Thursday, April 17, 2014

"IT'S NOT ILLEGAL UNTIL YOU GET CAUGHT"

Last Christmas my niece gave me a copy of Jeff Nichols’ book, Caught:  One Man's Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty Pound Striped Bass and His Experiences with the Black Market Fishing Industry.  For those unfamiliar with the volume, it’s the story of how a recreational striped bass fisherman allowed his desire to fish for stripers morph into a poaching lifestyle out in Montauk, in which he would illegally sell his catch to restaurants both on Long Island and in Manhattan, and use the proceeds to finance additional angling activities.

When the book came out, it caused a bit of a stir, because it gave readers—most of whom were probably pretty dedicated striped bass fishermen themselves—a look at something that they’d rather not see, the huge black market for striped bass that exists on Long Island and elsewhere along the coast.  A lot of folks who I know—including some who have tangled with the poachers personally—found the book a revelation.  Maybe I’ve just lived around the water too long, and have become jaded, because after I read the book, I just thought “I’ve known a lot of guys like that.”

Sadly, that’s true.

During our time as anglers, we get to know some folks who seem truly gifted.  They catch a lot of fish, they catch a lot of big fish and they seem to be on the water night after night throughout the season.   

They become celebrities along their section of coast.  They give seminars at the local tackle shops, and are sought-after speakers at clubs and regional shows.  Folks look up to them in a sort of awe because of their success with the stripers.

In their admiration, everyone tends to ignore the fact that, as a group, they also sell a lot of bass.  Some have commercial licenses.  A lot of them, particularly in limited-entry states such as New York, don’t bother with such formalities.  But they sell fish all the same.

Because when you’re out on the water night after night, burning gas, churning through whatever eels or lures or whatever else you use to tempt the stripers to bite, you run up some pretty big bills.  Most of the folks doing that weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths; most aren’t investment bankers or doctors.  They usually don’t have high-paying jobs—if they did, they wouldn’t have time to fish every night. 

So they do what comes naturally—they sell striped bass in order to be able to catch more striped bass.

It’s easy to tell who they are.  They’re the ones bringing back their limits—the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, the 50-plus fish—day after day.  I mean, you can only eat so much bass, and you only have so many friends to take it, so when you come back with limits—or more—of big fish on a regular basis, you have to get rid of it somewhere.  And there is always someone willing to buy at below-market price.

I grew up in Connecticut, a “gamefish” state since the 1950s.  It was the sort of place where “commercial fisherman” was used as an insult, but where the best striped bass fishermen around—just about all of them—had restaurants and country clubs and similar places where they sold their bass.  Call them “commercial fishermen” and they’d get annoyed, although given the fact that they were really just poachers, the commercial guys were the ones who should have taken offence.

It’s no different today.  When the striped bass start to follow the menhaden schools along the South Shore of Long Island, you’ll see some of the same boats out there day after day, and when you see them come back to the dock, they’ll have plenty of fish on board.  And the next day, they’ll go out again…

The same thing happens when the bass bunch up on sand eels in the fall.  Boats congregate over the bass, and then the fishermen congregate at the back doors of diners and sushi houses, joining the black market throng.

Officers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation do what they can, but there are just too many poachers and too many places to unload their illegal fish.  For every poacher that the authorities catch, far more slip cleanly away.  We can only guess how many have gotten away with far too much for far too many years.

The numbers are certainly higher than we ever want to believe.  And it is no one’s fault but our own.

We’re quick to blame the commercial fleet, for real and imagined offences.  We like to complain about gillnets and trawlers, and blame them when fish stocks decline.

And sometimes we’re right to do so.

But we’re strangely silent when we know that the guy with the boat in the slip next to ours is out poaching stripers.  Or tuna.  Or anything else.

And we look the other way when he carts his fish to the restaurant’s door.

As the Bible (Matthew 7:3) notes, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

That’s a pretty good question.  Before we worry about what the commercials are doing, let’s clean up our own house.

Edmund Burke may have said it best two and a half centuries ago:  “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

So let’s stop doing nothing.  As the new season dawns, let’s stop turning a blind eye to what goes on all around us.  Let’s start giving the enforcement folks the help that they need to keep poachers—those who steal fish for money and those who just steal fish for fun—under some sort of control.

For here on Long Island, those poachers have a saying, “It’s not illegal until you get caught.”


It’s time for them to learn what “illegal” really means.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"MAXIMUM ECONOMIC YIELD"

Last Thursday, I spent some time discussing one aspect of the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit.  I’m not going to spend too much time dwelling on the event, but it probably is worth investigating one concept that popped up a couple of times, the concept of managing fish for “maximum economic yield.”

It’s an interesting phrase for a number of reasons.  Not the least of which is that no one really knows what it means.

It’s like the blind men describing an elephant, based only on the parts they could touch.  Everyone’s description is colored by their own particular perspective.

The speakers who used it were tied to the sportfishing industry, and what I think they were trying to say was that managing fish for the benefit of recreational fishermen rather than the commercial industry would provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation.

For a lot of species, that’s unquestionably true.  The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences did an economic study of the striped bass fishery a few years ago (http://web.vims.edu/GreyLit/VIMS/mrr00-05.pdf?svr=www).  VIMS had originally intended to use economic analysis to find the optimum recreational/commercial allocation of the resource, but quickly determined that

“It was the intent of the study to…determine an optimum mix of the allocation (i.e. a certain non-zero percent allocation to each user group).  Early analysis of the economic impacts and societal benefits, however, revealed the optimum allocation should be 100 percent to the recreational sector.  That is, maximum social benefits and potential sales, income, and employment were associated with a 100% allocation of the 1998 total allowable catch to the recreational sector.  As a consequence, there was no need to further examine an optimal allocation.”
A study commissioned by Stripers Forever, conducted by Southwick Associates (http://www.southwickassociates.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Striped_Bass.pdf), has pretty much come to the same conclusion, but is vulnerable to challenge simply because it was sponsored by an agenda-driven organization.  Still, that doesn’t mean that the report’s conclusions were wrong.

