Sunday, November 23, 2014

OCEAN POUT AND WINDOWPANES

When I was growing up along Long Island Sound, there was a fish that we called a “sundial.”

It was a sort of toothless but large-mouthed flounder.  Very aggressive despite its lack of dental equipment, we’d catch them on sandworms while fishing for winter flounder, on bucktails and soft-plastic shrimp cast for weakfish and stripers and on the small killies that we’d fish for smelt around this time of year.

Sundials are, proportionately, the thinnest fish that I have ever seen.  The dark side provided a decent fillet, but the white side was nothing but skin and bones; on a bright day, you could hold up the fish and easily make out its skeleton.

The dearth of meat, back in the days when far more robust winter flounder were everywhere, might have been why sundials were held in contempt.  It just wasn’t worth cleaning them, although their flesh was as good, and perhaps even better, than the flounder and fluke we all prized.

But we just tossed the sundials back. 

The one exception to that came one fall in the late 1960s, when a lobsterman tied up his boat to the North Dock at the town marina in Cos Cob, right when the smelt run was strong.  If you know anything about lobstermen, it’s that they always need bait, and this guy asked all of the smelt fishermen to just toss their sundials into his boat, where he’d retrieve them in the morning.

All went well until one evening, when the usual crowd was lining the docks, cane poles and light spinning rods in hand, their eyes glued to the bobbers that floated in the rings of light thrown by a dozen or more Coleman lanterns.  It was a cold night, so many of the anglers drained needed warmth from the insides of convenient flat bottles.

It might be that those warming fluids affected their aim just a bit, because when one of those worthies, let’s just call him “Bill,” backhanded his sundial into the boat, he didn’t quite make it past one of his neighbors, who was just then bending over to get a fresh piece of bait.

The sundial hit the other guy full in the face, making a slime-muffled slap that the 12-year-old kid that I was at the time thought was completely hilarious.  The recipient of the sundial’s affections didn’t quite see the humor, and we almost had an impromptu version of the Friday Night Fights break out there on the dock until folks managed to stop laughing long enough to cool the offended party down.

That may have been the most entertainment a sundial ever provided.   Otherwise, they mainly served as lobster bait, although a few anglers ate them and they were sometimes sold as “brill” to a few fish markets in low-income areas.

As time went on, I learned that “sundials” were properly called “windowpane flounder,” that they were managed by the New England Fishery Management Council as part of its Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan and that, from the early 1970s through the late 1990s, they supported a significant commercial fishery, with over 9 million pounds landed in 1985. 


Even though the health of the stocks is better than it was, federal regulations still prohibit both recreational fishermen and commercial “common pool” groundfish boats (that is, those not fishing under sector catch share programs) from landing any at all.

It seems that not only high-visibility species such as cod are getting hit hard up off of New England.  Even species that we rarely think of are overfished, too.

The ocean pout certainly provides a good example of that.

There’s a good chance that you never saw one, either alive or cooked on a plate, although they used to be very common on the wrecks and ledges off New England and the upper mid-Atlantic coast.

Pout are one of those fish that suffered not for its meat, which is small-grained, mild and nearly snow-white, but for its appearance, with a stout, vaguely eel-like body, blunt head and broad mouth that brought inevitable comparisons with the mid-20th Century actor, Joe E. Brown

I first ran into them aboard party boats sailing for cod in the mid-1960s, when mates normally dealt with them by stomping on them, hard, right behind their heads, taking the hook out and tossing the soon-to-die animal back over the side. 

Ten years later, I noticed that the mates had changed their tune, and were collecting the pout that there fares didn’t want and putting them on ice along with their own catch.  Curious, I took a few of the “trash fish” home, filleted them out and that folks had been foolish over the years.

Of course, back when cod were abundant, you could afford to be picky…

Pout followed about the same trajectory as windowpanes, a relatively ignored fish that suddenly saw landings spike, remain high for a couple of decades, and then crash.  

However, pout were never as popular as windowpanes.  Landings peaked in 1987, at 4.8 million pounds, but the fish were never worth much back at the dock.  They usually sold for about 10 cents per pound, far less even then windowpanes, which usually sold for about twenty-five cents per pound, and sometimes brought over sixty.

But in the end, that didn't matter, and the ocean pout stock was driven so low that fishing was halted.

And that may be the saddest, and most significant, thing about New England’s fishery.

We hear about the destruction of cod stocks that fed western Europe and eastern North America for half a millennium, and are shocked by the loss.

We mourn for the Atlantic halibut, overfished so badly more than a century ago that it has never come close to recovery.

We watch the winter flounder collapse all around us, say our requiems for the lost whiting fishery in New York Bight, tell stories of spring pollock we once caught off Block Island.

We hope that the recovery of haddock is real.

But what we don’t see, and for the most part don’t miss, are the ocean pouts of this world. 

