Sunday, May 19, 2019


There’s an ongoing misunderstanding about fisheries management that often appears in print, when people aver that fisheries are, or legally should be, managed for “maximum sustainable yield.”

The term “maximum sustainable yield” isn’t even defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law that governs all fishing in the federal waters of the United States, although the law does employ that phrase on five occasions (three of those occurring in a single definition).  However, it is defined in related regulations as

“the largest long-term average catch or yield that can be taken from a stock or stock complex under prevailing ecological, environmental conditions and fishery technological characteristics (e.g., gear selectivity), and the distribution of catch among fleets.”
Maximum sustainable yield thus marks the precipice, the point where overfishing begins.  The regulations recognize that fact, and state that

“Overfishing occurs whenever a stock or stock complex is subjected to a level of fishing mortality or total catch that jeopardizes the capacity of a stock or stock complex to produce MSY on a continuing basis.”
Harvesting every last fish possible to achieve maximum sustainable yield is a very risky management approach, as any mistake in calculating either the size of fish stocks or the level of harvest that such stocks can sustain in the long term could easily lead to a population decline.  And there is always enough uncertainty in scientific estimates to assure that, sooner or later, such a mistake will be made.

Thus, Magnuson-Stevens calls for fish stocks to be managed not for maximum sustainable yield, but for optimum yield, which the law defines this way:

“The term “optimum,” with respect to the yield from a fishery, means the amount of fish which—
(A)    will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems;
(B)    is prescribed as such on the basis of maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor; and
(C)    in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield from such fishery.”

“The determination of [optimum yield] is a decisional mechanism for resolving the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s conservation and management objectives, achieving [a fishery management plan’s] objectives, and balancing the various interests that comprise the greatest overall benefit to the Nation.  OY is based on MSY as reduced under paragraphs e(3)(iii)(A) and (B) of this section.  The most important limitation on the specification of OY is that the choice of OY and the conservation and management measures proposed to achieve it must prevent overfishing.  [emphasis added]”
Those definitions open up some interesting possibilities, and dispel some common misconceptions, particularly when linked with other existing regulations.

For example, optimum yield is more than just maximum sustainable yield, possibly reduced to account for a handful of factors.  Optimum yield is, first and foremost, a tool to prevent overfishing.

The regulations don’t say that the most important role of optimum yield is to maximize harvest, or recreational opportunity, or even to enhance marine ecosystems.  First, above any other consideration, optimum yield “must prevent overfishing.” 

That word “must” takes away all discretion.  Overfishing must not occur.

That means that, as a practical matter, optimum yield should be set at a level somewhat lower than MSY.  In theory, if fishery managers’ calculations were absolutely precise, and allowed for no error at all, optimum yield could safely equal maximum sustainable yield.  But in the real world, there is always some level of uncertainty, and that uncertainty means that optimum yield, if properly set, will always be less than MSY.

Earlier, I used the brink of a precipice as a metaphor for MSY; as is the case with any precipice, disaster could easily ensue if one slipped over the edge.  To extend that metaphor just a bit farter, uncertainty is fog, that makes it harder to tell when the brink is drawing close.  

In the case of some fish stocks, that are blessed with good data, managers can come fairly close to the edge—to MSY—with little risk of going beyond; in the case of others, where uncertainties are rife, they’re proceeding in the densest pea soup imaginible, where the slightest haste or lack of care could lead to serious problems.

Because that risk is very real, Congress has established a procedure to help the regional fishery management councils negotiate foggy terrain without falling off the edge of a cliff.  Magnuson-Stevens requires that each regional fishery management council

“develop annual catch limits for all of its managed fisheries that may not exceed the fishing level recommendations of its scientific and statistical committee or the peer review process established [elsewhere in the law].”
Such fishing level recommendations are set in accord with the concept of “acceptable biological catch,” which is defined in the regulations as

“a level of a stock or stock complex’s annual catch, which is based on an ABC control rule that accounts for the scientific uncertainty in the estimates of [the overfishing limit, which is effectively equivalent to MSY], any other scientific uncertainty, and the Council’s risk policy.”
Thus, annual catch limits will almost certainly be set some way below MSY even before the “economic, social, and ecological factors” used to finally establish optimum yield are considered.