A lot of other species would also demonstrate the benefits of giving recreational fishermen a bigger slice of the pie.  


But note that the same study that found that grouper had their greatest economic value if fished recreationally shows that, in the case of one species—red grouper—the commercial fishery had the greater economic impact.  Economic value and economic impact are calculated differently; economic value, rather than economic impact, is generally thought to be the better measure.   Still, anglers probably have reason to question whether they they would come out on top even if economic value analyses were done for some species, such as cod, haddock or swordfish—or even bluefin tuna

So this sort of “maximum economic value” is likely a two-edged sword.

Then there’s the old-fashioned New England kind of “maximum economic value,” the way that phrase was perceived back before the Sustainable Fisheries Act was passed.  That was when “optimum” yield was defined as “the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as modified by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor” and MSY was always “modified” upward, resulting in severe overfishing, maximized short-term income and the long-term collapse of the stocks.  It’s the way the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has managed northern shrimp and the southern stock of winter flounder, ignoring scientific advice in order to squeeze the last drop of economic blood from a sere and crumbling stone. 

So, no, this sort of “maximum economic yield” doesn’t seem like a very good idea, either.

Yet recreational fishing supports a lot of business, and it’s good if businesses thrive.

So what provides “maximum economic yield in the real world?

Let’s start with the stipulation that in order to “maximize” economic yield, the benefit must continue over an extended time.  Large, but unsustainable, short-term gains don’t qualify.  If you have any doubts, consider the crumbling ghost towns of the American west, towns that boomed until the mines played out, and then just disappeared.  Or, to push the envelope a bit, just consider Detroit…

If we go back thirty years, to 1983, National Marine Fisheries Service data show that three species—summer flounder, winter flounder and bluefish—accounted for 77% of recreational fishing trips here in New York (I’m using New York as an example, just because I’m familiar with its fisheries; I suspect that any other state would have a similar story to tell).  Striped bass, which were suffering through the depths of a stock collapse, accounted for just 1%.

Twenty years ago, in 1993, the dynamic was beginning to change.  The same three species dominated New York anglers’ agenda, but accounted for just 67% of all trips made—down 10% from a decade before.  Almost all of the difference could be attributed to the recovering striped bass stocks, which began to attract more angler attention, and the decline in winter flounder abundance.

By 2003, the trends that had just begun to manifest themselves ten years earlier had changed the face of the fishery.  Just two species—summer flounder and the newly abundant striped bass—accounted for 57% of all fishing trips made in New York.  Bluefish was still among the three most popular species, accounting for about 11% of the trips; the top three species still accounted for a little over two-thirds of all trips made.  But winter flounder were fading fast; as the stock collapsed, so did angler interest.  Winter flounder only accounted for about 6.7% of all New York trips, down from about 26.6% of all trips made two decades earlier.

Last year saw the same trends continue.  54% of all New York trips targeted summer flounder or striped bass, with bluefish holding on to third place.  The winter flounder stock, now fully collapsed, accounted for less than one percent of all trips made, and just 0.02% of all fish caught.

So what does this all tell us about maximizing the “economic yield” of fisheries?

Mostly what I suggested last Sunday, in the post “If You Want a Fishing Industry, It Helps to Have Fish”.  Healthy and fully rebuilt fish stocks will yield the greatest economic return.

Nothing illustrates that better than the contrasting stories of striped bass and winter flounder. 

Thirty years ago, the striped bass population had collapsed, and none but the most dedicated striped bass anglers bothered to fish for them.  As the stock recovered, it drew more and more attention.  Last year, targeted striped bass trips comprised 25% of all New York trips—and each one of those trips generated some sort of economic yield.

On the other hand, thirty years ago winter flounder were abundant, and accounted for 26.6% of all New York angling trips in New York.  As the population began to decline, winter flounder also declined as a viable recreational target.  By 1993, despite the recreational fishing industry’s efforts to keep bag limits unreasonably high in order to create the “perception” that anglers could still take home a load of fish, fewer fishermen were targeting winter flounder; they accounted for just 17.3% of all trips.  Ten years later, the stock collapse was well underway and anglers “perceived” that the fish were disappearing; flounder were targeted in just 6.7% of trips.  Finally, last year, anglers “perceived” that the fish are gone; winter flounder trips constituted less than 1% of the total, and you had to go out two decimal places, to 0.02%, before flounder’s contribution to the overall catch rose above zero.

So it looks as if the road to “maximum economic yield” flows past maximum sustainable yield and into  the realm of maximizing abundance.  Anglers just won’t fish for fish that aren’t there.  The tackle shops and the party boats can fight regulation all that they want, and try to con anglers with efforts to create a “perception,” but the fishing public just isn’t that dumb. Sure, they’ll go out a few times chasing flounder, and leave a few bucks in the shops.  But after they spend a few hours on the water, with nothing in the pail and 11 ½ bloodworms still crawling around in the box, they’ll understand the difference between “perception” and reality, and disappear, taking their economic benefits along with them. 

Which, it appears, is just what they’ve done.

