Sunday, April 26, 2015

RUNNING AWAY FROM REALITY

Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council began voting on various proposals to open previously closed areas to groundfish trawlers and other destructive gear types .  So far, news is mixed, with Cashes Ledge still protected and a new closed area in the eastern Gulf of Maine created, but restrictions removed from a large area off the Maine coast.  Other areas have also seen weakened protections.

 A proposed no-fishing research area on Stellwagen Bank was not approved.

Various conservation organizations have argued that the closed areas should remain closed.  However, the most important objection probably came from John Bullard, Regional Director of the Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Office.  In a 9-page letter written to the New England Fishery Management Council earlier this month, Bullard said

“Looking at the habitat management alternatives collectively, the combination of preferred habitat management areas being recommended…results in meaningful reductions in overall habitat protection and would fail to adequately minimize the adverse effects from fishing on [Essential Fish Habitat] in the region.
“…I find it impossible to rationally understand how, in light of the Framework 53 analyses, the Committee’s recommended spawning alternative meets the objective of improving groundfish spawning protection.
“Given the Council’s conclusions in Framework 53 and the [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] on the impacts to groundfish from the Committee’s preferred alternatives (both spawning and habitat management), it is difficult to see how the goal of ‘improving groundfish spawning protection, including protection of localized spawning contingents or sub-populations of stocks’ would be met with the implementation of those recommendations alone.”
As Regional Administrator, Bullard has the power to veto the Council’s action in opening various areas.  It would probably be good if he did so, given the critical state of cod stocks off New England and the importance of good habitat and successful spawns to the future of the population.

However, some folks still don’t get it.

The New England Fishery Management Council’s perennial opposition to science-based management has continued for decades, and shows no sign of abating.  As a result of such attitudes, and of fishery management measures that strive to produce the highest possible harvests each year, regardless of impacts to once-abundant fish stocks, many groundfish populations have sharply declined.  Some have collapsed, with the Gulf of Maine cod stock now at just 4% of a healthy population level.

Yet there are people calling for more of the same.

A recent editorial in South Coast Today, a New Bedford, Massachusetts-based media outlet, stated

“If one balances what has been gained (and what has been gained?  ‘Crisis’ levels for Gulf of Maine cod?) in the years spent trying to rebuild these stocks against what has been lost in the fishing community because of it, a compelling argument can be made that continuing these restrictions does more harm than  allowing fishermen back in…”
In that one statement, South Coast Today illustrates what’s wrong with New England fisheries management, and explains why cod stocks have collapsed.

There is no patience with management measures that will take time to work.  Short-term benefit—in this case, allowing fishermen into closed areas to cash in on the fish there for as long as they last—is elevated above the long-term health of the fishery.

And perhaps most of all, a refusal to admit that the New England Fishery Management Council—and by extension, a Regional Office that all too often accepted such Council’s decisions, no matter how bad they were—didn’t spend much time at all “trying to rebuild [groundfish] stocks, but rather dedicated most of its efforts to frustrating the intent of federal fisheries laws, and devising management plans that would maintain high harvest levels and eliminate any realistic chance that rebuilding would actually occur.

Instead, the Council inflicted New England fishermen with a never-ending series of half-measures that tried to balance the desires of fishermen with the needs of the fish, and ended up satisfying neither.

But what makes the South Coast Today editorial so typical of New England Fishery Management Council, and the New England fishermen that it represents, is its insistence on denying the truth.

Despite year after year of the Council adopting the most risk-prone management measures that they could get away with under the law, and despite years of fishermen killing more fish than biologists advised was wise—at least until fish grew so scarce that landing the annual catch limits for many species became an impossibility—the author of the editorial was still not embarrassed to say

“The inability of the target stocks to recover over these many years is clearly not the result of overfishing.  This is about large changes in the environment that the fish have reacted to…
“Regulations are trying to protect mere remnants or the edges of a biomass that is supplying North Atlantic groundfishermen copiously.  This management regime is putting fishermen out of work because it’s trying to protect stragglers, drawing conclusions about the whole ocean based on fish in one area…”
Once again, it’s the same old story we’ve heard from fishermen year after year, “It’s not our fault.  It’s the environment.  The fish went somewhere else.”

And yes, the ocean is warming, and the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most of it.  Stocks are responding to changing conditions.  Nothing in life ever remains the same.

But the fishermen have to take some responsibility, for cod aren’t truly abundant anywhere in the western Atlantic; if one wants to argue that New England fishermen are fishing on “the edges of a biomass,” one should also be able to point out where the bulk of such biomass resides. 

To date, that hasn’t been done.  After a 20-year moratorium, the cod up in Newfoundland are still hard to find.

It is well past time for New England’s fishermen to stop denying reality.

And it is also time for their enablers in politics and the press to stop indulging their tantrums and their fantasies, and start engaging in the sort of tough love needed if New England’s fish, and its fishermen, are to survive and perhaps even thrive in decades to come.


 For fantasies may provide comfort, but they won’t put more fish in the sea.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

WHAT'S GOOD FOR RED SNAPPER SHOULD BE GOOD FOR RED DRUM...

Today was the last day that the National Marine Fisheries Service accepted comments on a proposed Exempted Fishing Permit that would allow Mississippi charter and party boats to harvest red drum out in federal waters over the next couple of years.

I mentioned the proposal a couple of weeks ago, and I hope that some folks registered their opposition, because if this idea flies in the Gulf, it won’t be long before someone tries to get the same sort of permit here on the East Coast, in order to target striped bass in our federal waters, where the harvest is currently closed.

