the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a small New Jersey-based group that often places itself at the extreme, anti-regulatory fringe of the angling community, appears to support H.R. 3697, although the bill has found somewhat broader support among the commercial fishing industry.
Nonetheless, the industry/anglers’ rights cabal that conceived of and promoted the Modern Fish Act aren’t going to abandon their agenda. From what I’m hearing, their representatives still speak to politicians and fishing clubs, and still try to convince their audience that anglers should be relieved of some of the regulatory responsibility for conserving and effectively managing fish stocks.
Because current federal fisheries law does not allow anyone to escape their share of the regulatory burden, industry/anglers’ rights organizations have often advocated taking management responsibility over recreational fisheries away from the National Marine Fisheries Service, and turning it over to the states, which for the most part are not legally bound to end overfishing or rebuild depleted fish populations.
That position was spelled out in a 2014 report issued under the aegis of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, titled A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, which stated, in part
“Many state natural resources agencies, especially in the South, recognize the benefits of a vibrant recreational fishing community and have managed to promote it while conserving their saltwater resources. Striped bass, red drum, black drum, summer flounder, sheepshead, snook, spotted seatrout and tarpon are examples of successfully managed state fisheries that sufficiently meet the needs of recreational anglers while providing extensive economic benefits to their state and the national economies.”
The only problem with that statement, both when it was made and continuing on to today, is that it’s not true. Besides one obvious misstatement—summer flounder, at least for purposes of preventing overfishing, rebuilding an overfished stock, establishing annual catch limits and holding fishermen accountable for their overages, is a federally-managed fishery—data shows that some of the listed species are not doing very well at all.
For example, the report states that
“The NMFS should manage recreational fisheries based on long-term harvest rates, not strictly on poundage-based quotas. This strategy has been successfully used by managers in the Atlantic striped bass fishery, which is the most sought-after saltwater recreational fishery in the nation. By managing the recreational sector based on harvest rate rather as opposed to a poundage-based quota, managers have been able to provide predictability in regulations while also sustaining a healthy population. [emphasis added]”
Of course, as we now know, the striped bass population is not healthy at all.. It is both overfished and experiencing overfishing, and has been for quite some time, although without annual catch limits that are adjusted each year to account for changes in stock size, it took managers a number of years to recognize and address the problem. Even after a stock assessment update warned, in 2011, that the population would be overfished by 2017 if nothing was done, they elevated consistent landings and "predictability in regulations" over the long-term health of the stock, and decided to defer needed management action.
Thus, state fishery managers, assembled as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, actually failed to sustain a healthy population, even though they were warned well ahead of time that problems were on the way.
Now, they have to deal with the consequences of their inaction and failure; we can only hope that lessons were learned.
But striped bass weren’t the only fish named in the “Vision” report that have fallen on hard times.
Down in Louisiana, speckled trout (more properly, “spotted seatrout”) are not doing well. The state has been aware of the problem for years, but delayed taking action until things got bad, reluctant to cut the 25-fish bag limit—yes, you’re reading that right—or raise the 12-inch minimum size.
I first wrote about the issue in 2016, by which time the spawning potential ratio of Louisiana’s speckled trout population had fallen to just 10%, a little over half the 18% level that biologists believe necessary to support a healthy stock in the long term. A state biologist justified taking no action to build up the stock because
“The current limits, biologically speaking, are designed to maximize angler yield while not putting the stock into a condition where we may see recruitment overfishing.”
In other words, putting a lot of trout in folks’ coolers took priority over keeping a lot of trout in Louisiana’s bayous.
That was apparently want many Louisiana anglers wanted, although others complained about the fish’s dwindling size; some guides noted that the were releasing 50 to 150 undersized fish every time that they went out, and believed that most of the fish were being removed from the population as soon as they exceeded the 12-inch size limit.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to join a panel discussion sponsored by the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association; the topic was federal fisheries management, and the changes sought by supporters of the Modern Fish Act. It happened that one of the other panelists was the Marine Fisheries Director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. I presented my case that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, with its strong conservation provisions, benefitted anglers in the long run, and that the Modern Fish Act threatened those provisions, and could result in long-term harm.