In 1983, New York anglers made about 5.1 million trips, with about 1.4 million of them targeting flounder.

In 2013, they made about 3.7 million trips, with just 0.02 million of them targeting flounder.

It’s hard to miss the fact that if you add the 1.4 million winter flounder trips from 1983—which anglers didn’t take last year—to the 3.7 million trips that they did take in 2003, you end up with 5.1 million, which suggests just how much economic value was lost when we lost winter flounder.

Of course, such an analysis would be far too simple.  It wouldn’t account for the impacts of Superstorm Sandy, which kept a lot of boats out of the water in 2013.  It wouldn’t account for effort shift from winter flounder to more abundant species.  It wouldn’t account for a drop in the number of fishermen over the last thirty years.

But still, flounder fishing is best, and most actively prosecuted, at times when there aren’t many other things around to fish for.  So it's obvious that the loss of winter flounder was a serious economic loss to New York.  Whether losing winter flounder cost New York the economic benefits from 1.4 million trips, 700,000 trips or maybe just 100,000 trips isn't really the point.  It was still a serious economic loss for angler-dependent businesses.

So if we want to manage for “maximum economic yield”, we should manage for healthy, fully-recovered fish stocks.

Once again, “flexibility” won’t get us there.  Overfishing and underregulation map the way a very bad place.  

We need to accept the fact that prosperity follows abundance.  If we manage our fish stocks for long-term abundance, everyone wins.  Stocks will be healthy, fishermen will be happy and they'll spend plenty of cash in support of angling-dependent business.

Striped bass are a prime example.

But if we manage for short-term economic yield, fish stocks will decline in the long term, anglers will desert the fishery, and there will be no cash in the till.

You disagree?  

Then I have two words for you:

Winter flounder.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

AN INESCAPABLE TRUTH

A little over a week ago, I attended the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit.

It was an interesting experience.

As always, there was a heavy industry presence, represented by both the manufacturers themselves and big trade organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association, National Marine Manufacturers’ Association and the Center for Coastal Conservation, and by individual retailers and members of the for-hire industry.  Their presence overlapped with that of various anglers’ rights groups, including the Coastal Conservation Association and Jersey Coast Anglers Association.  There was some press, a big government presence—largely federal fishery managers of various sorts—and, probably the smallest component, a few folks like myself who are just plain anglers, unaffiliated with anyone.

The meeting was intended to bring anglers together with federal fisheries managers, so that NMFS can get some kind of feel for the issues that concern us.  Such meetings have some serious implications for federal policy, and always have some kind of theme running through them.  At the last such “summit,” held four years ago, that theme was the lack of effective communication between NMFS and the recreational fishing community. 

This year, many things were discussed, but whatever the topic, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” (http://www.trcp.org/assets/pdf/Visioning-Report-fnl-web.pdf) always ran in the background.  The folks who orchestrated the report were very active throughout the meeting, making sure that folks who could capably articulate their positions were present and actively shaping each relevant discussion.

They argued for a “national recreational fishing policy,” which probably couldn’t hurt (and NMFS has agreed to implement), and periodic reviews of how fish are allocated between the commercial and recreational sectors, which sounds like a good idea in theory, but could be a two-edged sword when put into practice.  

They talked about managing stocks with fishing mortality rates instead of hard quotas, which makes sense if you have a restored stock and plenty of data, and of implementing more “flexible” (meaning stretched-out and delayed) rebuilding deadlines, which only makes sense if you’re planning to move to Kansas in ten or so years and don’t plan to fish in the (by then largely empty) ocean again.

Different speakers spoke about different things.  But what I found particularly striking was that, whatever the topic, a single point was made again and again, in various forms and in various ways:  Conservation is critically important to both recreational fishermen and the industries that they support.

Folks didn’t often phrase it that way, and some tried to say things that weren’t quite compatible with that idea, but no one even tried to deny that undeniable truth.

It was usually expressed in terms of “managing for abundance,” rather than for maximum sustainable yield.  That is something that managers should certainly do.  But, as I mentioned in last Sunday’s post, the only way to have “abundance,” which translates to having more and bigger fish available to anglers, is to go beyond the current “sustainability” mandates of the Magnuson Act.  

To achieve true abundance, managers have to keep fishing mortality,  and thus keep more fish in the water to grow, breed and hopefully be caught.  The current effort to enact “Magnuson reform”—a euphemism for extending rebuilding deadlines and perpetuating overfishing—isn’t going to get us there.  In fact, it will do the opposite, creating relatively small stocks made up of almost entirely of small fish—and it will force some of those stocks into precipitous decline.

I’ve written at length criticizing the TRCP “Vision”, and its emphasis on maximizing economic gain, particularly in the short term, at the expense of the resource and the greater public interest.  Yet, when one of the chairmen of the commission which authored that “Vision” spoke from the floor early on the first day, his comments shaded into very different territory.  I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with much that he said; he was certainly right on target when he noted that when the data is poor and uncertain, managers have to proceed with greater caution than they would if managing data-rich stocks.

That runs contrary to a lot of the rhetoric emanating from the various anglers’ rights outlets that gave shape to the “Vision,” which rail against “unnecessary” restrictions based on “bad” or “outdated” science, etc.  Such folks often suggest that anglers should be able to (over)fish unless and until clear and convincing evidence demonstrates that harvest cuts are required.

Why the disconnect?

