Thursday, March 26, 2015

TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT FISHERIES BILLS

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs fishing in federal waters, is currently up for reauthorization.  That’s a really big deal, and I’ll be writing about it a lot, perhaps beginning this weekend.

However, in between the big Magnuson debates, there are always a host of lesser legislative essays that are rarely signed into law—few bills of any kind make it that far—but are filed by various federal legislators who wish to please, or appease, a particular constituency within their state or Congressional district.

Such bills are intended to address some real or imagined wrong—most often the latter—and with few exceptions would let folks kill more fish than is good for the stock.  It doesn’t always happen that way; the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act was the lynchpin of the successful effort to rebuild that stock after it had collapsed.  However, that happened thirty years ago, and I can’t recall Congress passing another “small” bill with anything close to the same conservation impact, so it’s safe to say that the good bills are pretty rare.

But the bills intended to up fishermen’s kills, well, they’re pretty common--in fact, too common by far.

The grandfather of them all is probably the Flexibility in Rebuilding America’s Fisheries Act, which was sponsored by Frank Pallone, a Democratic Congressman from New Jersey, and Charles Schumer, a Democratic Senator from New York.  That bill has taken a fewdifferent forms over the years, but all employ the guise of “flexibility” to gut the most important conservation provisions of current law.

The “flexibility” bills were darlings of groundfish trawlers up in New England, who were still trying to kill the last cod, and with recreational fishing industry interests in New York and New Jersey—primarily, but not exclusively, the party boat operators—who were doing their best to kill enough summer flounder to stall their eventual recovery.

Such bills never came close to passage.  Unfortunately, a bill that included many of the worst aspects of “flexibility”—and some other bad stuff besides—was introduced in the House last year by Washington Republican Doc Hastings as part of the Magnuson Act reauthorization process.

The bill was so bad that it was quickly dubbed the “Empty Oceans Act,” by the conservation community, who was glad to see it die and maybe equally glad to see Hastings retire.  

Unfortunately, Don Young, a Republican representative from Alaska, has reintroduced his version of “Empty Oceans” this year.

But that is a story for another day.  For now, there are plenty of other bad bills to discuss.

A lot of them are being pushed by malcontent anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, who want to kill more red snapper than either the science or current law would allow.  

The most recent of these is the so-called Red Snapper Management Improvement Act, introduced by David Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana who has been a long-time opponent of unpolluted rivers, unmined mountaintops and undrilled wilderness, and who is now apparently adding healthy fisheries to the list of things he's against.  

Vitter would create a “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority” to replace federal fisheries managers, a thoroughly cynical and senseless idea that I discussed in detail about three blogs ago.

That came on top of a bill called the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act, which was introduced by Congressman Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida.  The so-called “conservation act” was an earlier and cruder version effort to turn red snapper management over to the states, and appeared to define “conservation” as allowing Gulf red snapper anglers, who were regularly exceeding their quota, to kill even more fish. 

About what you’d expect for these interim bills.

Lately, along with Vitter’s red snapper debacle, we have seen Republican congressman Rob Wittman of Virginia introduce something called the Healthy Fisheries Through Better Science Act, a bill in some ways reminiscent of the Fisheries Science Improvement Act introduced a few years ago by the normally pro-conservation Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, at the behest of—yes, you guessed it—red snapper anglers in his home state who were trying to discredit existing science in an effort to kill a few more fish (although in that instance, they were concerned with tightened regulations in the South Atlantic rather than in the Gulf).

Wittman’s bill, unlike Nelson’s, would require stock assessments every 5 years for all of the 500+ stocks that NMFS currently manages.  

That’s a laudable goal in theory, and I for one would like to see it achieved.  However, that’s not very likely to happen.  Wittman’s bill doesn’t appropriate a penny to get the work done and, as a practical matter, even if the funds were available a shortage of qualified stock assessment scientists would probably be an even greater obstacle to completing all of the assessments on time.

On the surface, it’s not clear why Wittman felt it necessary to introduce such a bill, as his constituents in the Mid-Atlantic region have little problem with unassessed stocks; all are assessed on a regular basis.  But if you consider the fact that Wittman is co-chair of the Congressional Sportsman’s Caucus, along with the fact that such Caucus is heavily lobbied by—once again—the red snapper folks, the likely motivation becomes all too clear.  There’s only one stock assessment that matters to them, and for the record, it’s neither George’s Bank cod nor summer flounder…

Wittman’s bill is likely to meet the same fate as most bills of its kind, but that’s not the real point.

Bills such as the Red Snapper Management Improvement Act, the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act, the Fisheries Science Improvement Act and the Healthy Fisheries Through Better Science Act—along with all of their infernal spawn and misbegotten lookalikes—don’t actually improve anything, conserve anything or make anything better, nor are they intended to.

