Thursday, July 24, 2014
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is, without question, the most comprehensive and most successful fishery management law in the world.
Under its aegis, at least since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 became law, overfishing has been sharply reduced and many overfished stocks have been restored to health.
However, like anything crafted by man, Magnuson isn’t perfect. Its biggest flaw may be that it manages dead fish, rather than live ones.
This is what I mean.
Under Magnuson, management parameters are ultimately defined in terms of yield. Overfishing is
“a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis,”
while National Standard [ ] says that stocks should be managed for “optimum” yield, which is
“the amount of fish which—
(A) will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems;
(B) is prescribed as such on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor; and
(C) in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield in such fishery.”
It’s all about “yield”—how many fish may be safely killed, rather than how many fish ought to be kept alive.
Yes, I know that an overfished stock is generally defined in terms of biomass—live fish in the water—but even there, an overfished stock is one that is too small to produce maximum sustainable yield.
Despite the references to “marine ecosystems” and “ecological factor” in the definition of “optimum” yield, when you get right down to it, the effectiveness of management actions is measured in terms of dead fish, not live ones.
Think what management would look like if we took the other tack, and managed for life instead.
I’m writing as an angler, so let’s consider a popular angling species—it might be bluefish, king mackerel or perhaps Pacific rockfish—and think about what the populations should look like.
First, as I and others have written before, anglers want fish in abundance. That means keeping enough fish in the water that anglers, throughout the species’ range, have a good chance of encountering some at any time during the season. What constitutes “some” fish will differ from species to species—you would expect to catch a lot more Spanish mackerel than, say, cobia—but whatever the species, the chances of an encounter would be pretty high.
But mere abundance is just not enough. We’d also want to give some of those fish a chance to live long enough to get big.
That’s inefficient from a commercial perspective, where any fish that dies of old age is deemed wasted and a population that quickly produces big numbers of little fish may be more profitable than one in which harvest is delayed to produce larger individuals. However, anglers have always been intrigued by big fish, and the sort of management that produces big fish is also the kind of management that leads to the healthiest stocks.
That’s because a population that includes a good number of larger individuals, the sort that fisheries scientists sometimes affectionately refer to as “BOFFs”—Big, Old, Fat Fish—usually has a spawning stock made up of fish of many different sizes belonging to many different year classes. Such a stock, which is not dependent on just one or two year classes for its spawning success, is inherently more resilient and better able to shrug off transient environmental conditions that lead to a few years of poor recruitment.
Thus, rather than managing for “optimum yield,” which pegs harvest at or near the highest sustainable levels without regard for the structure of the stock, managers should instead be seeking “optimum” abundance and an “optimum” stock structure, by setting a “permissible harvest level” which assures that such an optimized stock can be created and maintained.
And no, that is not some sort of radical dream. It’s more or less how whitetail deer are managed today, with tools such as doe permits to manage abundance and recruitment, minimum antler requirements to allow some bucks to grow old, etc.
“Quality deer management” has been around for a long time, and maybe it’s past time for “quality fish management” to make its appearance.
Once we accept the fact that fish are wildlife, it all makes perfect sense.
A different approach is needed for creatures near the base of the food web, which provide the food that other fish, as well as birds and marine mammals, need to survive. They’re lumped together in the broad category of “forage fish,” although some are not fish—squid and many crustaceans come to mind—and some are not simply forage. Atlantic mackerel feed people as well as bluefin tuna, while Pacific pollock are critically important to both commercial fishermen and Steller sea lions.
In such cases, managers first need to ensure that there are enough fish around to fulfill their role in the marine food web. Then, there needs to be enough left over to provide a sustainable and well-structured breeding population. After that, once again, the “permissible harvest level” kicks in.
It’s trendy to call such approach “ecosystem management,” but that’s probably a misnomer. Ocean ecosystems are vast, complex systems that encompass everything from viruses to blue whales, and no one is capable of managing all of that.
