Thursday, September 21, 2017


It’s impossible to successfully argue against the fact that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is, at this very moment, the most successful large-scale fishery management law in the world.

That’s what success looks like.  No other fishery management approach, in the United States or elsewhere, can claim anywhere near that level of positive outcomes.

Even so, there are people who want to weaken Magnuson-Stevens.  Many are affiliated with various anglers’ rights groups, such as the Recreational Fishing Alliance and the similar, if larger, Coastal Conservation Association, which want their members to be able to kill more fish when they venture out, even if biologists believe that landings are already at or above prudent levels. 

Others, such as the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, and the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association, sell their products to anglers, and argue that a weakened Magnuson-Stevens that allows anglers to kill (although they seem to prefer the euphemism “access”) more fish will lead to greater economic returns.

Since such organizations can’t deny the law’s current success, they have to make “softer” arguments that appeal to legislators’ and others’ emotions, rather than to their intellect.

One of their favorite pitches is to toss salt water recreational fishermen into a bigger pot that holds sportsmen of every stripe, and then argue that sportsmen are “the original conservationists.”  That story line was on exhibit recently, in testimony provided at a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce, & Transportation’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, which considered Magnuson-Stevens.

It was most developed in the testimony of Chris Horton, the Fisheries Program Director of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.  The Foundation is a member of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, an umbrella organization composed of various anglers’ rights and industry trade associations that is focused on weakening Magnuson-Stevens (and Jeff Angers, the President of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, sits on the Foundation’s board, creating an incestuous relationship with the potential to give birth to true monstrosities). 

In his testimony, Horton declared that

“Around the turn of the last century…[s]tates began establishing natural resource agencies to help recover and manage fish and game populations for the benefit of the public.  However, it soon became clear that license fees alone were not enough to fund habitat restoration and management efforts…In 1950, the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act…implemented a new 10% excise tax on fishing rods, reels, related components and fishing tackle.  In 1984, [an] amendment to the Act, again led by anglers and the sportfishing and boating industries, expanded the list of taxable items to include marine electronics, trolling motors, import duties on fishing tackle, yachts and pleasure boats, and also added a motor boats fuels tax, significantly expanding the revenues apportioned back to the states for fisheries and aquatic conservation.”
That’s all true, but it’s probably worthwhile to note that the initial law that created the excise tax on fishing tackle was passed in 1950—67 years ago, and well before most of today’s salt water anglers was born—which makes it difficult to rationally attribute the conservation impulses of the folks who fought for the law with the people affected by Magnuson-Stevens today.  Even the last amendment to the law, made in 1984, was adopted more than 30 years ago. 
So it’s difficult to connect the adoption of the excise taxes on various items purchased by recreational fishermen with salt water anglers’ current attitudes.

More recently, when states asked their salt water anglers to pitch in and help fund conservation efforts by buying a salt water fishing license, the fishermen’s response was not one of universal enthusiasm.  While some anglers, in some states, recognized the benefits a license could bring, there was also substantial opposition.

In New Jersey, Jim Donofrio was (and still is) Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a group long opposed to the conservation provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.  When New Jersey considered adopting a salt water fishing license about ten years ago, Donofrio—and RFA—were strongly opposed to that, too.  A New Jersey fishing club reported at the time that

“Anglers should fight a saltwater fishing license because the money raised will not be used to help recreational fishing.
“That was the gist of a speech Saturday afternoon by Executive Director Jim Donofrio of the Galloway Township-based Recreational Fishing Alliance, or RFA.
“Donofrio, speaking to the Strathmere Fishing & Environmental Club at its annual legislative meeting here at the Strathmere Firehouse, promoted a state lottery once a month to raise money for marine conservation and possibly a special license plate that would feature a striped bass to raise money.
“Donofrio warned the group that a plan to create a state saltwater fishing license to gather more fishery data is really just a way to raise funds.  Donofrio said better data is needed but it can be gathered at no cost to the anglers.”
No fee-based registration was ever adopted in New Jersey.