Without exception, each such bill is a cynical effort to sidestep conservative, science-based management efforts, and undermine the current federal fisheries management system.

So far, such bills have been shot down in flames, with none coming anywhere close to passage.

But there is no assurance that will continue to happen.

One day, in the case of one bill, the stars may align.  An influential congressman and equally influential senator will manage to get one of these bills through committee and onto the floor, either on its own or, more likely, attached as a rider to another piece of legislation, passed by both houses and signed into law.

Should that day ever happen, be prepared for the deluge. 

The Red Snapper Management Improvement Act will be joined by the Gulf of Maine Cod Management Improvement Act, the New England Winter Flounder Conservation Act, the Better Data for Mid-Atlantic Black Sea Bass Act, the Blueline Tilefish Science Improvement Act and…well, you get the idea.

Any sort of rational management, based on sound scientific principles, will be undermined, and a free-for-all of species-specific bills, giving relief for management measures, will be loosed on the management world, reversing years of progress in rebuilding stocks.

It’s a pretty bleak picture, but it’s not going to change unless and until the leaders of the angling community begin living up to their obligations to actually lead, and to treat America’s anglers as adults capable of understanding and appreciating the need for sound fisheries management rather than as spoiled children who need to be indulged with pointless and potentially harmful legislation.

After what we’ve observed in the past couple of years, it may be that such leaders just aren’t up to the task.  They may lack enough good sense and guts.  But unless they get serious about fisheries bills, and stop supporting dangerous fluff, I fear that they’ll leave future generations with nothing save an empty and desolate sea.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

IN PURSUIT OF IGNORANCE

Over the past twenty years, efforts to manage marine fisheries have consistently improved.

Back in 1995, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission first declared striped bass to be “recovered,” the virtual population analysis used to support that decision was something very new.  It was probably the first such population model used to assess the health of a major East Coast fish population, and was met with substantial suspicion.

Since then, the striped bass population model has evolved into a much more sophisticated and far more accurate tool for assessing and managing the stock, while the modeling process has been used effectively to rebuild and manage other mid-Atlantic stocks such as summer flounder and scup.

The expansion of the population modeling process, and its resultant role in stock assessment and management, could not have occurred without a similar expansion of knowledge with respect to the natural history of important fish stocks and how such stocks are impacted by fishermen.

Thus, after so much progress has been made, it’s always disconcerting to see a group of fishermen try to limit the amount of information available to fisheries managers, and turn back the clock to the days when even the best fisheries management efforts were beset with real ignorance with respect to the number of fish landed and such landings’ effect on the stocks.

Yet that is exactly what’s happening right now down in North Carolina.

Not long ago, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission, responding to a law passed by the state legislature, proposed a rule that would require the state’s for-hire boats—party boats and charter boats alike—to maintain logbooks recording their catch and their landings.

Although validating the accuracy of such self-reported information can pose a real problem, such a rule would hopefully provide state regulators with a window into for-hire landings, and perhaps provide a bit of a check-and-balance against the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Recreational Information Program, which is currently used to evaluate recreational catch.

However, the Cape Fear Captains’ Association, a group of charter boat captains who operate along the southern North Carolina coast, apparently doesn’t want the state to know what they are landing.  That Association has started an on-line petition opposing the proposed logbook rule.

According to the Carteret News-Times, a local newspaper, the Cape Fear Captains’ Association opposes a logbook requirement not because it would provide bad information to regulators, but because they deemed the rule “invasive” and feared that

“the data will be used to create more restrictive regulation.”
In other words, they fear that if regulators knew what they were really catching, new rules put in place to conserve fish stocks might require them to catch a bit less.

One charter boat captain, Britt Shackleford, who serves as president of North Carolina Watermen United, told the News-Times that he objects to a logbook requirement because

“faulty data and faulty fishing models derived from it has led to tightened restrictions on a number of species, including tilefish, sharks, grouper, red drum and spotted seatrout.  He said he thinks the [Division of Marine Fisheries] has failed to fulfill their charge of managing fishing resources for all user groups, and sees no reason to ‘help them hurt me.’”
But what Shackleton doesn’t explain is how a logbook with supposedly accurate information recorded by the charter captains themselves could hurt him.  After all, if the problem underlying regulations that are supposedly hurting his business comes from “faulty data,” wouldn’t data that he and his fellow captains supply—data that assumedly wouldn’t be “faulty”—improve the data collection process and thus help avoid “faulty fishing models” that lead to “tightened regulations”?

There seems to be a logical disconnect here…

But such disconnect isn’t unique to North Carolina.

A decade before the Cape Fear Captains’ Association initiated a petition against mandatory logbooks, folks in my part of the world were already trying to obscure landings data from federal regulators.