When the cod stock collapses, we hear about it on the nightly news and maybe read stories in The New York Times.  But when the trawler fleet drives a “minor” species such as ocean pout into near-oblivion for a dime a pound, nobody reads or hears anything at all.

That is the real tragedy of New England groundfish. 

The failure to properly manage the fishery, and to rein in excessive harvest hasn’t just driven Gulf of Maine cod stocks down to the point that that, in some quarters, the word “moratorium” is occasionally whispered.   

The trawl fleet, in its recalcitrant greed, hasn’t merely destroyed one iconic fish stock and one iconic fishery.  It has disrupted and degraded an ecosystem that includes not just the stars we see in the restaurants and on shows on TV—the cod and the halibut and the yellowtail flounder—but the poorly known supporting players such as ocean pout, spotted wolfish and windowpanes.

Now, the depressed stocks need not only survive fishing pressure, but a warming ocean that is changing the very environment that they live in and provides new challenges to managers trying to recover the stocks.

Hopefully, such challenges won’t be insurmountable.

Managers will undoubtedly try to recover the codfish.  But let’s hope that, in their efforts, they spare a little time for less well-known species.


Ignored and unloved for generations, ocean pout and windowpanes have their niche in the system, and  deserve some attention, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

STRIPED BASS BAIT-AND-SWITCH

I wish that I didn’t have to write this at all.

But things need to be said, and maybe it’s right that I’m saying them now, in November, with the big Christmas shopping spree poised to begin.

In one more week, Black Friday shoppers will descend on the malls, some lured by ads promising wonderful deals on clothes, smartphones and TVs.

And when a lot of those shoppers get to those malls, they will find the sale items gone, and learn that the deals that had drawn them were “limited to items in stock.”

But, ever helpful, the stores will be willing to sell them all something else, even if it is far less attractive and comes at high cost.

When that sort of thing happens in shopping centers and malls it’s called “bait and switch.”  It gets consumer advocates riled, and is just plain illegal in many states.

When that sort of thing happens at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, it’s called “conservation equivalency.”  It pleases the fish hogs, and is clearly endorsed in the ASMFC Charter.

Striped bass fishermen are learning about the ASMFC’s version of bait-and-switch right now, and they’re learning the hard way.

Those striped bass fishermen have long been complaining about a decline in the striped bass population, and, most particularly, in the number of big female spawners.  They have been asking ASMFC to cut back on landings to let the bass stock rebuild.

Those pleas fell on mostly deaf ears until, a little over a year ago, ASMFC received a benchmark stock assessment that confirmed what the anglers were saying.  The fishing mortality target and the threshold that defined overfishing were both set too high.  Landings needed to come down.  And even under the best possible conditions, the stock is almost certain to be overfished in 2015, and for some years thereafter.

Finally, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board began to take action.

It was grudging action, to be sure, but things slowly ground forward.

There were public hearings, and chances for comments to be mailed in.  Anglers responded in droves.  Thousands of anglers made themselves heard, and the overwhelming majority called for a one-fish bag limit, and a minimum size somewhere between 28 and 32 inches.

On October 24, the Management Board voted to adopt new striped bass regulations, maintaining the 28-inch minimum size and dropping the bag limit to a single fish.

Anglers went to bed happy that night, believing that they had won a victory.  I have to admit that I was quite pleased.

But…

And it was a big but

The Management Board also said that states could adopt alternate regulations that provided “conservation equivalency.”  Moreover, that conservation equivalency didn’t have to equal a 31% harvest reduction, as the 1 fish at 28 inches did; it merely had to equal the 25% reduction that would supposedly be enough to reduce fishing mortality back to the target.

It was a little strange, because states that opted for conservation equivalency would be able to kill more fish than those who stuck with the regulations that were actually adopted.

And yes, it was an omen.

Because last Monday, representatives of the coastal states between Massachusetts and Delaware held a conference call to discuss adopting the same regulations throughout the region and to discuss conservation equivalency.

All of a sudden, striped bass managers were pulling their own bait-and-switch.

A good chunk of the states that voted at the Management Board meeting, and acted as if they had heeded anglers’ calls for a one-fish bag, were having second thoughts.  Now that all of the excitement had ebbed, and few were paying attention, they were talking about conservation equivalency and continuing to kill two fish per man.

To be fair, not all were on board.  The push for two fish is being driven by New Jersey and Rhode Island.  From all that I hear, New York doesn’t like the idea, and the other states fall somewhere in between.

New Jersey opposed one fish all along, and was one of only two states (the other was Delaware) to vote against one 28-inch bass.  And since, regardless of species, New Jersey is always conniving for ways to let its anglers kill more and smaller fish, it’s position was hardly unexpected.

Up north, Rhode Island is driving the action.  Apparently, it couldn’t care less that its anglers asked for  one bass.  Rhode Island’s sole concern seems to be its for-hire fleet which, like so many such fleets, is still struck in troglodyte times when only dead fish are a gauge of success.

