Sunday, December 9, 2018

SOUNDS LIKE BAD NEWS FOR STRIPED BASS


I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether I should write this particular blog.

Usually, when I write about specific fisheries actions, I’m very careful to get the facts right, and provide links to any information that I may have, so that you can check it out for yourself.  I let you know when the data’s not clear, and try hard to avoid anything that smacks of reckless hyperbole or worse, crying wolf.

But today, I’m going out on a limb. 

The new benchmark stock assessment went through a peer review meeting a little over a week ago.   Because I wasn’t able to listen in, I normally would have waited until the official reports from the meeting came out, before I addressed what might have happened there.  But a lot of unofficial reports are already coming out of that meeting.  All are saying about the same thing.

And none of what they’re saying is good.

So, because striped bass are such an important fish to Atlantic Coast anglers, and because, if the stories are right, we’re likely to have a big fight on our hands very soon, I decided to take a chance and report on what I’m hearing now, even if that means that I’ll have to recant some or all of it at some point down the road.

I wish I could have been at the peer review meeting, because the assessment team has put together a new model that tries to assess the striped bass population at a stock level, breaking out the fish that spawn in Chesapeake Bay, assessing their biomass separate from that of the fish from Delaware and the Hudson River, and assigning the Chesapeake fish their own fishing mortality thresholds, both for the time that they were in the bay and when they migrate along the coast.  Similar biomass and mortality reference points were established for the combined Delaware and Hudson stocks, so that striped bass could be managed in a more precise, stock-specific manner.

The new model found that the striped bass isn’t doing all that well.  To quote from the assessment report,

“Female SSB2017 for the Chesapeake Bay stock was estimated at 24,688 [metric tons], less than the SSBthreshold of 52,893 mt, indicating the Chesapeake Bay stock is overfished.  The associated Fthreshold was 0.297 for the Chesapeake Bay fishery and 0.353 for the ocean fishery; F2017 was 0.255 in the Chesapeake Bay and 0.400 in the ocean, indicating that the Chesapeake Bay stock is experiencing overfishing in the ocean but not in the Chesapeake Bay.
“For the Delaware Bay/Hudson River stock, female SSB2017 was 21,347 mt, below the SSBthreshold of 24,683 mt, indicating the Delaware Bay/Hudson River stock is overfished.  F2017 was 0.400, above the Ftheshold of 0.340, indicating the Delaware Bay/Hudson River stock is experiencing overfishing.”
I received the report as a downloaded file, so I can’t provide a link at this time, but the above language makes it perfectly clear that, according to the new model, the striped bass is overfished, whether one looks at the overall population, or breaks it down into two distinct, overfished spawning stocks. 

It’s also clear that the striped bass is experiencing overfishing throughout its range, except for the Chesapeake Bay stock, which is not experiencing overfishing during that time when it remains within the confines of Chesapeake Bay.

That accords with reports I’ve received from folks at the meeting, who said that they were hearing “mostly bad news.”

What is not clear at all is whether the new assessment will pass peer review.  We probably won’t know that until early next month, when the peer reviewers’ reports are released.  However, there are persistent rumors, supposedly originating from reliable sources, suggesting that the new model still needs too much work to be deemed suitable for management purposes.  

If that is the case, then its finding of overfishing and overfished stocks will play no role in striped bass management for the next five or so years.

That doesn’t mean that managers are without an acceptable population model.  It is my understanding that, because presenting a new model always carries some risk of rejection, a second model was also prepared, one that is similar to the model used to manage striped bass today, but which has been updated with the most recent fisheries data, including the revised recreational catch and effort data that was released last July.

Again, I wasn’t at the stock assessment meeting, nor was I able to listen in on the webinar/call that ran at the same time.  However, it seems that such second model was probably responsible for a slide that was shown at the webinar, and captured by a striped bass conservation advocate, which is clearly labeled

“SAW-66 ASSESSMENT SUMMARY REPORT
“B.  ATLANTIC STRIPED BASS ASSESSMENT SUMMARY FOR 2018”
and says

“The current [Spawning Stock Biomass] threshold for Atlantic striped bass is the 1995 estimate of female SSB. The [Fishing Mortality] threshold is the F value that allows the stock to achieve the SSB threshold under long-term equilibrium conditions.
“Female SSB for Atlantic striped bass in 2017 was 68,476 [metric tons], less than the SSBthresold of 91,436 mt, indicating that the stock is overfished.  The associated Fthreshold was 0.240.  F2017 was 0.307, indicating the stock is experiencing overfishing.”
So that model, despite its different reference points and different estimates of both spawning stock biomass and fishing mortality in 2017, also found that the striped bass stock is overfished and experiencing overfishing.