In 2005, the United Boatmen of New York and New Jersey, an organization which primarily represented the party boat industry, joined with the New York Fishing Tackle Trade Association contemplated organizing a boycott, which would deny information to NMFS’ Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey, the forerunner to the current MRIP program.

Capt. Dennis Kanyuk of United Boatmen tried to justify such boycott by saying

“There is a complete failure in the management of recreational fisheries, from the inaccurate catch and effort information provided at the primary level by MRFSS, to the fisheries managers using these estimates as absolute numbers for quota management when they well know MRFSS estimates are not designed to be used in this manner.  NMFS has shown a complete lack of interest in putting any serious effort into correcting any of these problems or dealing with the recreational sector in general.”
While Kanyuk, along with the organizations considering the boycott, apparently thought about doing so because they didn’t like MRFSS harvest estimates and the resulting regulations, they also didn’t seem to provide viable sources of alternative data that fishery managers could use to determine what anglers were actually landing.


“In particular, [United Boatmen and NYFTTA] claim the National Marine Fisheries Service…has failed to investigate the feasibility of slot limits in certain fisheries.  It [sic] also claims the agency has yet to address the problem of ever-increasing size limits in many recreational fisheries; and has failed to use data generated by the for-hire recreational logbook and trip reports.”
The first two points—the lack of slot limits and the fact that size limits were increasing in some fisheries—pretty well sum up the recreational industry’s justification for boycotting NMFS; like their 2105 counterparts in North Carolina, they didn’t want to cooperate with a data collection system that might result in greater restrictions on their landings, and apparently thought that keeping fisheries managers ignorant of what was actually being caught would result in more favorable rules.

However, unlike the folks in North Carolina, for-hire captains in New York and New Jersey seemed willing to embrace a system of logbooks and trip reports filled out not by impartial observers, but by those very captains themselves.

The problem is, while both MRFSS and MRIP estimates may lack precision, the potential magnitude of the error can generally be calculated.  On the other hand, the precision of logbook and trip report data is very difficult to figure out.  

However, some recent numbers from the New York striped bass fishery may provide a clue.

New York’s party and charter boats are required to report every striped bass (and every other fish) caught by their passengers.  The vessel trip reports filed by such vessels state that they harvested exactly 12,309 striped bass in 2013, and about half of that—6,477 fish—last season.
Which sounds pretty good, until you realize that NMFS estimated that the same boats caught 234,650 striped bass in 2013 and 125,558 bass last year.  In both cases, the NMFS estimate was about twenty times higher than what the vessel trip reports show.

One set of estimates has to be wildly wrong.  Maybe both are imprecise.  The measure of precision in the NMFS estimate, called the “Percent Standard Error,” is 16.8% for 2013, and 39.1% for last season; the latter, in particular, is fairly large, but nowhere near large enough to provide an estimate that is twenty times the actual harvest.

So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that the error came from the logbooks and trip reports, which is what the New York captains wanted NMFS to use.

So we see some differences between the industry folks in New York and New Jersey, and those in North Carolina.  The former disliked NMFS harvest estimates, and would have regulators rely on their logbooks.  The latter was willing to live with NMFS numbers, but didn’t want logbooks at all.

But those differences pale when compared to the one thing that made all of those folks alike—their desire to deny fisheries managers sources of the information required to properly conserve and manage fish stocks.

But ignorance is nobody’s friend, particularly when that ignorance is used as an excuse to perpetuate the mismanagement of our most important fisheries.


It should be stamped out whenever possible. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

HANGING TOGETHER

Last Tuesday, Rhode Island announced that it would permit its salt water anglers to retain one striped bass, at least 28 inches long, each day, regardless of whether such anglers were fishing from shore, from a private boat or from a for-hire vessel.

There was quite a bit of doubt that Rhode Island would come to that decision; the state’s for-hire fleet pushed very hard to convince regulators to make their customers exceptions to the general rule, and allow them to retain two bass per day, each at least 32 inches long.

In rejecting the for-hires’ demands, and adopting the single-fish bag, Rhode Island assured that throughout the northeast, from New York to Maine, the same bag limit will prevail.  Those states may share the same size limit, too, although Maine could instead adopt a very narrow, 24 to 26-inch slot, and require its anglers to release any striped bass above or below that size.

Over all, it was a remarkable showing of unity, made even more impressive by the fact that to our south, anglers fishing the coastal waters of Virginia and North Carolina will also be allowed to retain just one bass no less than 28 inches long.  

Maryland has made no official announcement, but is expected to go the same way.

Pennsylvania will also adopt 1 @ 28” in the Delaware River and, for most of the season, in its small section of Delaware Bay, although during the summer months a special season intended to target resident males will replace 1 @ 28” with a 2-fish bag and a 21 to 25-inch slot.