When those factors are considered, things begin to get even more interesting, particularly for recreational fishermen.

Fishery managers have long emphasized yield, effectively working to maximize the number of dead fish that can be piled up on the dock.  Some people have argued that is essentially a commercial management measure, and not appropriate for recreational fisheries.

“The benefits of recreational opportunities reflect the quality of both the recreational fishing experience and non-consumptive fishery uses such as ecotourism, fish watching, and recreational diving.”
Leaving a bare minimum number of fish in the water, that is, a biomass equal to Bmsy, isn't likely to provide such benefits.

So when you hear someone say that management is all about yield, and that abundance and similar concepts have no solid foundation in fisheries law, you can feel free to ignore them.  Reducing landings in order to enhance the recreational experience is very much contemplated by the current regulations.

Things become even more interesting when one looks at what may be included under the broad heading of social, economic, or ecological factors relevant to a decision to further separate optimum yield from MSY.

“prudent consideration of the risk of overharvesting when a stock size or reproductive potential is uncertain, satisfaction of consumer and recreational needs,…the decrease in cost per unit of catch afforded by an increase in stock size, [and] the attendant increase in catch per unit of effort…,”
which are all factors that favor managing for building a larger biomass, rather than merely concentrating on landings.

Striped bass are not a federally-managed fish, but given a recent Southwick Associates study, which shows how participation in the striped bass fishery fell off as striped bass became less abundant, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that, at least in the case of species targeted primarily for recreation, higher abundance leads to greater levels of angler participation, which in turn generate greater economic benefits, and thus justify lowering optimum yield for such species on economic considerations alone.

Establishing optimum yield at a lower level for primarily recreational species would also be supported by social considerations, most particularly, as noted in the regulations, the

“enjoyment gained from recreational fishing”
when there are enough fish in the water to provide for frequent hookups, even for relatively unexperienced anglers or anglers who must wait until fish come within range of a pier or of shore before they can catch them.

But setting optimum yield isn’t just about establishing harvest levels that suit participants in a fishery; fishing’s impact on the entire ecosystem needs to be taken into account.  Thus, the regulations inform us,

“…Species interactions that have not explicitly been taken into account when calculating MSY should be considered as relevant factors for setting OY below MSY.  In addition, consideration should be given to managing forage stocks for higher biomass than Bmsy to enhance and protect the marine ecosystem.  Also important are ecological or environmental conditions that stress marine organisms or their habitat, such as natural or manmade changes in wetlands or nursery grounds, and effects of pollutants on habitat and stocks.”
That language makes it clear that, when fishermen wish to escape responsibility, in the form of reduced landings, for a declining stock, and seek to put the blame for decreasing abundance on inshore pollution, wetlands development or the impacts of warming waters, they are unintentionally undercutting their own position, and making a case for reducing optimum yield, and probably increasing catch restrictions, on the basis of relevant ecological factors.

Clearly, the concept of optimum yield is a powerful and far-reaching fishery management tool.

Although regional fishery management councils have not yet realized the full potential that the concept of optimum yield provides, they have already made a slow start in that direction.  While it’s very easy to argue that such councils need to do a lot more to fully and explicitly integrate the concept of optimum yield in their fishery management plans, one thing is already clear.

Managing for optimum yield is very different from managing for MSY.

And it is precisely what federal fisheries law requires.

Thursday, May 16, 2019


In case you haven’t been paying attention, declaring that the world is flat is once again a thing.

Despite the fact that Greek astronomers demonstrated that the world was more-or-less round 2,300 years ago, and that we now have photos from space that illustrate such roundness, there are a large number of people out there who genuinely believe that the Earth is a disc, not a ball.

And that piece which, in part, described the author’s experiences at the two-day “Flat Earth International Conference,” reminded me of what often goes on at fishery management meetings.

The author notes that, at the conference,

“Most of the presentations were designed to show that the ‘scientific’ evidence for a global Earth was flawed, and that their own ‘evidence’ for Flat Earth was solid.  Virtually all of the standards for good empirical reasoning were violated.  Cherry picking evidence?  Check.  Fitting beliefs to ideology?  Check.  Confirmation bias?  Check…”
If that doesn’t make you think of comments frequently flung around at fisheries meetings, you have probably attended very, very few.

