Sunday, July 5, 2015

RETHINKING REALLOCATION

No matter how healthy a fish stock may be, it is still a limited resource, and harvest must be controlled.  In most cases, such harvest controls include both a overall Annual Catch Limit, and an allocation of that Annual Catch Limit between the commercial and recreational sectors.

As anyone knows, if they’ve ever watched to children fight over who gets the “biggest half” of a cookie, people don’t like to share, which makes allocation one of the most difficult aspects of fisheries management.  

However, because conditions do change, established allocations sometimes must also change if fisheries resources are truly going to provide “the greatest overall benefit to the nation.”

Generally, regional fisheries management councils, as well as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, do their best to ignore reallocation issues, knowing that the resultant fight will be long and bitter and that, when it is over, the original allocation will probably remain undisturbed.

Still, we have seen two notable reallocation decisions in the past couple of years. 


Such change was made in response to a northward shift of the center of summer flounder abundance, which rendered the old allocation, based on 1998 data, obsolete and worked a real hardship on anglers in northeastern states, who were constantly exceeding their state allocations, and as a result were being subject to ever-tightening regulations for no better reason than that there were more fish in their waters than there were before.

Such reallocation wouldn’t have been possible if the summer flounder stock hadn’t been successfully rebuilt under the aegis of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which prevented fishermen from shortstopping the rebuilding program by overfishing once the fish became a little more abundant than they had been before. 

Once the stock was fully rebuilt, there were so many summer flounder available to anglers in the southern half of its range that the southern states were able to provide northern states with some of their unutilized fish, which made the reallocation provision work.

Of course, in any reallocation, some folks are going to get fewer fish, and they won’t be happy.  

In the case of summer flounder, those folks were all in New Jersey.  Under the old state-by-state allocation, New Jersey received more than 39% of the recreational harvest, well over twice the fish given to any other state.  Under the new system, they were compelled to share with New York and Connecticut. 

So even though New York and Connecticut caught far fewer fish than they were expected to in  2014, and their underharvest offset an overharvest in New Jersey, preventing that state from having to impose more restrictive regulations for 2015, Tom Fote, the New Jersey governor’s appointee to ASMFC, complained that

“There might have been a couple of states happy north [sic]; but there was one that was not happy, New Jersey.  I’m going to hear that, well, you’re over, you basically spread it out.  One of the reasons we were over is that because that the southern fish were divided between two other states but not New Jersey.”
Of course, since all three of the states, including New Jersey, were part of the same region, dividing the additional southern fish among two of them but not to the third isn’t possible, but Fote goes on…

“Then there was an allocation of our fish to the other two states that helped put us over.  If we would have had those two allocations, we wouldn’t be over…”
And that pretty well sums up the reason that managers try so hard to avoid reallocation debates.  

The “haves”—the kid with the big half of the cookie—never want to share, and if any more fish become available from other sources, they feel entitled to some or all of them, too.  

They feel that the “have nots” should be happy with crumbs.

That problem became even more evident in the second recent reallocation, that of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.


Normally, I’m strongly opposed to balkanizing the recreational sector, and setting aside a fixed allocation for for-hire vessels; anglers are anglers, regardless of the platform that they fish from, and rules should not favor any one group, whether they fish from for-hire vessels, private boats, beaches or piers.

However, the situation down in the Gulf was so egregious that it is just about impossible to argue that, in that special instance, so-called “sector separation” wasn't the right thing to do.

Again, it was a case of the “haves” versus the “have nots,” and the “haves” not wanting to share.

Under the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico, for-hire vessels must have a limited-access permit in order to fish for red snapper in federal waters, and must abide by federal regulations even when fishing within the waters of one of the states.  

Private boat anglers, on the other hand, as well as for-hire vessels that only fish in state waters, need no special permits, and can fish in state waters, in accord with state seasons, even when the federal red snapper season is closed.

That created a serious problem.

Federal fisheries managers must consider the health of the entire red snapper population within the Gulf of Mexico, and include harvest anywhere within the Gulf when it makes its calculations.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act prevents it from countenancing overfishing, and requires it to rebuild the stock within a time certain, which is currently the year 2032.  

State managers, on the other hand, are generally free to allow overfishing, have no obligation to rebuild the stock within a specified time and often make management decisions based on political and short-term economic considerations rather than on hard science.


“The Gulf of Mexico (Gulf) red snapper stock is overfished and currently under a rebuilding plan.  As the stock has recovered, both commercial and recreational quotas have been allowed to increase per the rebuilding plan.  The commercial sector has been managed under an individual fishing quota (IFQ) program since 2007 and landings have stayed below the commercial quota…The recreational sector, which has experienced quota overages and shorter seasons recently, is managed under a quota, bag and size limits, and closed seasons…Even though the recreational quota has increased in recent years, the season length has decreased, in part because the average size of the fish harvested has increased (i.e., it takes fewer fish to fill the quota).  Additionally, inconsistent state regulations have made harvest projections more difficult…
“For 2014, while the season in federal waters was nine days long, Texas waters were open a total of 365 days, Louisiana for 286 days, Florida for 52 days, and Mississippi and Alabama for 21 days.  Charter vessels and headboats with a federal reef fish permit may not allowed to fish in state waters for red snapper when federal waters are closed.”
Thus, while a private boat or state-waters charter in Texas could fish for red snapper every day of the year, a headboat or federally-permitted charter vessel moored at the same marina would only have a nine-day red snapper season.  Yet every fish caught by the private vessels would be, at least in theory, included in the harvest figures produced by federal managers when they set the headboats’ short season.