Of all the major striped bass states, only perpetually recalcitrant and hungry New Jersey will allow its anglers to kill more than one bass, including one fish between 28 and <42 inches long, and the other 43 inches or larger—and that’s before the state’s “bonus fish” program ever comes into play.  Delaware, which harvests relatively few stripers, also seems intent on letting its anglers kill a couple of bass each day, although the size limits have not yet been established.

Still, with the exception of a couple of unfortunate outliers, it’s pretty clear that fisheries managers in most of the states have rallied around a one-fish bag and 28-inch minimum size.  In doing so, member states of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have come nearly full circle, and acknowledged that regulations work best when they’re adopted by all.

It was that concept that gave ASMFC its original legitimacy as a true fisheries management body, rather than merely a research and debating society.  For back when the striped bass stock crashed forty or so years ago, there was no unity between the states at all.  ASMFC had adopted its first striped bass management plan, and had some ideas about what to do next, but the states competed and bickered among themselves, and not too much got done.

That didn’t change until 1984, when Congress intervened by passing the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act.  That law gave ASMFC the ability to enforce the terms of its striped bass management plan; any state that ASMFC determined was out of compliance with the plan's provisions could be referred to the United States Commerce Department.  

Commerce, in turn, was authorized to confirm ASMFC’s finding of non-compliance and, as a result, shut down the entire striped bass fishery in the waters of the offending state until such state brought its own regulations in line with the plan.

That ability to shut down a state’s entire fishery was the hammer that ASMFC needed to keep state regulators in line, and prevent them from taking any actions that would hurt other states and the striped bass’ recovery.  The approach proved so successful that, in 1993, Congress passed the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which extended ASMFC’s ability to close state fisheries to all of the species that it managed.

But then, a funny thing happened.

ASMFC began to abandon the very mechanism that made its striped bass recovery efforts effective.  Instead, it relied more and more on the concept of “conservation equivalency,” which allowed states to deviate from the provisions of a management plan, so long as the regulations adopted by such state were deemed to yield the same conservation benefit as did the Commission’s plan.

The most extreme example of such approach occurred in the summer flounder fishery, where each state was assigned its own share of the harvest and required to adopt regulations that governed only that state’s fishery.  Regulations varied widely between neighboring states, with boats fishing a few hundred feet apart, but on different sides of an interstate boundary, governed by wildly different rules.  

Anglers grew discontent, fisheries managers grew frustrated and, given how often states overfished their allocations, the effort probably didn’t do the summer flounder an awful lot of good, either.

The situation staggered along for more than a decade. 

However, in other fisheries, managers were beginning to see the advantages of a unified management plan.

Scup were the vehicle for the first breakthrough.

Although scup are caught along much of the southern New England and mid-Atlantic coast, in most years well over 90 percent of the recreational harvest is landed by just four states—New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  The percentage of the catch landed by those states as a group remaine pretty constant from year to year, although each state’s contribution to the overall landings can change quite a bit. 

As a result, under the “conservation equivalency” approach, states were constantly changing their regulations in response to the previous year’s landings; however, because they were constantly looking backwards, at what the previous years landings were, and not into the future, at what landings were likely to be, the effort wasn’t very successful.     
                      
A little over ten years ago, the issue came to a head.

Estimates of angling harvest said that Connecticut had grossly overfished its allocation; at the same time, New York had significantly underfished its share of scup.  Under the conservation equivalency approach, Connecticut faced severe harvest restrictions, while New York would be able to significantly liberalize its rules.  The only problem was that when the next season came, it was as likely as not that the situation would reverse, and New York would be under the gun to reduce its scup landings.

Such constant changes caused equally constant aggravation for anyone involved in the fishery.

So instead of going forward in the usual way, the states broke out of the mold, with New York offering to share its fish with Connecticut.  That way, no one needed to make any changes in its rules, and some stability could be restored to the fishery.  That effort evolved a bit more, and eventually the four major scup states agreed to manage their fish as a unit, with the same size limits, bag limits and season length.

It worked out very well.  The wild annual swings in each state’s regulations disappeared as overages in one state were nullified by underages in another.  Bag limits grew and size limits shrunk for everyone as years of good management rebuilt the stock to some of the highest levels of abundance that anyone can recall.

In 2014, after years of disjointed conservation equivalency efforts, some level of rationality returned to summer flounder management as well, as ASMFC organized the states into “regions.”  Each state in a region was required to have the same size limit, bag limit and season length as all of the others.  Here in New York, the effort was wonderfully successful.

New York was grouped in a region with Connecticut and New Jersey, which allowed New York to reduce its size limit and increase its bag, at the expense of a somewhat shortened season.  New Jersey anglers didn’t like the idea, as they had to endure greater restrictions.  Ironicallly, the arrangement ended up helping New Jersey most, after that state—even with its more restrictive regulations—ended up exceeding what would have been its single-state allocation, while New York with its less restrictive rules underfished by a substantial amount (as did Connecticut).