In my home state of New York, there was also resistance to a salt water fishing license.  Anglers who understood the need for adequate agency funding generally supported the idea, but it ran into stiff opposition from the state’s RFA chapter, as well as from many tackle dealers, who feared that license fees would cut into sales.  The state actually did implement a license for a brief time, but it was quickly repealed.  The primary proponent of the repeal legislation, State Senator (now Congressman) Lee Zeldin celebrated the license’s demise, saying on his website

“In recent days, during the Budget negotiations, there have been productive discussions between leaders from the Senate, Assembly and Governor’s office with regards to the repeal of the Saltwater Fishing License Fee…
“This is a piece of legislation that is very important to the needs of my district.  I am very pleased to announce that there is a negotiated three-way agreement to replace the Saltwater Fishing License Fee with a free registry…
“I would like to thank not only my Senate and Assembly colleagues who spent hours listening to me and working with me, but I would also like to thank the thousands of fishermen, including the Recreational Fishing Alliance, who called, wrote, faxed and signed our petition…
“I cannot think of a better way to start the new fishing season off than with this great news.  It’s a bright, sunny day for saltwater fishermen.”
So whatever anglers might have thought back in 1950, or even in 1984, it seems that a significant number of today’s anglers, at least in some parts of the country, are not quite as willing to pitch in and support conservation as Chris Horton suggests.

In his testimony, Horton noted that

“Recreational anglers have long recognized that to have healthy fish populations to afford numerous encounters with fish and an enjoyable day on the water with family and friends, it is essential to properly manage and conserve the resource, not just for sustainability, but for abundance.”
His comment about the need for abundance is completely correct.  But then he delves into the past again, saying

“That is why we have willingly invested, both money and time, in fisheries conservation for nearly a century.”
I wasn’t around a century ago, so I can’t speak about that.  I was around in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the striped bass stock collapsed, and I saw anglers come together back then to conserve the resource.  And we don’t even have to go back that far.  I was around about ten years ago, when Pat Murray, then Vice President of the Coastal Conservation Association, and now its President, penned an essay called “The Last Fish,” in which he wrote

“The ‘resource first’ ethic that drove the early saltwater conservation movement is slowly being corrupted by a doctrine of ‘fishermen first.’  It is hard to imagine that we have come so far in marine conservation and this thinking is still such a seductive part of the fishing ethic of some recreational anglers…
“Some of the very people who helped push the ‘resource first’ ethic are now arguing for greater poundage and more liberal limits, even in the face of troubling stock assessments.  They cry that it will limit anglers’ interest and may damage the industry, but won’t killing the last fish not decisively kill the industry?
“…Among many of the seemingly theoretical scientific, political and managerial complexities, there are many parts of modern day fisheries management that involve making decisions on the economic livelihood of real people.  Real jobs and real paychecks can hang in the balance.  But if the resource is not put first, the outcome will always be wrong.  No matter how politically and emotionally appealing it is to assume the ‘fisherman first’ ethic in a tough fisheries decision, the problem invariably comes back, and when it does, it usually has bigger horns and sharper teeth.
“…I do not believe that we have an ethical crisis in recreational fishing.   There are many more examples of good conservation ethic over a destructive consumption ethic, but we have to remember that the unselfish spirit that started this conservation movement is one of the keys to its success…
“Do we want the last fish for ourselves, or do we want to conserve it to make a future for generations to come?”
 Pat Murray was dead on target when he wrote those words, which seem to clearly support Chris Horton’s position.

But, again, he wrote them ten years ago, and there is more than a little bitter irony in the fact that times have changed.

And the organization that he leads, the Coastal Conservation Association, hailed the Commerce department decision to reopen the private-boat red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, even though the National Marine Fisheries Service admitted that, because of such opening “the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit,” and the “approach may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as 6 years.”

So Chris Horton is probably right, and anglers probably were active conservationists, back in the 1900s.  And judging from Pat Murray’s work, “The Last Fish,” most might have been conservationists ten years ago—but things were already beginning to change.

Now, there are still many anglers who believe in conservation.  I include myself in their number. 

But we are kidding ourselves if we believe that there aren’t a lot of anglers more interested in killing fish now than in leaving a few for the future.  Inspired by the kind of rhetoric issuing out of groups like the Center for Sportfishing Policy, they are willing to set aside science-based management in favor of a bigger kill.

And that’s why we need a strong Magnuson-Stevens.  To address conditions in today’s fishery, not yesterday’s.  To be sure that the last fish is never at risk of capture, and to leave future generations with fish stocks at least as healthy as those we have known.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


Ten or twelve years ago, I was down in Islamorada, and jumped aboard a local party boat for the day.

It wasn’t peak season.  

On the plus side, that meant that there weren’t many people on board the boat, and we didn’t have to jostle for a favored stern spot.  On the downside, one of the reason that there weren’t many anglers was that there weren’t too many fish, at least compared to other times of the year, and while the fishing was great, the catching was a little slow.

The boat anchored uptide of a patch reef, and tossed over a few balls of chum.  It wasn’t long before the water a few dozen yards astern began to take on a shimmering, golden hue as a swarm of yellowtail snapper, responding to the chum, rose up off the bottom.