Naturally, the TRCP representative took the opposite tack, as the organization was a strong supporter of the Modern Fish Act. It also happened that the TRCP rep grew up and still lived in Louisiana, so I used the speckled trout situation as an example of flawed state fisheries management, and argued that under Magnuson-Stevens, the situation would have been remedied years ago, and might not even have arisen in the first place, since overfishing wouldn’t have been tolerated for as long as it was.
My fellow panel member was quick to aver that there was nothing wrong with Louisiana’s speckled trout population, and argued that it was better to try to change fishermen’s “culture” than to reduce the 25-fish bag.
Now, it seems that Louisiana, at least, is taking a new look at the problem. A recent article in The Advocate, a popular southern Louisiana news outlet, noted that
“After studying speckled trout for several months, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ marine biologists came up with several startling statistics. To wit:
· The stock has been overfished since 2014;
· Overfishing has occurred in six of the past 10 years;
· The spawning stock biomass and proportion of age-3-and-older female speckled trout in the population are at the lowest levels in the biologists’ data base;
· Recreational landings are at the lowest levels since 1990;
· and, fishing effort continues to increase.”
It’s hard to understand why the author of the article found most of those conclusions “startling,” given that the problem had already been identified, and reported in local papers, years ago.
The author even wrote another article last March that foreshadowed the more recent announcement. On the other hand, that March article did provide one big reason why the stock was allowed to fall so low, when it quoted a state fishery manager, who said
“I think everyone knows that we’re reluctant to change regulations.”
The folks who people ASMFC's Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board voiced a similar reluctance to "overmanage" the stock in 2011, when there was still a chance to halt its decline short of the overfishing threshold.
For when all is said and done, changing fisheries regulations is always a difficult thing for state managers to do, at least when the regulations are being made more restrictive. Some elements of the fishing community will always be opposed to any reductions in harvest, with industry folks claiming that they’ll lose too much business, and some anglers complaining that their “right” to fish is being infringed.
When that happens, fishery management becomes more a political process than a scientific one. Needed changes supported by the professional fishery managers are often abandoned when politicians intervene; no matter how badly such measures are needed, managers know that they will end up in a bitter fight, not only with elements of the public, but often with higher-ups in their own department and in the governor’s office, before such rules are adopted.
Faced with that reality, state managers are often loath to propose harvest restrictions, and delay far too long, to the detriment of fish stocks, before putting them in place.
That doesn’t happen under the federal system. There, the law requires that managers end overfishing, and compels them to promptly rebuild overfished stocks, thus relieving managers of both the option of doing nothing and the political exposure that would otherwise result if they made a politically unpopular, but biologically necessary, decision.
That, in the end, is one of the foremost strengths of Magnuson-Stevens, and one of the biggest weaknesses of the ASMFC and state management systems, where bad politics can, and often does, trump good science.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Fisheries debates go on and on.
I’ve been involved in the process since the late 1970s, and very heavily involved for the past thirty years or so. Many things have changed in that time. Fisheries science has gotten much better. We have data-based management plans for most important species these days; back in 1995, a virtual population analysis used to manage striped bass marked the first time that such an analysis was used to manage an important Atlantic coast species.
In the past thirty or so years, we’ve seen many important fish stocks crash (striped bass was the first to really get our attention, more than forty years ago), and we’ve seen a lot of stocks rebuild thanks to effective, science-based regulations.
We’ve also seen some of those stocks decline again, often because managers failed to respond quickly and forcefully enough to halt the decline before fish became scarce.
But while many things have changed over those years, one thing has been annoyingly consistent: The arguments coming from some corners of the fishing industry, to the effect that no new rules are needed, because the fish are as abundant as they’ve ever been.
Sometimes, you’ll hear people say that fish are even more abundant than ever, although their concept of “ever” rarely extends beyond their own lifetimes, which is a pitifully short span to consider, given the age of the seas. Even so, it is a typical reaction. It’s even been given a name, the “Shifting Baseline Syndrome,” a term coined by fisheries biologist Daniel Pauley, who noted that
“Each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as baseline the stock situation that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species.”
The Shifting Baseline Syndrome doesn’t only impact fisheries scientists. It impacts fishermen and people in the fisheries industry, too, and often makes them forget—if they ever knew—just how much we have lost over a relatively short period of time.
The other day, I was moving things around in the basement, and happened to find some old copies of the Long Island, Metropolitan New York edition of The Fisherman magazine, which casts a dismaying light on how much we have lost in just the past thirty years.