In the end, as with scup, overages and underages cancelled themselves out, and we’re all going to have the same summer flounder regulations for two years in a row, a modest sign of stability that we last experienced over a decade ago.

Hanging together really does work.

Thus, it’s slightly amusing to see states in other regions, which are considering adopting a state-driven, ASMFC-like model for the first time, ignoring ASMFC’s well-publicized mistakes and setting out to make the very same mistakes for themselves.

The best example of that recently surfaced In the Gulf of Mexico, where the states are hoping to band together in something that’s being called the “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority,” which would take over responsibility for red snapper management from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The folks proposing such an “Authority” are bright enough to realize that the states won’t always get along, and that one state may well take action that will be detrimental to the interests of the other states’ anglers.  Thus, they tried to create a federal backstop that could intercede in interstate problems, providing that

“The [Authority] could request additional accountability actions through the Secretary of Commerce if a Gulf state or a group of Gulf states adopted management measures that or regulations significantly inconsistent from the red snapper management framework identified in the Plan when such inconsistent measures could negatively impact the interests of other Gulf states with regard to red snapper management
“The procedures established as part of the Striped Bass Act [sic] Section 5153—Monitoring of Implementation and Enforcement by Coastal States would serve as a model for developing procedures for action through the Secretary of Commerce specific to the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico…”
The only problem was that the same folks decided that

"Federal action to provide accountability and ensure consistency would be limited to the federal waters adjacent to the state(s} that adopted inconsistent management measures or actions.  Under no circumstances would federal authority or action supersede that of an individual state within state waters.”
And thus they prove that they missed the whole point.

The only reason that ASMFC’s striped bass recovery efforts worked was because ASMFC could shut down a non-compliant state’s entire fishery by invoking federal sanctions.  If states had been allowed to manage striped bass as they chose within state waters, the entire process would have failed.

Granted, striped bass are inshore gamefish, and a much larger proportion of red snapper landings are harvested offshore.  Yet even in that fishery, landings from state waters are creating a significant problem and leading to much of the current disruption of the management process.  Allowing the states to do as they please in their own waters, immune from the federal hammer, is purest folly.

Without a federal backstop to enforce compliance with a management plan, do we really believe that Texas will give up its 365-day season, 4-fish bag and 15-inch minimum size, if fisheries managers in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi think that they should in order to help out the stock?

Up here in the north, we know how it works in the real world.  We have to deal with New Jersey…

So yes, striped bass anglers throughout the northeast, and along the rest of the striper coast, should be pleased that most of our fisheries managers have decided that unity does, in fact, produce strength.  

And we can hopefully rest assured that if New Jersey’s excesses don’t achieve the desired reduction, the rest of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board can require that state to do better, and then seek federal intervention in every New Jersey creek, bay and river if they refuse.

A long time ago, Benjamin Franklin reputedly said

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
But in the arena of fisheries management, that’s not really true.

Sometimes, as in the case of New York’s winter flounder, there’s a compelling biological reason to go it alone.  But that’s an exceptional situation.  Almost all of the time, the states have a very clear choice.

They can hang together, and provide better fishing for all.

Or they can each try to maneuver to best suit themselves, in which case some will surely hang separately, while others gleefully pull on the other end of the rope.


It’s a lesson that Atlantic coast anglers learned through experience, and that’s one experience that anglers elsewhere should not try to repeat.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A SHORTAGE OF COMMON SENSE

A few weeks ago, it appeared that there was some good news coming out of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery.  The red snapper population continues to rebuild, and as a result, managers approved a 30 percent increase in the annual catch limit, raising it all the way from 11 million to 14.3 million pounds.

That’s a pretty clear sign that the current management system is working, and working pretty well.  You would think that it would make anglers happy.

After all, a 30% increase in black sea bass quota would pretty well eliminate the problem facing us in the northeast, and a 30% increase in summer flounder would take us back to seasons and size limits (or maybe bags) that we haven’t seen for a decade or more.

But red snapper anglers are a different breed, and they are not happy at all.

Instead of presenting the increase as good news to their readers, outdoor writers in the region are characterizing the 30% increase as “a few extra crumbs” and complaining about managers creating a buffer between the recreational annual catch limit and anglers’ share of the allowable biological catch—even though such buffer (or other accountability measure) was mandated by a federal district court about a year ago, after anglers repeatedly demonstrated that they could not stay within their annual catch limit if it was not imposed.

And the states are just as bad.