And calling for “ecosystem management” always brings out the clowns who pretend to go along, then follow up by claiming that the red snapper—or the cod, or striped bass or red drum—are getting too numerous, and throwing the ecosystem out of whack, and that in the name of “ecosystem management” they should be allowed to go out and kill a bunch to bring things back into balance, forgetting that fish got along just fine, without that kind of “help,” for something like 450 million years.
No, I think it’s better to just refer to it as “live fish management,” or maybe more simply, “managing for life.”
Because life, in all its diversity and its abundance, is the ultimate good.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
New York’s black sea bass season opened last Tuesday, and I was eager to get out and put some fish in the box.
Yesterday, with the work week behind me, I finally ran out to one of my favorite wrecks, where the sea bass were fat and abundant.
It was great fishing. I had my 8-fish limit in about 40 minutes; probably less time than it took me to get to the wreck. The fish had some shoulders, too. The biggest one weighed over four pounds. I probably could have stayed out a bit longer and been a bit pickier, and come in with nothing much under three; however, I wanted to keep a few smaller ones to steam Chinese-style, with black beans, ginger and soy.
There were clouds of sea bass on the depthfinder, and that was a good thing to see, because once the season opens, anglers hit the fish pretty hard; by fall, the clouds will be gone and the average size will be quite a bit smaller.
Exuberant abundance at the start of the season means that there will still be some fish around at its end.
The size and number of the black sea bass available to anglers today is testimony to the effectiveness of the conservation provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and their ability to restore real abundance to a fishery that had fallen on hard times not so many years ago.
One might think that everyone in the angling community would be pushing to restore all of our fish stocks to similar levels of abundance, but I learned earlier this week that’s just not the case, when someone pointed me to the blog of an organization that didn’t mince words, and but came right out and deemed current calls for of managing for abundance “crap.”
The blog appears under the aegis of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, and seems dedicated to the principal that if you can’t say something bad about someone or something, it’s best to say nothing at all (the link that I provided above leads to the single post being discussed here, but you can click on this link if you feel the need for a second helping of vituperation).
It’s made up of the same kind of black helicopter stuff about environmental organizations trying to impair recreational fishing that folks have been trying to sell to anglers for years.
It confuses the concept of “managing for abundance,” which is intended to provide more and larger fish for anglers to catch (although it also creates a more stable age and size structure in fish populations), with a report entitled Oceans of Abundance that was crafted by a group of environmental organizations that support catch shares as a management strategy.
Assuming that readers will be gullible enough to go along, the blog then makes the next jump of illogic to warn
“That means fish tags, auction houses, and state-run access lotteries as our future of recreational fishing, all in the name of abundance!”
Let’s be serious here. Can you imagine using fish tags on a porgy boat? And scup are already one of the most successful examples of “managing for abundance” that we have…
After some additional blather that attempts to link managing for abundance with catch shares and label it all an environmentalists’ plot, the blog goes on to identify those supporting abundance as “well-spoken, hip conservationists,” and members of some “angling elite” who “[rip] a page from the 21st century progressive’s handbook” in order to seduce folks into believing that having a lot of fish in the water is a good idea, and wraps up the entire process by saying
“In other words, asking for abundance is another way of saying ‘please, take away my right to fish.’”
One could respond by saying that “opposing abundance is another way of saying ‘please, don’t let me catch many fish,’” but that’s probably too obvious for words…
At any rate, the blog’s assertions would probably come as a pretty big shock to the nation’s largest angling organizations, as well as to the primary trade associations representing the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries because, as it turns out, they want folks to manage for abundance, too.
If the Recreational Fishing Alliance had attended the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit that NOAA fisheries hosted back on April 1st and 2nd (I believe that I saw RFA members and at least one of their regional spokesmen there, but the national leadership was noticeably absent), perhaps it would have been aware that “managing for abundance” was anything but a sinister plot to chase anglers off the water; it was one of the central talking points at the Summit, clearly supported by the leaders of the fishing tackle and boatbuilding communities, as well as by spokesmen for the anglers themselves.