It’s not hard to explain.  If you let a stock of fish get really low—I’m talking about a New England winter flounder/South Atlantic red snapper kind of low—conservation measures can be pretty painful in the short term.  The kind of regulations that lead to fewer people fishing until they’re relaxed (that might not be true if we’re dealing with “gamefish” such as striped bass—even during the moratorium years back in the ‘80s, a lot of us fished in a strictly catch-and-release fishery—but when you’re dealing with a “meat” fish such as snapper or flounder, people want to bring home some fillets). Those fishermen who quit won’t be happy.

And when fewer fishermen fish, fishing-related businesses are stressed, and a some will go out of business.  (But then, if there aren’t any fish, folks go out of business, too…)

So the folks who are offended, for whatever reason, by the new rules have a knee-jerk reaction to call for “flexibility” or other measures that will keep harvest high until the fish disappear.

At the same time, most people in the angling industry are anglers themselves.  So even while some of them call for “flexibility,” they know from bitter experience how overfishing fishing has damaged our stocks.  They have seen the many collapses and the fewer recoveries; they have seen the benefits gained from strict conservation measures and have enjoyed those benefits first-hand.

They have seen how good management has benefited their businesses in the long run.

Someone far wiser than you or I once noted that “No man can serve two masters,” yet that’s just what some try to do. 
And, in the end, they fail, betrayed by what they know deep inside to be true:

We don’t need “flexibility,” delayed recoveries or overfished stocks.

Without strong laws that conserve and rebuild our fisheries, eventually they will die, and our sport and the businesses that we support will die with them.

That is an inescapable truth. 

And it should be embraced.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"SUSTAINABILITY IS THE MINIMUM"

When the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 was signed into law, it was big news.

Over all, our salt water fisheries were in pretty bad shape.  New England groundfish, in particular, had been hit very hard; the great shoals of cod and haddock that had fed the western world for nearly half a millenium had slid past the brink of collapse.

Fisheries law had supported what, in the jargon folks are use today, might be called “maximum economic yield”; “optimum yield”, required by statute, was maximum sustainable yield “modified” by, among other things, economic factors.  And those economic factors always resulted in MSY being “modified” upwards.

Overfishing was sanctioned by law.  Widespread stock collapses were only a matter of time.

So the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which mandated that overfishing immediately cease and that stocks be promptly rebuilt, was radical stuff for its time.

Which gives a pretty good idea about how far we’d fallen by then. 

The idea of not fishing stocks into oblivion, and making them more productive in the long term, transcends the realm of conservation, and enters the realm of plain common sense.  Yet the Sustainable Fisheries Act was controversial when it was written, and if anything, it is more controversial today.

Which gives a pretty good idea about how far we still need to go.

For the Sustainable Fisheries Act’s core tenet—that fish stocks be rebuilt and harvests be reduced so that the greatest long-term yield may be achieved from each population—isn’t an end, but a beginning.

It defines maximum sustainable yield.

Last week, I attended the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit.  One of the speakers was Dan Wolford of California, a recreational fisherman and a three-term member of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.  One of the slides that he presented to the audience began with a simple statement:

“SUSTAINABILITY IS THE MINIMUM”

That just about says it all.

Because if we manage for maximum sustainable yield, our fish stocks won’t get any smaller and, once they’re technically “recovered,” they won’t get any bigger, either.  The notion underlying maximum sustainable yield is to harvest every single fish that isn’t needed to produce the next just-big-enough generation.

What you end up with is a smallish population—usually around 30% of the size of an unfished stock, give or take a bit, depending on a species’ biology--that includes a lot of fish barely old enough to reproduce.  It’s a good stock structure for commercial fishermen, as it lets them land a lot of fish year after year without hurting the population, and it gives them a catch made up of the sort of smaller, younger fish that the market usually prefers.

But that’s not the kind of stock structure that anglers and scientists really want to see.

There are a lot of recreational fishermen, scattered along the entire coast.  They usually fish close to home, often for just a few hours at a time.  They use inefficient gear and, as some will admit in private, often don’t use it too well.

For anglers to catch enough fish to keep things interesting, those fish must be abundant, not just in one place, but along long stretches of shoreline.  There needs to be enough of them that folks who can’t travel long distances, or put in long days, can still have a realistic chance of catching something they might want to take home, even if they’re not expert fishermen.

And more experienced—or just more hopeful—anglers will want the chance to encounter a large fish from time to time.  “The big one that got away”—or the big one that didn’t—has always been a part of angling lore and the chance of running into such fish lends spice to the fishing experience.

But managing for maximum sustainable yield won’t provide either the abundance or the size that anglers desire.

Nor will it provide the kind of healthy, productive stock that biologists like to see.

A few years ago, fisheries scientists often spoke of the need for “BOFFs,” an acronym that meant the kind of “Big, Old, Fat Fish” that are the sign of a healthy population.  Although some species prove an exception, such large individuals generally produce more eggs, and more eggs per pound, than smaller fish, and often also produce larger fry that are more likely to survive.  They also add stability to a stock, in the event something unexpected occurs.

If you manage a stock for MSY, you are always on the cusp of “growth overfishing,” a situation where the abundance of fish—and overall biomass—remains relatively high, but almost all of the fish are caught before they have a chance to grow large.  In such a population, all of the spawning is done by relatively few year classes.  Should some event—say, a change in  water temperature or other environmental condition—cause a few years of consecutive spawning failure, the stock can quickly get into trouble, as the mature fish are harvested and too few young fish are recruited into the stock to replace them.  

Think of the striped bass collapse in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and you’ll realize how fast a theoretically healthy population can get into bad trouble.