Unless there’s some other information out there that no one is talking about, and hasn’t yet been leaked by someone in the know, it looks like the bass is in trouble.  Again.

The question is, what happens now?

Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which supposedly governs the species’ management, makes that pretty clear.  It contains “management triggers” and language that reads

“Upon reaching any (or all) of these triggers, the Management Board is required to alter the management program to ensure the objectives of Amendment 6 are achieved.  [emphasis added]”
Two of those triggers read,

“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality threshold is exceeded in any year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year,”
and

“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [ten years].”
Whichever population model survives peer review and ends up being used, those two triggers will have been tripped, and seem to give the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board clear marching orders, and a mandate for what they need to do.

But anyone who has watched ASMFC at work over the years knows that words like “required,” when used in a management plan, don’t mean exactly what they mean in the outside world.  For example, there is another trigger in Amendment 6 that says

“If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [ten years].”
But when the last benchmark stock assessment indicated that such trigger had been tripped, Amendment 6’s requirement was completely ignored.  After a full year of debate, the Management Board finally, if somewhat reluctantly, reduced fishing mortality to the mortality target, as required by yet another trigger, but it never addressed rebuilding at all.

If it had, maybe the bass would be in a better place now; perhaps still having problems, because no one foresaw the impact of the revised recreational catch figures back then, but at least less in the weeds than we find them today.

But far too many people still haven’t learned that putting off needed management measures today just means that they’ll end up paying the Piper at some point in the future, nor have they learned that the Piper will always charge interest, at usurious rates, when that bill finally becomes due.

Folks who don’t pay attention to how things can work at ASMFC also forget that there are two ways to get fishing mortality below the Ftarget and get female spawning stock biomass above the target for SSB.

One is to do it the hard way, working out management measures that will increase biomass to levels that best assure a healthy and sustainable stock, even if adverse spawning conditions intervene for a few years, and keeps fishing mortality low enough to assure long-term abundance.

The other is to change the reference points, reducing the spawning stock biomass threshold and allowing higher levels of fishing mortality, accepting decreased abundance and increased long-term risk to the stock, in exchange for keeping landings, and incomes, high in the short term.

ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board has already discussed taking the latter course; at the May 2018 Management Board meeting, the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for the species acknowledged that

“we’ve heard some concerns from members around this table that the current reference points may be too conservative and/or are restricting fishing unnecessarily; which has raised questions about whether the [Fishery Management Plan] objectives have changed since the implementation of Amendment 6, and maybe those acceptable risk levels have changed as well—an example being the balance between preserving biomass and allowing fishing…”
There are certainly Management Board members from some jurisdictions, particularly those that abut the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, who have expressed those concerns, and will be very reluctant to further reduce harvest.  On the other hand, there are also many Management Board members who support meaningful conservation measures.

Right now, it’s not clear which philosophy is in control.

But it looks like we’re going to find out.

As I said when I started this piece, the final decision of the peer review committee has not been released, and won’t be until next month.  There is no official word.  So it’s possible that much of what I wrote in this piece is wrong.

For the sake of the striper, I hope that it is.

But anglers ought to start thinking about what we’ll need to do, and how we’re going to do it, in the event that it’s all too correct.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

ICCAT NATIONS BETRAY BIGEYE TUNA


Hudson Canyon is a doglegged, miles-long gash that was carved out of the continental shelf during the last ice age, by a Hudson River that first met the ocean a very long way from where it does so today. Located about 100 miles southeast of New York City, it is the largest submarine canyon on the East Coast, and one of the largest in the world.