“We don’t care about your science.  Your science is bullcrap,”
even though the odds are quite good that such captain never took a detailed look at the data underlying the scientific conclusions, and the odds are even better that, if he had looked at the data, he would have been unable to incorporate it into anything like a valid stock assessment model.

Like the Flat Earthers, all that he needed to stand by his statement was a self-serving belief “that the ‘scientific’ evidence…was flawed.”

“My knowledge and everything else is worth a thousand times more than…”
what the scientists have believe is true, or

“We all believe in this room all your science all your data all your equations that you guys pull out in a frickin app are all wrong.”
But, of course, they have no objective, contrary data to support such positions. Yet they cling to is their own, imagined “evidence,” which they desperately want to believe, to demonstrate that the science is bad.

For them, as for the Flat Earthers, such hard-held belief, based on the skimpiest “evidence,” is enough.  They know that “science” is merely another way to describe a conspiracy to conceal the truth.

And, as noted in the Newsweek opinion piece,

“The problem with conspiracy theorists is that they hold themselves up as skeptics, but they are actually quite gullible.  There is a rampant double standard for evidence:  no evidence is good enough to convince them of something they do NOT want to believe, yet only the flimsiest evidence is required to convince them of something that they DO want to believe.”
Thus, we hear fishermen contest the conclusions of a peer-reviewed stock assessment, which found that the striped bass stock is overfished and subject to overfishing, not because they have found problems with the data, but because their friend Joey knows a guy who was fishing for tuna on Georges Bank about a year ago, and he said that the stripers were everywhere, so that must mean that there’s not really fewer bass, but that they just all moved offshore.  

Yet such people conveniently ignore the fact that the striped bass stock assessment no longer incorporates data from Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Bottom Trawl Survey, which samples offshore waters,

“due to concerns about the low proportions of positive tows.”
In other words, the trawl survey was dropped from the assessment because it wasn’t finding enough bass offshore to yield meaningful results—but if you’re a true believer, you still know that they’re really out there, because that guy your friend Joey knows said so.

The scientists just got it all wrong...

It’s not just fishing boat crews and other industry members who strike such anti-science postures.  I sit on New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, where one of my fellow councilors—an educated man, with a degree from a well-respected school—refuses to accept any of the recreational harvest data provided by the Marine Recreational Information Program, despite the fact that the program received a generally favorable review from a National Academy of Sciences panel two years ago.  

He merely shrugs his shoulders and says “That’s MRIP,” while rejecting any such data for use as a policy-making tool.

It doesn’t matter what the National Academy panel of independent experts might have said.  He doesn’t believe that MRIP is valid, and nothing as simple as a detailed analysis is going to change his mind.

It would almost be funny if important public policy issues weren’t involved.  But, as the author of the Newsweek piece noted,

“Science denial is too dangerous too ignore…
“…all science deniers use roughly the same reasoning strategy.  Belief in conspiracy theories, cherry-picking evidence, championing their own experts.  These are also the tactics used by deniers of evolution, climate change, and the recent spate of anti-vaxx.  How many more years before the Flat Earthers are running for school board, asking physics teachers to ‘teach the controversy’ just as Intelligent Designers did not too many years back?”
Deniers of fishery science use the same tactics, too, and seek seats on management bodies where they can use their anti-science bias to warp fishery management at the state and regional level (fortunately, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires that all federal fishery management decisions be based on the “best scientific information,” a standard that can be enforced through legal action—although last year, even that standard was briefly put in peril, when proponents of what they called the “Modern Fish Act” tried, unsuccessfully, to amend the law so that information provided by fishermen might qualify as “science” for management purposes, with no requirement that such information be gathered in a statistically valid manner).

Thus, proponents of rational, science-based fishery management are faced with a problem:  How do they convince the science-deniers not only that the Earth is round, but that the fish that live in Earth’s oceans should be managed with applied science, and not just with hope and belief?

It’s a difficult job, because it turns out that facts aren’t likely to change the science-deniers’ minds.

The author of the Newsweek piece suggests that, instead of emphasizing data and facts,

“A better way to respond is to stop talking about proof, certainty, and logic, and start talking more about scientific ‘values’…what is most distinctive about science is not its method but its ‘attitude’:  the idea that scientists care about evidence and are willing to change their views based on new evidence.  This is what truly separates scientists from their deniers and imitators.”
He may be too optimistic.  