On the other hand, a stock that is managed more conservatively—not for maximum sustainable yield, but for “optimum yield”, by considering “social and ecological factors” and reducing landings accordingly—is far more resilient.  Instead of containing just a few adult year classes, it will have a spawning stock that includes both some large, old individuals and a lot of smaller, barely mature fish.  Should some event lead to serial spawning failures, a lot of year classes may be missing, but the larger individuals—fewer, but more fecund—will take up much of the slack and keep the stock viable until recruitment improves. 

That is more or less where striped bass are today.  Although not as abundant as they were a few years ago, there are still enough older spawners around to keep the stock going until the big 2011 year class matures.  That’s way we need to cut harvest now—to keep more big fish alive, and assure that the stock will really rebuild.

And that’s why anglers must pay no heed to the seductive calls for adding more “flexibility” to the rebuilding mandates of the Magnuson Act.  They will only delay rebuilding and leave fish stocks much more vulnerable than they are today.  

“Flexibility” sounds nice, but it increases the odds that something—perhaps warming waters, perhaps overfishing, perhaps something still unforeseen—will interrupt the recovery process and lead to big problems at some point down the road.

Flexibility won’t give us what we need.

And sustainability is not good enough.

Anglers want—and the fish need—abundance, and enough of big fish to breed healthy stocks.  That means annual catch limits that are low enough to produce large, well-structured populations, and not just maximum sustainable yield.


There’s no reason to settle for less.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

IF YOU WANT A FISHING INDUSTRY, IT HELPS TO HAVE FISH

Tuesday kicked off winter flounder season here on Long Island.

Nothing happened. 

I won’t say that nobody went out, and that nobody caught any fish.  I can’t know that for sure.  But Wednesday morning, I checked the fishing reports section of a popular website, and there was not one…single……report.

Not one.

And that’s pretty startling.

Usually, from Sheepshead Bay to Shinnecock bay and on up into Long Island Sound, party boats would be sailing. 

Sure, during the week crowds would be light, but on previous opening days, a combination of retirees and folks playing hooky from work would show up at the docks to celebrate winter’s end.  A handful of private boats would also make it onto the water.  By evening, and usually sooner, photos would flood the Internet, showing happy party boat patrons waving flatfish at the camera or a few flounder lying in somebody’s pail.

This year, there was nothing.

For years, the recreational fishing industry here in New York opposed flounder conservation arguing that they were the first fish of the season, brought anglers into the shops and onto the boats, and thus were crucial to the success of their businesses.

But there was one thing wrong with the industry’s strategy—fishing isn’t much fun without fish, and when anglers finally figured out that there aren’t any flounder out there, and that there isn’t likely to be any around for a long time—maybe forever—they stopped coming.  (An update since that sentence was written:  By April 3, a Captree party boat had reported that its passengers combined their efforts to catch a single flounder on a full-day trip in Great South Bay, and another flounder was reported caught by a private boat on Long Island’s North Shore.  Thus, we know that in the first three days of the state’s open season, at least two flounder were landed, and there could have been a couple more that went unremarked.)

At least as far as the flounder go, the industry has pretty well screwed itself for life.

I’d say that they deserved it, and they do, but the problem is that industry greed screwed the rest of us, too.

And flounder’s just part of a much bigger, sadder pattern.

No so long ago, we had a 12-month fishery, and fishing for something was always pretty good.

Around Memorial Day weekend, maybe a little sooner, there was a spectacular pollock bite at Block Island that would last through the first weeks of June.  The timing was perfect; it happened during what, in the travel industry, is called the “shoulder season” that abuts the peak tourist times.  Fishing for flounder and nearshore cod was over; the good fishing for shark and striped bass hadn’t quite started, so pollock filled an important gap and gave anglers—and particularly the charter and party boats—something to fish for until other fish moved in.

Boats from eastern Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island would converge on the ledges south of the island.  We jigged, and caught all of the fish we could use; the charter boats, who wanted to load up their passengers’ coolers, trolled umbrella rigs on downriggers, and landed two or three fish at a time—when the fish didn’t tear the umbrellas apart, instead.  It was a wonderful reminder of what northeastern groundfishing could be, but by the mid-1980s, it was gone…

The summer codfish were disappearing, too.  I’ve got deep roots in groundfish; I first stepped onto a cod boat the week I turned six.  It was just a half-day “tourist boat” out of Provincetown, Mass., but back then the fishing was good enough that the guys in the stern caught pollock as long as I was tall, and one cod—fortunately, quite a bit smaller—glommed onto my bait, too.  From there, I graduated to a full-day boat—of the Capt. John fleet in Plymouth—where I caught not only cod, but haddock, a cusk and some of the less attractive denizens of the New England coast—ocean pout, sea raven and the like—which just make fishing more fun for a kid in fourth grade.

After that, it was the “big leagues,” boats out of Pt. Judith, Rhode Island that made the long trip out to Coxe’s Ledge, boats with names long gone:  the Sea Squirrel, the Super Squirrel, the Julie C.  From the time I was thirteen or so, summer meant codfishing with my father and his friends, or just my father or, at times once I could drive, just with my friends when my father couldn’t go.  It was the hayday of shirtsleeve codfishing, when boats from Pt. Judith, Montauk and places such as Groton or New London, Connecticut all met out at Coxe’s, and you all anchored close enough together at times that you could see the fish coming up on the other boats and either wonder why they were doing better or exult in riding the top boat in the fleet.