Hudson Canyon is also where, three decades ago, I encountered my first bigeye tuna, a 166-pound fish that came out of nowhere to grab a trolled lure, then rocketed back to the deep, though tethered to the surface by a thin nylon line.
I wasn’t the angler who caught that first bigeye; I was running the boat, and just left the controls at the last minute to sink a flying gaff in the tuna’s side. Still, when it lay on the deck, sides reflecting the sun, I celebrated its capture as much, if not more, than the angler himself.
That’s because bigeye are different.
Unlike bluefin or yellowfin tuna, they don’t come close to shore, nor do fishermen find hordes of them chasing bait on the surface. Instead, bigeye are a fish of deep waters, that seek out their prey, usually squid, along canyon walls, the face of the continental slope, and in mid-ocean gyres of clear, warm blue water that break off from the Gulf Stream and wander across the face of the sea.
On occasion they school, but they are seldom common. More often, bigeyes come one at a time, or in small packs that will pop up behind a boat to hit four, five or six lines at the same time, and turn an orderly cockpit into a scene of hopefully-controlled chaos. Back at the dock, captains brag about how they went “four for five”‘ when the tuna attacked. And when they attack, those on the boat need to do everything right, because if they miss that one chance, they might not get another for the rest of that trip. Or on the next trip. Or the one after that…
So it’s not hard to understand why bigeye tuna are a prized offshore catch.
They’re prized in the commercial fishery, too. Although bigeye, reaching a maximum size of about 400 pounds, don’t grow as large as bluefin tuna and are not anywhere near as well known as the charismatic “giants,” they support a more valuable commercial fishery, in which large numbers of small bigeye are caught in purse seines for the canned tuna market, while a lesser number of larger fish are caught on longlines and other hook-and-line gear, for eventual sale to sushi shops, other restaurants and the retail trade.

And that’s where the bigeye has gotten into trouble, for in the words of Paulus Tak, an officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts who works on tuna management issues, “Bottom line, there are simply too many boats in the water chasing too few fish.”

Because bigeye are a highly migratory species, which cross through many nations’ waters in the course of their migrations, they are managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). In 2015, ICCAT established a 65,000 metric ton (mt) annual catch limit, but it only applied to the seven nations that harvested the largest amount of bigeye tuna; other nations were not subject to any landings restrictions at all.

As a result, total Atlantic bigeye landings soared well beyond the catch limit established in 2015, exceeding 80,000 mt in 2017. Such landings are too high to allow the bigeye stock to rebuild (even the 65,000 mt limit established by ICCAT, if not exceeded, had only a 49% chance of restoring the population by 2028); instead, scientists who assessed the stock again in 2018 predicted that, unless bigeye landings were substantially reduced, the stock will collapse within the next 20 years.

Abundance has already fallen to just 20% of historical levels.

At its November 2018 meeting, ICCAT debated the bigeye management issue, but discussions went nowhere, as delegates elevated parochial interests above the long-term health of the bigeye stock.

Some scientists estimated that, if annual landings were cut to no more than 50,000 mt, there was a 70 percent chance that the bigeye population could be rebuilt within ten years. While the United States supported a 10-year rebuilding timeline, there was little political support for such a sharp reduction in harvest.

A number of nations did reach agreement on a 15-year rebuilding plan that would have reduced annual landings to 62,500 mt, required many smaller harvesters to abide by such limit, and restricted the use of fish attracting devices (FADs) that are deployed by purse seiners to aggregate large numbers of immature bigeye and make them far easier to harvest. Unfortunately, such measure ultimately failed to garner enough support, and could not be adopted.

European purse seiners, who are responsible for about one-third of all Atlantic bigeye landings, blamed the failure on longlinersfrom Asia, which account for more than half of the bigeye harvest. A spokesman for the Spanish purse seiners alleged that the longliners “tried to avoid any measure that could affect their fleet.”

At the same time, fishing interests from some of the smaller harvesters that are currently exempt from catch limits, including Brazil, Senegal, Guatemala and Cape Verde, blocked efforts to include them among the regulated nations.

The various factions refused to engage in any meaningful effort to reach a compromise that would adequately protect and rebuild the bigeye. As Grantly Galland, a representative of the Pew Charitable Trusts who was present at the meeting, observed, “Everyone is to blame for this one. Each individual member is more concerned with its own priorities than finding consensus on a real recovery plan.”