It’s easy to see how such an arrangement could offend some folks’ sense of fairness—I’ll admit that it offends my own—and led to the adoption of a separate Annual Catch limit for federally-permitted for hires.  Now, headboats and federally-permitted charters can fish for about a month and a half in the Gulf—still far less than private boats in Texas and Louisiana, and about in parity with private vessels elsewhere.

Yet the “haves”—the private boat anglers—somehow find this unfair.

The Coastal Conservation Association has gone so far as to file suit to halt sector separation, with Bill Bird, Chair of CCA’s Government Relations Committee, complaining in a press release that

“[Sector separation] embodies everything that is wrong with federal management of our marine resources.  It is completely out of step with the nation’s heritage of wildlife resource management…”   

The release goes on to whine (sorry to use that word, but I can’t lose the image of the selfish child who believes that his “bigger half” of the cookie is still far too small) that

“With passage of [the sector separation] amendment, the way is cleared for up to 70 percent of the entire Gulf red snapper fishery to be privately held, while recreational anglers who fish on their own boats will find their access to federal waters severely limited.”
Because that’s the way that the “haves” think.  

It was OK when the for-hire boats only had nine days each year to fish for red snapper, even though private boat catch made a substantial contribution to that shortened season.
But when the for-hire boats get to fish for forty or forty-five days out of the year, even though the private boat season isn’t shortened by one single day as a result, and the state red snapper seasons stay open for private boats only, it was suddenly just so patently unfair that the private boat folks start a lawsuit…

You can just picture that kid with the not-big-enough half of the cookie kicking his feet and breaking out into big, self-pitying tears…

Yet, instead of acknowledging their role in the overfishing that gave rise to the problem, the “have” private-boat anglers feel so self-entitled that they are seeking a reallocation of the resource from the commercial sector to theirs, and have put language in two federal bills, H.R. 1335 and S. 1403, that would require federal managers to re-examine allocations in the Gulf and South Atlantic.

Given the kind of irrationality that breaks out in allocation fights, it’s pretty likely that the last thing that professional fishery managers want to do is get bogged down in allocation debates; it wastes a lot of time that could be better spent rebuilding and conserving still troubled stocks.

However, as an angler, I have to admit that I believe that reallocation is often the right thing to do.  As the summer flounder situation illustrates, sometimes there are real changes in circumstances that militate against the old status quo.  

Allocations between sectors are often based on old landings data, from years before the 1996 amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act caused stocks to rebuild and again become accessible to everyday anglers.  When fish are hard to come by, professional fishermen, whether commercial or for-hire, are likely to rely on their more extensive knowledge and greater mobility to harvest the lion’s share.

There are certainly fisheries out there—perhaps scup, perhaps summer flounder, perhaps Pacific halibut, or some of the snappers and groupers—where reallocation between the sectors is justified, and would produce the greater overall benefit to the nation that the law requires we seek.

However, as anglers, we shouldn’t believe that we hold all the cards, and let hubris guide our decisions.  Mandatory reallocation requirements scare me.

There’s little doubt that, in a general reallocation effort, that we’d come out on top with some of the species.  A summer flounder allocation analysis prepared for the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that

“Even with uncertainty on [willingness to pay] estimates across all sectors, the allocation of summer flounder should move toward the recreational sector.  Using the upper bound recreational estimate plus the upper bound estimate of [willingness to pay] for just the for-hire business…of $9.73/pound at the current allocation suggest a move to 100% recreational allocation.  Adding the values for these two recreational sectors together results in a recreational [willingness to pay] estimate of $13.21/pound.  This conclusion would hold for every shape of a recreational [willingness to pay] function except a sharply downward sloping [willingness to pay] function.  That is, the sum of for-hire and private recreational [willingness to pay] would have to fall below $2.45 at a 100 percent allocation…”
Other studies, for fish such as striped bass, have come to similar conclusions.

But there are other species out there where we might not come out so well.

Consider the bluefish.

The current bluefish management plan allocates 83 percent of the harvest to the recreational sector, and 17 percent to commercial fishermen, although it allows some of the unused recreational quota to be transferred to the commercial sector each year.  However, over the past 20 years, anglers have only landed 70% of the overall harvest.  It’s not hard to imagine, given such figures, that if federal law required a mandatory review of bluefish allocation, anglers might not retain our current share.

Pelagic species provide even greater cause for concern. 