They weren’t big fish.  Patch-reef yellowtail, living on pieces of bottom near popular ports, are fished pretty hard.  “Flag” yellowtail, as the big fish are called, are almost impossible to find there; most are a couple of inches above or below the minimum legal size.

Considering the conditions, we started out OK.  The first yellowtail of the morning are always na├»ve, and I was able to put a couple of half-decent fish on ice before the panicked struggles of our hooked snapper started making the rest of the school spooky.  Cero mackerel passed by, and some of them came aboard.  But as the morning wore on, the fishing inevitably slowed.

And what happened then was, perhaps, inevitable as well.

A tourist in the starboard stern corner caught an undersized yellowtail snapper.

That, in itself, was nothing new; we had been catching shorts all morning, and had been quickly dropping them back over the side.  But the tourist wasn’t following the program.  Instead of releasing his fish, he was walking it over to the cooler.

And that’s when the captain of the boat got involved.

“Where are you going with that fish?  It’s too small.  Put it back.”
That didn’t go over too well with the tourist, who responded, in the unmistakable accent of the New York Metro region,

“It’s my fish, and I can do what I want with it.”
The fact that keeping the fish was illegal seemed to be lost on the tourist, but not on the captain, who was beginning to get a little annoyed.

“I’m not going to lose my license over your fish.  Put it back in the water.”
Which led to the immediate response of

“I paid to be on this boat, and I can do what I want with my fish.”
At that point, the captain pulled out his wallet, took out the amount of the tourist’s fare, and said

“Here’s your money.  Get off the deck.  Go sit in the cabin, and never come out on this boat again.”
Because that’s how they do it down South.  I’ve fished for snapper on various party boats in the Keys and the Gulf of Mexico, and have found that the captains and mates down there take pains to obey the laws, largely because the boat can be in legal jeopardy if they do not.  And the snapper-grouper management plans don’t permit fish to be filleted at sea; nothing gets cut until it’s back at the dock, making undersized fish a lot easier for law enforcement officers to find.

It’s a little different up here.

That was illustrated recently when enforcement officers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation boarded the party boat Fin Chaser at the dock at Star Island Marina in Montauk.

“One of Montauk’s headboats pulled into the slip on Thursday to be greeted by a couple of guys in the green uniforms of the DEC.  They boarded the boat and started to inspect the anglers’ coolers, finding that the first one had 96 seabass, which is 93 over the legal limit.  As they continued the inspection on the starboard side, there was a massive fish kill on the port side, with dead seabass floating all over the place, and anglers who had not caught anything during the trip filing off.  After the dust cleared, there were over a dozen coolers left with no owners that held over a thousand seabass.  Since no one claimed them, ownership appeared to belong to the captain and owner of the boat.  Stay tuned.”
Those who kept up with the story soon discovered the critical nuance.  An article that appeared about a week after Capt. Kelly’s report, in the Easthampton Star, noted that

“The party boat’s customers were cited for possessing too many black sea bass and porgies, undersized black sea bass and summer flounder, and for failure to stop dumping [fish overboard] upon command.
“[The captain was] issued a violation for an incomplete trip report.  Seven other violations, each carrying a penalty of up to $250, were issued, as well as a misdemeanor charge of failure to stop dumping upon command, for which the penalty is up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to one year.
“Environmental conservation law does not hold the owner or captain responsible for the actions of anglers on his vessel, the [Department of Environmental Conservation] spokesman said, unless officers witness them assisting with or taking responsibility for what is occurring.”
And that’s a problem, because as my story from Islamorada demonstrates, a conscientious captain is the fish’s first line of defense; he or she is the person best positioned to ensure that fishery laws are obeyed.

The problem is, the captain is always torn between conflicting motivations.  He may be a decent guy, who honestly doesn’t like to see fares poaching fish.  He may be perceptive enough to realize that overharvesting fish today may very well hurt his business in the future.  At the same time, there is a very good chance that if customers, such as the tourist and would-be poacher down in Islamorada, are told that they have to release a fish that they want to keep, they’re not going to come back on the boat any more.  And that’s a threat to future business, too.

Thus, you have the situation that a party boat mate out of Freeport, New York threw in my face one evening, when I questioned why he and the rest of his crew allowed passengers to chronically overfish the small bluefish that were than crowding into the bay.

“You think that I’m going to tell some [racial epithet deleted] that he can’t keep more than 10 fish?  That’s the difference between me making $20 and $200 in tips in a night!”
So it’s pretty clear that if regulators want the captains and crews to stop letting their passengers ignore the law, they’re going to have to give those folks some sort of incentive.

