Sunday, January 25, 2015

WE JUST DON'T KNOW WHAT WE'RE MISSING...

Last week, I was reading a blog called “Phenomena:  Laelaps” which appears on the National Geographic website.

It usually deals with fossils and such, but this week, it drifted out of character just a bit, with a post called “The Mediterranean’s Missing Sawfishes.” It described how sawfish had been extirpated from the Mediterranean Sea, and also how, although they were clearly documented there in historical times, some scientists doubted that the Mediterranean ever hosted a breeding population, because its water can grow too cold and reports were so few.

But the blog’s author, after examining the arguments and the evidence, came to a very different conclusion.  After observing that the sawfish and humans had shared the Mediterranean Sea for a very long time, and that such sharing didn’t work out too well for the sawfish, he said

“Our species only started keeping track of what was ‘natural’ when the sawfishes were already in decline.  Marine biologists know this as ‘shifting baselines’, and it’s the same reason why many don’t feel the absence of ground sloths and mastodons in North American forests.  The megamammals were already gone by the time naturalists started paying attention to the woods, and we don’t consider how empty the landscape is.  We just don’t know what we’re missing.”
I have to admit that, when I read those words, they gave me a chill that took me back to the waters right here off Long Island.  To thoughts of how, in just the past 50 years, those waters that I came to know as a child were already all but empty of some of the life that had thrived there before.

My first thoughts went, as they always do, to the ignored winter flounder. 

I can’t look out on the early-spring bay and not recall the way it once was, when boats dotted the water as far as you could see, and in each boat, anglers were filling buckets, baskets or burlap bags with the same sort of flounder that were taken, firm and cold, out of every bay, sound and canal from New Jersey up through New England.

I can recall growing up on the water, catching flounder off beaches and piers on days off from school, and spending weekends on a boat with my parents, when we fished for flounder right through the year, from April well into November.

There is a sad stillness in today’s springtime bay that only we older folks know.  The kids and new anglers embrace a new normal in which flounder are scarce, and it isn’t unlikely that in another few years, the next generation will fish in a bay that doesn’t hold flounder at all.

And the saddest part is, they will not miss them a bit.

Nor, down at the West End, will they miss whiting, which used to swarm when the weather turned cold.  Party boats ran trips day and night, taking their fares not far from the harbor, but just far enough that they could fill up their sacks with whiting that ran from a foot or so long to “baseball bat” size.

Those who chose not to pay for a place on a boat could go down, at night, to places such as the Coney Island pier, and catch whiting that swam into the glare of the overhead lights.  

On cold winter nights, one didn’t even need a hook and line; “frostfish,” as whiting were called at the time, would become disoriented while feeding right up in the wasy, and it was very possible to collect enough fish for a family meal by walking the shore in the darkness, and gathering the frozen bodies of fish that had beached themselves on the sand.

It’s been a long time since that has happened, of course; the whiting left New York Bight a long generation ago.  “Frostfish” have become legend since then.

Some fish slip through our fingers without any fanfare, and don’t become legends at all.

Speak with anyone younger than forty or so, and mention the spring pollock run that occurred off Block Island, and they’ll throw you a quizzical stare.  It was one of those things that, for whatever reason, got far less publicity than it deserved.  But for those of us who lived in Connecticut, Rhode Island or eastern Long Island, and who chased groundfish back in those days, the pollock run was spectacular.

Imagine catching fish the size of striped bass—well, there were no 40s or 50s involved, but fish between 15 and 30—that pulled as hard as bluefish, and doing that throughout the day, and you can get an feel for what it was like.  If you wanted a few fish for dinner, you could catch them on bait rigs or jigs; if you were really hungry, you could troll umbrella rigs on downriggers and come close to sinking your boat with the things.

Yet today, that run is long gone.

It’s as dead as the mackerel in Long Island Sound, which once filled the water in such abundance that we caught them five at a time.  That run used to stretch out over four weeks in May; it dwindled to nothing two decades ago. 

On the South Shore of Long Island, the story is almost the same.  A run that once lasted for weeks—a shoal of silvered abundance that sometimes seemed to extend, nearly unbroken, from Manasquan, New Jersey to Montauk, New York for weeks during the spring, is now mostly gone.  You might find a few pods of mackerel in winter, moving inshore with the cold, and if you’re extremely lucky, you could hit a school swimming east during April, but it won’t stay for more than a day.

The days of the big schools are past.

Such things have disappeared just in my lifetime.

If we want to go back further, we need to seek written words.

In Heartbeats in the Muck, a natural history of New York Harbor, John Waldman recalls when red drum, sheepshead and salt water catfish swam in local waters.  He talks of

“…the regular presence until the middle of the nineteenth century of sharks along Manhattan’s commercial waterfront, particularly the East River.  Not little sharks, but eight- and twelve-footers, drawn to the shallows by the raw refuse of the markets and common enough that one market worker, well known for overpowering sharks with the customary tug-of-war gear of handheld rope tied to chain, landed seven in one day.”
Today, a shark in the harbor makes the network news.  We don't think of how common they were.

But perhaps his most relevant recollection for anglers is when he points out that

“Black drum, absent for a century, were the scourge of Staten Island oyster planters and were commonly caught around Manhattan to weights of seventy pounds, the Harlem River and the Battery being prime locations.”
If most New York anglers ran into a black drum today—and every once in a great while, somebody does—the odds are good that they’d have no idea what it was.

Should an angler ever catch a black drum, an old provision of New York’s Environmental Conservation Law would require that angler to kill it rather than set it free, helping to assure that the drum would forever remain a stranger in waters that it once called home.

So a hole remains off our coastlines, that only the black drum could fill.  There is another hole nearly empty of flounder, and a hole where the whiting once swam.