In February, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership issued a detailed report entitled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries”. A number of important recreational fishing and boatbuilding organizations, including the Center for Coastal Conservation, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association (the trade association for the fishing tackle industry) and the National Marine Manufacturers Association were contributors. That report explicitly endorses managing for abundance, saying
“What recreational anglers want and need is wide-ranging, dependable access to healthy and abundant fish stocks…
“Recreational anglers are more focused on abundance and size, structures of the fisheries, and opportunities to get out on the water [emphasis added].“
It doesn’t, however, endorse catch shares, because the folks who wrote the “Vision” report actually understand the difference between the two.
No, “managing for abundance” isn’t just for environmentalists anymore. In fact, it never was.
Speaking at a previous recreational fishing summit, held a number of years ago, Bob Hayes, General Counsel to the Coastal Conservation Association, offered what was probably the best working description of the “managing for abundance” concept, saying that
“Anglers want to be able to catch a lot of fish, with some big ones.”
That’s what I found on my sea bass wreck yesterday, and I thought that it was pretty good.
For who could say that kind of fishing is bad?
That is, who other than the RFA?
But then, RFA always seems to forge its own path.
Hastings named it the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act”, but the bill is so bad that the conservation community is calling it the “Empty Oceans Act”.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership says that the bill
“goes too far in rolling back vital conservation measures necessary for healthy and sustainable fisheries,”‘
while the Center for Coastal Conservation—which represents both the American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, among other groups—issued a press release declaring “Recreational Fishing and Boating Community Underwhelmed By House Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization Bill.”
But, contrary to the comments emanating from most of the recreational community, RFA calls H.R. 4742
Yes, RFA forges its own path. But that path seems to be getting pretty lonely these days.
There is a unique service on the Internet that can be found at www.guidestar.org. Anyone can go onto that site and, once registered (registration is simple and free) find Form 990s—the tax return filed by tax-exempt organizations, including 501(c)(4) advocacy groups such as RFA—for any not-for-profit corporation with significant income. When those returns are filed, the signer states, under penalties of perjury, that they are “true, correct and complete”.
So we can pretty much assume that anything that a Form 990 says is true.
When one takes a look at RFA’s Form 990, a couple of things jump out pretty quickly. The first one is that the Recreational Fishing Alliance has quite a bit more money going out than coming in. The 2012 tax return, which is the last one available on the Guidestar site, shows a loss of $109,824 for that year (expenses of $693,286 on revenues of just $583,462); the 2010 and 2011 Form 990s show losses of $52,613 and $111,197, respectively.
Over the long term, RFA’s 2012 tax return shows an accumulated loss of $359,027; RFA apparently hasn’t shown a profit since sometime before 2008, when it experienced yet another loss of $135,676.
So whatever the organization is selling on its blog and elsewhere, it doesn’t appear that a lot of folks are buying…
That’s probably a difficult thing to accept for RFA, which bills itself as a
yet, according to Schedule C of its 2012 Form 990, spent just $4,700 on lobbying in 2012, for “various election campaign donations” (by contrast, the Coastal Conservation Association, which as a 501(c)(3) organization cannot spend unlimited funds on lobbying, still managed to devote $497,829 to that purpose in the same year).
But it appears that RFA has not given up trying to sell its message and grow its membership base. In 2012, for example, its Form 990 shows that it spent $130,664—twenty-seven times as much as it spent on lobbying, and 22% of all revenues received that year—on “Advertising and Promotion” and another $93,647 on “Dues Processing”.
Who knows how successful those efforts will be for an organization that calls managing for abundance “crap” and believes that the “Empty Oceans Act” is “a bill worth supporting.”
Maybe they’ll convince anglers that their cause is the right one, and become profitable once again.