Unfortunately, greed is a metastatic disease, no less so than cancer, and when one state kills more fish, everyone else wants to kill more fish, too.  If Rhode Island gives its for-hires two bass, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts are likely to do the same.

There are so few for-hire operators and so many anglers, that you might be wondering why such a short, stubby tail would be wagging the whole recreational dog.  Well, I understand your confusion, because I’m wondering, too…

But what I’m not wondering about is how much those for-hire boats kill.

Last year, in my home state of New York, anglers made about 950,000 trips in search of striped bass, and killed about 375,000 fish.  About half of those trips—more than 450,000—were made by surfcasters, while fewer than a quarter—just 191,000—were made on party and charter boats.

But when you look at the landings, nearly two-thirds of the fish—235,000 out of 375,000—were killed by the for-hires.

Giving the for-hires two fish when other anglers only get one will only make that disparity worse.

And that’s the good news…

The bad news is that “conservation equivalency” is largely a myth, and giving the for-hires (or even worse, everyone) two bigger fish rather than one at 28 inches, isn’t going to reduce the kill very much.

That’s because, to calculate conservation equivalency, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee looked backwards, to what people caught in 2013.  They assumed that the size and age structure of the striped bass stock will be the same in 2015 and beyond, and that’s just wrong.

We can never forget (as the Technical Committee apparently did) that the striped bass stock is shrinking because spawning has been poor.  Compared to a healthy population, there are relatively few smaller fish, and a disproportionate number of big ones.

Based on 2013 figures, allowing anglers to keep one 28-inch bass has about the same conservation impact as allowing folks to keep two 33-inch fish.  Here in New York, about 44% of the bass landed in 2013 were between 28 and 33 inches long, with fish from the above-average 2005 and 2007 year classes accounting for more than half of the total.

But if we look ahead to 2015, the 2005 year class will average about 35 inches long, and all of the other above-average year classes in the fishery, except for 2007 (which was only slightly above average) will be even larger.  With very few fish between 28 and 33 inches long, raising the size limit to 33 inches won’t make that much of a difference.
 
It will be better than two fish at 28 inches, but not by much.

To suggest that it will reduce 2015 and 2016 harvest by at least 25%, and have “conservation equivalency” to one 28-inch fish in those years is ludicrous. 

Thanks to conservation equivalency, ASMFC once again finds itself with a management plan that is more likely to fail than succeed.

Even under the best assumptions, the proposed 25% harvest reduction had only a 50-50 chance to cut harvest to target levels by the end of next year.

After the Management Board decided to base commercial harvest on the Amendment 6 quota rather than on actual landings, those chances got smaller.

They shrunk a little more after the decision to cut Chesapeake Bay landings by just 20.5%, instead of the full 25.

Now, if the states adopt one of the conservation equivalency proposals, the chances of getting harvest back down to target will become even slimmer.  Maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll be one in three.

Our fish—and, in the long term, our fishermen—deserve better than that.

In the short term, we can hope that folks from New York and the other rational states can convince their recalcitrant colleagues to reject conservation equivalency.

In the long term, as I’ve repeated before, we need a long-lasting solution.

We need to end ASMFC’s tolerance of “conservation equivalent” measures that allow states to game the system and kill more fish than the stocks can withstand. 

We need to set some limits on management boards’ discretion, and force them to adopt plans that are more likely to succeed than to fail.

We need to compel ASMFC to end overfishing and timely rebuild overfished stocks.

In short, we need legislation that will compel ASMFC’s fishery management plans to adhere to the same standards that currently bind federal fisheries managers.


Call it a consumer protection act for the fish stocks, that will stop bait-and-switch in its tracks.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

PRACTICAL LESSONS IN FORAGE FISH MANAGEMENT


Some of that is due to the presence of the big 2003 year class of bluefin, which meant that a lot of tuna will be swimming around somewhere.

But the reason that the fish were concentrated on Jeffreys, within just a dozen miles of the Massachusetts coast, was a big body of Atlantic herring, one of the bluefin’s favorite forage, that had concentrated over the ledge.

There are few things more basic to fishing, whether sport or commercial, than the fact that big fish will follow the bait.

Atlantic herring spawn during late summer and autumn, and according to the 2012 Atlantic herring stock assessment, Jeffreys Ledge is a major spawning area for the Gulf of Maine stock.

The bluefin tuna, which prey on the herring, “know” this and follow them there.  Unfortunately, the big mid-water trawlers that also prey on the herring know this as well, and that’s how one very practical lesson in forage fish management began.

The mid-water boats tow small-mesh nets more than a thousand yards wide, and when they pass through an area, not too many small fish remain in their wake.