The inshore season never really ended back then. The Fisherman’s January 5-11, 1984 edition, which recapped the 1983 season, reported that
“Although excellent [winter] flounder catches were made in the Quogue Canal back in January, the official ‘spring run’ in Great South Bay on March 5th and 6th. The Hecksher Park Grounds were hot were hot and many big flatties were included among the catches. Good fishing continued through the month…
“By the 20th of May the fluke were sharing the limelight with the winter flatties who continued to provide excellent fishing throughout the month of May…
“Despite decent fluking in Moriches Bay, flounder fishing remained excellent here throughout June…”
The recap went on to describe the return of flounder to the bays in October, and continued strong into December, meaning that flounder fishermen had a January to December fishery back in those days.
The recap never clearly described what “excellent” flounder fishing looked like, but other Fisherman issues provide a good clue. For example, the April 10-16, 1986 edition includes reports from the same area reporting that
“the [private fishing boat] ‘Crab II’ corralled 125 flatties in Dickerson’s Channel. Carl [a local tackle shop owner] thought that most boatmen were averaging between 30 and 40 flatties working Dickerson’s Channel or south of Hecksher State Park…
“the Miss Captree [party boat] reported consistently good fishing all week…Most trips saw catches of 15-25 flatties per man common with high hooks between 35 and 40 fish…
“the Captree open boat Capt. Joseph II reported good fishing all week…[One angler] had 45 flatties, while [four others] accounted for 129 fish including the pool winner.”
Unfortunately, catches like that will never be seen again.
Although that fishery began to decline soon after, industry opposition to needed management measures preventedfisheries professionals from preventing its collapse. In the spring of 2019, so few winter flounderwere caught in New York State that surveyors reporting to the National MarineFisheries Service couldn’t find anyone who managed to catch a single one.
Although some flounder were certainly caught last spring, it’s likely that most boats carrying passengers out onto Great South Bay caught fewer flounder over the course of the entire season than the individual fishermen mentioned above caught on a single half-day trip.
In a last-ditch effort to protect the stock, New York has adopted a 60-day season and 2-fish bag limit. Yet there are now some industry voices who are asking that the season be extended; they acknowledge that very few fish remain in the bays, but still want to be able to keep any flounder that they happen to catch in the ocean.
But everyone knows that the flounder stock has collapsed.
What about others that still have legs, such as tautog (blackfish)?
The 1983 recap isn’t so valuable here, although it does mention that up in Long Island Sound, there was
“very good shoreline angling for tautog as well,”
which is something that we haven’t seen for a couple of decades. However, as late as 1993, the fishing in the Sound and North Fork of Long Island appeared solid, with the November 18, 1993 issue reporting
“In Huntington…[one angler] had 30 tog to 9 pounds. [Another angler] had 28 to 7 pounds…
“In Orient Point on the Prime Time III [party boat] the blackfishing has been excellent fishing also in the vicinity of Fishers Island. Fish average 6 to 11 pounds!”
Even on the South Shore of Long Island, where the bottom tends to be flat, sandy and generally unattractive to tautog, fishing was quite a bit better 25 years ago.
“on the Miss Captree [party boat]. Thursday’s trip saw 250 to 300 tog to 8 ½ pounds taken with some fares counting 20 fish apiece…
“the Captain Joseph II [party boat] was enthused about the fine showing of blackfish on ocean reefs and wrecks this week. Good numbers of impressive size fish were the rule on most weekday trips, with more than 100 fish topping the 5 pound mark.”
It’s just not like that on the South Shore anymore.
So the folks who showed up to oppose ASMFC’s Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Tautog a couple of years ago, and said that tautog fishing hadn’t headed downhill either had short memories of what good fishing was like, or was being a little less than honest in their comments.
Bluefish are an even better example of how the definition of “good fishing” has changed. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the fish were everywhere, and many were large. The July 4-10, 1985 issue of The Fisherman reported that, on the South Shore, there was
“an impressive run of bluefish situated in the vicinity of the Patchogue Grounds…Many of the fish fall into the 8 to 15 lb. range.
“[T]he Captree open boat Capt. Scotty 3 reporting very good bluefishing with plenty of choppers being taken both day and night. Fish ranged from 4 to 6 and 8 to 13 lbs…Saturday night’s high hook was [an angler] with 37 blues. [Two brothers] totaled 42 blues. [One angler] finished the night with 35, while [another] counted 32 blues for his night’s efforts.”