They weren’t small codfish, either.  I never saw a pool fish under 35 pounds, and it wasn’t unusual to have one break 50.  And sometimes, that pool fish wasn’t a cod, but a big white hake with a soft, bloated belly and its bladder blown our past its jaws.  The boats were loaded with fares, and they weren’t all the “salty” crowd that chase cod these days.  There were as many tourists as fishermen on the boats, and I lost more than one pool to a kid who thought he was snagged on the bottom—‘til the bottom began to move—or to someone’s wife or girlfriend with with a green-tinged complexion and no desire to be there who just left her rod in the holder and went into the cabin, to return to her rod—and a “whale cod”—when it came time to pack it in.

But, as I said, that fishery’s gone, as dead as the United States Atlantic Tuna Tournament, that once ran out of Pt. Judith and found plenty of big bluefin on the shallow ledges—Rosie’s Ledge, Nebraska Shoal—just offshore and later, as the great schools began to thin, farther out in the Mud Hole and the grounds off No Man’s Land.

Because offshore fishing was slowing down, too.

Through the mid-1980s, you could find 100-pound-class yellowfin nearly within sight of shore (in ’83, well within sight of shore, when a big bunch of yellowfin—with a few giant bluefin mixed in—showed up on Long Island’s Patchogue Grounds).  Deeper, at the Texas Tower and the Barcardi wreck and, particularly, out in the canyons, even bigger yellowfin swam in reasonable, seasonal abundance.

The fish started getting smaller and harder to find in the ‘90s, but you still got a solid run of quality fish in the Butterfish Hole, south of Montauk, particularly during the fall.  And then, through the ‘90s, they started to fade, getting ever smaller and farther from shore.  There hasn’t been a reliable inshore bite for more than a decade, and even out on the Edge, yellowfin are typically small, few and far between.

But that was OK for a while, because longfin, or “true,” albacore took up the slack.  They were only out in the canyons, but when they found you, they came in bunches, with multiple strikes the rule.  There are still some around, including some big ones, but mostly now they come one at a time, if they come at all.

Sharks—the old standby—are still being caught, although the season starts later than it used to, with just about no one seeking long-shot makos in May (porbeagles, which once supported a small but consistent fishery off Montauk at that time of year, were pounded by Norwegian longliners, and were mostly gone by 1970 or so).  There are still plenty of blue sharks and a few threshers, but they all like cool water, and the summer shark pickings are now pretty slim.  

Southern longliners devastated duskies and sandbars; thanks to strict regulations, the sandbars seem to be coming back, but the duskies are still in rough shape.  The scalloped hammerheads that used to be everywhere are scarce these days; their prominent fins, sold for soup in east Asia, have pretty well sealed their fate.  No one has talked about 1,000-pound tigers for years.

Which puts our local sportfishing industry in a pretty bad place.

Years ago, it was supported by a diverse base of marine resources, that ranged from half-pound scup to huge offshore fish that might weigh half a ton or, in at least one case, more than a ton-and-a-half.  The season never ended, with pretty decent fishing for something—even if only whiting, ling or herring—available even in the deepest depths of winter.

If one species had a bad year or two, other fish took up the slack.

Today, Long Island sportfishing rests on a wobbly four-legged stool made of striped bass, summer flounder, black sea bass and scup, propped up at the edges by local and/or seasonal appearances of shark, school bluefin, false albacore and cod (there are bluefish, too, but few actively chase them these days).  Some legs are stronger than others; if either striped bass or summer flounder collapsed, there’s a very good chance that the whole thing might come tumbling down.

 According to last fall’s stock assessment, striped bass are approaching an overfished condition, and summer flounder recruitment hasn’t been all that good in the past couple of years…

So you’d think that the fishing industry would be jumping onto the conservation bandwagon, but for most, the opposite is true.

Every time regulations to rebuild the stock are proposed, the industry rises in opposition.  Whatever the species involved, new rules are treated as plague.

And the props beneath that four-legged stool get a little weaker, and the legs of the stool start looking a little more rickety, too.

For the industry has yet to learn—or, at least, to publicly acknowledge, that the health of our fish stocks is indivisibly tied to their own.  You can have fish without a fishing industry, but you can’t have a fishing industry without fish.


Hopefully, they won’t learn the hard way…

Sunday, March 30, 2014

RED SNAPPER ANGLERS EMBARRASS US ALL

This week, red snapper anglers down in the Gulf of Mexico, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, got spanked by a federal judge and—of all people—a bunch of commercial fishermen who sued to uphold the Magnuson Act.

I met some responsible commercial fishermen when I served on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.  But I can say with some confidence that it wasn’t anglers who wiped out our groundfish back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, nor was it anglers who killed off most of the fluke at about the same time.

So when I hear that the commercial guys went to court to stop “my side” from killing too many snapper, it’s just a little embarrassing.

I understand that red snapper are tough to manage.  They live long, mature late and, even at the best of times, are far less abundant than northern groundfish could be.  Because they bunch up on structure; where you catch one, you usually catch a lot more.  As a result, they have been badly overfished by both commercial and recreational fishermen.

Early efforts to restore the stock bore little fruit.  Anglers placed blame on the shrimp trawlers, who killed a lot of juvenile snapper.  First, they sued to require “bycatch reduction devices.”  The shrimpers lost that round, and sort-of complied, but still killed a lot of little snapper.

The anglers sued again, further restricting the trawlers.  Again, they won.  And again, the snapper moved forward slowly.

The National Marine Fisheries Service revised the snapper management plan in 2008, and set a rebuilding deadline in 2032 (yes, to a full 24 years). 

The recreational harvest limit dropped from 4.47 million to just 2.45 million pounds in 2009, while season length was cut by two-thirds, but anglers still overfished their quota by more than 50%.  In the succeeding years, anglers overfished by as much as 88%; the only exception was 2010, when the BP oil spill halted fishing.