Or maybe they will stand on the shore as a modern-day analogue of old King Canute, and try to halt a rising tide of support for “managing for abundance” with declarations that such notions of management are “crap”—and share that ancient sovereign’s lack of success.
Time will tell which turns out to be true.
But if I were a betting man, I know which outcome I’d put my money on.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
We hear a lot about “best available science” in fisheries management.
It’s what decisions are supposed to be based on, and in the federal system, they are. National Standard 2, included in the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, says that
“Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.”
If the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a regulation that wasn’t supported by the science, there’s a very good chance that they’d be sued. And that they’d lose. It’s happened quite a few times before.
However, once you abandon the federal system, science loses its dominant role.
Folks still give it a lot of lip service. For example, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter states that
“It is the policy of the Commission that its ISFMP…be based on the best scientific information available…”
The problem is that ASMFC isn’t governed by the Magnuson Act, or any similar law, and there is no national standard that can be used to enforce those words. To date, courts have not been receptive to legal challenges to ASMFC decisions. So we end up in a situation where, even when good science exists, ASMFC can wait quite a long time before it adopts it—if it adopts it at all.
I was reminded of that earlier this week, when I attended a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council.
The Council was discussing the August meeting of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, which will debate a reduction in overall striped bass landings. Such reductions were called for in a recent, peer-reviewed stock assessment, which found that fishing mortality was too high and that the striped bass stock was about to descend into “overfished” territory.
The stock assessment was presented to the Management Board last October, and represents the “best scientific information available”. The only problem is that nine months have passed since the Management Board had the assessment, and ASMFC still hasn’t replaced the old, now-discredited data in its management plan with the new information.
That won’t happen until October—a full year later—at the earliest. There is a slim possibility that it will never happen at all.
Part of the problem is that, before adopting the latest scientific findings, ASMFC has to go out and seek public comment on whether or not they should.
When you stop to think about it, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The only comment relevant to the issue would probably be a competing stock assessment, based on equivalent data that passed an equally rigorous peer review.
The odds of someone making that sort of comment are impossibly high, and comments such as “You suits need to get out on the water. There’s plenty of bass out there” don’t really add much to the discussion.
But they do delay the process.
The Management Board was supposed to put the matter out for public comment after its February meeting, then decided to kick the can down the road until May. At its May meeting, it apparently decided that kicking the can was so much fun that it did it again, delaying release of any draft addendum until August.
So public hearings on the science, which were originally planned for late winter, will now be held in late summer or early fall.
Unless the can gets kicked one more time.
ASMFC’s failure to promptly adopt the best available science has real implications for striped bass management.
Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass contains five “triggers” which, if tripped, require the Management Board to act to end excessive harvest and/or to recover a stock that has fallen to undesirably low levels.
The third trigger states that
“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management 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.”
Since ASMFC’s 2013 Update of the Striped Bass Stock Assessment using Final 2012 Data found that the fishing mortality target was exceeded in both 2011 and 2012, the last years for which data is available, and also found that the female spawning stock biomass was below the target in every year since 2006, the Management Board must take action to end overfishing within one year, if the fishing mortality reference points from the latest stock assessment are used.
The same set of facts would also trip the fourth trigger, which states that
“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].”
Nine months after the benchmark assessment was presented to the Management Board, no definitive action has been taken to end overfishing, and there has been absolutely no effort to create a plan that would rebuild the striped bass stock.
And the tragic thing is that such inaction can be justified by the argument that, until ASMFC formally adopts the fishing mortality reference points from the benchmark stock assessment, no triggers have actually been tripped, and no action is really required.
Any such argument violates the spirit of Amendment 6; its authors certainly never intended that the Management Board should frustrate the intent of the amendment merely by failing to accept the most recent science. However, whether such argument violates the letter of Amendment 6 is something for ASMFC to decide.
And that leaves the bass in a pretty bad place.
Still, despite its current troubles, the striped bass is probably in a better place today than the tautog was for most of the last two decades.