Although swordfish are the ultimate prize for offshore anglers, they are generally taken incidentally by anglers targeting tuna in the offshore canyons.  In fact, a query of NMFS’ database of angler effort in 2014 indicates that the only directed recreational swordfish trips were made in Florida; in other states, they occurred at such low levels that they weren’t even a statistical blip.  

Given that, using the same economic analysis used for summer flounder, how likely is it that something close to a 100% allocation to the commercial fishery would be recommended?

So, absent reasons at least as compelling as those that forced changes to the summer flounder and red snapper allocations, should anglers blindly support rules that require managers to revisit reallocation of every species?

While in some cases it would certainly be beneficial, in others, we might regret that we got what we asked for.  We could lose as much as we gain.


It's not something to be approached casually or blindly--if we decide to approach it at all.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

CATCH DOESN'T COUNT UNLESS IT'S COUNTED

The ocean—even that 197 mile-wide strip that defines the federal waters of the United States—is a pretty big place, and it’s impossible to watch it all.

That’s a problem for fisheries managers, who need to figure out just how many fish are out there and, at least as important, how many fish aren’t there anymore because they’ve either been captured and landed or caught and dumped back overboard dead as unsalable bycatch and regulatory discards.

One of the ways managers try to keep track of fishermen’s encounters with both fish and protected species such as turtles, seabirds and marine mammals is through the use of paid observers who record the numbers, and sometimes the size and weight, of the various critters that the gear drags aboard.

Of course, no one really likes having someone look over their shoulders, and fishermen are no exception.  That’s particularly true of fishermen who might want to keep a little bit more than the law would allow, or out-of-season species, or perhaps those using “dirty” gear that has a tendency to entrap and kill overfished species or to drown threatened sea turtles and whales.

And it grates on fishermen a little more when the money for the observers comes out of their own pockets.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that the New England Fishery Management Council recently asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to take emergency action to lift the observer requirements for commercial fishing boats in the northeast, after it became clear that federal money for the program was running out and that fishermen would have to start paying the tab, perhaps as soon as this August.

The New England fishermen are worried that the shortage of northeastern groundfish, and the resultant strict regulations, has already impacted their income so badly that the cost of carrying observers would be intolerable.

Of course, if there had been a robust observer program in place years ago, reporting on discard mortality and overharvest and such, perhaps there would be a few more fish off New England today…

Fisheries conservation advocates certainly disagree with the New England Council’s request. 


“A good monitoring system tracks the amount and types of fish taken from the water and also gathers information about the ‘bycatch,’ or nontarget animals killed by fishing.  These data are essential for proper fishery management, and a decline in monitoring in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic undermines efforts to make the region’s fishing more sustainable.
“…it is discouraging to see the rate of monitoring drop to the single digits.  Measurement is the heart of science, and you can’t manage a fishery if you can’t measure what’s happening there.”
Fishermen, on the other hand, are far less enamored of observers, at least when it comes to their own fisheries; however, they often support observers in fisheries other than their own, particularly in large, industrial fisheries that can do real harm to non-target species.  

In New England, big mid-water trawlers, which are capable of doing real harm to stocks of non-target species while trawling for herring, are seen as vessels in need of constant monitoring.


“As a young fisherman, I promise you that I’m not going to inherit any money from the midwater boats.  But I will inherit what they leave behind.”

“There are documented instances where they’ve interacted with bottom groundfish.  One man said bottom sensors wouldn’t be fit for his boat because he’d keep breaking them.  If you’re towing in midwater, it doesn’t make sense that you’d break a bottom sensor…” 
And not only fishermen are concerned.  Other businesses dependent upon abundant marine resources, such as whale watching tours, also see the need for monitoring.  One whale watch operator said

“For a long time, we heard from midwater and pair trawlers boats that they don’t want to catch groundfish, they don’t want to occasionally catch marine mammals, they don’t want to dump fish—but that it was the price of doing business.
“I think that kind of mentality has to end…To me, 100 percent [observer] coverage is the compromise…Without observers, they can fish close to the bottom, they can be more aggressive in pursuing fish, they can fish closer to whales and porpoises and dolphins.  They can dump fish.  So having observers, I think, will bring transparency to this process…I think if the industry really believes that they have a very clean fishery and can fish clean, then they should be in support of 100 percent coverage, because then that will clear up the questions…”
However, the midwater trawl fishery up in New England won’t be required to have anything close to 100 percent observer coverage.  As Peter Baker stated in his Fish Talk piece,

“monitoring of the midwater trawlers in the industrialized Atlantic herring fishing fleet is projected to drop from 30 percent of fishing trips in 2014 to about 3 percent in 2015.  Midwater trawlers fishing for Atlantic mackerel, a depleted species, will have no monitors at all this year, according to NOAA.”
That’s not good, and it opens the door to all sorts of mischief that can occur out on the vast and lonely sea. 

Commercial fishermen might object to the suggestion that they need monitors to keep them honest, but a Wall Street Journal article from 2013, entitled “Duel Erupts on the High Seas” suggests that is exactly the case, at least in the Cape Cod monkfish fleet.  