One of the big complaints we keep hearing from red snapper fishermen is that the season in federal waters, where most of the anglers used to fish, is distressingly short.  Last year, it went on for only nine days.  As a result, landings data provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service show that, at least in some states, the catch is shifting inshore.

In 2012, for example, only about 35 percent of Florida’s Gulf red snapper landings came from state waters.  In 2013, the proportion of fish caught in state waters jumped to nearly half (48%).  Last season, the proportion of state-waters fish increased again, to 55 percent.

Thus, if folks are concerned with the length of the federal season, it would seem to make sense for state fisheries managers, in Florida and elsewhere, to freeze the length of their seasons—and thus presumably the number of fish harvested in state waters—so that the entire increase in the annual catch limit could be used to extend the time that people could fish in the federal sea.

But that would make sense, so we could be sure from the start that it’s not what anyone would propose for Gulf red snapper.   

Instead, fisheries managers in Florida and Louisiana, and perhaps other states, are talking about extending their state seasons, moves which can only perpetuate the very short federal season.

Some red snapper anglers understand that the red snapper annual catch limit creates a zero-sum game, in which extending state seasons inevitably means that federal seasons will be shorter.  Martha Bademan, a member of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who also holds a seat on the Gulf Council, has acknowledged that

“Florida catches a lot of red snapper.  If we have a lot of going on in state waters, you can expect a shorter federal season.”
Even so, the Florida Commission is considering extending the state’s red snapper season, which doesn’t make much sense at all.

But if the decision making process in Florida seems a bit perplexing, what’s going on down in Louisiana is completely confounding.

Louisiana, like Texas, eschews participation in NMFS’ Marine Recreational Information Program, which means that the state’s harvest data isn’t directly comparable to that provided by NMFS, and can be a little difficult to locate.  However, according to information the state has released, roughly three-quarters of Louisiana’s red snapper are caught within state waters.

With a statistic like that, you’d think that Lousiana’s fisheries managers, as well as the state’s anglers, would want to freeze state-waters harvest in order to extend the federal season.  But if you thought that such common sense would prevail, you’re clearly new to the red snapper debate...


“…we feel like this year, we’ll start with two fish and go into the federal season, and when we come out of the federal season, we can go up [in bag limit].”
So not only will Louisiana go out of compliance with the federal its season, it’s planning to exceed the federal bag limit, too.  And it is also planning to take over a pretty big piece of the federal ocean, unilaterally extending the state’s management authority out to three nautical leagues—a little over ten miles—when according to federal law, Louisiana’s territorial sea, and thus its authority, peters out three miles from the beach.

Again it doesn’t make too much sense, unless you believe in what Louisiana and the other Gulf states apparently see as their endgame.

“We want complete control of red snapper, for starters, and we want the [federal] money [to pay for it], too.”
Their goal is to strip management authority for red snapper in federal waters from NMFS and the Gulf Council, and hand it over from the states.

And that probably makes the least sense of all.

The five Gulf of Mexico states are asking Congress to create a new entity, which will be called the “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority.” 

Such Authority would take the form of a panel composed of the “principal fisheries manager” from each of the five Gulf states.  Each state would be permitted to come up with its own management plan for red snapper in its waters and in the federal waters allocated to each state.  The Authority would then decide, by majority vote, whether each state’s management plan was acceptable.

Overfishing would apparently be frowned upon, although firm annual catch limits need not be established.  Instead,

“The states would be required to ensure overfishing will not occur through the full range of management and assessment strategies available to each state or each group of states acting in concert.  These strategies would not be limited to those based on total allowable catch.”
That’s vague enough to make it unlikely that any state will ever be accused of overfishing, no matter how many snapper its anglers harvest, but it’s an order of magnitude better than the rebuilding language, which reads

“If the status of the fishery in each state is in equilibrium or expanding, no change in management actions may be required.  If the status of the fishery is below equilibrium or declining, the responsible state or states would be required to take appropriate action to revise existing management actions to restore equilibrium…”
I would hate to be the judge who had to interpret that one for the first time…

It seems to say that if you have a lousy fishery, with the fish scarce but not seeming to get any scarcer (think tautog—a/k/a blackfish—here in New York), that’s OK because you have "equilibrium," even if the stock remains overfished.  If it gets any worse, you have to rebuild it, but only until you rebuild it back to the same lousy and still-overfished "equilibrium" level.  You never need to bring it all the way back.

In that way, and in many others, the Authority management model seems to be very roughly modeled after that of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  Like ASMFC, the Authority would be authorized to invite federal intervention  

“if a Gulf state or a group of Gulf states adopted management measures or regulations significantly inconsistent from the red snapper management framework identified in the Plan when such inconsistent measures could negatively impact the interests of other Gulf states with regard to red snapper management.”
But as anyone familiar with ASMFC’s concept of “conservation equivalency” and the mischief it engenders knows, allowing states to deviate from an established management plan can create a variety of problems, leading to endless debate about whether one state’s deviation causes harm to another.  The history of summer flounder management, along with the current debate over New Jersey’s new striped bass regulations, should give the Gulf states reason for pause.