We were fishing around 3 o’clock in the afternoon when they started coming from all directions.  There were 10 boats and they started moving through the tuna boats, looking for the biggest (herring) biomass.
To be fair, the trawlers did nothing illegal.  A spawning closure imposed to protect Atlantic herring had just expired, that the boats were merely trying to fill their allotted quota.  The same Daily Times article reported that the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries sampled the herring caught by the trawlers and found “no spawning fish at all.”

But, in many ways, that wasn’t really the point.

Michael P. Armstrong, assistant director of the Massachusetts DMF, told the paper that

“We fully expected this conflict.”
“…it’s all about allocation. You’ve got a bite going on. But you’ve also got an industry that hasn’t touched a fish all season.
On the surface, it looks like a conflict between two groups of fishermen, and an allocation of herring between the trawl and the tuna fleets.  But, as Capt. Moody recognizes, the heart of the matter is something else very different and, in the end, far more important.

“This is a flaw in management structure.  This is an area and a time frame prime for rebuilding, but management has not taken any steps to protect the food source the whole thing is predicated on.
“This is an area where currently no recreational angler is allowed to catch cod or haddock with a jig for fear of their stocks collapsing.  This is an area where gillnetters have been forbidden to fish in the fall due to fears of interaction with dolphins and porpoise. But management thinks it’s fine that the entire herring fleet towing mile-wide nets in 150 feet of water of 5/8-inch mesh at seven knots is a good way to harvest the inshore herring resource.
Capt. Moody has clearly learned a very basic and very practical lesson; if you want to have healthy fish stocks, and an abundance of the other animals that render the marine ecosystem healthy and whole, you don’t start at the top.

Sure, you need to rein in the harvest of tuna and haddock, to strive to keep porpoises out of gillnets and whales free of entangling gear.

But to succeed, you start at the bottom, making sure that the forage fish base is solid, and then address the higher trophic levels that can only exist if the forage is there.

The good news is that some fisheries managers are beginning to get the message.

In December 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden.  For the first time, under that amendment, the species—which under earlier incarnations of the management plan had been effectively (mis)managed by the commercial reduction fishery—would be managed according to biological reference points for biomass and fishing mortality.

Although there’s not yet any hard data to support the conclusion, conservation advocates in the upper mid-Atlantic region are already pointing to signs of early success as predators swarm into inshore waters to prey on the increasingly abundant menhaden schools.  And such predators don’t only include the usual striped bass and bluefish.  Thresher sharks approaching the quarter-ton range are being caught within clear sight of shore, while humpback whales sing their enigmatic songs while hunting menhaden right off the beaches of Brooklyn.

Last June, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council took action to limit river herring bycatch in the Atlantic mackerel fishery, voting to close down the mackerel fishery in any year that too many river herring were killed.

But despite the good news, there’s still plenty of cause for concern.

As Capt. John McMurray pointed out in a recent blog published on www.reel-time.com, there is reason to fear that commercial fishermen in the northeast, reacting to closures of fisheries targeting cod and other overfished stocks might start looking for was to develop markets for forage fish.  He references an existing Norwegian fishery for sand eels as an alarming example.

Under no circumstances should such unregulated fisheries be permitted.  Forage fish need management, too.

For rebuilding a marine ecosystem is no different than rebuilding a house.  You begin not with the upper part of the structure, but with the foundation and frame.  And the foundation and frame of the marine food web is the plankton and forage fish that every other element relies on for food.


If those stocks are strong, the entire ecosystem can also be strong and resilient.  If those stocks are weak, there is no doubt that, with time, the whole construct will fail.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

DIVORCED FROM REALITY

The National Maine Fisheries Service has finally come out with emergency rules intended to protect what remains of the Gulf of Maine cod.

After looking at the rules and the reaction, it doesn’t seem that anyone involved has a firm grip on reality.

Let’s start with NMFS.

Faced with a situation in which the Gulf of Maine cod population has slipped to something like 3% of sustainable levels, the agency has, for the next six months, closed the recreational fishery, imposed a 200 pound trip limit on the commercial fishery and closed a number of fishing grounds that lie close to shore, where the fish are currently congregating.


“The Gulf of Maine cod stock, a historic icon of the New England fishery, is in the worst shape that we have seen in the 40 years that we have been monitoring it…”
But it’s also not enough.

Right now, NMFS estimates that the 2015 quota for Gulf of Maine cod will be between 200 and 386 metric tons.  Yet, knowing that such sharp cuts are needed, it left the 2014 quota of 1,550 metric tons intact, because

“The fishing industry urged us not to go in that direction because it would affect their business planning.”
It’s as if the agency hasn’t quite grasped the fact that the only way to rebuild the cod stock is to leave more fish in the ocean.  Allowing the 2014 quota to be killed—and, despite the small trip limit, worrying about  the industry’s “business planning” makes it pretty clear that NMFS wants the give fishermen a chance to kill the full quota—just digs the hole deeper and makes the stock that much harder to rebuild.