Such fishing held up for many years. The October 7, 1993 edition of the fishermen notes that windy weather made fishing difficult on the South Shore, but that in Long Island Sound
“blues can be found in any harbor, on any morning on bunker chunks…This action has been occurring from Greenwich to City Island.”
East of that,
“In Glen Cove…bluefish are every where and some nice size fish have been weighed in…
“In Huntington…reports that the biggest bluefish of the year are in town now…Live bunker is accounting for the larger fish while chunks will catch you all the blues your arms will handle…
“In East Northport…the fishing for blues in all the harbors was very good…
“From…Rocky Point comes the news from Charlie that the blues are all over the beach…
“In Mt. Sinai…the blues are every where…”
You get the idea. There were a lot of bluefish around back then. A lot more than anglers are finding these days.
Yet when the expected final operational stock assessment comes out later this month, and reveals that bluefish are overfished, you can expect plenty of resistance to enhanced regulations by people proclaiming that the stock is perfectly healthy. They'll point toward a few concentrations in a few places to support their claims, forgetting that when the stock is truly healthy, the blues aren’t just abundant in a few places. Instead, as The Fisherman noted, “the blues are every where.”
Offshore fisheries show the same pattern. Bluefin tuna provide a good example.
We had a half-decent run off Long Island this year. There were a lot of fish in the 100-200 pound range, some that were larger, and quite a few smaller, “school” fish. Too many anglers who should have known better were talking about how good the bluefin tuna fishing was.
Yet, by historical standards, it wasn't really anything to write home about. What does really good bluefin fishing look like? The July 4-11, 1985 edition of The Fisherman provides an idea with the following reports from Montauk.
“A rundown of giant tuna action [at Star Island Yacht Club] this week includes…a giant of 641 pounds…a 564 pound tuna…a 436 pound giant [and a] 470 pound tuna…
“Montauk Marine Basin reported twelve giant tuna to 754 pounds weighed during the last week…
“at Captains Cove Marina…[an angler] caught tuna of 528, 530 and 502 pounds on three consecutive days…The ‘Hurry Up’ had three giant tuna during the week, largest 570 pounds….’Sea Doll’ caught his giant tuna, 597 pounds, on the boat’s shake-down trip.”
I could go on—that week’s report did—listing more big bluefin, along with school fish and the sort of 100-pound-plus tuna that people are catching this year. The reality is that this year’s action, as fast as it was at times, was only a shadow of the sort of fishing that people experienced a few years ago.
Even that fishing was a step down from what anglers experienced in the late 1970s, when I caught my first bluefin—and bluefin were already less abundant during the ‘70s than they were a couple decades earlier, before they began being killed en masse for the Japanese market.
So yes, shifting baselines are real. But if you tried to tell today’s fishermen that bluefin aren’t doing well, many would disagree.
And that’s very relevant to today’s fisheries debates. While some species are probably doing better now than they were when Richard Nixon resigned—scup and black sea bass are two that come to mind—most stocks are not faring too well when viewed against their historic numbers.
That can be changed. Fish stocks can be returned to the sort of abundance they enjoyed a few decades ago, before too many people and too much fishing effort, aided by developments in boats, gear, electronics and such, began to drive down fish populations.
Federally, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act provides a legal framework to properly conserve and manage fish stocks. In many state-waters fisheries, where the legal requirements of Magnuson-Stevens do not apply, managers are still seeking the will and the courage to make the hard decisions needed to restore fish stocks.
Striped bass will be their next test. Already, some people are turning their backs on the abundance of the past, and are trying to convince decisionmakers that the overfished stock is really still healthy, because a few pockets of relative abundance remain.
It would be unfortunate if they succeeded.
Tomorrow’s fishermen shouldn’t be deprived of healthy fish stocks simply because too many people believe, or at least claim to believe, that today’s fish populations represent typical and acceptable levels of abundance.
They are entitled to the same quality fisheries that we enjoyed just a very few decades ago.
Sunday, September 8, 2019
New York held its first meeting on the Atlantic States MarineFisheries Commission’s draft addendum to the striped bass management plan last Wednesday. As I sat in the crowd listening to the various people speak, it became clear that much of the striped bass debate—and of any fisheries management debate, for that matter—boils down to a near-tribal clash between cultures rather than a mere discussion of facts and ideas.