At least when dealing with fisheries issues, improved estimates of population, fishing mortality or other key values are often viewed as a chink in the scientists’ armor, that allows the science-deniers to attack the management process.  It’s not uncommon to hear a fisherman say something like “Last year, you told us that the population was in good shape; this year, you say there’s a problem.  Why should we believe you when you keep changing your mind?”

One of the problems is that the deniers appear to believe that there must be one universal, unchanging truth.  They thus view changes in the underlying data, even if such changes improve its overall accuracy, as proof that the management system is suspect, rather than as a sign that it is working well and bettering managers' understanding of the fishery in question.

Also, as the author notes,

“When people feel threatened they retreat into their silos, and the Flat Earth community is no different.  They do their ‘research’ by viewing a spate of Flat Earth videos on Youtube and—now that a quorum has been reached—they go to conventions.”
There’s no doubt that many in the fisheries world feel threatened by science-based management, for when you’ve been earning your living on the backs of dead fish, and suddenly some scientists come along and tell you that you’ve been killing too many, the first sound that you hear in the back of your mind is the hiss of a deflating bank account.  While you might not attend any conventions, that hiss just might drive you to join a group of like-minded deniers, where you can reinforce your beliefs, if not deepen your understanding, while reassuring each other that the science is, in fact, wrong, and that fishery management is nothing more than a “green” plot to chase fisherman off the water.

That makes the fisheries science deniers, just like the Flat Earthers, a difficult crowd to convince.

To make any headway, the Newsweek piece suggests,

“we need to…reclaim the notion of uncertainty as a strength rather than a weakness of scientific reasoning.  No matter how good the evidence, science cannot ‘prove’ that climate change is real.  Or that vaccines are safe.  Or even that the Earth is round.  That is just not how inductive reasoning works.”
So it’s probably no surprise that science cannot prove, beyond doubt, that striped bass are overfished.

“What scientists can do, however, is to say much more than they do about the importance of likelihood and probability, to puncture the myth that until we have proof, any theory is just as good as any other.  Scientific beliefs are not based on certainty but on ‘warrant’—on justification given the evidence…When certainty is the standard, science deniers may feel justified in holding out for proof…That certainly is an irrational standard for empirical belief.”
Maybe so.  Maybe that would work.

Maybe I’m just pessimistic.

But the next time I walk into a fisheries meeting, and a peer-reviewed stock assessment calls for landings to be cut, I still expect someone in the crowd to exclaim,

“Your science is bullcrap.”
And I doubt that he’ll change his mind.

He’d rather walk off the edge of the world.    

Sunday, May 12, 2019


One of the most confounding concepts in saltwater fisheries management is that of “abundance.”

Intuitively, having a lot of fish around that we can encounter, catch and perhaps take home seems like a very good thing.  

In fresh water, restoring an abundance of native trout, of wild salmon, or of fish such as lake sturgeon is seen as a worthwhile goal.  Pushing out into other fields of wildlife management, you seldom, if ever, hear hunters complain that wildlife managers are trying to increase the abundance of hoofed or feathered game.  In fact, organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever exist to help managers create and sustain just such abundance.

Most saltwater fishermen aren’t much different from their freshwater counterparts, from duck hunters or from those who pursue grouse or big game, in that they celebrate days when their quarry is plentiful.  The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s 2014 report, A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, captured the views of most saltwater anglers when it stated that

“Currently, federal fisheries managers set catch limits for recreational and commercial fishing at or near maximum sustainable yield.  While this may be an ideal management strategy for commercial fishing, where harvesting the maximum biomass is desired, it is not an effective management tool for saltwater recreational fishing.  Recreational anglers are more focused on abundance and size, structure of the fisheries, and opportunities to get out on the water.”
Such comments are supported by a National Marine Fisheries Service survey of recreational anglers, which sought to discover what America’s saltwater anglers valued about their fishing trips.  Anglers were provided with a number of trip characteristics, and asked to rate them on a scale that ranged from “extremely important” to “not important at all.”  It turned out that “fishing with family and friends,” was rated either “extremely important” or “somewhat important” by 87% of all respondents, suggesting that the social aspects of fishing are more important to most anglers than the fish themselves.