Red drum and striped bass are equally treasured by anglers in the waters where each species is found, so I completely understand why folks in the Gulf might want to keep the federal waters shut down.  Even so, I had to scratch my head in a bit of puzzlement when I read something on the Coastal Conservation Association’s website just a few days ago.

The headline was certainly catchy.

And if you start reading the meat of the message, they make those “Feds” sound pretty bad.

“Exempted Fishing Permit targeting breeder red drum sets stage for fish grab
“The federal government’s management of Gulf fisheries has created some of the most chaotic, dysfunctional and unsatisfactory fisheries in the country, and now it seems that the agency is set on bringing that same experience to our red drum fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.
“NOAA Fisheries is currently seeking comment on a two-year plan to allow harvest of breeding-sized red drum in federal waters for the first time in decades…”
“Anyone who has watched the manipulation of the red snapper fishery the past few years should be extremely alarmed at the implications of this federal overreach into one of the great state-based marine conservation victories.  The EFP is limited to Mississippi’s for-hire industry today, but it is certain to spread rapidly to other states if it is approved.  [emphasis in the original]”
Reading CCA’s diatribe against NMFS would make anyone believe that federal fisheries managers were out to steal red drum out from under Gulf anglers’ noses by opening a for-hire fishery in waters that are closed to everyone else.

The only problem is, that isn’t not quite true.


“an application for an exempted fishing permit (EFP) [has been received] from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources…”
So there’s no doubt that the impetus for letting for-hire boats sample red drum in the Gulf’s federal waters came not from NMFS, but from the State of Mississippi.  Yes, the State of Mississippi.  The STATE FISHERIES MANAGERS of Mississippi…

And CCA actually knows this, because in their comments to NMFS opposing the proposed exempted fishing permits, they start right off saying

“The Coastal Conservation Association is opposed to the exempted fishing permit (EFP) application filed by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources…  [emphasis added]”
And that makes you wonder about a few things.

First, it makes you wonder why CCA, in their release to the public, went so out of their way to criticize federal managers, in a manner likely to make folks believe that allowing the Mississippi for-hires to kill red drum offshore was the federal managers’ idea.  I’d never be surprised to see a press release worded like that come out of southern New Jersey, but I always believed that the folks down in Houston would try quite a bit harder to avoid misleading language.

But beyond that, it makes you wonder why CCA is so vehemently opposed to the proposal.

After all, throughout the red snapper debate, we have seen them, along with their partners in the Center for Coastal Conservation, repeatedly write such things as

and
and
In fact, CCA and the rest of the folks at the Center are so enamored of state fisheries managers that they want to strip all authority for managing red snapper away from NMFS, and give it to state authorities. According to the Center’s President, Jeff Angers,

But now that the fisheries managers of the State of Mississippi want to let their for-hire boats fish for offshore red drum, it seems that CCA might be questioning their wisdom after all.  In fact, CCA seems to be doubting the wisdom of all the states’ fishery managers, as it expresses its fear that “other states” will “rapidly” emulate Mississippi if its exempted fisheries permit is granted.

CCA is effectively asking NMFS for help in keeping the red drum safe from what the states want to do.

Now, this creates a conundrum.  Why do CCA and the rest of their Center colleagues believe that the states are wise enough to manage red snapper better than the feds already do, but fear the states’ gaining some control over red drum in federal waters? 

One would think, given all of the praise that such folks had for state managers during the red snapper debate, that they’d support lifting the federal red drum closure completely, and letting the states have full management authority for red drum, as well as red snapper.

It appears that the folks over at CCA are now trapped by their own rhetoric.  In the case of red snapper, they’re not happy with science-based federal management, because it doesn’t allow them to kill as many fish as they’d like; thus, they rhapsodize over state fisheries managers that would permit a higher, if perhaps unsustainable, harvest.

But when it comes to red drum, perhaps the most revered sport fish along the Gulf Coast, they’re very happy with federal protections that guard the drum brood stock against state harvest excesses.  So they’re trying to blame the feds for taking comments on the exempted fishing permit for red drum, while conveniently ignoring the fact that it was the State of Mississippi that is spearheading the effort.

CCA warns that NMFS must deny Mississippi an exempted fishing permit for red drum in order to

at the hands of that state and the others which would “rapidly” follow suit.  However, it offers no explanation as to why the red snapper fishery wouldn’t meet a similar fate if it lost its federal protections.


And that makes no sense, because what is good for red snapper should be good for red drum, and what is bad for red drum isn’t likely to red snapper a lot of good, either.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

IF IT AIN'T BROKE...

Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued its annual Status of Stocks report.  Status of Stocks 2014 provided the good news that the number of overfished stocks, as well as the number of stocks experiencing overfishing, both hit all-time lows by the close of last year.

NMFS manages 469 separate stocks of fish.  The status of some of those stocks has not yet been determined.  However, of the 308 stocks for which the mortality status is known, only 26—about 8%--remain subject to overfishing, which is roughly a 50% reduction in the past 15 years.  Six stocks were removed from the overfishing list in 2014, including Gulf of Maine haddock, South Atlantic gag and snowy grouper, the Gulf of Mexico jacks complex, northern Atlantic albacore and western Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Of the 228 stocks for which the biomass status is known, about 16% remain overfished, which is down by about one-third since 2000.  Gulf of Mexico gag grouper and north Atlantic albacore were both declared to be no longer overfished last year.