Back in 1996, ASMFC’s Tautog Technical Committee advised the Tautog Management Board that fishing mortality threshold should not exceed 0.15 (about 14% of the population removed annually). But the Tautog Management Board hemmed and hawed, encouraged by a recreational fishing industry—particularly the mid-Atlantic party boats—to impose less restrictive measures.
So half-measures went in, and the tautog stock, caught in the limbo of ignored scientific advice, declined.
More half-measures followed, and they caused fishing mortality to peak at more than three times the recommended level, as bag limits got smaller, size limits grew larger and seasons shrank.
In 2011—fully fifteen years after the Tautog Technical Committee first made its recommendation—ASMFC adopted Addendum IV to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Tautog, which finally set Fthreshold at 0.15.
By that time, here in New York, a season that had been seven months long had shrunk to a mere eleven weeks, the size limit jumped from 12 inches to 16, and the bag limit went from ten fish to four.
The bait shops aren’t selling too many green crabs any more...
Which shows that waiting too long to adopt the best science is in the interests neither of fish nor of man.
For like a wrench, a hammer or a hacksaw—or any other tool in the box—even the best science isn’t much good to anyone unless it is actually used.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
The collapse of a fish stock rarely catches us by surprise—at least if we’re paying attention.
It usually starts out with fishing being a little slow in a lot of different places, although it remains quite good in others. Then, after a few years, the complaints about bad fishing increase, and rumors of good catches are harder to come by. Finally, after quite a few years of decline—which can be steady and unmistakable, or halting and harder to notice, depending on the stock involved—there can be no question that the stock has collapsed, and everyone shakes their heads in wonders aloud what went wrong.
Yet, although you can see the crash coming, it is rare that anyone ever gets out in front of the problem and successfully intervenes before collapse comes; instead, those who warn of future calamity are, if not ridiculed, then largely ignored, while many of those who admit that the stock is declining adamantly stand in the way of efforts to fix things.
Once things collapse, though, they call for relief.
Cynics would say that “it’s all about money,” and point to those who harvest fish for sale, but such attitudes aren’t limited to the commercial fishing industry. The recreational fishing industry is rife with them too, and so are the ranks of ordinary anglers, who make no money from the fishery at all.
It’s a puzzling and frustrating thing for those of us involved with fish conservation, because it seems so illogical on its face. “Why should a party boat captain,” we wonder, “Be willing to overfish a stock to the point of collapse, when a healthier stock would be better for business?”
It’s a classic question, and one that folks have been asking for a long time. The answer lies in the tendency of people to “discount the future” or, to be a little less formal, in the old adage that “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Folks tend to live in the “now.”
The concept is well-known to economists; it underlies just about every business decision. But it affects a lot more than business, and a lot more than fisheries management. Back in 1995, an economics professor named Timothy J. Brennan wrote an essay entitled “Discounting the Future: Economics and Ethics” that examined the problem in a environmental context.
It starts with the concept that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, so if you want someone to forego taking a profit today—say, by not killing too many red snapper, striped bass or winter flounder—they have to believe that there is a bigger dollar waiting for them somewhere down the road.
That dollar has to be big enough to make delaying those profits worthwhile. And even if it is, the fishermen have to believe that they’re actually going to collect it.
So when I sit down at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, and try to convince folks to protect the tattered remnants of the winter flounder stock, I probably shouldn’t be shocked when the folks representing the tackle shops object the the needed regulations.
They say that even though flounder are scarce, they still bring some folks into the shops in the spring, and given how long it would take to recover the stock, they’re just not willing to pass up what little money they can get now—for a handful of hooks, some sinkers, a few boxes of bloodworms—in the hope of making far more from a recovered stock at some distant point in the uncertain future.