In the old days, the lines were pretty simple. Anglers sat on one side of the room, and commercial fishermen on the other. The anglers blamed the commercials for killing too many fish, and the commercials responded that they were working for a living, and providing food for folks’ tables, while anglers merely engaged in play. Fights were more about allocation than about the health of the fish stocks themselves.
That sort of thing went on for a very long time, and for some fishermen now on the far side of sixty, it’s still going on today.
But today’s debate has become far more complex than a mere commercial/recreational fight.
These days, anglers may be more likely to point accusing fingers at other anglers rather than at the commercial crowd, and while some commercial fishermen also engage in internecine fights, or pick bones with anglers, others—particularly the younger fishermen who want to stay in the business for the next thirty or so years—no longer raise knee-jerk objections to new regulations, and grudgingly support the management process.
Last Wednesday, the commercial bass fishermen said little or nothing at all.
But the recreational sector turned out in all of its diverse glory, making a plethora of comments that made it clear that the angling sector doesn’t, and almost certainly never will, present a united front, and that the frequent calls for “unity” that we hear either represent an impossible dream or are a badly disguised effort from folks who are really saying, “Let’s all do things my way.”
It wasn’t just a simple contest between those who emphasized harvest versus those who promoted conservation. It wasn’t the typical science-deniers squared off against those who supported the findings in the most recent stock assessment. It also wasn’t a reprise of past meetings, where fishing-related businesses opposed management measures, while a majority of fishermen wanted to see actions taken, although there was a bit of that going ‘round.
Startlingly, there wasn’t even one explicit comment that “the science is bad,” although there were hints of that in some people’s comments.
Instead, what we saw on Wednesday night was in many ways a clash of cultures, worldviews and personal values, with elements reminiscent of football-team rivalries and, unfortunately, other elements that evoked images of street thugs defending their turf. While no one was physically removed from the room, there was enough going on that the law enforcement folks present had to issue a warning or two.
The worst behavior came from those who seemed to feel the most entitled to harvest fish.
One for-hire captain rambled on for close to ten minutes (when the limit on each person was three), managing to loft personal attacks at several people, including me, without ever offering coherent comments on the specific options that the ASMFC wanted us all to discuss. In the end, he seemed to justify his behavior by making the dubious statement that “God put the striped bass on Earth for people to use for food,” and suggesting that conservation-minded anglers perhaps worshipped the fish as some sort of “pagan god.”
The possibility that the bass evolved to survive in an ecosystem where human predation—and particularly technology-assisted human predation—was not a threat to their survival is apparently not a part of that deity-driven worldview.
And, of course, if you’re divinely chosen to kill fish for food, you’re relieved of any responsibility to maintain the future health of the stock. That places you in direct conflict with conservation advocates, who are concerned that today’s excessive landings can hurt tomorrow’s striped bass fishery. Thus, it’s OK to treat such apostates in a decidedly un-Christian manner, jeering them as they speak, taunting them when they return to their seats, attacking them personally and even inviting them outside for a brawl. (That’s one of the times that enforcement stepped in, to cool the “chosen one” down…)
The argument that people are entitled to take bass for food also leads to another dispute as to whether catch-and-release is ethical, as about 9% of all bass released don’t survive the experience. So should anglers just “play with” their fish if they’re not intending to eat them? There are those who say “No.” When I attended NMFS' Recreational Fishing Summit in the spring of 2018, a representative of western Pacific anglers felt very strongly about that, saying “We don’t play with our food.”
Although he wasn’t talking about striped bass, there are bass fishermen who share the same sentiments.
There are also those who feel economically entitled to harvest fish. While they seek similar results as those who claim a divine right to kill fish, their behavior is notably less erratic and bizarre. They made a good-faith effort to address the issues set out in the draft addendum, although their focus tended to be on what was best for their businesses, rather than what was best for the long-term health of bass stocks.
In the old days here in New York, and in a few other states today, that has been the default position of the commercial fishing fleet. However, the commercial fleet was notably absent from last Wednesday’s meeting, leaving some members of the party and charter boat fleet to hoist the economic entitlement banner on their own.