In addition, three stocks, Gulf of Mexico gag grouper, golden tilefish and Gulf of Maine/Cape Hatteras butterfish, were declared fully rebuilt last year; including those three, a total of 37 once-overfished stocks have now been rebuilt since 2000, the year that a court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley put teeth in federal fisheries law and ushered in the modern era of salt water fisheries management.

Given how low the abundance of many fish stocks had fallen prior to the enactment of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which for the first time required United States’ fisheries managers to promptly end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, that’s a pretty striking improvement in the health of our fish populations.

Eileen Sobek, the assistant administrator for fisheries at NOAA, gave both her agency and the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, which governs fishing in U.S. waters, some well-deserved praise, saying

“This report illustrates that the science-based management process under the Magnuson-Stevens Act is working to end overfishing and rebuild stocks…
“Our agency wants to let consumers know that the United States’ global leadership in responsible fisheries and sustainable seafood is paying off.  We are moving forward more than ever with efforts to replicate and export stewardship practices internationally.  As a result of the combined efforts of NOAA Fisheries, the regional fishery management councils, and all of our partners, the number of stocks listed as subject to overfishing or overfished continues to decline and is at an all-time low.”
Ms. Sobek is entitled to crow just a bit about a job well done.

Yet at the same time that NMFS celebrates its latest achievements, there are people on the waterfront and in the United States Congress who are striving to make fundamental changes in the way America’s fish stocks are managed.

Back in 1977, “Bert” Lance, who served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget early in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, said in an interview

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  That’s the trouble with government.  Fixing things that aren’t broken and not fixing things that are broken.”
Since then, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has become a cliché, but one that has proved both useful and appropriate when applied to any number of issues.

It certainly applies to the Magnuson-Stevens Act today.

There is no better fisheries law in the world.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act regulates fishing on hundreds of stocks, along thousands of miles of coastline as different and distant from one another as those of Puerto Rico, Alaska and the islands of Saipan and Guam.  It is a law designed to benefit all species and all user groups by placing the focus where it needs to be placed, on the long-term health of fish populations, rather than on a favored industry sector and/or the short-term economic benefits that might accrue from overharvesting already stressed stocks.

Still, there are too many people who are looking for some way around the management process. 

Their motives are perfectly clear.  The harvest restrictions needed to rebuild stocks with any kind of certainty, and within a reasonable time frame, cut into folks’ short-term profits, whether those folks are commercial fishermen, who sell fish to the public, charter and party boat operators, who take people fishing, or boat builders, tackle manufacturers or tackle shop owners, who sell folks the merchandise that they need to catch fish on their own.

Using benevolent-sounding language such as “flexibility” and “strengthening fishing communities,” they are actively working to weaken the very measures that have made Magnuson-Stevens a success.

Right now, most of the impetus for “fixing” the law is coming from the recreational fishing community located on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, who are unhappy with red snapper management.  For years, the red snapper stock was badly overfished, and so long as the Gulf’s anglers could blame the problem on commercial harvest and the bycatch of juvenile red snapper in shrimp trawls, they were all for conservation measures that targeted those sectors.

However, once commercial harvest issues were largely eliminated, and managers began to focus on chronic recreational overharvest, the same recreational interests declared the federal management system to be broken, and are trying to convince federal legislators to introduce bills that would take red snapper management out from under the aegis of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, so that red snapper anglers in the Gulf would no longer be bound by the sort of science-based management system that has successfully ended overfishing and rebuilt stocks on every coast of the United States.

That would be bad enough if it only harmed red snapper, but those “anglers rights” and angling industry organizations have also banded together, under the banner of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, to take their efforts one step farther, and weaken the conservation and management provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, which would

“allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
In other words, it’s OK if we have fewer fish in our own, so long as they can kill a few more, and make some more money…

Recreational angling groups that have always looked askance at commercial interests and long pretended to cleave to a higher, conservation-oriented standard have pretty well taken the same position as the New England trawlers who have devastated cod populations, and some of the party boat fleet in the mid-Atlantic, which would have halted the recovery of summer flounder, scup and black sea bass if the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the NMFS regional office hadn’t stuck to their guns.

Their idea of “fixing” Magnuson is to change the very provisions that makes the law work.

If your idea of success is a healthy ocean, with abundant fish populations, it’s pretty clear that the Magnuson-Stevens Act is a success, even if all of its work isn't yet done.

Magnuson-Stevens “ain’t broke” at all.


And it’s in no need of “fixing.”

Friday, April 17, 2015

GETTING THE COUNT RIGHT

This week, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it will subject it not-yet-finalized Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) to National Research Council review.

The action was taken on the advice of MRIP’s Executive Steering Committee, an 11-person panel made up of scientists, fisheries managers and recreational spokesmen charged with keeping the developing MRIP on track to accurately estimate the landings of America’s recreational anglers.

It’s a sensible move.  MRIP’s development got underway after a National Research Council review of its predecessor, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, found that MRFSS was not able to provide the sort of accurate and timely information needed for the quota management of recreational fisheries.  By reviewing MRIP now, when the program is just being implemented, protocols can be modified before institutional inertia sets in; needed changes can be made as a normal and non-disruptive part of the implementation process.

National Research Council review at this point would make it easy to make any course corrections necessary to keep MRIP on track.

Unfortunately, that prudent action by MRIP’s Executive Steering Committee is already being spun by the usual opponents of science-based management, who try to impeach any tool that NMFS might use to restrict recreational landings.