A very small bird in their hands, after all…
And that touches on another point in Brennan’s essay, the question of whether pure economics should govern all decisions, or whether there is an ethical burden placed upon today’s decisionmakers—perhaps on all of today’s society—to assure that those living far in the future, who we shall never know, should enjoy the same quality of life that we know today.
Do the folks sitting around the table at a Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting, for example, have the ethical right to decide that future generations of anglers shall not catch—or perhaps even remember—winter flounder, just because the current generation of tackle shop owners wants to sell a couple more hooks and sinkers—along with some bait, and maybe a rod and a reel or two—today?
I'll let you make up your own mind on that one...
But let’s leave the shops, the party boats and the commercial fishermen alone for a while. We know that cash is a powerful motivation, and one that’s easy to understand.
So let’s look at the ordinary recreational fisherman, who receives no direct economic benefit from overharvest, and ask why so many of them also seem reluctant to reduce their current kill--say of big female striped bass--in order to achieve more abundance, and much better fishing, at some point down the road.
To some extent, it is again a matter of competing economic values. Recreationally-harvested fish convey value to anglers, and some anglers may simply believe that the value of harvesting such fish today is greater than any additional value that might be gleaned from recovering the stock and harvesting more abundant fish five, ten or more years in the future.
But there are other factors that also come into play. Some of those factors were discussed—although not in a fisheries context—in a doctoral dissertation written by Shane Frederick, a student at Carnegie Mellon University.
He considered a number of other factors that lead to discounting future events, including the probability of the future event not occurring, the quality or duration of the future event, the “utility” or usefulness of the future event, etc.
Those non-economic factors may have a greater impact on angler attitudes than the mere desire to harvest a few fish now rather than waiting to take a few more later on.
For example, if you spend any time listening to anglers object to harvest restrictions, it’s pretty clear that probability—more precisely, their belief that a stock probably won’t be recovered despite tougher rules—is a big reason for their negative attitudes.
At any major fisheries hearing, you’ll hear a host of reasons why conservation measures are a waste of time, ranging from “If we let the fish go here, they’ll just catch them in New Jersey [or any other state they might choose to name]”, "The commercial guys will just kill them if we don't," “The seals [or the cormorants, or the striped bass, or…] are killing them all” or the favorite claim that “It’s just ‘The Cycle’ and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Quality and duration arguments usually pop up when stocks are really in bad shape and moratoriums are being considered—folks just don’t want to have to wait for three or four years to catch a fish again.
And as for utility, well, I can sort of understand that one, because the last time the striped bass began to collapse, it took about 20 years to recover the stock, and if the bass crash again and take as long to recover, I’m going to be in my 80s by the time they’re recovered, and my big-fish days might be nearing their end. I might not get to enjoy such recovery at all.
Maybe that’s why I’m so intent on avoiding calamity…
But the bottom line is that, like it or not, fishery management is driven by politics and politics are driven by people. And people are likely to discount the future when the future of any fish stock is on the line.
That’s why we need to be proactive, and put laws in place that proscribe managers’ ability to discount the future when stocks are in trouble.
And that is the core beauty of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. It protects the future by requiring managers to do the right thing, even if they don't want to.
And that is why H.R. 4742, Doc Hastings “Empty Oceans Act,” which would enshrine the practice of discounting the future in federal law, must be defeated.
Let’s contact our congressmen and make sure that a bad bill dies.
Thursday, July 10, 2014
If you’ve been chasing striped bass for more than five years, you know that something is wrong.
You’re not catching much. Reports from up and down the coast are poor. There are a few bunches of big fish around, but it’s getting hard to find anything under 20 pounds.
If you have a taste for science, and maybe even if you don’t, you’ve at least skimmed through the stock assessment that was completed last year. You found no solace there. It’s almost even money—a 46% chance—that the stock was already overfished in 2012, and you know that things have only gone downhill since then.
Overfishing is not merely a threat that looms in the future; it has already occurred over much of the past decade.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission knows that there’s a problem, but hasn’t taken a single concrete step to fix it. Instead, debate drags on, with most of it centering around minimizing economic harm, not maximizing chances for the striper’s recovery.