But that doesn’t mean that the fish aren’t important.  

“Catching fish” scored a solid second in the list of angler priorities, with 83% of all respondents saying that it was either “extremely important” or “somewhat important” to them.  Surprisingly, the things that non-anglers might think are important to recreational fishermen—taking home as many fish as possible, catching and releasing as many fish as possible, or catching a trophy fish—appeared relatively unimportant to anglers, with each receiving either “extremely important” or “somewhat important” ratings from about 40% of the anglers who answered the survey.  Catching and keeping a limit of any particular species of fish was even less meaningful to most anglers; only about 30% considered doing so either “extremely” or “somewhat” important.

Respondents’ thoughts about fishery management objectives reflected their priorities.  An overwhelming majority—fully 97%--believed that managers should “ensure that future generations will have high quality fishing opportunities.”  

Trailing that, but still important to anglers, were the objectives that “managers should ensure that many types of fish are available to catch,” which received 86% support, and the objective that “large quantities of fish should be available to be caught,” which was supported 82% of all respondents.

Such survey results suggest that anglers want to see fish abundant enough that they have a reasonably likelihood of catching something when they go out for a day with family or friends.  However, neither full coolers, non-stop catch-and-release action, nor very large fish are necessary to make an outing worthwhile. 

The results also suggest that anglers would like to see fish abundant enough to provide for healthy and sustainable fish stocks throughout the foreseeable future—which of necessity includes a robust and resilient spawning stock that can weather changes in their environment—so as to ensure that there will be plenty of fish available to generations of anglers who are yet to be born.

From such results, it is clear that having an abundance of fish in the water is important to most anglers.

However, there is also a minority view.

Some members of the angling community see calls for abundance as a sort of sinister plot, put together by members of the environmental community who, at least in some paranoid fantasies, are seeking to push anglers off the water by increasing restrictions on the recreational catch.  That sort of imagined threat has led to a lot of ill-considered opposition to the concept of abundance, particularly by people who are connected in some way to the recreational fishing industry, and see managing for greater abundance as a potential threat to their livelihoods.

For the truth is that managing for abundance is good for everyone—for anglers, for angling businesses and, most importantly, for the fish.

To understand what managing for abundance does and does not mean, it helps to go back to the quote from the TRCP’s visioning report that appears near the top of this page, and note that it talks about fisheries managed for “maximum sustainable yield.”  That term isn't actually defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, although it appears in that law a number of times.  However, “maximum sustainable yield” is generally understood to be

Magnuson-Stevens provides that

“The terms ‘overfishing” and ‘overfished’ mean a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis.”
And “fishing mortality rate” is defined as

Reading those three definitions together makes it clear where people go wrong when they argue that managing for abundance is bad for anglers and angler-related businesses, and claim that such management results in reduced recreational landings, for in fact, just the opposite is true.

Managing for abundance leads to larger harvests.

When you take even a minute or two to think about it, the reason becomes very clear:  Since overfishing is defined by a fishing mortality rate that is unsustainable—that is, a rate that will lead to depletion if continued on a long-term basis—and since such fishing mortality rate represents the fraction of a fish population that is removed by fishing activities, an abundant stock of fish will necessarily allow more removals, and so yield a bigger harvest, than a smaller population of the same species will.

To reduce that concept to numbers, if a species of fish can tolerate having no more than 25% of its population removed by fishing in any given year—removing any more fish than that would lead to eventual depletion and thus constitute overfishing—and the biomass of that population was 50 million pounds, fishermen would be able to harvest 25% of that, or 12.5 million pounds.  But if fish became less abundant, and the population shrunk to just 10 million pounds, fishermen would only be able to harvest 2.5 million pounds—far less in absolute numbers, but still 25% of the population.

So abundance clearly leads to larger overall harvests.

But the phrase “overall harvest” is the key to why some people still get confused, and believe that abundance is bad.
The fact that a fish stock is abundant doesn’t mean that an individual angler, on any given trip, will be permitted to land land large quantities of fish.  In fact, the opposite often happens—as fish grow more abundant, regulations tighten.

That’s because anglers like to target abundant fish species.