In the face of such discord, the current 65,000 mt catch limit, applicable to just seven nations, was extended for another year, and some limitations on FADs were adopted.
Such measures will are not enough to halt the bigeye’s decline, and were condemned by John Henderschedt, Director of NOAA’s Fisheries’ Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection, who is one of the United States’ three ICCAT commissioners.  Henderschedt stated, in part, that

“Earlier this year, a stock assessment confirmed that Atlantic bigeye tuna is overfished and subject to overfishing. The United States advocated strongly for the adoption of measures that would end overfishing immediately, rebuild the stock within 10 years, establish greater accountability to catch limits, and take appropriate account of the relative impact of various fisheries by reducing the catch of small bigeye tuna in purse seine fisheries. The United States is disappointed that ICCAT failed to adopt measures that will ensure the long-term sustainability of the bigeye tuna stock.”
There is no guarantee that such badly needed measures will be adopted next year, either, for as the head of South Africa’s ICCAT delegation noted, “The industry wants to make money and in the quickest way it can.”

But that’s just the kind of short-term thinking that ICCAT is supposed to avoid.
The Preamble to ICCAT’s Basic Texts, which established the Commission, states that “The Governments whose duly authorized representatives have subscribed hereto, considering their mutual interests in the populations of tuna and tuna-like fishes found in the Atlantic Ocean, and desiring to co-operate in maintaining the populations of these fishes at levels which will permit the maximum sustainable catch…resolve to conclude a Convention for the conservation of the resources of tuna and tuna-like fishes of the Atlantic Ocean…”

By failing to reach an agreement on management measures that will adequately conserve the bigeye, and restore its abundance to sustainable levels, ICCAT has betrayed its stated purpose, and the international agreement that created the organization.
And, far worse, it has betrayed the bigeye as well.
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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/

Sunday, December 2, 2018

DEFENDING MAGNUSON-STEVENS FROM THE LAME DUCK


The 115th Congress is on its last legs.
Both chambers adjourned before the midterm elections to let their members campaign ahead of the vote. Now, they are meeting in a so-called “lame duck session,” which will provide outgoing members, and outgoing majorities, one last chance to pass their priority legislation before the 116th Congress ushers in newly-elected legislators, and new legislative priorities, in 2019.
The House of Representatives plans to meet for 16 days before year’s end, although that schedule could be changed if compelling reasons to do so arise. The remainder of the Senate’s 2018 session isn’t so clearly defined, but it’s safe to predict that it will probably meet for 20 days or so before adjourning.

That’s not a lot of time to get things done, given the outstanding issues. A continuing resolution to finance a number of government agencies expires on December 7; before then, Congress must either agree to provide further funding for those agencies or face a partial government shutdown.

The Senate needs to act on a number of pending judicial and agency appointments; should they fail to do so before the end of the year, the appointment process for the open positions must begin anew in 2019.
And the two chambers still need to find common ground on a Farm Bill, legislation that has been stalled for much of this year.
Even as those issues are being debated, there will be a lot of pressure on legislators to pass other bills during the closing days of the 115th Congress, and some of those bills could have a negative impact on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), the nation’s most important fishery management law.

Such harmful legislation, in both the House and the Senate, fall under the general rubric of the “Modern Fish Act.”
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) recently called for Congress to pass the Modern Fish Act in the lame duck session. At the same time that it admitted that TRCP’s efforts to pass that bill represented “a Hail Mary pass,” it argued that “our coastal economies deserve to see us build upon the bipartisan support for [the Modern Fish Act], not head back to the drawing board in January.” Members of the recreational fishing and boating industries have echoed that sentiment.

The TRCP statement provides grounds for concern, because it also stated that the Modern Fish Act “passed out of Senate committee and House this summer,” despite the fact that the House and Senate bills were very different bills.
The Senate Modern Fish Act, S. 1520, is a somewhat sullen piece of legislation being advanced by some elements of the recreational fishing community, who feel ignored by federal regulators and are striking out against commercial fishermen who, they believe, are getting all of the regulators’ attention. At least one national angling group has complained that Magnuson-Stevens “has never taken recreational anglers into account, favoring instead commercial fishing interests.”

Although S. 1520 would make a few things harder for some members of the commercial fishing industry, and would deprive federal fishery managers of some useful management tools, it is relatively harmless, and more of a nuisance than a threat to the fishery management process.
That can’t be said of the House bill, H.R. 200, the so-called “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.” It is a far larger and more comprehensive bill than S. 1520, and seeks to make substantial revisions to Magnuson-Stevens and weaken many of the conservation and management provisions of the current law. Modern Fish Act provisions make up only a small part of the House bill.