The biologists of its Striped Bass Technical Committee have presented only a single, high-risk plan to end overfishing; there is a 50% chance that their plan will fail to end overfishing by 2016.
Yet even that anemic plan is too much for some members of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, who are working to water it down even further. They would weaken the conservation provisions of the Striped Bass Management Plan, so that the harvest cuts needed to end overfishing would take three full years to implement, instead of the one year currently required by the plan.
No plan to rebuild the spawning stock to target abundance has been put on the table, although it can easily be argued that the management plan requires that as well.
Some folks in the angling press are trying to convince fishermen not to panic, although their motivation for encouraging complacency is not at all clear. Sure, panic is bad, why shouldn’t we be demanding real action?
Optimists can point to the strong 2011 year class, and the likelihood that, although numbers are not yet out, the 2014 will be solid as well.
Pessimists can point out that the 1970 year class was a strong one, too, yet was just about gone in five or six years. They can point to a 1977 article from the Boston Globe, reproduced on Capt. John McMurray’s website, which describes a fishery eerily similar to what we’re seeing today.
No, I’m not asking you to panic; there’s still a good chance to turn things around.
But I am asking you to sit back for a moment and imagine…a sea without stripers.
For some of us, the vision comes freely. We fished through the last collapse, and remember waters that were once filled with a tumult of life but quickly turned still and barren except when the bluefish churned through.
For me, the iconic moment of the last striper drought came on a glass-calm morning when I was bucktailing the Connecticut shore. Casting was an act of faith; I knew that the day’s quest would be fruitless, but still placed each cast precisely, and executed each retrieve as if there were still bass in the sea. On that day, faith was, to my surprise, rewarded, and I had the privilege of hooking, fighting and releasing a bass.
At that point, the angler in the only other boat near me put down his rod and broke out into a hearty yet ultimately haunting applause.
Given the circumstances, I never want to hear such applause again.
Hopefully, we won’t. But just imagine…
It will be bad enough for anglers, but we’ll somehow scratch by. After all, we’ve already fished through the moratorium years.
There will be some bluefish. There will be fluke and porgies and maybe a weakfish or two.
There will always be the elemental solace of standing alone by the shore.
But imagine if you had a fishing-dependent business sited anywhere between New Jersey and Maine—but didn’t have striped bass.
At that point, imagination turns to nightmare.
The last time the bass disappeared, there were plenty of other things to keep a business alive.
Winter flounder were hot in the spring, but you could catch a few any time the bays were ice-free. Today, they’re just about gone, and few folks fish for those that remain. Instead, angling doesn’t begin to heat up until the striped bass come in.
Tautog—a/k/a blackfish—were a year-round fishery, too. Today, seasons are short and size limits are high, taking them out of the “general interest” category. So during the spring and fall, so up on the rock-ribbed coast—southern New England and the North Shore of Long Island—anglers have switched over to stripers. A lot of party boats now chase stripers, too.
Back in 1980, there were lots of big cod on Coxe’s Ledge in the summer, pollock at Block Island in the spring, and hordes of “baseball bat” whiting at Ambrose. Note the word “were,” because all of those fisheries died decades ago. Effort has shifted to other species. Fluke, porgies and sea bass all provide options. So do striped bass, with some of the headboats that used to chase codfish making three bass trips each day through the season.
Back in the ‘70s, when bass were getting scarce in Montauk, Jaws made its big-screen splash. Weekend warriors became shark fishermen, and photos from those days show far too many anglers gloating over dead tigers, duskies or blues.
For those seeking more prestigious game, the school bluefin limit was four fish per person, and 1,000-pound giants swam the seas off Block Island. Yellowfin tuna swarmed in the Butterfish Hole, while white marlin finned out within sight of the Lighthouse.