Those representing the economic entitlement faction tended to support either slot limits that would allow customers to keep a bass between 28 and 35 inches, or perhaps between 30 and 38, or a supposedly “conservation equivalent” proposal not included in the draft addendum that would pair a 30-inch minimum size with a slightly shortened season that would run from May 1-November 30, and prohibit paid crew from retaining fish. The thought was that such limits would make it more likely that customers could catch a fish to take home, although the request was also couched in terms of avoiding release mortality.
A number of them also supported “sector separation,” leading to regulations for the for-hire fleet that were different from those imposed on surf and private-boat anglers—because the for-hire fleet, after all, does feel economically entitled to special treatment.
However, what ought to be noted is that there is not only a culture clash in the greater angling community, but in the charter boat community as well. A number of charter boat captains, who cater to customers more interested in the experience of striped bass fishing than in killing fish to take home, But honesty compels me to say that the angling community isn’t without its conflicts, too.
There is certainly a subset of anglers who feels entitled to take fish home, regardless of the health of the stock. Some will tell you up front that they will kill as many big bass as the law will allow which, if they’re good anglers, is theoretically one fish per day from the middle of April through mid-December (in New York; many states have no season at all), although it’s highly unlikely that anyone fishes every day of the season, and even more unlikely that they catch a legal fish every time they go out.
Some of those folks take their bass home and eat them; far too many illegally sell a least a part of their catch. There is also a contingent that fish to inflate their egos, and live to post photos of their catch on the Internet, or to drive from tackle shop to tackle shop, hauling out their fish at each stop in the hope of having their photo pinned to the tackle shop wall.
Such anglers tend to oppose conservation measures for their own reasons although, since they rarely care enough to show up at meetings, their views are seldom heard.
Most anglers I meet, and most at the meetings, tend to take a more reasonable stance. They like to catch fish, and they like to take one or more fish home every season, but they don't want to do anything that might impair the bass’ future. They want to see healthy stocks for the rest of their lives, and want to hand those stocks down for their kids and their grandkids to enjoy.
These are the people captured in the NMFS survey, who consider fishing with family and friends their most important goal, although just catching fish doesn’t trail far behind. While they might like to eat bass from time to time, they’re responsible enough not to elevate that desire above the needs of the striped bass itself.
A lot of surfcasters fall into that category, as they’ve learned through bitter experience that their limited, shorebound access to the resource means that bass have to be abundant if they are to catch them on anything like a regular basis. Boat fishermen can easily move from place to place, and can catch bass on the bottom in 60 feet of water as easily as they can catch them when the fish are blitzing bait in the shallows. Boat-based anglers can go to the fish, while surfcasters have to wait until the fish comes to them, which is far more likely when the population is healthy.
A lot of private boat anglers fall into that category, too, although they still kill more fish than the surfcasting crowd.
From there, we move on to the anglers who, like the late Lee Wulff, believe that
They fish almost entirely for the experience, and seldom if ever take home a striped bass, although they are generally tolerant of those who do. Many surfcasters fall into this category, too, as do many boat fishermen who prefer to challenge themselves by casting for their fish, rather than trolling or using bait. Not surprisingly, a lot of salt water fly fishermen also think this way.
Most catch-and-release anglers didn’t start out that way. They’re typically experienced anglers who probably killed quite a few bass when they started out, but came to the conclusion that dead fish don’t necessarily make for a memorable trip, and realize that catch-and-release satisfies most or all of their reason for being out on the water.
Needless to say, such anglers have a strong conservation ethic, want to see the bass stock rebuilt, and support restrictive management measures—including measures far stronger than any even considered by the ASMFC.
Which takes us to one final tribe, anglers who would prohibit all striped bass landings, commercial or recreational, until the stock has recovered, regardless of the impact of such actions on the recreational or commercial fishing industries. It’s an extreme view, perhaps just as extreme as those who claim a God-given right to kill, even if it arises out of far more altruistic motives. Such a complete shutdown just isn’t needed right now; although it would undoubtedly be the fastest way to recover the stock, it would also cause a lot of unnecessary harm.
The bottom line is that there’s no common ground.
So how can fisheries managers make everyone happy? How can they reconcile the wishes of those who believe that they have a God-given right to kill fish, regardless of the health of the stock, with those of the folks who are seeking to shut down the fishery until the stock is fully rebuilt?
The answer is that they can’t; as in every other aspect of politics, culture wars will always continue.
In the end, the best thing for fisheries managers to do is to forget about the fishermen, and instead think of the fish.