If you never lived or fished on the New England coast, you’d probably think that the fishermen would be grateful to get that much relief, but in the northeast, folks know better than that.

Fishermen are still claiming that

An editorial in the Gloucester Daily Times had the temerity to say, in condemning the new rules, that

It's especially troubling that Bullard chose to make these new ‘emergency’ measures effective today — before even running them through the New England Fishery Management Council, which supposedly has at least advisory clout over NOAA's fishery management. It doesn't, given that Bullard can simply impose any action with or without council approval.
Such criticism completely ignores the fact that the New England Fisheries Management Council, at its last meeting, voted to wash its hands of the matter and toss the whole hot potato into the federal regulators’ lap, implicitly recognizing that action had to be taken, but unwilling to make the hard choices needed to rebuild the cod stock.

The Gloucester Daily Times often takes scientifically unjustifiable pro-harvest positions, reflecting the sort of emphasis on short-term economic benefits that caused the cod stock to crash in the first place.  But this time, they really outdid themselves, again attacking the interim stock assessment not because the data is wrong, but because it was unscheduled (meaning that it forced remedial action instead of allowing a few more years of intense overfishing) and because fishermen weren’t allowed to provide input (and make an effort to impeach the data).

The fact that the fish is in deep trouble was not mentioned at all.

As Regional Administrator Bullard points out, things are bad enough now that the idea is

“to avoid the situation that Canada found itself in when its cod stock collapsed in the 1990s.”
The fishing community doesn’t see it that way.

We have tried everything to fix this problem with Gulf of Maine cod, and nothing seems to work.
Of course, that’s not completely true, because the one thing that they never tried—and actively resisted for years—was the one thing that might actually have stopped the decline in the stock.  They never imposed strict annual poundage quotas, and shut down the fishery as soon as the quotas were met, when there were still enough cod around for such measures to turn things around in a reasonable time.
By the time quotas were introduced as part of the catch share program, the cod population had already fallen to levels that will make rebuilding a very long and very painful process.

Ms. Raymond added

My gut reaction is we couldn’t be any worse off, either the resources or the people, if we had no management at all for the past 20 years
But the facts prove her wrong, for New England fishermen have diluted the effectiveness of management measures for so long—closer to 35 years rather than merely 20—that “no management” is effectively what they’ve had, and that clearly hasn’t been working.

So it is time.

It is time for fisheries managers and fishermen alike to take a firm grasp on reality, and understand one basic truth:  Gulf of Maine cod are in dire trouble.

At this point, it doesn’t matter if the stock assessment was a little off, and there are really twice as many cod in the water than the data suggests.  A stock at just 6% of sustainable levels isn’t much better off than one at a mere 3%, and quibbling over those sort of differences does no one good.

The fishermen, who fought tooth-and-nail to avoid regulation, the fisheries managers, who approved management plans with illusory measures such as days at sea rather than meaningful quotas and the politicians and members of the press who enabled the fishermen’s fantasies, encouraging them to believe that they could overfish the stock indefinitely with complete impunity, have combined to dig a very deep hole that the cod—and the fishermen—will not be able to escape for a very long time.

Fishermen must accept the reality that the old freewheeling days are gone.  Their most promising future is defined by closed seasons, closed areas and strict quotas.  Their alternative is a future where cod are commercially extinct.

Fisheries managers must accept the fact that, with the cod stock so low, business failures are going to happen.  Even with a shrinking fleet, there are too few fish to support all the boats, and it will be impossible to keep them all sailing.  They can adopt regulations that will conserve and rebuild the stock, and put a number of boats out of business, or they can try to keep everyone fishing, completely collapse the stock, and put every boat on the beach.

Politicians and press are going to have to learn to tell folks the unpleasant truth that, at this point, you can’t rebuild the stock without considerable pain—something that their constituents and readers just don’t want to hear--or continue to sell pipe dreams to fishing communities, that will ultimately lead them into complete ruination.

Will the right choices be made?

Right now, things look grim.

It may be that nothing short of a complete stock collapse, and a Newfoundland-like moratorium, will force fishermen, managers and everyone else to accept what is clearly reality.


But by then, of course, it will all be too late.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

BEATING UP ON BLUEFIN

Bluefin tuna have fascinated me since 1960 when, at the age of six, I walked the docks at Provincetown, Mass. with my parents, and saw giant tuna—fish that seemed impossibly large to a kid used to flounder and snapper blues, who thought that a codfish was big—bulking silver and huge in the cockpits of charter boats returning from sea.

As I grew older, and could (barely) afford my own trips on charters, bluefin were one of the first fish that I sought.

Once I bought my first (barely) offshore-capable boat, bluefin were always in my sights.

Years passed, and boats came and went.  I caught plenty of bluefin, and killed at least my share.  I fished tournaments, and put my anglers on tuna that won them first prize.

And the bluefin steadily dwindled.