Comments of New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, who has long tried to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act with so-called “flexibility” legislation, are typical.  Congressmen Pallone, like many of the extreme “anglers’ rights” advocates in his home state, has long been suspicious of both MRFSS and MRIP, and sought legislation requiring National Research Council review of MRIP in the last Congress.

Pallone’s motivation for his actions, as stated in a recent press release, was his supposed concern

“that problems in this program have led to reduced fishing opportunities for recreational anglers and [his desire] to make sure they receive fair treatment.”
Implicit in that statement was the MRIP was overstating recreational fishing mortality, leading to unduly restrictive harvest regulations and thus having an “unfair” impact on anglers.

It’s about what we always hear when someone criticizes the accuracy of MRIP or similar programs.

There is always the assumption that recreational fishermen caught fewer fish than MRIP numbers suggest, but that is not always the case.  It is just as likely that anglers caught more fish than the estimates say.

Folks also tend to think that catching more fish is bad, and will always lead to greater restrictions on anglers.  While that can be true, higher recreational landings can also be signs of a more abundant or more resilient population of fish, and lead to more liberal regulations.

For evidence of that, just take a look at red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. 

For many years, anglers argued that their harvest was being overestimated, and that “fatally flawed” MRFSS harvest estimates were leading to overly strict regulations.  It turned out that they were half-right, but not in the way that they expected.

The people who gathered MRFSS data kept business hours; they generally went home by 5:00 p.m. or so.  As a result, they were no longer on the docks surveying anglers when most of the boats fishing far out in the Gulf returned for the day, and thus failed to record the red snapper harvested by the anglers on board.

Once NMFS replaced the MRFSS data-gathering process with the new MRIP methodology, surveyors were required to collect data throughout the day.  Thus, some were occasionally on the dock when the longer-ranged boats came back in, and they captured the red snapper landings that earlier surveyors had missed.

So the anglers who claimed the MRFSS numbers were “bad” were correct, but not in the way they expected; recreational red snapper landings were actually higher than NMFS had believed.

But that was not a bad thing.


“When they recalibrated the landings from previous years, it showed that more fish were caught than they had previously estimated.  It’s interesting how the model works.  When it showed more fish were caught in the past, they looked at how the stock is still doing with those increased removals, which shows that the stock is healthier.”
Thus, the folks who complained when they thought that MRFSS was overestimating harvest had the whole thing wrong; a higher level or removals, coupled with a steadily increasing stock, actually paved the way for an increased harvest.  

Had the anglers been proved right, and actual landings were lower than what MRFSS had shown, their landings would have likely been cut back, instead.

That being the case, it’s interesting that Alabama has now implemented its own program for counting red snapper, and that the state survey’s estimates reinforce the idea that NMFS overestimates red snapper landings.  Picking up on the state survey’s results, Alabama’s angling press has repeatedly printed headlines similar to one in Al.com which trumpeted

“Alabama red snapper reporting program shows feds grossly overestimated state’s June landings.”
When a writer follows up on such a headline by saying

“Since landings estimates play a major role in determining subsequent recreational quotas, overestimating the catch ultimately lead to unwarranted reductions in season length,”
it becomes all too clear that he doesn’t understand all of the ways that landings data impacts the red snapper population model. 

While it is true that landings data is used to set seasons, it is also true, as Blankenship explained, that a population’s reaction to fishing mortality—in this case, recreational fishing mortality that was higher than originally believed—is also considered when assessing that population’s health, and the level of fishing mortality that it can safely endure.

Thus, if the proponents of the Alabama survey got their way, and estimates of recreational harvest were adjusted downward in response to that survey’s results—effectively undoing the upward adjustment in recreational landings estimates made in response to the MRIP data—they might very well be shooting themselves in the foot by convincing managers that the red snapper stock is not as healthy as they had hoped, and that the recreational catch limit needs to be sharply adjusted downward.

It’s one of those times that they really should be careful about what they’re asking for, because they might get it…

That’s a lesson there that everyone, on every coast, needs to learn. 

NMFS’ request that the National Research Council examine the MRIP program is a prudent move to review MRIP while it is still a work in progress, when changes can be more easily made without disrupting data-gathering and evaluation process.

It is not an admission that the program is flawed, or overestimates harvest; it is not evidence that critics of MRIP are right and kills should be upped as a matter of course.

And as the red snapper example shows, those who seek larger harvests should proceed with caution, and not try to mold or spin information provided to MRIP.  Population models are not always intuitive, and efforts to “shape” the data inputs may yield a result very different from the one the "shaper" sought.

In the end, the best interests of both anglers and the fish we pursue lies in an MRIP survey that provides the most accurate and unbiased data that humans can reasonably provide, a survey which is never viewed as a finished project, but rather continues to evolve to meet changing conditions and new management needs.

The upcoming National Research Council review is an important step in getting us there.









Sunday, April 12, 2015

MAGNUSON ACT REAUTHORIZATION: FIRST, DO NO HARM

It is often been said that the Hippocratic Oath, traditionally taken by medical doctors upon obtaining their degree, advises physicians to “First, do no harm.”

Although that’s not quite true—the oath contains no such language—it’s pretty good guidance for not only physicians, but anyone who is charged with fixing problems, be they auto mechanics or bomb disposal technicians.

It’s particularly apt advice for politicians, who are constantly being asked by their constituents to “fix” legislation, even when the bills are not really broken.