In California, for example, violations of recreational fishing regulations aboard party boats became so common that enforcement authorities conducted a year-long undercover operation targeting the captains who abetted and encouraged their passengers to violate the law.  According to the Los Angeles Times,

“Skipper Rick Powers was handcuffed by a phalanx of officers and charged with one count of felony conspiracy to violate Fish and Game laws and six misdemeanor infractions that include using illegal hooks, exceeding catch limits and keeping prohibited species…
“Later this week, state officials said, misdemeanor complaints will be filed against 13 other party boat skippers in nine counties…on a host of additional allegations that involve wounding pelicans and seals, fudging records to avoid catch limits and catching fish out of season.
“…’Wardens have been overwhelmed with complaints about party boats,’ said Warden Bob Aldrich, based in Bodega Bay.  ‘Guys who are over limit for fish get encouraged to continue fishing, and their catch is distributed to other passengers who were seasick’ or didn’t catch their limit, he said.
“No recreational anglers were targeted because they are often unaware of state regulations, officials said.  Instead, wardens went after the people who they believe should have known  better:  boat captains and crews.
“…The most troublesome violations, wardens say, include exceeding limits on the number of fish, catching undersized fish and then masking their size by filleting them before the boat returns to the dock; and [salmon-specific gear regulations].  [emphasis added]”
Some of those violations are unique to California and its particular mix of fish species, but plenty of them are going to be familiar to anyone who ever fishes from a party boat in New York or New Jersey, and some of them fit right in with the allegations arising out of the Fin Chaser incident.

If New York has a real desire to prevent such violations from occurring in its for-hire fleet, it should be making a serious effort to impose similar liability on for-hire vessels’ captains and crews.  Such liability shouldn’t be onerous—it’s practically impossible to prevent a passenger intent on poaching from secreting a couple of illegal fish into a lunch bag or other container—but if the number of illegal fish exceeds, for the sake of example, 20% of the overall catch, a presumption that the captain and crew are complicit is not unreasonable.  

After all, boats are required to submit accurate vessel trip reports for every trip made, so “I didn’t know what people caught” is not a viable excuse.

And, looking at harvest estimates provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service, it seems that such a 20% figure might cause quite a bit of grief to folks who presently consider themselves above the law. 

Using 2016 as an example, about 40% of the black sea bass harvested and sampled on party boats were less than 15 inches long—which was and still is the size limit (note that NMFS gives the measurement in terms of “fork length” and black sea bass’ tails are not forked, so it’s possible that the 40% number is a little high, depending on how the fish are measured, but even half of that would hit the theoretical 20% minimum).

That number falls to a smaller, but still significant 27% of undersized summer flounder (the same caveat on fork length applies), but jumps to 47% of scup being less than 9 inches long (the size limit is 10 inches, but scup do have forked tails, so an allowance was made for that) and then goes back down to 20% of striped bass measuring less than 26 inches (the size limit is 28 inches, but again, a generous 2-inch allowance was made for the fork in the tail, and assure that I wasn't overstating the scope of the illegal harvest).

So yes, party boats take a lot of short fish—and one has to remember that the numbers above probably reflect the minimum level of lawlessness, as anglers don’t have to let NMFS samplers measure their undersized fish, and black sea bass and scup, at least, can still be legally filleted at sea, to hide the number of illegal fish actually taken.

So making boat crews responsible for illegal activity on their vessels is a needed first step, but it is only the first one.  Requiring crews to retain the “racks,” the intact heads, tails and skeleton of filleted fish, is a good next step, to reduce the number of undersized fish filleted at sea; in New York, such rack retention is already required for striped bass and summer flounder.  Requiring all fish to be filleted on shore is an even more effective measure, that prevents racks from a previous trip to be retained to cover the inevitable shorts kept by passengers (a practice that is currently illegal but, reportedly, far from unknown).

Even so, none of the measures restricting filleting at sea would have prevented the Fin Chaser incident, as many of the illegal fish landed were still intact.  Thus, it falls back on the need to adopt rules that make violating the law too painful for the vessel and crew to risk.

Fines alone won’t do that, and in the real world, no judge is going to impose jail time for some undersized or over-limit fish, absent a long history of egregious violations.  

In the over-all scheme of things, when overworked and understaffed law enforcement agencies have difficulty covering all of the docks were violations might occur, the odds of being caught and fined are fairly remote.  That makes even a $1,000 fine just another cost of doing business.

Take the Fin Chaser as an example.  An article on the incident published in Newsday states that the boat can carry ‘more than 50 passengers” and charges each one $90 for a porgy and black sea bass trip; it was allegedly carrying 46 passengers on the day that the enforcement agents came aboard. 