Even so, Modern Fish Act supporters seem to consider S. 1520 and H.R. 200 different faces of the same legislation. That was clearly implied in the TRCP statement, as well as in a joint press release issued in February 2018 by ten of the Modern Fish Act’s largest institutional supporters. Such release noted that H.R. 200 had been approved by the House Natural Resources Committee and said that “the coalition [that issued the release] encourages Senate leadership to quickly bring S. 1520 to the floor for final passage. Marine recreational anglers and boaters are eager to see this landmark legislation move through the House and Senate and signed into law.”

That statement appears to describe a process in which H.R. 200, which has since been passed in the House, would be conferenced with S. 1520, should that bill ever be passed in the Senate, a process that could allow many of the harmful provisions of H.R. 200 become law.

Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, an organization that has been coordinating the political efforts of Modern Fish Act supporters, has adamantly denied any plan of conferencing H.R. 200 with S. 1520, despite what would appear to be contradictory language in the TRCP announcement, the joint press release, and other statements made by Modern Fish Act supporters.

Whether or not Modern Fish Act supporters ever planned to conference the two bills, the time remaining in the lame duck session seems insufficient for any such effort, as it is very unlikely that a conference committee could meet, reach an agreement, and then see both the House and the Senate approve the final, compromise bill before the end of the year.
Even if conferencing the two bills is no longer a practical option, it’s clear that Modern Fish Act supporters will try to have S. 1520 passed in the Senate this year, and then get it approved by the House. That will also be a difficult task, as it’s hard to see the House approving such legislation without Rep. Young or some other member attaching one or more pet provisions to it along the way. Even if any such amendments, should they then be approved by the Senate, resulted in less harm than a conference with H.R. 200, they could still do some real damage to federal fishery law.
The bottom line is that there is no scenario in which the Senate’s approval of S. 1520 would help federal fishery managers maintain healthy and abundant fish stocks, or assure that such stocks will remain healthy and abundant for future generations. S. 1520 is an ill-conceived bill that deserves to die without reaching the Senate floor; the fact that, standing alone, it won’t do much harm is hardly a reason for passage.
Thanks to the mid-term elections, the climate in the House will change from one that promoted short-term exploitation, and bills such as H.R. 200, to one that favors conservation and managing fish stocks for the long term. In such an environment, legislators are unlikely to amend Magnuson-Stevens piecemeal, with bills such as the Modern Fish Act. 
Instead, those who supported such bills will have the opportunity to come forward with proposals that address their concerns within the context of a comprehensive review of federal fisheries law.
But until then, Magnuson-Stevens must be defended in the lame duck. To do that, the Senate must allow the Modern Fish Act to die in the 115th Congress, so that it can begin anew, and with a clean slate, in 2019.
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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.com/blog/


Thursday, November 29, 2018

STOCK ASSESSMENTS COULD IMPACT IMPORTANT RECREATIONAL FISHERIES


We’re at that point in the year where fishing has dwindled down to some wreck fishing trips for blackfish, black sea bass and cod, whenever anglers are lucky enough to get chance to sneak out between winter storms and speeding cold fronts.  Most of the time, though, fishermen will start looking forward to next year, or back to what happened last season. 


The December meeting is when the Mid-Atlantic Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board get together to set recreational specifications for three of the most important recreational species in southern New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic.  What particularly caught my eye in the meeting agenda was an hour and a half set aside for a “Discussion of Potential 2019 Mid-Year Revisions for Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass.”

Folks who don’t pay much attention to the management process might have glossed over it, but “mid-year revisions” are a big deal. 

Typically, the Mid-Atlantic Council and the Management Board meet in August to set the annual catch limits for the three species in the following year, and meet again in December, when more information is available, to set the recreational specifications, which will then form the basis for state summer flounder, black sea bass and scup regulations.  Then, around the middle of February, after receiving recreational catch data for the last two months of they year, states begin the process of adopting the regulations that will apply for the next twelve months.

It’s important to know what the regulations will be as early as possible in the year, because anglers plan their days off and vacations, for-hire boats book trips, and tackle shops make business decisions based on what the coming year’s rules will be. 

Changing regulations in the middle of the year can severely disrupt both anglers’ plans and business’ income, so it’s something that fishery managers try to avoid if they can.
But this year, a lot of different factors are converging that make mid-year changes in at least one or two fisheries a real possibility.