At first you could write it off to water temperature, a lack of bait or to that conveniently mysterious “cycle.”  But by the mid-1990s there was no way to doubt that the bluefin population was under serious stress.

So we stopped killing bluefin, but catch-and-release was still on the agenda.  We beefed up our gear to prevent tuna “burnout,” but still pulled feathers and cedar jigs and various plastics through Long Island’s ocean, seeking and finding what remained of a once-robust stock.

But we even stopped that back in 2006, when the big 2003 year class became “school” bluefin big enough for anglers to target.

At first, we avidly joint the fleet of boats that ranged from flyfishing skiffs to big, rigged-out sportfishermen that jumped on the little tuna every time they turned up anywhere along the coast.  That changed on one July morning that found us pulling lures a dozen miles south of my inlet, hooking up bluefin almost as fast as we could get our lures in the water. 

All was going well until a fish blew up behind a Green Machine bar, coming in from straight behind the trailing lure and swallowing it so deep that not even the head poked out of the little bluefin’s mouth.

Catch-and-release wasn’t an option with that one.

So we bled the fish and put it on ice, pulled the lines and went in; the limit was one bluefin per boat, and we didn’t want to risk injuring another fish that would have to be returned to the water to die.

But whatever we did, a lot of bluefin got killed.  Despite the restrictive bag limit, quite a few boats took plenty more and, when anyone mentioned the law, denied that the fish were bluefin at all.  They said that taking three yellowfin per angler was legal, and “Look at the f***ing fish.  They got yellow fins…”

And there were far too few enforcement folks around—working for the state or the feds—to tell such anglers that they were mistaken.

Maybe that’s why so many of the bluefin that those anglers caught ended up being sold at the back doors of sushi shops, markets and restaurants…

It was a pretty sad scene, and quite honestly, I had no desire to be a part of it.  When that small bluefin died on the deck of my boat, I decided that it would be the last one, until the stock showed signs of recovery. 

I knew that it was a futile gesture, and that one person’s actions would have no effect on the whole, but even so, sometimes doing what you think is the right thing is reason enough.

But, God, I was alone…

As the 2003s grew older and larger, anglers continued to kill them.  Law enforcement didn’t get any better, and violations continued apace.

Even the simple requirement that anglers report their catch to federal managers was largely ignored; the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that about 20% of anglers called in as required.

The sushi shops’ business continued to thrive…

Now, the 2003s have reached breeding size (generally believed to begin between 8 and 12 years old, although a recent paper argues for a younger age), which also makes them large enough for legal commercial harvest, and it appears that the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas may start piling on.

After all, who wants to have a bunch of old, fecund bluefin around..?

Up in Massachusetts, commercial tuna fishermen are having their most successful season in years.  A lot of the fish that they’re catching are 2003s.

Current regulations let them kill quite a few.  However, the ICCAT’s annual meeting begins tomorrow, and next year, they might get to kill more. 


“Adopt a two-year catch limit for western Atlantic bluefin tuna that is in line with the science advice and supports the goals of the rebuilding program by avoiding overfishing and allowing continued stock growth.
That sounds good on paper, and we can only hope that it translates into maintaining quotas at moderate levels so that substantial numbers of the 2003 year class can survive and remain an important component of the spawning stock.

However, other nations have already made their intent to kill more tuna clear.


“the stock has grown substantially in recent years and could support a moderate quota increase.”
The fact that Stanek qualifies his statement by using the same sort of language embodied in the United States’ goals, saying

“Canada will continue to advocate for all management decisions to be based on the best available scientific information to ensure that these economically important fisheries remain sustainable,”
provides little comfort, and might even cause the U.S. statement to be viewed with suspicion. 

That is particularly true given how U.S. commercial fishing groups are spinning a recent bluefin tuna stock assessment.  For example, the American Bluefin Tuna Association has triumphantly declared that

the best available science now indicates a stunning increase in abundance of [bluefin tuna] on both sides of the Atlantic…
“Consequently, the SCRS report stated that an increase in quota, up to 2,250 mt from its presently level of 1,750 mt, is consistent with ongoing ICCAT management objectives. The report states that spawning stock biomass is presently 2 ¼ times greater than necessary to sustain a quota of 3,050 mt each year, going forward…”

“…last month ICCAT scientists released new data showing that western bluefin stocks are more than twice the size suggested in previous assessments and are now more than rebuilt.   They also concluded that the western Atlantic quota could be increased from the existing 1,750 metric tons to up to 2,250 metric tons without hurting the stock.  In a letter sent today, Jones urged U.S. fisheries administrators to “follow the science and do all you can at the November ICCAT meeting to secure an increase in the western bluefin quota to 2,200 metric tons.
However, an objective reading of the facts doesn’t quite support such exuberance.  Nor does it support the position of ABTA or Congressman Jones.