Today, most shark fishing is over by early July, you can keep two small bluefin per boat and giants aren’t easy to come by. Catching a yellowfin or marlin inside of the canyons—which are about 70 miles offshore—is a pretty rare thing, and it takes a lot of expensive fuel to make it all the way out to the “Edge.”
So instead of chasing sharks, billfish and tuna, the Montauk charter boats spend most of their time pursuing striped bass.
That includes a new sort of charter we didn’t have thirty years ago. They’re small agile boats that use light tackle and fly rods to catch bluefish, bonito, false albacore—and mostly striped bass.
If the bass disappear, most of the for-hire fleet won’t be too far behind.
Some of the party boats will barely hang on, catching fluke, porgies, sea bass and blues, but with the stripers gone, it’s going to be a close-run thing, because without the bass to bring crowds in the fall—when the boats can make two or even three trips each day, while carrying crowds—a lot of captains will be driving trucks and digging clams over the winter, instead of taking their wives to Florida.
If the fluke thin out, too—at lately, recruitment hasn’t been all that good—the lifeline will snap, and most of the headboats, like most of the stripers, will survive only in anglers’ memories.
The charters boat fleet faces even worse risks.
The last bass collapse forced a lot of the six-pack boats, including some very big names, out of business, even though there were plenty of other fish still being caught. Today, striped bass are the lifeblood of the northeastern fleet, with anglers having far fewer alternative species to fish for. Another bass crash would devastate the six-pack fleet; few boats are likely to survive on fluke, porgies and sea bass, and the occasional trip offshore.
But the six-packs would do better than the light-tackle boats.. Yes, they fish for bluefish (which get tiring after a while), bonito (which are getting scarce) and false albacore (which didn’t even show up off Long Island last year). But striped bass gave birth to the light-tackle business, and if the bass go away, the fly boats will follow.
A sea without stripers is an empty and desolate place.
Some of us would stick it out, just as we did before, because we don’t know how to do anything else. But the majority of anglers—the folks who fish for whatever bites best, will be looking to catch something else.
They’ll drive up the landings of whatever they target, and that will lead to more restrictive regulations for fish such as fluke. There was a time, not so long ago, when regulations made it harder to catch a legal fluke than a legal striper. If increased fluke landings push size limits up over 20 inches again, and the stripers just aren’t around, well—what will anglers be fishing for then?
Black sea bass can’t take the pressure, and not everyone wants to eat porgies.
A bass collapse would be a very bad time to buy a tackle shop, although if you were foolish enough to want one, there would likely be plenty for sale...
Given how badly a striped bass collapse would hurt the recreational fishing industry, it’s more than a little surprising that the industry isn’t standing up and demanding that ASMFC put effective conservation measures in place now, while there’s still enough time to stave off real problems.
Yet that’s not happening.
As Fred Golofaro—a long-time bass fishermen who lived through the last crash—noted in the July 3 edition of The Fishermen, “some narrow minded industry folks” don’t want folks talking about the current decline. He pointed out that, during last fall’s run, mates on party boats—who, as noted, have a lot to lose if the bass disappear—were telling anglers not to let fish go, even if no passenger wanted to take such fish home (the mates, were apparently more than willing to take them, for reasons completely their own).
I can already hear the cries for “disaster relief” if the fish disappear…
Many anglers, too, are a big part of the problem, killing more fish than they need or can possibly use, and continuing to fish—even using destructive gear such as snag hooks—when a limit of bass is already on ice and any fish gut-hooked must either be returned to the water to die or brought back to the dock in violation of the law.
And we won’t even talk about illegal sale…
So, perhaps, there are some industry folks and quite a few anglers who should really start to imagine what the sea—and fishing, and the fishing business—would be like if bass disappeared.
But a lot of us, Fred Golofaro and myself included, don’t need to rely on our imaginations.
We experienced a sea without stripers first-hand. We don’t want to experience it again.
And neither do you, my friends.
Believe me, neither do you.