Subtitled “Crews Make Life Hard for Observers Eyeing Fish Quotas; It’s Almost Like Hazing,” the articles describes how at least some boats’ crews hid from observers when they came to the docks, hoping that they might slip off to sea without taking an observer aboard. 

Observers, said the article, were “unwelcome” and subject to harassment by the crew.  

A boat’s captain effectively justified such treatment, at least in his own mind, by saying that he viewed observers as people who were trying to put him out of business—a view hard to justify if he and his crew killed—or didn’t kill—the same fish when they were off on their own as they did when an observer was watching.

That’s not a purely American view; an English newspaper, the Guardian, reported that crews of European fishing vessels were “regularly” intimidated and offered bribes.  Reflecting the same attitudes described in the Wall Street Journal report, it went on to say that

“Observers monitoring European fish quotas are being regularly intimidated, offered bribes and undermined by the fishing crews that they are observing, a Guardian investigation has discovered.
“More than 20 current and former observers on Portuguese and Spanish ships said that they had experienced tactics such as being put under surveillance, deprived of sleep, or threatened with being thrown overboard, or having their official documentation stolen by fishing crews to conceal a culture of overfishing.”
Ironically, such an aversion to observers on both sides of the Atlantic is powerful testimony demonstrating that the observers are doing their job, and creating a strong bulwark against abusive fishing practices and the waste of living marine resources.

If fishermen didn’t think that observers were making a difference, they’d be a lot less hostile toward taking observers aboard.

Thus, while the expense of observers probably was the prime reason for the New England Council’s action, we would be na├»ve to think that other factors didn’t play a large role as well.

That being the case, it is essential that NMFS expand observer coverage in many fisheries, rather than cutting it back.

Because it is only observers, and not weighout slips nor dockside inspections, that can give managers a true picture of what fishermen catch—not just the fish that they declare on their vessel trip reports, but the fish and other creatures that never make it back to the pier, but instead are ignominiously dumped out at sea.

If managers are to do their job properly, they must have good estimates of everything killed in the fishery, whether or not the fishermen keep it.


And out on the lonely sea, only observers can be relied on to get that count right.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

MERE BIOMASS ISN'T ENOUGH

By any conventional measure, the Atlantic Herring stock is in good shape.  Not only is the stock neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing, but fishing mortality is well below the threshold and biomass is more than double the target.

If we looked at the stock from a pure biomass standpoint, it is exceedingly healthy, and even considering all of the factors that go into a single-species model, the herring are doing well.

But the problem, of course, is that we’re using a single-species model, and when you’re dealing with a forage fish such as herring, which is preyed upon by a host of other species, single-species models don’t tell the whole story.

That’s why a lot of people might have been surprised recently, when they read that bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Maine, which feed mostly on herring, are not eating enough to get into prime condition needed for the long migrations south to spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.

That seeming contradiction puzzled scientists, too, when they noticed it some time ago.  They set out to understand why, and in a recent paper, entitled “The paradox of the pelagics:  why bluefin tuna can go hungry in a sea of plenty,” provided their explanation.

It turns out that in order to obtain proper nutrition, bluefin tuna need to feed on older, larger herring; an abundance of small herring don’t provide enough nutrients to allow the fish to build up the fat reserves needed for their southern migration. 

That lack of fat reserves has real implications for the health of the bluefin population.  The paper’s authors note that

“A reduction in [fat] stores can have profound effects on fish life history…Faced with reduced energy, spawning age fish can reduce growth and reallocate more reserves to gonadal investment.  Such a strategy can maintain fecundity in times of reduced condition, but may also contribute to higher rates of post-spawning mortality.  Alternatively, fish may skip spawning in times of reduced condition or change reproductive output (fewer eggs, lower quality) for females.  Given the effect of total [fat] content on egg production, the influence of prey quality on predator life history parameters and the relationship between bluefin tuna weight and fecundity, a reduction in bluefin tuna condition on the foraging grounds could have affected reproductive output…”
That, in turn, may help to resolve one of the big debates in bluefin tuna management—why the harvest restrictions imposed to date have not allowed the stock to rebuild to 1970s levels and, whether environmental conditions are such that the western stock of bluefin is not as productive—that is, cannot produce as many young fish—as it was a half-century or so ago.

Although no firm conclusions can be drawn from the data currently available, the paper notes that

“…total allowable catches have been in line with scientific advice for over 2 decades.  If fishing mortality were the sole factor limiting population recovery, levels of fishing mortality set by management should have allowed this stock to rebuild much faster than currently observed, even for a species with long generation times like bluefin tuna.  A slow recovery may be related to fishing mortality set too high, despite the scientific advice, or could be the results of environmental factors affecting life history (growth, reproduction, migration) or synergistic effects between the two…”
But if the lack of large herring in the population is causing the bluefin tuna stock to be less productive, and thus preventing the stock from rebuilding to historical levels, there is no clear biological path to remedy the problem.

First, the reason why there aren’t enough large herring isn’t at all clear.