I began thinking about such things recently after reading a couple of op-ed pieces on the website of the Alaska Dispatch News

One of the pieces was written by Stosh Anderson, a fisherman and former member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council who operates out of Kodiak.  Entitled “Don Young seeks to unwind ‘Alaska Model’ for fisheries in Magnuson-Stevens Act,” Anderson’s op-ed hails the present law’s mandate that fishery regulations be based on science, that fishermen be held accountable for exceeding their quotas and that overfished stocks be rebuilt; it decries Congressman Young’s recently introduced legislation that would abolish or seriously weaken provisions of the law needed to conserve and rebuild fish stocks on every coast of the United States.

The other, penned by Congressman Don Young himself, is headlined “Stosh Anderson misrepresents Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization.” In it, Young asserts that

“The April 8 opinion piece by Stosh Anderson…fails to represent the facts of the legislation I introduced to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.”
But did Stosh Anderson truly fail to represent the facts?  

Could it be possible that Stosh Anderson and Don Young don’t really disagree on the “facts of the legislation” at all? 

Could it be that Congressman Young’s bill is precisely the wrong medicine—one that will surely do harm—to cure ailing fisheries prosecuted far from Alaska’s well-managed waters?

Reading both op-ed pieces together, and applying a bit of local knowledge, makes it pretty clear that is the case.
Anderson said

“The [Magnuson-Stevens Act] is the foundation of sustainable fisheries management…
“The last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, in 2006, applied Alaska’s model of federal fisheries management—setting catch limits based on science—to the nation.”
Young doesn’t really disagree, saying

“Through foresight and willingness, our fisheries managers have developed and implemented a management system that is considered the envy of the world, dubbed the 'Alaska Model.'  This system has worked extremely well in Alaska due to annual stock assessments that provide up-to-date information to fisheries managers, a necessary tool for implementing an adaptive management system that allows for optimal conservation and use of our fisheries resources.”
So there’s no essential disagreement there.  Both Anderson and Young agree that the “Alaska model,” and by extension the model adopted in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, is “a management system that is considered the envy of the world.”

That suggests that the Magnuson-Stevens Act is a pretty solid law, and that weakening it would be a pretty bad idea.  But this is where Anderson and Young disagree.

Except that, when you read closer, they don’t disagree.  Not exactly.


“Under Young’s bill, annual catch limits, set to keep fish stocks healthy for the long run, would no longer be necessary for managers.  Responsible timelines put in place to replenish depleted fisheries could also be loosened or open-ended, delaying economic and recreational opportunities that come from healthy stocks…
“We know that allowing catch limits above scientifically sustainable levels may result in short term economic gains, but in the long term it’s bad for communities, fishermen and processors.  Harvesting at levels that exceed sustainable models is a downward spiral that reduces harvest opportunities.”
Congressman Young actually seems to agree with Anderson, making it pretty clear that he doesn’t want to weaken the “Alaska Model” as it’s applied to Alaskan fisheries, and thus weaken the management regime that has made Alaskan fisheries some of the most successful anywhere in the world.

“To set the record straight, I have always applauded and supported the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council for creating an unparalleled system of fisheries management…
“My legislation…will not change the way the NPFMC manages our fisheries.  Alaska fishermen and the communities that they support will continue to reap the benefits of our well-managed fisheries resources and the NPFMC will continue to use sound scientific data in their management decisions.  Regardless of the changes proposed to the MSA, the NPFMC will continue to utilize innovative practices to be leaders in fisheries management.  [emphasis added]”
In other words, the Congressman fully recognizes the worth of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and wants to reassure his constituents that any changes he makes will only hurt folks outside of Alaska… 

Congressman Young attempts to justify his misconceived bill (remember that, for all practical purposes, H.R. 1335 is nothing more than a retread of Congressman Doc Hastings’ infamously bad “Empty Oceans Act”) by saying

“the ‘Alaska Model’ has not worked in other areas of the country as well as envisioned—for a number of reasons.
There’s no question that the ‘Alaska Model’ of fisheries management is what all regional fisheries management councils should strive to achieve.  Unfortunately, due to a lack of timely stock surveys and the inability to provide adequate data for fisheries managers, other parts of the nation have not been able to successfully operate under the ‘Alaska Model.’  This lack of data has led fisheries managers in the Gulf of Mexico, the mid-Atlantic and other regions of the country to institute layer upon layer of precautionary measures due to uncertainty.  The results:  fishermen are unnecessarily losing out on harvesting opportunities, fishing communities, consumers, and those reliant on the nation’s fishery resources are being unjustly punished.  [emphasis added]”
It’s difficult to know how to begin responding to such a statement.  Maybe it’s best to start with the one clear truth, Congressman Young’s admission that “There’s no question that the ‘Alaska Model” of fisheries management is what all regional fisheries management councils should strive to achieve.”

Because if we all can agree on that statement, then we all should agree that it makes little sense to make the job any harder than necessary for those who “strive to achieve” the Alaskan Model’s ideal.

Yes, most regional fisheries management councils suffer from a lack of stock assessments, an overabundance of stocks to assess, imperfect harvest data, etc.  They still have a pretty formidable hill to climb before they can reach the peak of management effectiveness achieved years ago by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.  Even so, each council has already made its way partway up that hill.  One, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, stands just below the summit; it has already eliminated all overfishing and no longer manages any overfished stocks.

Yet, if Congressman Young’s bill becomes law, it would allow overfishing to continue and rebuilding to slow on every coast, effectively pushing all of the fishery management councils back to the bottom of the hill, and forcing them to begin the long, steep climb toward sustainability all over again.

It’s not just a foolish idea; it’s bad policy that will harm fisheries that are already well on their way to being rebuilt.