Remember the NMFS angler survey which, not surprisingly, found that catching fish was very important to anglers—much more important than limiting out, taking a lot of fish, or even catching a “big one?”  Fish become much easier to catch when they become more abundant.  So in many rebuilding fisheries—most notably red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and black sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic region—we see anglers growing frustrated and angry because they are fishing under very restrictive regulations when fish have obviously become far more abundant than they had been before.

What they’re missing is the fact that fishermen, attracted by the increasing abundance of fish, have become far more abundant, too.  Because there are more anglers directing their effort on the species in question, and because more abundant fish are allowing them to be far more successful than they were in the past, the overall recreational harvest still approaches, and often exceeds, the fishing mortality rate that defines overfishing, despite the toughened rules and higher annual catch limits.

And it is the overall fishing mortality rate that determines the health of the stock, even if each individual angler, on each individual trip, is keeping very few fish.

For example, in 2000, when weakfish were reasonably abundant, East Coast anglers made more than 1,900,000 trips in pursuit of the species; ten years later, after the population crashed, the number of trips dropped to a little over 100,000. 

On the other hand, black sea bass were fairly scarce off New England in 2000, when northeastern anglers made only 31,000 trips targeting that species; by 2010, as the stock rebuilt and warmer waters shifted fish abundance northward, New England’s recreational fishermen made 190,000 directed sea bass trips.  New England’s black sea bass population continued to grow more abundant, while the abundance of other species, such as cod, striped bass and summer flounder declined.  As a result, by 2018, the number of directed black sea bass trips made off New England had spiked beyond 460,000.

Clearly, in the case of black sea bass, abundance drove effort, which increased even though, during the years 2000-2018, black sea bass regulations grew steadily more restrictive.

Striped bass also illustrate the final point—that managing for abundance benefits the long-term health and sustainability of fish stocks.

“To perpetuate, through cooperative interstate fishery management, migratory stocks of striped bass; to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock, and also to provide for the restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat.  [emphasis added]”
To achieve that goal, the plan sets several objectives, including

“Manage fishing mortality to maintain an age structure that provides adequate spawning potential to sustain long-term abundance of striped bass populations.”
To achieve its goal, ASMFC’s striped bass management plan sets a target fishing mortality rate that is well below the rate that would produce maximum sustainable yield.  Fishing at maximum sustainable yield generally results in a population that is composed mostly of smaller, younger fish.  Such a population, largely devoid of older, larger females, is particularly susceptible to recruitment failure, for if most fish are removed from the population shortly after they mature, and poor recruitment results in few new fish entering the spawning stock to replace those that have been removed by fishing, the likelihood of the stock collapsing becomes very high.

By managing striped bass for long-term abundance, the fishing mortality rate will be held low enough to permit the age structure of the spawning stock to expand, and include some of the larger, older and most fecund fish, that serve as a buffer against consecutive years of poor recruitment that see few younger fish enter the adult population.

That's a particularly important consideration for striped bass, which tend to see wide swings in annual recruitment success.

More generally, an abundant fish population is more resilient and better able to adapt to environmental changes, a quality that is particularly important given the ongoing climate change that is causing waters to warm along all coasts of the United States.  As noted in the paper “Fisheries regulatory regimes and resilience to climate change,”

“Increased population abundance, age structure, and genetic diversity buffer against stock collapse from environmental shocks.”
Thus, managing fish for abundance just makes sense.

It ultimately leads to increased recreational opportunity, increased levels of sustainable landings, and healthier and more resilient fish stocks.

Despite what some people are saying, it has no downside at all.

Thursday, May 9, 2019


The 1980s and early 1990s were a bad time for Atlantic Coast fisheries.
While the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 had successfully pushed most foreign fishing vessels out of U.S. waters, it failed to protect fish populations from overharvest by the United States’ fleet, while providing domestic fishermen with financial incentives to build larger, more efficient boats that could land even greater numbers of fish.

As a result, the populations of many New England groundfish, such as cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder, continued to fall. In the Mid-Atlantic, summer flounder abundance fell to an all-time low in 1989. All along the coast, fish were becoming harder to find.

The Atlantic striped bass stock, suffering from years of overfishing and unfavorable spawning conditions in critical Chesapeake Bay tributaries, had collapsed by the early 1980s. Things had gotten so bad that some fishermen were calling for striped bass to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, and despaired of ever seeing a healthy population again.

However, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), newly empowered to manage the fishery by the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, had not given up. In a last-ditch effort to rebuild the collapsed population, it adopted Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Amendment 3) in 1985.

Amendment 3 was short and simple. It required all states to protect the relatively large, if still below-average, 1982 year class of striped bass, and all subsequent year classes, until they were large enough to spawn at least once. The goal was to keep the annual fishing mortality rate on such year classes below five percent.
As a result of the ASMFC’s efforts, the striped bass population was successfully rebuilt by 1995, just ten years after Amendment 3 was put in place.

The ASMFC’s restoration of the striped bass stock was a landmark event. At the time that it happened, it was probably the most successful restoration of a marine fish population that had ever occurred on the East Coast; it may have been the most successful restoration anywhere in the world.
That success convinced Congress to pass the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which gave the ASMFC the authority to manage a number of other inshore fish stocks. Unfortunately, Congress’ faith in the ASMFC process was apparently misplaced, as rebuilding the striped bass population was not only the ASMFC’s first, but also its last, management victory. Since then, it has failed to restore even one additional overfished stock. A recent benchmark stock assessment has revealed that striped bass are once again overfished, as well.

How did the ASMFC, which once was a leader in successful fishery management, become so ineffective? The answer probably lies in a change that it made to its Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter (ASMFC Charter) soon after striped bass were restored.

Political Influence Takes Over ASMFC Management
In 1995, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board looked very different than it does today. While it was still composed of each state’s professional marine fisheries manager, governor’s appointee and legislative appointee, only the state fisheries managers were allowed to vote. The appointees served in a largely advisory capacity, and did not cast individual votes on management matters.

Thus, when the ASMFC successfully restored the striped bass population, all of its management decisions were made by experienced fishery managers, who fully understood, and relied on, the scientific information provided to them.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, that structure set the ASMFC apart from the federal fishery management councils, which were dominated by fishermen and fishing industry representatives who tended to elevate their own short-term interests over the long-term health of fish stocks.
In 1996, Congress cured many of those problems when it passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), which required, for the first time, that federal fishery management plans prevent overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks. The new law made conservation a priority, and in doing so, made it much more difficult for members of the regional fishery management councils to cast votes that would benefit them, but harm the fish that they were entrusted to manage.

Thanks to SFA, and to later amendments to federal fisheries law, the National Marine Fisheries Service was able to sharply reduce overfishing and fully rebuild 45 once-overfished stocks.

But at its 1998 annual meeting, the ASMFC decided to take a step backward.
It initiated a pilot program that adopted a so-called “caucus” voting system, pursuant to which each state would cast a single vote, which represented the majority view off such state’s three commissioners. That meant that the political appointees (or their proxies, who were often fishermen or otherwise connected to the fishing industry), who typically had no formal education in fishery management, could override the professional judgment of their state’s fishery manager.
Thus, the science-based system that rebuilt the striped bass population was replaced by a system largely dependent on the uninformed opinions of political appointees and their proxies, who often had personal motivations that caused them to vote against management measures recommended by the ASMFC’s staff biologists.
The results were predictable: the ASMFC’s efforts to rebuild fish stalled. Some once-healthy populations went into decline.
Surprisingly, no one at the ASMFC seemed to have any reservations about the new system. At a 1999 meeting of the ASMFC’s Policy Board, one commissioner noted that “The [Legislative and Governors’ Appointees] believe the program is working very well, calling it an unmitigated success and that we haven’t seen any downside to it at all.” Given such support, the ASMFC Charter was amended to permanently adopt caucus voting, and so grant greater power to the governors’ and legislative appointees.

After that, economic concerns began to dominate management discussions. The ASMFC management boards developed a strong bias in favor of maintaining harvest levels, and a corresponding reluctance to impose the sort of landings restrictions that were needed to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish stocks.
Weak Management of Weakfish
One of the most egregious examples occurred in 2009, when biologists informed the Weakfish Management Board that “No matter what threshold we use, [the weakfish stock] is at record low levels…There is no other way to say that. At this point stock rebuilding should be a main concern…Even with a moratorium, rebuilding would be slow…”

Given such advice, state fishery managers from Maryland and North Carolina put a motion on the table that would have shut down both the commercial and recreational weakfish fisheries.