 “A key factor in estimating [maximum sustainably yield]-related benchmarks is the highest level of recruitment that can be achieved in the long term.  Assuming that average recruitment cannot reach the high levels from the 1970s, recent [fishing mortality] (2010-2013) is 36% of FMSY and SSB2013 is about 225% of SSBMSY…  [emphasis added]”
Thus, the ABTA/Jones position is justifiable, but only if one makes the most pessimistic assumptions about future bluefin spawning success.

Addressing that very point, the assessment clearly states that

“In contrast, estimates of stock status are more pessimistic with respect to spawning biomass if a high recruitment potential scenario is considered, with F=88% of FMSY and SSB2013=48% of SSBMSY.”
That’s a pretty big difference.

The assessment notes that the low recruitment scenario results in an “improved fit of assessment outputs” in the population model, but that both the low-recruitment and high-recruitment scenarios are

“plausible (but not extreme) lower and upper bounds on rebuilding potential.”
If the quota is increased as proposed by low-recruitment advocates such as the ACTA and Jones, no long-term increase in population size is likely to occur.  Instead, the population will decrease in the short term, but by 2019 should equal 2013 levels.

On the other hand, if the high-recruitment scenario is the more accurate of the two, and recruitment increases as the population grows larger, an increased quota will result in the population failing to meet the rebuilding target by the 2019 deadline.

In the end, the only way to find out which of the scenarios is correct is to keep quotas low, preserve as much of the 2003 year class as one practically can, and see what happens. 

If populations continue to rebuild, the high-recruitment scenario will have justified itself, even if populations fall a little short of 1970 (the base year) levels.

On the other hand, if the population remains constant, even after the relatively strong 2011 and 2013  year classes enter the spawning stock, the low-recruitment advocates can justifiably say “We told you so” and quotas can be increased.

However, if we increase quotas now, before all of the evidence is in, we may never know just what we have missed, or how badly we’ve cheated ourselves.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

DID THE FISH WIN OR LOSE IN THE MIDTERM ELECTION?

The political landscape changed on November 4, when the Republican Party gained control of the United States Senate. 

When Congress convenes next January, the federal legislature will no longer be gridlocked; with the same party controlling both houses, we should see far more bills passed by the House and Senate and forwarded to the President’s desk.

The only question left to be answered is whether those bills will be good or bad for the future of America’s living marine resources.

Right now, I’m cautiously pessimistic, but there’s a lot that remains to be seen.

It’s not merely an issue of one party versus another.  Folks like to stereotype Democrats as supporting conservation measures and Republicans as opposing them, but in the fisheries arena, that’s far from true.

Some of the staunchest Democrats in the Senate, including New York’s Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan (who lost her seat in the mid-terms) have either supported so-called “flexibility” legislation that would weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Magnuson Act or otherwise attempted to defer the application of needed fisheries conservation measures.

On the other hand, President George W. Bush, a quintessential Republican, did far more to promote marine fish conservation than any other president.  Former Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrist was one of the prime movers behind the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, the landmark law that changed the face of fisheries conservation in America.  And the late Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was such a noted champion of good fisheries management that the law governing U.S. fisheries now bears his name.

However, the current Republican leadership has rejected the strong support for conservation that was, for many years, a party tradition dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt.  Instead, it has adopted a policy that is blatantly anti-science, anti-wilderness and anti-clean water, and extremely pro-development, pro-exploitation and pro-short-term profit.  Risks to the ecosystem that we must continue to live in, and to the integrity of natural communities, are dismissed out of hand—if they are considered at all.

Thus, once the new Congress is seated, they are likely to pose a number of direct and indirect threats to marine fisheries resources on every coast of the United States.

Up in the pristine waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, the world’s largest surviving salmon run—and the recreational and commercial fisheries that it supports—will likely face greater threats with a resurgent effort to permit the proposed Pebble Mine to begin operations.

For those unfamiliar with the Pebble Mine, the proposed mining project would create two separate operations that would remove about 7.5 billion metric tons of copper, gold and molybdenum ore from watershed of the Iliamna River, a waterway which supports not only a thriving sockeye salmon run, but also a robust population of large, wild rainbow trout.  

The resultant commercial and recreational fishing industries are important drivers of the local economy; both fishermen and the broader conservation community have opposed the mine fearing that mine tailings and toxic byproducts of the mining operations could easily end up in the river, severely degrading its ability to sustain the trout and salmon runs.  

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed, placing a serious roadblock in the way of future mine development.


We already have undeniably grave problems with federal agencies blocking resource production on federal lands in Alaska.  Now to see a federal agency overstep its authority and move prematurely to block even the consideration of a permit for potential activity on state lands is something I simply cannot accept,"

"When it comes to the Pebble Mine, EPA has shown that they are willing to disregard due process and lawfully established permitting procedures to ensure the failure of any project like this. EPA's desperate attempt to kill a potential mine should signal a major red flag to businesses."
Senator Mark Begich, who represented the State of Alaska, staunchly opposed the mine.  However, he lost his seat in the mid-term election, and his successor, Dan Sullivan, has objected to the EPA action in language very similar to that of Sen. Murkowski.