We need to impose a little honesty here.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the red snapper fishery isn’t suffering from “a lack of data.”  The last benchmark stock assessment is about 850 pages long, and roughly half of that is a report from the data workshop. It refers to 21 different stock assessment documents, includes 33 scientific papers designated as “Workshop Documents” and 50 “Reference Documents” dealing with everything from the transport of red snapper larvae by ocean currents to damage done to the species when a demolition crew dynamites the legs of an obsolete oil platform.

No, for red snapper down in the Gulf, data isn’t the problem.  The problem is that too many recreational fishermen, and the organizations that represent them—and pander to their basest instincts—are faced with a lack of data that says they can harvest more fish.  Instead, they are stuck with science-based restrictions.  Thus, they are trying to overthrow the entire federal fisheries management system, one that Congressman Young admits is “the envy of the world,” in order to kill a few more red snapper.

And they are not, contrary to what Congressman Young says, buried under “layer after layer of precautionary measures.”  Until a federal court imposed them in the case of Guindon v. Pritzker, the recreational red snapper anglers were subject to almost no precautionary measures at all…

Similar “problems” exist elsewhere on the coast. 

In the Mid-Atlantic, Congressman Young’s bill is a “solution” looking for a problem to solve.  We’ve already paid our dues on summer flounder; fish are abundant, bag limits have increased in most of the states, and size limits have gone down. 

In the Mid-Atlantic, we have more scup than we can use, and even our most controversial fishery, black sea bass, is largely a success story, with the stock fully rebuilt and the fish larger and more abundant, and attracting more anglers, than just about anyone can recall.  There, we still need some more data, but a stock assessment scheduled for next year will hopefully address that issue as well.

Therefore, Congressman Young really should not say that “the ‘Alaska Model’ has not worked in other areas of the country as well as envisioned” and mention the mid-Atlantic in the same op-ed, because the fact is that here, the Alaska Model embodied in the Magnuson-Stevens Act has indeed worked very well.

And as for New England, well, it wasn’t the Magnuson-Stevens Act that killed off all of the cod...

The 2006 reauthorization did finally put something of a brake on the fishermen’s greed and, for the first time, imposed hard quotas on a species that had been overfished for decades.  Like fishermen elsewhere, those in New England don't like the restrictions needed to rebuild the stock, and thus they seek “flexibility,” conveniently forgetting that it was the New England Fishery Management Council’s historic embrace of “flexibility”—days at sea, trip limits, but never hard quotas—that drove the Gulf of Maine stock down to 3% of sustainable levels in the first place.

It thus appears that Stosh Anderson must have the last word.  He notes

“What [Congressman Young’s] bill does is bring us down to the lowest common denominator rather than strive to improve our fisheries management.  If other regions don’t have the science to manage, we should expand data and scientific research, not gut our fisheries management law…
“It’s not clear why our congressman would introduce a bill that is actually bad for Alaska communities and the nation’s fish stocks.  What we need is an MSA reauthorization that moves us forward, providing opportunities to better manage fisheries and bycatch, and protect fishing communities by providing opportunities for fishermen to access our fisheries.  We need confidence that our fisheries managers put the long-term health of fish stocks first and that will be in the best interests of our coastal economies.”

That pretty much says it all.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

ONE FLOUNDER???

I was reading through the fishing news last weekend, when I came across an article in NJ.com that began with the following line:

“It’s unbelievably late, but Bob Matthews at Fisherman’s Den in  Belmar Marina finally saw his first winter flounder on Good Friday.”
And yes, that was down in New Jersey, where flounder season normally starts a few weeks before it begins here in New York.

That’s not the legal winter flounder season I’m referring to—the season that by ASMFC mandate can’t begin before March 1, and New York doesn’t open until a month later—but what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “natural” season, the time when flounder start getting active and an angler could expect to catch them, if regulations did not intervene.

Here on the South Shore of Long Island, it used to start early in March, with a few party boats out of Captree State Park catching their first fish sometime during the first weekend in March.  A couple of weeks later, St. Patrick’s Day—March 17—was the much-heralded, if unofficial, start of the season, with all of the party boats sailing and a lot of private boats joining them out on the flats, where the water had started to warm.

By April, back in the day, anglers brought flounders home by the literal bucketful.  To our south, on the New Jersey shore, things started up a couple of weeks sooner, but unfurled about the same way.

So to see a New Jersey column headlined, in man-bites-dog style, 

“First Legal Flounder at Belmar”
in early April, and to follow up with a story about just one fish, is more than a bit disconcerting.

Unfortunately, that story also tells us more than we’d like to know about where winter flounder, the leading candidate for worst-managed fish on our coast, is heading.

National Marine Fisheries Service data tells us that thirty years ago, in 1984, New York anglers took home well over 7 million winter flounder; in New Jersey, over 3 million flounder were landed that year.  However, the fishery has since collapsed so badly since then that New York’s 2014 landings were a mere 4 thousand fish, while New Jersey managed about 8 thousand.

For those who care about numbers, New York’s 2014 recreational winter flounder landings were a whopping six-hundredths of one percent (0.06%) of what they were three decades before; New Jersey’s landings fell nearly as badly, with last year’s total about one-quarter of one percent (0.25%) of what they were in 1984.

But when you talk to some anglers—or, more precisely, to some angling businesses—they act as if nothing is wrong.