That motion didn’t sit well with the many of the appointees, who sought to protect the industry. Foremost among them was the governor’s appointee from New Jersey, who argued against the motion, saying “I’m looking at a solution that doesn’t basically shut down a complete fishery.  You know, we also talk about we’re supposed to build a sustainable fishery for a sustainable industry. If you start closing down both those industries, it takes a long time for that industry to recover. Yes, if we want to do away with the fishing industry, both recreational and commercial, we seem to be going in the right way. The numbers are going down whether it is a commercial fisherman, whether it is a bait shop, whether it is a tackle shop or a charterboat or a partyboat. I mean, I think the Compact [that created the ASMFC] says to build sustainable fisheries and fisheries that can be sustained.”

His full comment was quite a bit longer. In it, the New Jersey appointee expressed his concerns for the fishing industry, and his belief that fishermen ought to have “at least…one fish to take home.”
But he didn’t express any concern for the weakfish at all.
He was not alone. The governor’s appointee from New York remarked that
It’s interesting that with this action that we may take we will again affect the fishermen and will only play a small role, in my mind, in continuing to lead us toward a full demise of this specie [sic] of fish.
Similar as to winter flounder where we in New York went through an exercise in the last couple of weeks where we almost put a moratorium on winter flounder, we would have been one of two states that would have done that, which would have put a further hit on recreational, commercial and bait and tackle people and marinas and so on for those supplies.
Once again, all of the appointee’s concerns were for the fishing industry. None were for the fish. As a result of such sentiments, no moratorium was ever imposed. Weakfish remain very scarce.
Restoring Science-based Management at the ASMFC
Often, instead of seeing the ASMFC commissioners arguing about the best way to restore declining fish stocks, we see them arguing about whether such stocks ought to be restored at all.
In 2014, after a benchmark stock assessment found that the striped bass population had nearly become overfished, the proxy for Maryland’s legislative appointee refused to accept the assessment’s findings. He instead argued that “At this time, we’ve probably got more striped bass in the bay than I’ve ever seen in my life. We’ve got so many striped bass that it has affected our crab-catching industry…When the charterboats catch the striped bass and they clean them, you can count anywhere from ten to forty small crabs in the belly of a rockfish. This would also hurt our charterboat industry…”

While such arguments hardly constitute science-based management, they’re not uncommon at the ASMFC.
As a New York striped bass fisherman noted in a recent email to the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board,

In looking for a root cause to the problems we now have with Striped Bass, there is compelling evidence of the need to better clarify Board roles, in order to strengthen the overall decision-making capabilities at the Management Board level. ASMFC Guiding Documents clearly spell out the educational/technical qualifications for those conducting stock assessments, and assessing management options. There does not appear to be a similar list of qualifications for Commissioners. The end result can be (has been) Commissioners who have the power to caucus to dismiss or veto the science, even in the absurd case when they admit that they do not fully understand it.
To be more direct, science-based decisions on biological reference points, or levels of fishing mortality needed to adhere to those reference points, should not be made or influenced by political appointees who have no relevant background or training.
It’s a valid point.
Fisheries management is a complex scientific process. Thus, fishery management decisions should be made by scientists, not by untrained appointees who might not understand the science, but do understand that they have economic or other interests that will be affected by management decisions.
At the ASMFC, such appointees dominate every management board. It’s an effective way to protect the economic interests of industry members, but not a very good way to protect the public interest in healthy fish stocks.
Unfortunately, the current situation isn’t likely to change. The ASMFC made a big mistake years ago when it took management decisions out of professional managers’ hands and made them hostage to the whims of political appointees. To correct that mistake, the appointees would have to be willing to cede their current power and return to their former advisory role.
That’s not likely to happen in the real world.
The ASMFC finds itself in the same place that the federal fishery management councils were caught in prior to passage of the SFA, a place where council members voted in ways that benefitted themselves and their industries, and did long-term harm to fish stocks.
Congress can get the ASMFC to a far better place by passing a bill similar to SFA that limited commissioners’ discretion and required them to adhere to science-based management measures, avoid overfishing, and promptly rebuild overfished stocks.
If such a bill ever became law, the ASMFC could again become an effective fisheries manager, and don the mantle of leadership that it sadly abandoned two decades ago.
This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,: the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at