After all, anyone claiming a God-given right to kill bass still needs to catch something before they can kill it, and that’s a lot easier to do when there are fish around. (Yes, one can believe that if things get too bad, bass might fall from the sky to the sea like manna from Heaven, but that never happened with winter flounder, Atlantic salmon or cod, so depending on divine intervention to bail out the striper might just be one hope too far.)
Those who feel economically entitled might not like it if managers elevate the bass’ long-term interests ahead of their short-term cash flow, but they need to accept that they’re in a business, and there is probably no business in the country, from banks and brokerage houses to dry cleaners and gas stations, that don’t have to deal with regulations, and the resultant regulatory risk. There’s no reason why the fishing industry should believe itself immune. The striped bass population began to decline more than a decade ago; if some in the industry failed to pick up on that trend, and account for it in their business plans, they have no one to blame but themselves if things don’t work out too well.
And the folks seeking a moratorium are going to have to live with rules tight enough to restore the stock, without needlessly killing off people’s business. Managers should give bass the rules that they need to thrive, and maybe a little more just to be safe, but there comes a point where overly-restrictive rules can become counterproductive, and cause harm to the management process itself.
In the end, the best thing that managers can do for all of the divergent interests in the fishery is to put the interests of the striped bass first, and give them the protections that they need to thrive.
For without the bass, there is nothing for anyone to catch, or to fight over, regardless of what they believe.
Thursday, September 5, 2019
Blue sharks like cooler water, and early August is far from the best time to catch them. Thus, I was a little surprised when we were chumming of sharks south of Fire Island, and the fiah to show up was a blue. That surprise was compounded when a second blue shark cruised under the boat as we were about to get ready to leave, and eventually swam away with a tag from the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Cooperative Shark Tagging Program streaming behind its dorsal fin.
But on reflection, it wasn’t catching those blue sharks that made the day strange. There was a lot of squid in the area, so many that they were cutting big chunks out of our deep baits, and squid seem to be the mainstay of blue sharks’ diet in this part of the world. Even though blue sharks are most common in June, when they often swarm around the boat and anglers can catch and release 15, 20 or more in a day, there are usually one or two hanging around even through the dog days of summer.
We once caught a 10-footer on the last Saturday in July.
So what was really strange wasn’t the presence of blue sharks, but the absence of something else—shortfin makos.
The place where we were fishing was traditionally a productive late summer/fall mako spot, where 3- and 4-mako days were more the rule than the exception. The fish were usually small, with nothing over 150 pounds or so, but given that we were trying to catch fish to tag and study, not to take home, such little makos would have been welcome.
We always caught the occasional blue shark along with the makos, but makos usually outnumbered the blues by a ratio of three- or four-to-one. So just catching blue sharks, and seeing no makos at all, inverted the natural order of things.
The local mako fishery has been in a downward trend for a few decades; in the 1980s, some fishermen would start looking for sharks around Memorial Day, and though they found very few that early in the season, one or two would often make their way into Long Island ports over the three-day weekend. By the second weekend in June, quality makos—some in the 200 to 300 pound range, some even larger—could be expected to hit the scales. Even in midsummer, when shark fishing slowed down, makos over 200 were regularly caught by boats running out of South Shore inlets.
Out in Montauk, of course, the fishing was even better.
Slowly, that began to change. The season started heating up later in June, and ending a little sooner in the fall. Although some big fish were taken—again, mostly at Montauk—the number of large fish caught in late July and August tapered off sharply.
The Babylon Tuna Club’s Invitational Tournament was traditionally held on the last weekend in July; during the 1980s and early 1990s, the first-place mako often weighed between 250 and 400 pounds. We took a 246 in 1997 that was only good for second place (although we pulled the hook on one about an hour before that jumped right next to the boat and was so large that, when the 246 came alongside, I was reluctant to gaff it because it looked so small by comparison).
But by the time the 21st Century dawned, anglers often couldn’t find a mako that made the event’s 125-pound minimum weight. Today, the tournament is o longer even held.
Of course, the North Atlantic is a very big place, and Long Island, by comparison, is very small. It’s always a mistake to try to judge the health of a fish population by your personal experiences, or the abundance or absence in your local piece of ocean.
However, in the case of makos, the decline in abundance was real.
In 2017, a stock assessment conducted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (which also manages “tuna like”—meaning highly migratory—fishes such as sharks and billfish) found that North Atlantic makos were overfished and experiencing significant overfishing.