Even if those Gulf states aren’t familiar with the problems at ASMFC, they certainly know what’s going on in their own region.  So it makes absolutely no sense to read that any federal intervention

“would be limited to the federal waters adjacent to the state(s) that adopted inconsistent management measures or actions.  Under no circumstances would federal authority or action supersede that of an individual state within designated state waters.”
In other words, the Authority would merely perpetuate the problems that exist today, allowing any state to thumb its nose at the feds and/or neighboring states by overharvesting red snapper within its own waters, regardless of the impact on others.

Does that make sense to you?

But then, the whole thing is a conundrum.  

Why replace a system that is working, successfully rebuilding the stock, increasing annual harvest and, at least lately, preventing overfishing, by adopting an untested authority that could halt rebuilding and lead to stagnant landings levels, perpetuate current problems and likely lead to new conflicts between the states?

Nothing about that makes sense at all.

In fact, the only sensible thing that I’ve read about red snapper recently appeared in the Pensacola News-Journal, where a local for-hire captain, Gary Jarvis, wrote

“…there is no avoiding the fact that the health of the Gulf’s red snapper fishery depends on cooperation between federal and state fisheries managers.
“The National Marine Fisheries Service must set sustainable catch limits and must keep Gulf anglers within that sustainable fisheries budget.  If state managers take more than that budget allows or spends at a burn rate that threatens to exceed it, federal managers must act by reducing the federal season to compensate for the state’s overspending…
“Unfortunately, the states often set their spending rates at levels that are not based on sound scientific principles…
“The [states’] non-science-based red snapper management and lack of partnership [with the feds] is unfair.
“As long as Gulf states like Florida and Texas willingly continue to be bad partners with their federal counterparts, Gulf anglers who do not have red snapper in their state waters will have to stand by and watch privatized state-water fisheries devour any chance of a federal-waters season.”
Finally, we find common sense.

It doesn’t require a bill in Congress to extend the federal season.  It doesn’t require a “Red Snapper Management Authority” or a wholesale restructuring of the management system.

It just requires some partnership and cooperation, and the willingness of some states—and their anglers—to take the long view and work with their neighbors to restore the red snapper stock, rather than grabbing what they can for themselves at every opportunity.

It requires everyone involved to think about the future, and not merely the upcoming season.

But given the attitudes that both the states and the anglers have shown up to this date, what it probably requires to get the job done is some sort of miracle.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

THANKS

In the fourteen-plus months since I’ve started this blog, I’ve opined and reported, lamented and raved.  But today, it’s time to simply give thanks to the people inside and outside of government who have taken the management process and shaped it to do the right thing.

On Tuesday, at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, Jim Gilmore, Director of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Bureau, announced that New York would adopt a one-fish bag limit and 28-inch minimum size for striped bass caught in the state’s Marine District.
 
In order to protect spawning bass in the Hudson River, the start of the season will be moved back 17 days, from March 15 to April 1.  A slot size limit will protect some of the spawning females; anglers may now take one fish between 18 and 28 inches (most of that size are males) or one over 40 inches in length.

On the same day, similar news was announced in Connecticut.  

A week or so earlier, Massachusetts made 1 @ 28 inches the law in that state as well.  

Today, unless Rhode Island chooses to give in to the tantrums of its for-hire fleet and allows party and charter boat anglers to kill two 32-inch striped bass, the striper will enjoy a one-fish bag limit in every state between New York and Maine and, with one possible exception—Maine may adopt a 24-26 inch slot and prohibit the harvest of bigger fish—the same 28-inch minimum size.

On its face, that does not seem remarkable, as it merely echoes a decision made at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last October.  But efforts to undercut ASMFC’s actions threatened to frustrate its efforts to rebuild striped bass, and it took a heroic effort on the part of anglers and state fisheries managers to hold the line at one 28-inch fish.

I live in New York, so when it comes to saying thanks, I’ll start with the people I know.

The first of them must be Jim Gilmore, who is not only Director of the Marine Bureau, but a native son of Great South Bay and no stranger to the striped bass.

He worked hard from the start to do the right thing, conferring with his counterparts in other states and listening to concerns of the stakeholders here in New York.  

Throughout the process, he always seemed focused on the stripers’ best interests and the long-term health of the fishery.

It wasn’t easy, as anglers seeking a reduced harvest and for-hires trying to maintain their kill flooded his office with calls and e-mails, each promoting their side.  At one point, e-mail traffic grew so heavy that he had to have additional memory added to his computer in order to archive it all.