One of the most significant factors is a change in the methodology that the National Marine Fisheries Service uses to calculate recreational fishing effort, and thus recreational catch.  NMFS has determined that the old household telephone survey, which depended on random calls to homes in coastal counties, was not creating an accurate picture of the fishing activity taking place, and so replaced it with a more accurate mail survey, and based on a relationship between the two, recalculated catch and effort estimates back to 1981.

It turned out that anglers are catching a lot more fish than managers previously believed, and managers are still trying to figure out what that means for the health of fish stocks.  Intuitively, anglers might think that such higher catch figures will inevitably lead to claims of overfishing, but that isn’t necessarily true.  While more fish were being removed from fish populations, most of those population still managed to remain at today’s levels, which means, in many cases, that the fish populations are probably larger than previously believed.  They may also be able to tolerate higher levels of fishing.  Either way, there is a good chance that, in the case of most stocks, overfishing will not be a problem.

The only way to find out for sure is to conduct a stock assessment, and that’s what’s happening right now with summer flounder.  The assessment itself has been completed, and as I write this, is undergoing peer review.  Assuming the assessment makes it through the review process, it should be released four to six weeks from now.  By that time, recreational specifications for the species will already have been adopted, but they may not be compatible with the new information that the assessment provides.

If the assessment confirms fishery managers’ current assumptions about the health of the summer flounder stock, no mid-season adjustments will be necessary, and the specification and rulemaking process can go on in the same way as it has in other years.

If the assessment shows that there are more summer flounder around than previously believed, and that the fishing mortality rate was lower than had been thought, it is likely that both the recreational and commercial fishing industries will seek an increased annual catch limit; NMFS and the ASMFC could then opt to revisit the regulations and increase the 2019, harvest, but they would not be compelled to do so.

The only time that a mid-season revision might be required is if the assessment determines that the summer flounder stock is in worse shape than previously believed.  In that case, recreational and commercial landings might have to be released to prevent overfishing, and it isn’t impossible that the stock could have become overfished, in which case managers would have to begin preparing a rebuilding plan. 

That possibility isn’t completely out of the question.  In 2016, the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee found 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.”
Efforts to reduce fishing mortality were implemented for the 2017 season, but the stock assessment has not been updated since 2016.  If fishing mortality have been higher than predicted over the past two seasons, and/or if the biomass was lower than previously believed, it is possible that the stock might has become overfished.

We don’t yet know what the assessment will say, but there are some signs that abundance is fairly low.  

For the months March through August 2018, which accounts for most of the summer flounder season, recreational landings all along the coast were about 1.96 million fish, 32% lower than the 2.9 million fish caught in 2017, despite the fact that the 2018 recreational catch limit was higher, and the 2018 regulations, less restrictive, than they were the year before. 

In New York, which hosts one of the largest recreational summer flounder fisheries on the coast, the difference was even greater, with 2018 landings 56% less than they were in 2017.

Reduced effort accounts for some of the difference.  Coastwide, fishing effort for the months of March through August fell about 18% between 2017 and 2018; in New York, the decline was 43%, more than twice as high.  But the decline in fluke landings was even higher.

The hard question to answer is whether summer flounder landings were lower, in part, because effort declined, or whether effort declined because summer flounder were scarce.  Either way, given how closely effort and landings are tied, when landings fall off more quickly than effort does, a decline in the number of fish available to anglers is the most likely reason why.

Again, that doesn’t mean that the summer flounder stock is overfished, but it’s certainly not a sign that the stock is robust.  If the assessment determines that the stock has fallen below the biomass threshold, a mid-season revision of the regulations will probably be in the cards.

Bluefish, black sea bass and scup have recently been subject to benchmark assessments, so they won’t be fully assessed this year.  However, all three species will be subject to stock assessment updates early in 2019.

Hopefully, that won’t create any issues for either black sea bass or scup.  Both species seem to be very abundant, so the chance of a mid-season adjustment affecting either of them is probably extremely low.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case for bluefish.  Anglers along most of the coast, from New England down to North Carolina, have been commenting on how few bluefish they’ve caught this year.  Recreational bluefish landings in the first eight months of 2018 were 44% lower than they were in 2017, a drop that can’t be explained by the 18% reduction in effort during that period this year.

Thus, there’s a chance that we’ll be seeing changes in bluefish management, too.

Of course, there’s always a chance that we won’t see any changes at all.  