But even if it only carried 40 passengers each day, the fares collected would equal $3,600—a significant sum.

Far from all of that is profit.  The boat must pay for fuel and bait, dock space, insurance and maintenance of the boat and fishing gear.  The deck crew largely works for tips, but probably also receives some fixed income to keep the boat from losing them if weather prevents sailing for a few days in a row  Even so, $1,000 spread out across the entire season—even a few fines of that size—don’t amount to much of a deterrent.

And as I note earlier, jail isn’t a realistic option .

So what is needed is a sanction that will have some teeth, and can realistically be imposed.  The answer is something that we see used far too seldom in the for-hire world, the imposition of administrative sanctions.  That basically means that, after providing the operator an opportunity to be heard, either NMFS or the State of New York—preferably both—suspend the permits the boat needs to operate for an appropriate period of time.

While a $1,000 fine might not mean very much, being tied up to the dock for two weeks during the peak of the season is going to hurt, when no income is coming in but the fixed expenses for dockage, insurance and crew are still piling up.

And the boat lying empty at the pier would provide a good example to other captains and crews thinking about crossing the line, reminding them why countenancing illegality is just not a good idea.

Right now, there’s just too much illegality going on.  It’s time for NMFS and the states to take meaningful action to get it to stop.

Thursday, September 14, 2017


For a number of years, we’ve heard for-hire operators, and party boat operators in particular, complain that federal fishery managers require them to fill out vessel trip reports, usually referred to as “VTRs,” but then don’t consider information included on such VTRs when they perform stock assessments, calculate landings estimates or engage in similar analyses.

“The time delays and inaccuracies associated with current data collection in the charter and party fishing fleets reduce our ability to use the data in making management decisions.  The action is intended to improve the data collection and improve the utility of the data.”
There have even been proposals at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council suggesting that the use of such electronic VTRs could justify reopening the black sea bass fishery during January and February, which has been closed in part because no reliable estimates of recreational landings are available from that period.

And maybe that would be possible, provided that the information provided in such vessel trip reports was accurate, and that vessels which intentionally or negligently submit inaccurate VTRs were subject to penalties harsh enough to discourage such behavior.

Unfortunately, right now, neither of those things is true.
A little over ten days ago, I was told about a party boat out in Montauk that returned to the dock with over 1,000 illegal black sea bass on board—yes, that’s over 1,000 illegal fish on a single eight or ten hour trip.  I didn’t say much about it at the time, even though the information that I received was very reliable, because I didn’t want to take even the slight chance that I might be unintentionally impugning an innocent operation, and doing someone unjustified harm.

But the facts have now been made public, so I’ll let the East Hampton Star tell the story.

“Marine enforcement officers…saw what they estimated was hundreds of pounds of fish being thrown overboard from a Montauk party boat and wound up ticketing eight people, including the boat’s captain…
“According to a [Department of Environmental Conservation] spokeswoman, the officers approached the 75-foot Fin Chaser, based on Star Island, and ordered the anglers to stop what they were doing.  Their orders were ignored…
[The captain] was issued a violation for an incomplete trip report.  Seven other violations, each carrying a penalty of up to $250, were issued, as well as a misdemeanor charge of failure to stop dumping upon command, for which the penalty is up to $1,000 and imprisonment for up to one year.
“Details about what occurred…were made public on Sept. 5 on Capt. Gene Kelly’s website…
“’As they continued the inspection on the starboard side, there was a massive fish kill on the port side, with dead sea bass floating all over the place,’ Capt. Kelly wrote, with ‘anglers who had not caught anything during the trip filing off’ the boat.  Additional officers were called to help recover fish from the water, according to the spokeswoman.
“’After the dust cleared,’ Capt. Kelly wrote ‘there were over a dozen coolers left with no owners,’ which held more than 1,000 sea bass.  [emphasis added]”
The key takeaway here is that, if the enforcement officers had not intervened, the illegally-harvested black sea bass would not have appeared on the Fin Chaser’s VTR, and managers would have no way to know that they were taken.  Given the millions of pounds of black sea bass caught by anglers in the northeast every year, missing just an accounting for that one day wouldn’t have any significant impact on fishery management decisions.

Of course, that assumes that the Fin Chaser was caught the very first time that it landed illegal fish and provided an “incomplete” VTR.  That is certainly a possibility, although I leave it up to your judgment and experience to decide just how likely it is that such possibility reflects the truth…

And, unfortunately, the Fin Chaser isn’t alone when it comes to having a lot of illegal black sea bass on board.  In one highly publicized incident, which occurred back in 2012, the Brielle-based party boat Jamaica, a 125-foot vessel that operates all year long when weather permits, returned to the dock with 819 illegal (out-of-season) black sea bass on board.