The website Fishing Reports Now, on April 8, included some New Jersey reports that said things such as

“Shark River’s winter flounder fishing remained slow.  Bob from Fishermen’s Den [yes, the same Fishermen’s Den which reported the catch of just one winter flounder] wrote in an e-mail ‘I still have no answers’…”
and

“Winter flounder fishing was just a pick at different waters, for unknown reasons.  Dennis didn’t know whether few flounder migrated into the waters last fall, because of warm waters and weather then, or whether something else was the reason.”
Here’s an “answer” for you, Fishermen’s Den:  There just aren’t many flounder left in the bays.  Too many bucketfuls have already gone home.

And Dennis, here’s a “reason” for you:  Too much overfishing, for too many years, has finally taken its toll.

It’s time to stop denying reality, and admit that the flounder are gone.

But in the end, it’s hard to blame the guys in the shops without also placing a heap of blame on the regulators’ shoulders.

Winter flounder have the misfortune to be jointly managed by the New England Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  It would difficult to find two management bodies anywhere in the nation which have a combined record anywhere near as dismal when it comes to rebuilding and conserving fish populations.  

Both have historically elevated short-term socioeconomic considerations far above the long-term sustainability of fish populations, and today both the fish and the fishermen are paying the price.

It finally looked as if NMFS’ Northeast Regional Director Pat Kurkul was on the right path when she imposed a landings moratorium on the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder back in 2010, but her good work was later undone by her successor, John Bullard, who decided in 2013 that, since winter flounder would not be rebuilt by the original 2014 deadline, it was OK to restart the 10-year rebuilding from scratch and initiate a new rebuilding plan that allowed a substantial harvest.

The fact that such a restart was a likely violation of the rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and rendered Magnuson’s 10-year rebuilding deadline effectively meaningless, was apparently either missed or ignored by both NMFS and the often-litigious conservation groups that are normally the last line of defense for abused marine resources.

ASMFC, however, was right on the ball.  It never matched the federal closure, or even imposed capped the overall landings.  Instead, it merely imposed some new harvest restrictions that still allowed the stock to decline.  So when NMFS reopened the federal season, ASMFC was ready and eager to increase anglers' kill.  It quickly authorized states to extend the season length fivefold, from sixty days to ten full months.

Most states jumped on the bandwagon, although at least in Rhode Island’s, most of the traditional flounder waters—Narragansett Bay, along with Potter and Point Judith ponds—were already completely closed to flounder harvest, minimizing the impact of the longer season.

Only in New York did managers try to take a responsible tack, with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Bureau maintaining the 60-day season long after it was abandoned by other states.

Unfortunately, others were far less responsible, and representatives of the state’s for-hire fleet, as well as many tackle shops, ignorant or uncaring—most likely the latter—of the flounder’s plight pressured the agency to extend the season so that, on a good day, some lucky New Yorker might gain celebrity by catching one flounder, too.

It’s not clear how things will work out.

All of the science dictates against an extension—and in favor of a full closure, not just the status quo.

The Marine Bureau folks tend to follow the science, and try to do the right thing.  On the other hand, they have their bosses, and elected officials have long made a good living by doing what businesses ask.

National conservation groups have belatedly discovered the flounder, and rallied to the flatfish’s cause.  If the state decides to do the wrong thing, there’s a good chance that those folks will sue.

Myself, I hope that’s not needed.  I’d like to see the DEC act as responsibly as they did with striped bass, and withdraw the proposed regulation. 

Whatever the agency decides, the winter flounder’s recovery, if it is even to have one, will be slow, painful and easily derailed.  Managers will have to dedicate a lot of time and resources to the effort if they want to have any chance of seeing their grandkids—yes, it’s going to take at least that long—catch a half-dozen flounder off some dock in the spring.

Or they can just give the industry what it asked for, an empty spring bay like the one in New Jersey, where someone catching one flounder makes headlines.


And, in the end, they won’t even have that.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

NO EASY ANSWERS

One of the hottest issues being debated right now in New England is the proposed creation of a Dedicated Habitat Research Area along the eastern border of Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, located off Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The proposal to create the research area, one of three such areas currently being contemplated, is contained in the New England Fishery Management Council’s Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2, a massive, five-volume document (not counting its seven appendices) that addresses a number of habitat-related issues.

Although the proposed Stellwagen Bank research area only takes up a few pages in the Amendment’s third volume, it may have generated more controversy, at least within the angling community, than all of the rest of the issues addressed in the Amendment, combined.

To understand why, it’s probably best to start by explaining what the proposed research area is, and what it is not.

The research area will be carved out of an existing area where trawls have long been outlawed, but hook-and-line fishing for cod and other groundfish is still permitted.

The purpose of the research area, as described in the Amendment, is to determine the impacts of various gear types on bottom habitat, how well such habitat can recover from such gear impacts under different scenarios, what natural disturbances impact such habitat and how the productivity of bottom habitat is impacted by various fishing gears.

As part of the research process, scientists would allow commercial fishing, almost certainly including trawling, to take place in places and for periods of time appropriate for various research projects.

The proposed research area is not a no-take marine protected area; fishing for pelagic species such as tuna and shark will not be affected by its creation.  Recreational fishing for cod and other groundfish will not be impacted in most of the area. 

However, in order to create a “control” area where the bottom will remain completely unfished, and provide a baseline that other, fished areas can be compared to, scientists have proposed creating a so-called “northern reference area,” of about 55 square miles, located toward the southern end of the research area, where no bottom fishing at all would be allowed (once again, pelagic fisheries would remain unaffected).

It’s not at all clear how many recreational boats regularly fish in the proposed reference area, nor is it clear what the impacts of closing the area to bottom fishing might be.  