On the Atlantic coast, we see the same Sen. Vitter opposing legislation that would help control pollution in Chesapeake Bay and thus enhance the Bay’s ability to support healthy fish populations.  Vitter justifies taking another position with no immediate impact on his home state of Louisiana by saying that, pursuant to the settlement of a lawsuit arising out of earlier legislation intended to clean up the Chesapeake,

“the EPA agreed to establish a Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment flow into the Chesapeake Bay…EPA has purported to dictate not only the total amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment that can flow into the Chesapeake Bay, but, by allocating those loads in excruciating detail and crediting only the load reduction actions that are included in its Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model, EPA also dictated the manner in which individual companies and sectors within the economy must comply with the total load limitations.

“EPA's Bay TMDL has enormous repercussions for private landowners, small businesses, and local governments throughout the Chesapeake Bay region…Left unchecked, the TMDL could represent a national precedent that would force state and local officials across the country to cede their land use authority to EPA.”

One senator’s hostility to conservation efforts certainly shouldn’t be used to taint the reputation of an entire party.  We can only hope that there will be more than a few Republican senators who will place their constituents’ interests in clean water and healthy fish stocks, now and in the future, above a party dogma that often opposes even reasonable regulations.  

However, given party leadership’s frequently expressed preference for promoting business activity at the expense of environmental and conservation concerns, there is real reason to be concerned that views similar to Vitter’s may be held by other lawmakers.

And that would do our fisheries no good at all.

As a salt water angler, my greatest concern relates to the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which many expect to be reauthorized sometime in 2015 or 2016.    

In the current session of Congress, the reauthorization bill that took shape in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, was so bad that those concerned with marine conservation gave it the sobriquet of the “Empty Oceans Act.”  It was a bill that would turn back a decade and a half of progress and take federal fisheries management back to the days when stocks need not be rebuilt and short-term economic concerns trumped every other issue.

On the other hand, the bill that has been taking shape in what had been a Democrat-controlled Senate held a lot of promise.  It wasn’t perfect, but it kept the key concepts of existing law intact, and included additional provisions that would help to fine-tune the management process.  However, it was sponsored by Sen. Begich, who lost the election, and the membership and composition of the subcommittee charged with drafting the bill will change somewhat in the upcoming year, so it’s hard to predict just what will occur.

It’s virtually certain that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida will chair the subcommittee.  Sen. Rubio was the ranking member of the subcommittee that produced the most recent Senate draft of the bill, which could not have emerged without his cooperation, so there is reason to at least hope that such draft might serve as a starting point for Senate discussions next year.

Thus, if Sen. Rubio lived in Alaska, where the benefits of fisheries management have long been accepted and understood, I probably wouldn’t be overly worried right now.  

Unfortunately, he represents Florida, where fisheries issues—and most particularly the fierce and often irrational red snapper debate at both the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils—rage and some constituents will undoubtedly be demanding some sort of fundamental change in the law.  Such demands are likely to push Sen. Rubio toward amendments that are not in the long-term interests of either fish or fishermen.

There is also the question of whether, in the runup to a presidential election in which Sen. Rubio might well wish to compete, party ideology and the need to demonstrate an ideological purity to potential primary voters who sit on the right wing of his party might influence how Sen. Rubio might address both the conservation and the economic aspects of the Magnuson Act.

The possibility that the ranking member, or one or more other minority members, of the subcommittee might wish to weaken conservation measures should not be ignored.  It is not yet clear who the ranking member might be, but if he or she comes from a state where the fishing industry is militantly anti-Magnuson, the impetus to weaken the law might well come from the Democratic side of the aisle.

So will the Republican takeover of the Senate help or hurt fish populations?

Right now, I can’t honestly say.

I’ve been a Republican  since 1972, when I tujrned 18, and quite a few—I suspect most—of the folks who I fish with are Republicans, too.  So I would like to believe that legislators in the party that I’ve belonged to for 40-plus years would walk in the steps of Republicans before them and protect our fish populations.

On the other hand, over the past decade, my party’s leadership has become far less receptive to conservation concerns, and much more willing to degrade the environment that we all live in, justifying such short-sighted action by claiming that it will produce a few jobs or stimulate some sort of economic activity.

Fisheries issues have often transcended mere party politics, with regional concerns and—dare I say it—constituents’ wishes opening the door to true bipartisan solutions.

At the same time, today’s political polarization is more intense than it was at any time in the history of the Magnuson Act, and may just be too much to overcome.

So, for now, we can just wait and watch, and be ready to intervene with our own local legislators, attempting to put them back on track when they seem ready to stray and encouraging them to stay on course when they do the right thing.

Any way that you look at it, it’s going to be a long couple of years.