“[Capt. Bogan] did see fishermen keeping black sea bass, but said ‘I didn’t think it was that many.  And I’m not getting paid by the state of New Jersey to take fish out of people’s buckets.’
“He said no customers called to complain after drawing summonses.  They were made aware of the law, both before the trip and through warnings posted inside the boat, he said.”
There is no indication that law enforcement authorities found any problems with the Jamaica’s VTR that day, so without knowledge to the contrary, we have to assume that it was complete.  But still, one has to wonder.  If the captain knew that black sea bass were being kept, but “didn’t think that it was that many,” how likely was it that all 819 illegal fish would have made it onto his VTR had law enforcement not intervened? 

You can’t report fish if you don’t know they’re there.
Even though the stories of the Jamaica and the Fin Chaser are more than five years apart, and come from two different ports in two different states, we also have to wonder how many serious violations are out there that were just never detected, particularly in the black sea bass fishery.

Certainly, there are rumors.

I belong to a good-sized fishing club.  Because the folks there know that I am involved in fisheries issues, I hear a lot of complaints when they think that something illegal is going on, and want to get a message to law enforcement and regulators.

I’ve frequently heard complaints about the large fleet of party boats who dock at a nearby state park.  Folks tell me that when they fish close to them, either anchored up on a wreck some distance offshore, or drifting close by on a nearshore reef, they see a lot of clearly out-of-season and undersized fish—not only black sea bass, but scup, tautog, summer flounder and even a few cod—come up out of the water, but except for the short summer flounder, don’t see very many going back.

Others tell me about trips that their neighbors take—particularly evening and night trips for black sea bass—where the 15-inch minimum size and 3-fish summer bag limit is largely ignored.  One club member told me about an acquaintance taking home five or six times as many black sea bass as the law allowed, and when the club member expressed surprise over the angler being able to find so many 15-inch black sea bass on a single trip, the response was that the folks on the boat didn’t worry about the 15-inch limit, so long as all fish were cleaned on the boat before the angler left, making it impossible to prove that they had been undersized.

No, I don’t have personal knowledge of such violations, but the sheer volume of the stories I hear make it likely that a lot of illegal fish are being landed.

And it’s pretty likely that few, probably none, of those illegal fish are showing up on the boats’ VTRs.

That means that, under current conditions, the VTRs being filed—whether paper or electronic—just aren’t reliable enough to use for management purposes.  That’s unfortunate, because there are a lot of legitimate captains out there, particularly on the charter boat side, who would be glad to provide good information that might help to improve the management process.

Unfortunately, laws aren’t written to protect us from the honest folks, but to protect us from the other sort, who would violate the law with impunity in order to make a little more cash.  That being the case, if NMFS truly wants to use VTRs when compiling fisheries data, it needs to adopt policies—and primarily penalties—that would make filing intentionally or negligently inaccurate VTRs a serious offence.

Cash fines, no matter how steep, aren’t likely to get the job done, because the odds of being caught filing a bad VTR are high enough, and violators would be caught so infrequently, that the rewards from turning a blind eye to poachers onboard would make any such fine just a cost of doing business.

Permit sanctions might be a better answer.  If a boat’s permits to fish in both state and federal waters were suspended for a significant period of time during peak season—say, no less than 15 days for a first offense, and no less than 30 for a second-time offender, with permanent revocation a possibility if chronic violations occur—VTR data might become reliable enough for managers to rely on.

It would be nice to see that occur, because the honest for-hire operators shouldn’t have to suffer because of the folks who countenance illegality.  But until penalties stiff enough to deter violators are handed down and publicized, there is going to continue to be a problem with VTRs.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


The reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is beginning to gain some momentum.

On July 19, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans held a hearing on the “Successes and Challenges” of Magnuson-Stevens.  I was invited to testify.

On August 23, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held its own  hearing in Soldotna, Alaska, which addressed Magnuson-Stevens, and plans to hold another in Washington, D.C. in a couple of days.

So it probably makes sense to stop and take a look at what’s going on.

Magnuson-Stevens is a comprehensive law, and a number of issues are going to be considered.  However, the heart of the debate revolves around the conservation and management of America’s salt water fish stocks, and the debaters break down into two basic camps. 

On one side, there are a host of conservation organizations and conservation-minded commercial and recreational fishermen, who want to keep the key provisions of the law, which include a strict prohibition on overfishing and require the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks, intact. 