As is all too often the case in fisheries issues, things got polarized pretty quickly.  The comments sent in to the New England Fishery Management Council, for and against creation of the research area, make it pretty clear that the opponents and proponents concentrated on their own concerns, and didn’t spend much time thinking about the other side’s issues.

Opposition to the research area, and particularly to the no-fishing northern reference area, was spearheaded by the local charter boat industry, which focused almost entirely on economic issues.  A form letter sent in by members of the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association was typical, asserting that

“Charter customers and recreational fishermen spend millions of dollars to go fishing, supporting many local businesses.  This proposed closure clearly does not justify the negative socioeconomic impact on the recreational fishing sector…
“By proposing closure of one of the few productive areas remaining for this fishery, this plan targets a sector for business extinction.
By noting that the proposed “northern reference area” was “one of the few productive areas remaining” for the groundfish fishery, the charter sector implicitly acknowledged the dire state of the cod stock—remember that Stellwagen lies in the Gulf of Maine, where cod are believed to have fallen to around 3% of sustainable levels—but the letters coming in from the industry place little or no emphasis on the need for research that will enable managers to help recover the cod population.

Instead, if they mention research at all, it is to argue that the designated habitat research area, and particularly the northern reference area, is not the proper place to conduct habitat studies.  Such an approach can be seen in the comments made by the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association itself, which states

“We’ve also voiced skepticism with the value of the proposed science that would accrue from establishing the DHRA and reference area.  We simply do not believe the research benefits outweigh the loss of jobs and income to the charter fleet and impacted shoreside communities.”
The Association then quotes selected passages from the Amendment which appear to support its position.

On the other hand, various conservation organizations and marine scientists strongly support creation of the research area with an included northern reference area.  Their comments focus on the need to find ways to protect habitat needed to support and hopefully rebuild what remains of the cod stock, as well as to ensure a healthy Gulf of Maine ecosystem in the long term.

However, while focusing on the long term, their comments generally pay little attention to the charter fleet’s short-term survival.

Anglers seem split on the issue.  In terms of sheer numbers, most seemed to go along with a form letter that appears to have been provided by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (or, at least, was sent in by some on RFA letterhead), which stated, in part

“Any additional closed areas for the charter/party and recreational anglers will create an adverse effect on a sector that is already operating under emergency cod closures and rules with strict bag limits, minimum size limits and the present eight month closed season on GOM haddock…
“Recreational anglers have little to no impact on the bottom using weights, cod jigs and hook and line to harvest fish for personal consumption…”
Such sentiment was echoed by at least one charter boat captain, Claude S. Holt of Marshfield, Massachusetts, who wrote

“[M]y biggest complaint is that it has never been proven that rod and reel fishers harm the bottom of the ocean…We all know the damage done by draggers and yet this type of fishing leaves a presence to the ocean floor.  I don’t know how you prove this with a rod and reel fishery.  Almost no one in the charter industry even anchor because we need to stay with the fish.”
Ironically, Capt. Holt, along with the anglers who sent in the form letter, argue that they do no harm, yet oppose the research area and northern reference area, which could be used precisely to prove—or disprove—their assertion.  The Amendment notes that one of the questions to be considered is

“Have we significantly over- or under-estimated the impacts of particular gear types?”
It’s not inconceivable that research would prove that anglers have even less impact on the ecosystem than is currently believed, but we’ll never know until somebody actually conducts a valid investigation.

But even then, answers may not be obvious.  

For, in the end, the question about whether to create the research area, and the no-fishing northern reference area, boils down to one of policy and values.

What should be given priority?

Is it more important to give the charter and private boat fleet every available place to fish in the short term, despite the imperiled state of the cod stock?  If the research area is never created, and the proposed reference area is thus never closed to fishing, will a shortage of cod, and a shortage of needed research, doom the fleet anyway, while pushing the cod population ever closer to some possible point of no return?

Or is it more important to create the research area, along with the closed-to-groundfishing reference area, in order to hopefully gather the data needed to bring the cod back to some semblance of abundance?  But if one takes that course, how many failed charter businesses and lost fishing opportunities will be deemed to be “acceptable losses,” and how many charter and private boats will be left to enjoy the fishery if the research finally yields fruit?

Perhaps the comments made by the Sierra Club’s Massachusetts Chapter sum up the conundrum best.

“The constituents engaged in the [Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2 Draft Environmental Impact Statement] comment process have different world views and goals which make it hard to comment on many of the alternatives discussed in OHA 2 from either a natural or a socioeconomic science perspective.”
Yet just because something is hard doesn’t mean that regulators don’t need to get the job done, and figure out the right alternatives in the shortest possible time.

Charter boats, and private boat owners, too, need to accept the fact that, if scientists can’t figure out how to restore the cod stock to sustainable numbers, their boats may soon be good for very little other than hosting seal-watching tours.

And scientists, as well as regulators and members of the conservation community, need to realize that if they want to be able to gather the data they need to properly rebuild and manage groundfish stocks, they can’t operate in a vacuum.  They must be cognizant of the fishermen’s concerns, and craft the least disruptive alternatives that they prudently can.

In the end, folks may find that there is no way to accommodate both the fishermen’s and the researchers’ needs, and that with respect to 55 square miles of ocean, one group must give way if either is to ultimately succeed.

Where there are no easy answers, as is the case here, the first step is to ask the hard questions.

And that begins when everyone questions themselves, and asks whether they are looking out for the greater public interest, or only looking out for themselves.