Gilmore could have taken the easy route, adopting the 2-fish “slot and trophy” recommended by the Marine Resources Advisory Council.  But he did not, and his brief explanation of why he supported 1 @ 28” demonstrates the sort of logic a fisheries manager should use when considering such questions.

As he told the Advisory Council on Tuesday,

1)      1 @ 28” only provided a 50% chance of attaining the needed harvest reductions, and that was already a risky approach;
2)      Reducing commercial quotas, rather than actual landings, by 25% amounted to only a 16% reduction in real-world mortality, which added to the chances of failure;
3)      Conservation equivalency should be used to address particular problems that arise from time to time in particular states, and should not be seen as a way for everyone to evade the intent of management board actions;
4)      The various conservation equivalency options being presented turned the process into a kind of mathematical exercise, rather than a real effort to manage the stock;
5)      With a new stock assessment coming up in 2017, it is better to impose some relatively mild restrictions on harvest now, and begin to rebuild the stock, rather than have the next assessment find that the stock is in need of far more restrictive regulation;
6)      ASMFC’s Law Enforcement Committee recommended uniform regional regulations; and
7)      A one-fish bag limit will still support a robust for-hire fishery.
I may have missed a point or two, but you get the drift.  The guy knows just how fisheries management ought to be done.

I can’t mention Jim Gilmore without mentioning a few other folks on his team.  Steve Heins, who runs the Bureau’s Finfish and Shellfish unit, did plenty of work on the bass rules and intercepted his share of the complaints and the calls.  And biologists Carol Hoffman in the Marine District and Kathy Hatala up on the Hudson, assembled and analyzed the data needed to make the decisions, took part in the Technical Committee discussions and had to endure plenty of inquiries from myself and others.  They were always wonderfully responsive despite their significant workloads.

There were certainly others in the Marine Bureau and at higher management levels within the DEC--reaching up to the Commissioner and very probably to the Governor himself—who had input on this issue.  They, too, deserve thanks from us all.

In the other states, there were other folks, including Paul Diodati of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who had been calling for ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board to reduce harvest for years.  He was the first fisheries director of a major northeastern striped bass state to support a limit of one 28-inch bass for every angler.  

David Simpson of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection was another consistent advocate for conservative management. 

And we can’t forget Pat Kelliher of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources or Doug Grout of New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department—in fact, the entire Maine and New Hampshire ASMFC delegations—who never stopped urging the Management Board to do the right thing.

Yet conservation is always controversial and, as a purely political matter, managers often find it difficult to do the right thing unless it’s clear that the public supports them.  Money talks, and when faced with strong opposition from the for-hires or other elements of the fishing industry, managers can find it difficult to make the right policy decisions without a clear public mandate.

Thus, thanks have to go out to the hundreds of New York anglers—along with other states’ anglers, numbering into the thousands coastwide—who came out to hearings or sent in their comments in support of striped bass conservation.  

New York’s fishermen can take special pride in the fact that the largest hearing held anywhere on the coast occurred when close to two hundred souls filled the auditorium at Stony Brook University.  

But whether a hearing was big or small, everyone who showed up deserves thanks, just because they were there.

Particular recognition should go to the people who worked at the grassroots level to keep volunteers informed and active.  Ross Squire, founder of the 1 @ 32” Pledge, took it upon himself to organize and mobilize fishermen not only here in New York, but elsewhere on the coast.  Willie Young and the New York Coalition for Recreational Fishing also did an outstanding job; and we should be grateful that the New York Sportfishing Federation clearly called for a one-fish bag.

Farther afield, Capt. Dave Pecci and his “Save Our Stripers” folks came all the way from Maine to the ASMFC meeting in Mystic, Connecticut, while to our south, Coastal Conservation Association Maryland’s “My Limit Is One” campaign set a standard for the entire coast to follow. 

Thank you one and all.

And thanks to a couple of outspoken captains.  Capt. John McMurray of One More Cast Charters serves as New York’s recreational representative to ASMFC’s Striped Bass Advisory Panel.  He fought hard to make 1 @ 28 inches happen, so hard that when the Chairman of the Advisory Panel gave his report at the October Management Board meeting, he repeatedly referred to John’s constant fight for strong conservation measures.  

And Capt. Steve Witthuhn, of Top Hook Charters in Montauk, demonstrated leadership—and cojones—when he told a Newsday reporter that 1 @ 28 inches was the right thing to do, even though a lot of his fellow Montauk captains did not agree.

I’m proud to call them both friends.

In the end, there is plenty of thanks to go around.  Thanks to the state fisheries managers, to the grassroots organizers, to the anglers and captains who gave up their time and made the effort to come out to the hearings, provide testimony, and write comments to ASMFC.

This victory belongs to all of them.

I wish them the joy of success.

They earned it.