As the paper’s authors note,

“Studies…on George’s Bank suggest the shift to a smaller herring community (as indicated in the negative relationship between herring size and abundance) is a direct result of density dependent growth.”
In other words, when herring are abundant, they may grow more slowly and perhaps never grow as large as they would if there were fewer fish.

“Increased fishing pressure can reduce density dependence and potentially lead to more positive weight anomalies for these small pelagics.  However, intense fishing also reduces the abundance of older, larger fish, and management strategies that produce a high abundance of faster growing but smaller individuals would shift the size spectrum towards smaller fish.”
In that case, anything gained by reducing the abundance of herring so that fish might grow larger could be lost by a fishing regimen that harvests most individuals before they could attain such large size.

Second, while bluefin appear to benefit when large herring are available, even if herring abundance is down, other predators need an abundance of smaller individuals to thrive.  

Humpback whales, for example, feed by rising through schools of herring and engulfing many fish at one time.  They get greater benefit from abundance than from the size of the individual fish.

And that, in the end, is what makes managing forage fish so challenging, and so different from managing species at higher trophic levels.  Single-species management, which emphasizes sustainable harvest, does not and cannot adequately account for the needs of all of the various predators that also rely on the targeted resource.

As the authors of “The paradox of the pelagics” note,

“indicators of size structure and body condition should be considered when managing prey species to ensure higher predator fitness.  The challenge will be implementing such a strategy within the context of current assessments and management models and determining the relative importance of prey abundance and size for a range of predators with different foraging strategies and metabolic needs.”
That is true not only for Atlantic herring, but also for such species as menhaden, which serve as forage for a very wide array of predators.

And it illustrates why a very simplistic management approach, which merely looks at abundance and fishing mortality to determine whether there will be enough fish around to catch in the future, is not nearly good enough to manage forage species.


When we talk about managing forage fish, biomass is only one bit of data that’s needed to make decisions on harvest.  How that biomass is structured, and how it is used by a myriad of predators, must also be known before decisions are made.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY "SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD"?

Recently, a couple of local, fish-related news items caught my eye.


That sounded good, but the first question I had was just what “Sustainable Seafood Week,” and more generally, “sustainable seafood” actually means.


“Every [sustainable seafood] week invites locals to discover traceable, renewable and trustworthy seafood.  The opening gala is an opportunity to meet culinary celebrities and dine on delicious, responsibly sourced fish.  Future of Fish [an affiliate group of the Sustainable Seafood Week folks] will lead exclusive gatherings called Industry Lab that convene leading scientists, advocates, food service pros, entrepreneurs, distributors and chefs to explore central issues in the seafood industry.”
Again, it sounds good, but it’s a little thin on details.
Couple it with the other recent item, and it provides some real food for thought.


“create a state-appointed commercial fishing industry advocate position to lobby on behalf of the state’s commercial fishermen and promote economic expansion of the industry…
“Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, a vocal advocate for the commercial fishing industry, said that the move by the state is a long overdue step that could help the industry seek out markets for its underutilized fish stocks.”
The problem is that we need to talk about “sustainable fisheries” because far too many fish stocks were recently either overfished, subject to overfishing, or both.  So the notion of chefs and markets promoting “sustainable seafood” caught from healthy stocks can only be a good idea.

But is it realistic?

When you look at some of the news coming out of Sustainable Seafood Week, you realize that a lot of the emphasis is being put on what Ms. Brady called “underutilized fish stocks,” and if history teaches us anything, it’s that underutilized stocks don’t stay “underutilized” for very long.

Here in New York, the best example may be the oyster toadfish, a muddy-colored denizen of estuaries and bay bottoms that resembles nothing so much as a big, slimy tadpole equipped with a bulldog’s jaws.  

For as long as anyone can remember, they went their way unmolested, crushing shellfish and small crabs—and occasionally anglers’ fingers—between their strong, stubby teeth.  Both ugly and slimy, they were no one’s idea of a food fish, and were always abundant even when stocks of prettier fish declined.  No one—neither angler nor the most desperate commercial fishermen—paid much attention to toadfish.  They were a truly an “underutilized” stock.

Then, from out of nowhere, a demand for toadfish emerged.  

They were being sold, live, in urban ethnic markets that would buy as many toadfish as fishermen could supply. 

It was a boom time for baymen across Long Island, who were suddenly gifted with the perfect fishery, which featured high prices, plenty of fish and no regulations at all.  

All went well for a couple of years, until a crashing toadfish population, notably devoid of the largest and most valuable individuals, forced the Department of Environmental Conservation to clamp down on landings before the last toadfish was gone.

The toadfish fishery went from boom to bust in no more than five years.

Now, some of the chefs and “underutilized species” folks are looking at another of the bay’s ugly ducklings, the sea robin.  But with no information available on its abundance, reproduction or optimum yield, it’s not at all unlikely that an exploited sea robin stock would go the way of the toadfish.

So when we hear about “sustainable seafood” and “underutilized stocks,” it’s time for a reality check.  We must develop good data before exploitation begins.