Everything depends on what the assessments, and assessment updates, eventually say.

But it’s pretty sure that, should cutbacks be required, there will be a lot of folks in the angling press, on the Internet, and elsewhere who will be acting very surprised, and trying to stir up outrage in the angling community.

If that happens, it’s best to stay calm, ignore the hyperbole, and listen to what the numbers say.  Because numbers—those in the stock assessments and elsewhere—tell the stories that we need to know.

Now, we just have to wait and see what those stories will be.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

THE ROLE WISHFUL THINKING PLAYS IN FISHERIES MANAGEMENT


Early 2019 is going to be a momentous time for fishermen, and fisheries managers, in the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England.  Benchmark stock assessments for striped bass and summer flounder have been completed, and will be evaluated by a peer review panel later this week.  Later in the spring, the 2015 benchmark assessment for bluefish, and the 2016 benchmark assessment for black sea bass, will be updated.  The results of those updates should be released before the end of April.

The question is:  What happens then?

We’d all like to think that the results of the assessments and assessment updates will dictate the course of fisheries management, and that everyone will get behind what the science tells us is best for fish stocks.  Unfortunately, real-world experience tells us that usually does not occur.

Instead, we’ll hear a lot of talk about the science being wrong.  In the case of striped bass, which are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, so the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act do not apply, we’ll probably hear more than one member of ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management arguing against accepting the conclusions in the stock assessment at all, if that assessment suggests that the stock has some problems.

Some of the folks who rail against the science will just be making noise, trying to fend off new regulations that might cut into their bottom line.  But a large percentage of those questioning the stock assessments will be absolutely sincere in their disbelief, and will be able to cite real-world observations, and probably sections of the assessments themselves, that seem to prove that they’re right.

That would be a very human thing to do.

Psychologists have long described a phenomenon called “confirmation bias,” which one source describes as

“the direct influence of desire on beliefs.”
That source goes on to explain

“When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true.  They are motivated by wishful thinking…
“Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.  Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively.  We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices.  Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions…
“Wishful thinking is a form of self-deception…
“Self-deception can be like a drug, numbing you from harsh reality, or turning a blind eye to the tough matter for gathering evidence and thinking…
“In sum, people are prone to believe what they want to believe.  Seeking to confirm our beliefs comes naturally, while it feels strong and counterintuitive to look for evidence that contradicts our beliefs…
“The take-home lesson here is to set your hypothesis and look for instances to prove that you are wrong…”
To anyone who has spent any time at the table, taking part in fishery management discussions, such self-deception scenario is going to sound extremely familiar.  It’s hard to think of any contentious fishery management debate in which confirmation bias didn’t demand, and take, center stage.


“We don’t care about your science.  Your science is bullcrap.”
Because, after all, that science contradicted everything that the captain wished to believe.  

If he had accepted the validity of the science, he would logically also have had to accept the validity of the management decision that flowed from such science:  that the tautog harvest had to be substantially reduced.  And since reduced regulations would likely result in a reduction in his own short-term earnings, it was far better to convince himself that the science was wrong than to accept it as right and live with the consequences.

There are plenty of other examples.

Any time that someone suggests that the striped bass population has been in a decline, someone else will inevitably pop up to say that there as many bass around as there ever were, but that now, they’re just farther offshore.  

It doesn’t matter that research conducted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts seems to demonstrate that bass tagged offshore will inevitably return to inshore waters, or that the seeming lack of fish finds confirmation in many elow-average spawns recorded in the Maryland young-of-the-year index, which has arguably been the most accurate predictor of striped bass abundance for decades.  A decline in the striped bass population is unthinkable, as it could lead to reduced landing limits.

Thus, if striped bass are less available inshore, the only acceptable explanation is that the bulk of the fish are offshore, where some have been caught and seen, because any other explanation would have unacceptable consequences.

The same sort of thing manifested itself last summer, at a bluefish meeting convened in New York by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.  

The meeting was only indirectly related to bluefish regulations; the main issue at hand were a possible reallocation of fish from anglers to commercial fishermen, and adjustments of the commercial bluefish quotas granted to the various states.  But anglers from Massachusetts to North Carolina have begun expressing some concern over a troubling absence of bluefish, and it was always possible that such concern could eventually lead to more restrictive bluefish quotas.