On the other side are an array recreational fishing tackle and boatbuilding groups, anglers’ rights organizations and some less-enlightened commercial fishermen, who are willing to tolerate overfishing and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks, so that they can kill a few more fish and make a little more money in the short term, and worry about the future—at some point in the future, after they’ve sated their wants in the now.

 Granted, it doesn’t make a compelling case to say that you want to overfish a stock—or continue to hammer an overfished stock—so that you can make a few more bucks and pile a few more dead fish into the cooler.  

For some of the organizations involved, it’s also kind of embarrassing to be trying to weaken provisions of Magnuson-Stevens today, when they were fighting like demons to keep—or perhaps even strengthen—the same conservation-oriented language in the law when it was reauthorized a decade ago.

Thus, the folks trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens, so that the law is more tolerant of overfishing and less insistent that overfished stocks be quickly rebuilt, have created a whole variety of weasel-words, and spawned a whole school of red herring, to mask the start reality of what they’re really trying to do.

So, as the debate heats up, it’s probably time to cut through the fog, see what each side is saying, and then figure out what it really means.

When you look at the pro-conservation, keep Magnuson-Stevens strong side of the equation, what you see is pretty much what you get.

“From once plentiful cod and key species of rockfish to majestic sharks, species declined dramatically because we took too many fish out of the water and left too few behind to reproduce.  By the 1990s, many fisheries had collapsed or were on the brink.  Our country faced a massive dilemma:  change our behavior, or continue on the same path and face unprecedented consequences…
“Over the past four decades, we’ve made real progress toward overfishing in U.S. waters and rebuilding fish populations.  And we have a little-known law with a long name to thank:  The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).
“Since 2007, the percentage of fish populations that are facing overfishing, or that are already overfished, has decreased—even as catches are increasing.  In 2015 alone, red snapper quotas were raised by more than 20 percent because the population is rebuilding, thanks to science-based management, better incentives for conservation and accountability for management.
“This points to positive recovery for our nation’s fisheries.  It’s clear that sound science and long term management are working for America’s fish stocks as well as our economy.
“Here at Ocean Conservancy, we’re committed to defending the integrity of the MSA so we can have healthy fish populations for generations to come.”
That’s pretty straightforward.  Magnuson-Stevens works.  It is ending overfishing, rebuilding overfished stocks and making more fish available to fishermen.  Thus, the conservation and management provisions of the law should not be torn apart.   

Although a few of the smaller details might differ, that’s essentially the same argument being made by all of Magnuson’s defenders.

It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.

But if you want to be able to kill more fish than the law currently allows, you have to find a way.  That’s where the red herrings and the weasel-words come in.

They began to emerge in early 2014, when a group of fishing industry, anglers’ rights and boatbuilders groups issued a document titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” under the aegis of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.  That “Vision” report was one of the first public airings of the notion that recreational fishing is so different from commercial fishing that key provisions of Magnuson-Stevens shouldn’t apply.

It alleged that

“Because it is a fundamentally different activity than commercial fishing, recreational fishing requires different management approaches…
“From a management perspective, the Magnuson-Stevens Act relies on limited entry and catch-share programs, along with fixed quotas that can be managed in real time.  While these approaches work for the commercial sector where relatively few vessels are focused on maximum sustainable yield, recreational fisheries are enjoyed by millions of individuals with diverse goals.  Some try to catch fish for food, while others simply want to have fun catching and releasing fish and enjoying their time outdoors.  What recreational anglers want and need is wide-ranging, dependable access to healthy and abundant fish stocks.
Like all the best efforts at misdirection, that quote contains just enough truth to lend it credibility, then takes the reader astray.  Because yes, there are a lot more recreational than commercial fishermen.  Yes, anglers have different goals.  And yes, anglers’ harvests can’t yet be managed in anything close to real time.

But the mention of catch-and-release anglers are a red herring, because catch-and-release, by its very nature, isn’t affected by “fixed quotas that can be managed in real time.”  Quotas only matter when you start killing fish and bringing them home.

The people that such quotas actually impact are those who “try to catch fish for food,” and in those fisheries, it’s much harder to argue that commercial and recreational fisheries have a fundamentally different impact on fish stocks.  While the landings of individual commercial and recreational fishermen vary in scale, they don’t differ at all with respect to the fact that both put dead fish on the dock. 