Still, some stocks really are underutilized, meaning that harvest falls well below what we think is optimum yield.  

On Long Island, the best example of that would be scup, a/k/a “porgies,” which marketers are now beginning to call “Montauk sea bream” in order to give it some upscale cachet. Not long ago, the scup population soared to twice the target level, and though it has started coming back to Earth since then, the population is still big enough that neither the recreational nor commercial sectors have landed their entire quota in years.

But we shouldn’t forget that scup were overfished not too long ago, and realize that if “Montauk sea bream” ever does really catch on, they could become overfished once again.

Some of the other species being promoted as “sustainable” present other problems.  

Many, such as butterfish, Atlantic herring and squid, are forage fish—small fish that larger fish, as well as birds and marine mammals, must feed on in order to survive.  When we begin “fishing down the food chain,” and targeting the more abundant forage species rather than the bigger predators, we are giving the big fish a break in one way—we’re not killing them directly—but we are helping to impoverish marine ecosystems and making it harder for an abundance of big fish to survive.

Consider Atlantic herring.  

They aren’t a popular food fish in the United States, but fishing vessels still landed an average of about 86,000 metric tons each year between 2009 and 2013 for export and for use as bait in domestic fisheries.  The stock is neither overfished nor subject to overfishing.  Even so, fishing pressure is heavy enough to remove many of the older and larger herring from the population; as a result, biologists are finding that the stock is not providing bluefin tuna with sufficient nutrition, as there are too few larger and older herring in the population to allow the bluefin to attain optimum physical condition.

Thus, even though the herring harvest could be increased substantially and still be “sustainable”—that is, the stock would not be overfished—the consequences of such supposedly sustainable harvest on predators throughout the food web would not be good.

Underlying it all is a reality that the “sustainable seafood” folks rarely mention; no matter how “traceable, renewable and trustworthy” the product might be, there just isn’t enough fish in local seas to provide food for the entire nation on a regular basis.  And there aren’t enough “underutilized” fish stocks out there to change that too much.

The United States’ population is about 320 million people, and it’s not likely to start getting smaller any time soon.  At the same time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation imports up to 90 percent of its seafood, and about half of that is farmed.  No one can credibly argue that such imports can be replaced, in any significant way, with wild-caught fish from America’s oceans, or that such wild-caught fish will become a frequent part of Americans’ diets.

In fact, NOAA notes that

“World capture fisheries production reached a plateau in the mid 1980s, and even with improved fisheries management, it is not likely to significantly increase.”
Thus, efforts such as New York’s, to “promote economic expansion” of the state’s commercial fisheries, are not likely to succeed, as they will be inevitably limited by the amount of fresh product available.  Instead, in New York and elsewhere, most wild-caught fish will, as time goes on, transform into the sort of quasi-luxury food that is enjoyed in restaurants or, on special occasions, at home, while everyday seafood meals for most people will feature farmed fish, such as tilapia, salmon or catfish, or aquacultured shrimp, mussels and oysters.

That is not a bad thing; it is merely an inevitable progression, following, by a century or so, the same progression that occurred on land, as wild game and waterfowl were replaced on most tables by farm-raised beef, chicken and pork. 


We can still have wild-caught “sustainable seafood.”  But we can’t have it every day.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

MAINTAINING OUR STANDARDS

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in federal waters, is an extremely long and complex statute.  However, no part of the law is more important than the ten so-called “National Standards” which set forth the principles that shall govern its implementation.

Those national standards are brief, and go into no detail as to how they shall be maintained.  For that, fishery managers must rely on court decisions, such as the landmark Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, or on regulatory guidelines adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service which are intended to assist regional fishery management councils when drafting management plans.

Although such regulatory guidelines do not have the force of law, they do have substantial influence in how management plans may be written.  Thus, any changes made to such guidelines attract, and deserve, substantial attention from fishermen and conservation proponents.

Right now, NMFS is in the final week of amending the guidelines for National Standards One, Three and Seven. 
Of the three, National Standard One is by far the most important.  It states that

“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.”
The current advisory guidelines for National Standard One have helped the regional fishery management councils produce management plans that have resulted in the lowest levels of overfishing, and overfished stocks, ever recorded.  They may not be perfect—things seldom are—but to date, they’ve worked pretty well.  However, there is real concern that some of the proposed changes to those guidelines could reduce the effectiveness of management programs.

The proposed changes are extensive, and readers are urged to go to the NMFS website and read all of them—or, at the least, NMFS’ summary of all of the proposed changes--for themselves.  However, everyone should be aware of the changes most likely to harm fisheries conservation efforts.  

On the whole, there is nothing novel about them; instead, they are the same issues that have emerged elsewhere in the fisheries debate, particularly with respect to Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization.

Thus, no one should be surprised to see that the proposed guidelines include measures that would prolong overfishing.  

Currently, overfishing is based on single-year estimates, and action must be taken if overfishing occurs during the course of any one season.  The proposed guidelines would allow councils to define overfishing with reference to a three-year period instead. 