Perhaps for that reason, a group of for-hire vessel operators, at least a few of whom also sold blues on the commercial market, struck an aggressively defensive position on bluefish abundance at the hearing, arguing that there was nothing wrong with the stock, which had either 1) moved farther offshore, 2) moved north into cooler waters, or 3) was somewhere in mid-ocean between North America and Africa, because bluefish are found off Africa, too (the person making that pitch was apparently unaware of the fact that the North American and African populations are genetically isolated, and do not intermix).  There was even a suggestion that if bluefish were less abundant, such decline was due to increased regulation on the harvest of mako sharks, which were now eating too many bluefish.

They were willing to accept any of those possibilities as true.  The only possibility that those folks would not entertain was that the population was, in fact, in decline, because if they could believe that, well, they might have to believe in more regulation, too, and they were not going to accept any belief that might head them down that sort of road…

At any rate, striped bass and bluefish, as well as summer flounder and black sea bass, are a very important part of New York’s recreational fishery.  In 2017, those four fish accounted for nearly 40% of all recreationally-harvested fish in the state (nearly 50%, when landings are measured in pounds rather than individual fish), and any reduction in the permitted landings isn’t going to be readily accepted by the fishing industry.

Thus, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when the stock assessments and updates come out.  

Bluefish, summer flounder and black sea bass are all federally-managed species, so if the science goes the “wrong” way, and calls for harvest reductions, there’s not too much that people can do.  They can yell and curse and write nasty editorials in the local fishing rags, but in the end, the law will require that fishery managers follow the best available science, whether or not fishermen—or the fishing industry—choose to believe that it’s true.

But striped bass could turn interesting for a few reasons.

First, because the species is managed by ASMFC, the conclusions in the benchmark stock assessment don’t have to be adopted for management purposes.  That very issue was debated when the last stock assessment came out in 2013.  It called for a 25% reduction in harvest, but it took ASMFC until the October 2014 meeting of its Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board to accept the assessment, and that recommendation, for management purposes, and even then there were four votes against.

So it’s pretty clear that there will be some people who will choose not to believe the conclusions contained in the stock assessment.  And if the assessment reveals that more restrictions are needed, it’s pretty clear who those people will be—the same members of the commercial and recreational fishing industries who typically choose to disbelieve objective science if it might affect their bottom line, the same people who, regardless of the species involved, elect to challenge scientific conclusions with whatever casual observations and stories  seem to support their position (while ignoring any information that tends to support the scientists’ side of things).

But if the stock assessment reveals that the bass population is in fairly good shape, some people are also likely to reject that conclusion.  

There are a lot of anglers—and I’ll admit, I’m one of them—who aren’t happy with what they’re seeing on the water right now.  They have real concern that striped bass abundance is far lower than it ought to be.  There are even some anglers who have convinced themselves that things are so bad that a imposing a 1980s-style ban on striped bass landings could be the right thing to do.

So if the assessment comes out and says that the health of the bass population is more-or-less OK, it’s likely that some of those folks will not believe it, and will replace the scientists’ determinations with their own bad experiences (but with none of their good ones), and insist that regulations be made more restrictive, despite what the assessment says.

Although such folks may be altruistic, they would also be victims of confirmation bias, who believe what they choose to believe and are unwilling to give due consideration to contrary data.

The bottom line is that the stock assessments and updates are coming, and it’s important that we all know what they say.  But it’s equally important that, whatever we want to  believe, we don’t allow our own beliefs and suppositions to take the place of real science, particularly if we have a peer-reviewed assessment, which is as close to a gold standard as real science gets.

Everyone is biased, whether we want to admit that or not.  

Some of us tend to be conservative, and would resolve any uncertainty in favor of the fish.  Some of us lean the other way, and would give fishermen the benefit of the doubt.  Whichever way each of us leans, our desires, and our experiences, give us all a prejudiced view of what we think of as truth.

The beauty of science is that, while it can't eliminate all sorts of bias, it can identify the fact that bias exists, and account for it in its final conclusions.  Conclusions based on hard data, collected in a statistically valid manner and compiled by persons with no personal interest in the final result, are a lot more reliable than impressions based on personal observations that are not carefully measured, but merely compared to our views on how things ought to be.

Thus, when a stock assessment seems to clash with our view of the world, the first thing we should do is take a step back and try to find a good reason why we, and not the assessment, are wrong.