Throughout that time, commercial fishermen had a slightly higher quota—they’re allocated 51% of total landings.  Because they fish under a catch share program, their harvest was predictable and they didn’t overfish a single time.  Catch share programs have their flaws, but they keep overfishing under control.

Suddenly, anglers in the Gulf had a problem.  They had a history of conserving other people’s fish by imposing bans on the use of various nets, and outlawing the sale of various species.  In the case of red snapper, they had already sued over shrimp trawls.

Any time some fish stock fell ill, they blamed the commercial guys.  If someone could just stop them from overfishing, and lift their gear from the water, all would be right with the world.

But this time, commercial harvest was under control.  It was time for the anglers to cut back on their own kill for a change, because red snapper were being overfished by—and only by—recreational fishermen.  Given that undeniable fact, the recreational snapper fishermen…began attacking everyone.  According to them:

NMFS is the problem, because it doesn’t understand anglers and is trying to force them off the water.
Scientists are the problem, because they say that a bigger harvest would be bad for the fish.
The Marine Recreational Information Program, which estimates recreational catch, is the problem, because it overstates anglers’ landings.
Environmentalists are the problem, because they are trying new things to recover the stock and keep anglers from overfishing.
Commercial fishermen are the problem, just because they exist.
If you believe the red snapper anglers, the only people who don’t seem to be the problem are the red snapper anglers themselves, and they are the ones killing too many fish

Federal regulations don’t apply in state waters, so anglers in Texas convinced state regulators to write their own rules.  Texas set its bag limit at 4, its size limit at 15” and has no closed season; in federal waters, the bag is 2, the size 16” and the season last for just 40 days.  That was nice for anglers in Texas, but bad for everyone else, who had to their harvest cut to make up for the Texas fishermen’s excesses.

By law, fishermen are accountable for their overages, but NMFS never did much to keep Gulf red snapper anglers from chronically overfishing.  Biologists suggested a 20% buffer between the annual catch limit—the amount fishermen were permitted to land—and the annual catch target used to set the regulations.  Such buffer would accommodate the “management uncertainty” that led to overfishing.  But anglers opposed it, and NMFS gave in to their cries.

Anglers argued that NMFS overestimated their catch, and they called for a better survey.  When NMFS unveiled the improved MRIP survey, it turned out that the old data probably had been wrong.  Anglers probably killed even more red snapper than NMFS had believed.

To fishermen, the new data was clearly “bad,” because it would lead to a shorter overall season—“good” data lets anglers kill more fish.  NMFS eventually agreed, and replaced the MRIP estimate with a “good” number, even though overfishing would inevitably occur.

In a recent article describing the situation, David Sikes (who happens to be the President of the Texas Outdoor Writers’ Association), wrote in the Corpus Christi (TX) Caller-Times that the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the organizations representing the red snapper anglers

“is behaving like a parent who would rather be friends with their kids (members) than make the difficult and unpopular decision to keep them in line.”
I don’t quite agree.  The National Marine Fisheries Service is really the overindulgent parent; groups such as CCA—and the folks who represent and speak for them—are more like spoiled children. 

So the commercial fishermen took the brats to the woodshed and sued, not to get more fish, but merely to prevent anglers from again killing more than their share, and thus harming the snapper’s recovery.

The commercial folks won in a walk.  The case, decided in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, was Guindon v. Pritzker.  The court’s decision included the following language:

“…To summarize the sequence of events:  (1) In July 2013, the Council proposed increasing the 2013 quota and suggested reopening the season in the fall, contingent on there being unused quota available; (2) in early August, NMFS published a proposal discussing the possibility of reopening the season, contingent on available quota; (3) in late August, NMFS received MRIP landings estimates indicating an overage that exceeded both the current and proposed quota; (4) NMFS reopened the fall season anyway…
“The administrative record is replete with references to the high degree of management uncertainty in the recreational sector, as compared to the commercial sector, which had none…NMFS administrator Roy Crabtree described the recreational sector’s particular management uncertainties to the Council’s Reef Fish Management Committee in January 2013, and to the full Council in June 2013…All this evidence of high management uncertainty explains why the SSC recommended a 20 percent buffer for the recreational sector.  The Council well understood this.  In the July Framework Action, the Council discussed the SSC’s buffer recommendation as one possible alternative…Yet the Council rejected the buffer, while proposing no other accountability measures for the recreational sector, and NMFS approved the Council proposal…”
In other words, the anglers threw a tantrum when told to behave so NMFS, not wanting to hear them scream any more, gave in.  Fortunately, there was another adult in the room, garbed in the robes of a federal judge, and the proper discipline was imposed.

Yet what was truly shocking was the anglers’ response.  On March 28, the Coastal Conservation Association characterized the decision by saying “Ruling Against Recreational Angling Confirms Federal Fisheries Management System Broken” (http://www.joincca.org/articles/656).

And then it went on:

“In a case brought by commercial fishermen, seafood processors and trade groups closely associated with the Environmental Defense Fund, a federal district judge acknowledged this week that federal management of recreational anglers is deeply flawed and in need of overhaul. The lawsuit essentially challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service’s policy of setting hard quotas for the recreational sector without timely or reliable means to manage to such a standard…”

Having read the opinion, I have to say that’s a bit of a stretch, and spun so hard that reality got a little distorted along the way.  But it gets worse.