Justifications of the three-year period seem logical at first.  

NMFS notes that requiring action after just one year of overfishing, no matter how minimal such overfishing might have been, could easily lead to unneeded regulatory changes that have no real impact on the long-term health of the stock.  It also notes that the last year of any stock assessment is always the least reliable, and that harvest data gets better over time; thus, basing regulatory changes on just the most recent year’s data could lead to unneeded and potentially disruptive change.

Both those things are true, but yet…

Adopting a three-year timeframe for determining overfishing would permit councils to delay action no matter how severe such overfishing had been.  While NMFS highlights the case where no regulatory changes are needed, it fails to recognize the opposite situation, where a fishery management council would be allowed to forego action even if a stock on the verge of collapse was severely overharvested.

To put the issue in real-world terms, does anyone believe that the New England Fishery Management Council would have cut Gulf of Maine cod landings this year, if it had a legal excuse not to do so?

Even in the case of stocks in better health, there is often little reason to believe that overfishing would end on its own.  

Despite regulations that grew more restrictive each year, anglers still managed to overfish Gulf of Mexico red snapper for seven out of the ten years between 2004 and 2013 (at which point a lawsuit forced a change in the way the recreational fishery is managed), sometimes landing more than 150% of the recreational annual catch limit; we can only guess how much worse such overfishing would have been if regulations were only tightened once every three years.

Here in the northeast, we have a similar situation.  Black sea bass abundance seems to have increased sharply, and as a result, recreational overharvest has been pretty severe since 2012, and regulations have tightened each year in response.  Had such overfishing been allowed to continue, unabated, over the course of three years, it would have been far worse than it was.

On balance, the risk of allowing overfishing to continue for years is far greater than the inconvenience caused by changing, and arguably unneeded, regulation.

In its comments accompanying the proposed rulemaking, NMFS notes that

“NMFS first adopted an annual approach to overfishing in its 1998 revisions to the [National Standards] guidelines…Prior to these revisions, NMFS had deliberately chosen not to ‘mandate a particular form for all specific overfishing definitions,’ leaving it to the discretion of the Councils to decide how to determine if overfishing was occurring…”
It’s impossible not to note that the 1998 revisions to the guidelines were a direct result of the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which was the law that first gave real teeth to Magnuson-Stevens and is responsible for the marked turnaround in the health of America’s fisheries.  Prior to then, things didn’t work very well, so it can easily be argued that permitting overfishing to continue for three years is a return to the discredited—and markedly unsuccessful—approaches used in the past.

Proposed changes to the guidelines for allowable biological catch also raise real red flags. 

Ever since NRDC v. Daley, it has never been questioned that the measures adopted to manage a fishery must have at least a 50% chance of success.  That is reflected in the current guidelines.  Now,

“NMFS is proposing revisions to current guidance on [Allowable Biological Catch] control rules to state that the Council’s risk policy could be based on an acceptable probability (at least 50 percent) that catch equal to the stock’s ABC will not result in overfishing, but other appropriate measures could be used.”
Since

“When determining the risk policy, Councils could consider the economic, social, and ecological trade-offs between being more or less risk-averse,”
it’s not hard to imagine what such “other appropriate measures” could look like.

And things wouldn’t stop there.  Whatever regulations were adopted, the new proposed guidelines would not require them to be adopted immediately and in full, but would rather allow them to be phased in over three years, in order to avoid short-term hardships in the fishery.

Add that three years to the proposed three-year periods to determine overfishing, and it’s not hard to see problems being perpetuated for quite a long time…

There are plenty of other things wrong with the proposed guidelines, including increased “flexibility” (yes, that word again) in rebuilding stocks, excluding certain regularly-harvested fish from management plans, halting the rebuilding of stocks partway through the process, trying to distinguish “depleted” from “overfished” stocks and a number of others.

The bottom line is that, taken as a whole, the new guidelines are in many ways a reflection of the same attitudes that gave birth to H.R. 1335, the House of Representatives meritless effort to reauthorize Magnuson-Stevens.  Short-term economic impacts are elevated above the health of fish stocks.

Thus, anglers and others concerned with maintaining the current, demonstrably successful approach to managing America’s salt water fisheries are urged to go to http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=NOAA-NMFS-2012-0059-0085 and speak out against unneeded and potentially harmful changes to the National Standard One guidelines.

The comment period closes on June 30, so there is little time for delay.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS


On the surface, it doesn’t make sense.  

B.A.S.S. tournaments are all about catching freshwater bass, and even then, white bass and stripers need not apply.  B.A.S.S. fishermen are, well, bass fishermen; many don’t wander too far from freshwater lakes and don’t fish for the fish that swim in the sea.

So just why would an organization focused on tournament fishing for freshwater critters create Bass Anglers for Saltwater Conservation?

When you read between the lines, the cause becomes clear, and conservation has little to do with it.