“We may agree that they have different objectives, but the end result of both sectors is really the same—it’s the harvesting of a public resource.  I would encourage this committee to assure that sound science and individual accountability are the foundation of any new proposal.”
But individual accountability—making anglers responsible for the number of fish that they harvest—is just what the folks trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens are trying to avoid.  Thus, the “Vision” report falls back on another old canard, that recreational fishing’s economic

“impact is equal to or greater than the commercial industry in terms of number of jobs provided and total economic benefits, while accounting for only a fraction of overall landings.  [emphasis added]”
Again, just enough truth to mislead…

Because yes, overall commercial landings dwarf overall recreational landings.  That’s true.  But what matters, in the context of recreational fishing, in the Magnuson-Stevens debate isn’t how many pounds of fish the commercial fishermen land over-all—let’s face it, anglers probably don’t care that nearly 3.3 billion pounds of walleye pollock were commercially landed in 2015—but how many pounds of recreationally-important fish are landed by the commercial sector.

When one looks at the relative commercial and recreational landings of fish that anglers actually care about, it becomes clear that we’re certainly killing our share.

A while ago, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council posted a blog titled “2016’s Most Wanted Fish,” which compared recreational and commercial landings for a number of federally-managed species.  It turns out that anglers in the Gulf were allocated just under half of the red snapper, and roughly 80% of the gray triggerfish, 75% of the greater amberjack, 65% of the king mackerel, 60% of the gag grouper and 55% of the Spanish mackerel.  Of the seven important species included in the blog, only one, red grouper, was dominated by the commercial fishery, which gets about 75% of the fish.

The trend is the same on other sections of coast.  Based on the commercial landings information provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as recreational landings estimates provided by the same agency for 2015, with respect to 20 Atlantic coast species, it becomes clear that recreational fishermen are responsible for a lot more than “a fraction” of the landings of many different fish. 

Anglers dominated the landings for wahoo (95%), red drum (95%), cobia (95%), dolphin (90%), mutton snapper (89%), tautog (89%), yellowtail snapper (86%), black drum (84%), spotted seatrout (83%), sheepshead (81%), striped bass (77%), black sea bass (74%), bluefish (74%)  and Florida pompano (70%).  Commercial fishermen, on the other hand, dominated the New England groundfish fishery, with 96% of the haddock landings, and 89% of both pollock and cod.  Commercial fishermen also landed a substantial majority of the scup (79%) and summer flounder (69%), and a slight majority of the weakfish (54%).

Thus, anglers don’t dominate every significant fishery, but they are responsible for most of the fishing mortality of many important stocks.  To argue that they shouldn’t be subject to annual catch limits—“fixed quotas”—as stated on more than one occasion in the “Vision” statement, is just not realistic given that unquestionable reality.

It’s just as unrealistic to suggest, as the “Vision” report does, that the anglers who seek to bring fish home aren’t concerned with maximum sustainable yield.  

“that statement alone is a game changer.”             
It certainly seems that maximum sustainable yield mattered to him.  

At heart, when it comes to killing fish, the recreational and commercial sectors aren’t really that different at all—at least not so different that anglers should be free of annual catch limits/hard-poundage quotas.

“alternative management for recreational fishing…smartly rebuilding fishery stocks, [and] establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit…”
In other words, to allow overfishing and delay rebuilding—because we can all be pretty sure that what the Center considers “smartly rebuilding” a stock would be more than a little different from how a biologist would interpret that term.

And just why are they so driven to make such changes?  

“These amendments need to not only support the existing populations of recreational anglers and fishing related businesses but also to allow for new entrants to come into the fishery and businesses to grow and expand…
“The law needs to recognize that in its current form, our tradition of fishing cannot be passed on to our children without [Magnuson-Stevens] taking away opportunity from the rest of the fishing community.”
In other words, Magnuson-Stevens, with its annual catch limits and rebuilding deadlines, currently forces anglers to share.  

Right now, if new anglers—presumably but not necessarily children—come into the fishery, their catch comes out of a common quota.  It’s a zero sum game, with clear biological limits, and every fish someone catches is a fish that becomes unavailable to someone else.

And, based on Cicero's comments, it appears that the old guys just don’t want to share.  They would rather change a good law, and put the future health of our fish stocks at risk, because the only alternative to that is for the adults—chronological adults, at least—now in the fishery to give up some fish to their kids, and that’s something that they'd rather not do.

And that, in the end, is Magnsuon-Stevens “reform” in a nutshell.

When all of the fancy talk is done, it comes down to two groups of people. 

One wants a strong law, and healthy fish stocks that we can pass down to generations yet to be born.

The other, who want to weaken the law, already have quite a bit, want to have more, and do not want to share.

I leave it for you to decide who ought to win, and who should get your support.