“After decades of mismanagement, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper population rebounded wildly after successful efforts by recreational anglers to reduce juvenile red snapper mortality in shrimp trawls in the mid-2000s. As the red snapper population increased, the recreational sector began to catch more and larger fish, and thus met their outdated quota faster. Even with recreational seasons that were as short as 27 days, the lawsuit alleged that ‘it became commonplace for the recreational sector to exceed its quota by a large margin even though individual anglers followed the rules.’”

In CCA’s particular universe, red snapper problems were the shrimp trawls’ fault, and that was inexcusable.  But anglers only exceed their quota because the quota is “outdated,” and the fact that “it became commonplace for the recreational sector to exceed its quota by a large margin” is somehow OK because “individual anglers followed the rules.”

Even thought the same “individual anglers” fought against newer, potentially more effective rules…

Fantasy is confused with fact.  Chester Brewer, Chairman of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee, actually stated that

 “It is no longer theoretical – we are in a situation now in which the red snapper population is as healthy as it has ever been, and recreational anglers may be unable to access it for more than a few days due to an inadequate management system and a ridiculously outdated allocation.”

That’s demonstrably wrong.  It’s not even debatable.  Far from being “as healthy as it has ever been,” the red snapper stock remains overfished (http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sustainable_fisheries/gulf_fisheries/red_snapper/overview/), and even when fully “recovered,” will retain just 26% of its spawning potential. 

(I’m not picking on CCA here; they're just the most active player in the game.  Another “anglers’ rights” group, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, has made comments that are nearly as bad http://joinrfa.org/2013/06/62613-red-snapper-wars-come-to-washington/.)
  
I know a lot of the folks involved.  Many are very good, very bright people, but when red snapper issues arise, they seem to take leave of their senses.

Personally, I don’t understand what all of the fuss is about.  I have caught red snapper.  Functionally, if not biologically, they're little more than a big scup (i.e., northern porgy) with a sunburn.  Like scup, they’re not sought for their fight; they appeal largely to headboats and folks out to fill coolers. 

Yet despite all the fuss, they’re not even a big recreational target.  Only about 2% of the fish caught and about 2% of the fish killed by recreational anglers in Gulf-coast Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana (Texas doesn’t participate in the federal catch estimate program) last year were red snapper.  Twenty years ago, the percentages were about the same.  Current regulations haven’t reduced anglers’ landings; because federal management has had some success, anglers actually took home more than twice the red snapper—measured in pounds—than they did in 1993.

Even so, they're dissatisfied.

If the thoughtless, self-serving demands of Gulf-states fishermen only affected red snapper, I would have discussed something else today.  But the antics surrounding that one southern groundfish can—and very possibly will—hurt anglers on every shore of the United States.

Commercial fishermen will probably use the decision in Guindon v. Pritzker to punish anglers when the opportunity arises.  I can easily see them trying to penalize us in the Mid-Atlantic, should we overfish black sea bass or fluke.  Recreational fishermen, everywhere on the coast, risk being tarred with the same brush as the red snapper anglers, even for inadvertent overages rather than the kind of chronic and predictable overfishing that takes place in the Gulf.

On a larger scale, the red snapper fishermen down in the Gulf are now trying to gut the conservation and rebuilding requirements of the Magnuson Act—America’s federal fisheries law, and the finest such law in the world—so that they can kill a few more fish.

They want to take management authority for important recreational species away from NMFS and hand it over to the states.  That way, there will be no inconvenient federal law forcing managers to use the best available science and rebuild overfished stocks.

They may want Louisiana and Texas to manage their snapper, but I’m not sure that any of us wants Maine and Massachusetts to manage or cod stocks, or New Jersey and North Carolina to manage our fluke… 

They want to end current rebuilding deadlines—24 years doen't seem long enough—so that they can continue to overharvest and abuse a public resource and maybe never fully restore the stock.  Their counterparts up here tried that with summer flounder, but Magnuson prevailed and we have more and bigger fluke than we could have hoped for ten years ago.  Thanks to Magnuson, our sea bass and scup are doing well, too.  

So, to those red snapper anglers in the Gulf, I say this:

As sportsmen, you’re an embarrassment.  You make us all look bad when you sound just like the boys up in Gloucester, out to kill the last cod.

As advocates, you’re dangerous.  You want to change the law so you can kill too much snapper.  But the law is just fine--just like it is--for those of us who want to rebuild cod stocks.  And the folks who hope that their kids—and if not them, then their grandkids—might still catch winter flounder.  It's fine for the guys on the Pacific coast who want rockfish restored.

You emphasize the short term, and what you might kill next year; those of us who care about the future find that not only frightening, but remarkably dumb.

Maybe it’s just a matter of age.  You’re getting a lot of gray hairs now.  So you can have your fun and leave rebuilding our fish stocks, just like fixing the national debt and living with too much CO2 in the air, as problems for your kids and your grandkids to address when you're gone.

That wouldn’t be right, but you stopped worrying about “right” a number of years ago.

Or maybe you’re just myopic, and can’t see past your own problems.  You neither know nor care that we don’t have red snapper on Long Island, or off Cape Cod or Point Reyes or in Prince William Sound, and you can’t get your head around the fact that what you do down there can affect folks everywhere else on the coast.  And are you so self-indulgent that you won't fish for something else for a couple of years?  Red snapper are only 2% of your landings; isn’t the other 98% enough?

It’s well past time for you all to get your heads out of the Gulf—or wherever else they've been stuck these days—and come back to reality.  The earth does not revolve around red snapper, and it certainly doesn’t revolve around you.  So consider the chance that you might be wrong, sit down, shut up and just think for a while.

Things need to change.

Because right now, you’re embarrassing—and threatening—us all.