According to the assessment, it would require a 75% reduction in fishing mortality just to halt the decline; if that reduction could be achieved, there would only be a 40% chance that the stock might recover in the next 20 years.
Unfortunately, because shortfin makos have some real economic value, both as food and as a recreational species, some of the countries belonging to ICCAT, including the United States, refused to implement the total prohibition on landings that would be needed to rebuild the stock (because many makos caught in the pelagic longline and other commercial fisheries are dead when brought to the boat, it isn’t practical to maintain a retention fishery while reducing landings enough to rebuild the stock). In the end, ICCAT settled for a 71-inch minimum size for male makos and an 83 inch minimum for females caught in the recreational fishery, while permitting pelagic longliners to retain any shortfin makos that are dead when brought alongside the boat. All other makos, regardless of how caught, would have to be returned to the water.
The National Marine Fisheries Service originally adopted emergency regulations that set an 83-inch minimum size for all makos, and adopted ICCAT’s harvest restrictions, but eventually backed off when permanent regulations were put in place, adopting ICCAT’s recommended 71-inch male/83-inch female size limits.
It was better than nothing, and as the U.S. accounts for a relatively small portion of the fishing mortality, not a big difference from what NMFS originally proposed. But the North Atlantic stock of shortfin makos remains troubled.
A better picture of the stock’s health emerged earlier this year, when ICCAT released a 2019 update to the shortfin mako stock assessment. The update used a somewhat different modeling approach, combining the projection results from two different computer runs, which assumed different stock/recruitment relationships. The news was not good, for the assessment update revealed that
“regardless of the [total allowable catch] (including a [total allowable catch] of 0), the stock will continue to decline until 2035 before any biomass increases can occur; a [total allowable catch] of 500 tons has a 52% probability of rebuilding the stock levels above [the spawning stock fecundity needed to produce maximum sustainable yield] and below [the fishing mortality rate that will produce maximum sustainable yield] in 2070; to achieve a probability of at least 60% the realized [total allowable catch] would have to be 300 tons or less…All the rebuilding projections assume that the [total allowable catches] account for all sources of mortality—including dead discards.”
The mako shark stock is not in good shape.
It’s not at all certain that ICCAT will respond to that finding by placing further restrictions on any fishery, including the pelagic longline fishery that is causing most of the damage. However, ICCAT isn’t the only body concerned with the health of the shortfin mako population.
In August, the nations that have signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a pact usually referred to as “CITES,” considered a proposal by Mexico to list the shortfin mako on Appendix II of the treaty.
While an Appendix II listing will not, in and of itself, restrict the harvest of shortfin mako in any way, it will require that shortfin makos exported to any other nation be accompanied by an export permit certifying that the fish were legally obtained, and that such export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species. Every year, each party to CITES must submit an annual report that, among other things, lists the permits granted and the volume of each CITES-listed species affected. Thus, the volume of international trade in shortfin makos could finally be known, allowing managers to craft more appropriate management measures.
More than fifty other nations signed on to Mexico’s proposal, the most nations that have backed any CITES listing proposal in the forty-six year history of the treaty. Still, there were nations opposed to the Appendix II listing, including Japan, Canada and, somewhat embarrassingly, the United States.
While Japan’s opposition to the listing was predictable, given that nation’s historic opposition to most restrictions on harvesting marine resources, the United States’ opposition was far more difficult to understand. The ex-vessel value of all mako sharks landed in the U.S. commercial fishery in 2017 was less than $500,000, and given that most of the non-dogfish sharks caught by U.S. fishermen are retained for consumption within the United States, the economic impact of the CITES listing on U.S. fishermen is probably insignificant.
One observer, who is actively engaged in shark conservation, noted that, in its closing remarks, the United States delegation said that they were acting on behalf of the President. Given his apparent dislike of sharks, regardless of species, that may be as good an explanation as any.
But the good news is that, in this case, the U.S. came out on the short side of the vote. The proposal to list makos on Appendix II received more than the required two-thirds majority, and the fish thus got just a modicum of international protection.
While that is hardly enough, in itself, to halt the species’ decline, it’s a step in the right direction.
Now, anyone who has been awed by the sight of this magnificent animal alive in the ocean can only hope that ICCAT heeds the findings in the assessment update, and adds more protections of its own.