Go to the web page, and you find B.A.S.S. members being urged

Tweet Congress to support our right to fish!
“Join with Dean Rojas and countless other pro anglers in the fight to defend our right to fish.  By sending this prewritten tweet to your Congressmen, you’re sending a message to Washington D.C. that anglers will not be ignored.  Join the fight today!”
A similar message goes on to tell all the B.A.S.S. members that Mike Iaconelli, another tournament pro, wants them to contact their Senators.

I’m not a B.A.S.S., member, and can’t access the preprinted message, but it’s not hard to guess what it says, particularly after reading the article in Trade Only Today, which is dominated by the Center for Coastal Conservation’s President, Jeff Angers, gushing over the new B.A.S.S. effort, saying things such as

“There are 13 million saltwater anglers, 31 million freshwater anglers.  We are much stronger together.
“Whether you fish in salt water or fresh water, I encourage you to visit BassforSalt.com today and speak out about the sport we love.”
And then Angers gets to the kicker.

“With Congress considering the Magnuson-Stevens Act—the primary legislation affecting recreational fishing in federal waters—and with Washington imposing unrealistic restrictions on fishing from the Carolinas to Biscayne Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s time that we as anglers make our voices heard.”
I have to admit, it’s a masterful ploy.  By invoking bass fishing celebrities such as Dean Rojas and Mike Iaconelli, Angers—and the folks at B.A.S.S.—have a very good chance of getting a bunch of star-struck anglers to take a stance on marine resources issues that they know nothing about, just as a Lady Gaga or similar celeb can work up junior high co-eds over some social cause.

On the other hand, it’s pretty strange, because B.A.S.S. traditionally paid no attention to other species at all.  Ray Scott was the entrepreneur and visionary who gave birth to the organization, and his biography, published on the website of Ray Scott Outdoors, notes that

“’[B.A.S.S. is] an exclusive club, dedicated to the black bass only.  ‘If you mess with musky or piddle with perch, you don’t belong in B.A.S.S.’ was Scott’s message.”
So we can’t help but wonder was B.A.S.S. is suddenly getting interested in salt water fish politics.

In addition, Scott himself quickly came to understand the value of conservation.  Although the very first B.A.S.S. tournaments weighted in dead fish, that quickly changed for the better.  As his biography explains,

“Attending a Federation of Fly Fisherman’s conclave in Colorado, Scott watched a fly-rodder catch a small 12-inch trout.  Then later he experienced an awakening as he watched the catch-and-release ceremony the angler and his fishing companions observed in releasing the trout.
“It was then that Scott’s idea for ‘Don’t Kill Your Catch’ bass fishing tournaments was born.  Among Ray Scott’s many contributions his concept of catch-and-release may well be the most lasting legacy.  Today more than 98 percent of bass weighed-in during national B.A.S.S. tournaments return alive to the waters and the release percentage is equally high among other fishing groups, bass clubs and individual anglers.”
Given those facts, which are unquestionably true, it’s difficult to comprehend why B.A.S.S. would take a national stand to weaken federal fisheries laws so that irresponsibly high numbers of fish of all sorts might be killed in the sea.

I know bass guides who regularly participate in bass tournaments, and my wife and I once had the privilege of fishing, in upstate New York, with a young guide who had national B.A.S.S. pro ambitions. Spending time with such folks, it doesn’t take long to get a real feel for their connection to the resource.  They would have scant tolerance for anyone who suggested that laws should be eased so that people could kill more freshwater bass than the science suggested, and put the health of even one lake’s bass stock at risk.

For the catch-and-release culture is well-ingrained, not only among B.A.S.S. folks, but among freshwater anglers as a whole, who gladly fish under the sort of rational, science-based rules that the Center for Coastal Conservation has always deplored.

So why is an organization with a heritage of conservation in their home waters trying to oppose conservation at sea?

We can’t know for certain, because that’s something that will never be told on its website.

Perhaps they just don’t understand what they’re promoting.  They might have been sold a bill of goods by the Center folks, who painted their greed in red, white and blue and framed it with photos of families and kids who were allegedly denied access to the sea’s bounty.

Or perhaps—and this is my guess—we can look to the sponsors, the boatbuilders and tackle folks who support the  B.A.S.S. tournaments and TV shows, who also belong to the trade groups that make up the Center.  It’s not hard to imagine them using their access to B.A.S.S. personnel and convincing them to help weaken the federal law for the industry’s gain.

Whatever the reason, it is very unfortunate, for up until now, B.A..S.S. and its founder have created a legacy of doing good things, creating an economic powerhouse based on conservation and catch-and-release, not on coolers and stringers filled with dead fish.

Bass Anglers for Saltwater Conservation isn’t about bass, isn’t about B.A.S.S., and most certainly isn’t about conservation.  It is merely a cynical effort that takes advantage of B.A.S.S.’ good name and the good will of B.A.S.S. members, and enlists them in a cause that is, at its heart, contrary to the organization’s past efforts and, if those efforts can be any guide, its core standards as well.


We can only hope that both B.A.S.S. and its members take another look at the program, and realize just how wrong it is.