And just as I know nothing of black drum, there is a new generation of anglers, some already old enough to have fishing-age children themselves, who know little of flounder or mackerel or pollock, and nothing of whiting at all.  

We can only ask ourselves what their grandkids will know of tautog (blackfish), of tomcod, of American shad and American eels, of dusky sharks and bluefin tuna, and maybe if all goes completely wrong, even of such Long Island icons as striped bass and weakfish.

And what makes that picture more frightening is the likelihood that no one will care; that such fish will fall into legend, and that even such legends will fade.  That future generations will view an empty ocean as normal, and never look out over the rips at Montauk and remember a time when they pulsed bright with striped bass chasing rainbait, just as too many anglers today can look out over an empty Great South Bay without saying, “I recall when the flounders were in…”




















Thursday, January 22, 2015

TUNNEL VISION

I recently perused an editorial in The Seafood News, that discussed the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs the harvest of fish in federal waters.

The article, written for a commercial fishing audience, warned readers that they might lose ground to recreational fishing interests in the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson Act.

But perhaps because it was written for a commercial fishing audience, the editorial took a very one-dimensional view of fisheries management and the fisheries themselves.  And that sort of approach, looking out through a tunnel that doesn’t open up enough to permit you to view anyone’s thoughts and concerns but your own is a very dangerous and self-deceptive thing to do, particularly when dealing with a publicly owned resource.

For example, the editorial noted that

“For many years, the precepts…were fixed.  Fisheries must be managed on the basis of the best available science to create the optimum yield in national benefits, defined as both commercial and recreational opportunities.  Yet since most fisheries in the 200 mile federal waters were commercial, and producing seafood for public consumption was deemed a national interest, the most visible work of the councils has been in managing the commercial fishery…
“But as some catches were ratcheted down and quotas reduced, suddenly the recreational fishery which had been less visible reacted to being caught by these limits…
“For the Magnuson reauthorization that is currently on the table, the recreational groups want to explicitly change the allocation formulas based on historical share of the catch, and instead go to a formula based on expanding the share going to the recreational industry i.e. those making the outboards, guides, charter businesses and others who support lobbying to gain additional economic advantage…”
Those statements are unquestionably true.  In fact, the “recreational industry”, as represented by the organizations that contributed to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, A Vision for Managing America’s Salt Water Recreational Fisheries, clearly state, in only slightly different words, that “the most visible work of the councils has been in managing the commercial fishery,” and that’s why they’re looking for change.

I don't belittle the editorial’s concerns with respect to shifting allocations from commercial to recreational users.  No one wants to give up anything that they already have, and it’s only human to want a little more.  Allocation of resources is a zero-sum game, and when someone else is given a little more, that means that someone else is going to be getting a little less than they’re used to.

Reallocation shouldn’t be done casually, or used to cover up some other, perhaps deeper flaw in the fishery management system.

And yet…things change over time.

The editorial laments that “the recreational groups want to explicitly change the allocation formulas based on historical share of the catch” in favor of a newer approach.  But that can only lead to the question, “Why should the fish caught today, in the second decade of the 21st Century, be distributed in the same manner that they were in the closing decades of a century already gone?”

The number of fishermen—both recreational and commercial—have changed, the number of fish available to those fishermen have changed and the laws governing how those fish may be harvested has changed.  The temperature of the ocean itself has changed, along with the makeup of the biotic communities that dwell there.  So why should allocation remain the only unchangeable constant?

A few years ago, at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, managers were discussing the possible reallocation of scup, a small marine panfish.  Managers had been wildly successful in restoring the stock, and the commercial fleet was unable to land its entire quota; if it ever did so, it would have pushed prices for scup straight through the floor.  Yet recreational regulations were still quite restrictive (they have since been substantially relaxed).  The commercial boats received nearly 80% of the allocation, and a good argument could be made for moving some of the unused commercial fish over to the recreational side.  Yet the very idea met with strong commercial opposition, with one of the arguments being that, if the commercials could ever expand their market for scup, they’d need the currently unused fish to fill new demand.

That’s just pigheaded, in more ways than one…

On the other hand, if you look at the red snapper fishery down in the Gulf of Mexico, you see the recreational community attempting to use reallocation as a way to compensate for the consequences of their own chronic overfishing and their support of state regulations which allow them to harvest far more snapper than federal rules—or the accepted science—would allow. 

Which just proves that anglers can be pigheaded, too.

In fact, anglers will fight about allocation even among themselves.  At the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, there was a long and acrimonious battle about allocating the recreational summer flounder quota among the various states.  For many years, ASMFC used an allocation scheme based on harvest in 1998, when the stock was still rebuilding.  That resulted in New Jersey getting the lion’s share of the harvest—nearly 40 percent of all recreational landings—at the expense of every other state.  As the stock became fully recovered, summer flounder, including some of the largest individuals in the population, began recolonizing waters at the northern end of their range; at that point, “allocations based on historic share of the catch” no longer reflected the reality on the water.  Even so, it took managers nearly a decade to shake off their fascination with the past and come up with new and creative approaches to allocation that were appropriate to the conditions that exist today, and not at the end of the last century. 


But fisheries management should not be about pleasing everyone, or maintaining the status quo.  It should be about doing what is in the best interests of the public as a whole.  

To that end, a couple of years ago the National Marine Fisheries Service commissioned a report on allocation that looks at the issue from multiple perspectives and makes a lot of sense, and helps to explain why “allocations based on historic share of the catch” may—or may not—need to be changed.

But allocation wasn't the editorial's only concern.  It opined that

“NOAA sometimes shows very poor and biased understanding of recreational vs. commercial interests.
“For example, in a MAFAC white paper on recreational interests they state
“The recreational sector is fundamentally different from the commercial sector in several ways, including their motivations for participating in the fishery.  Commercial fishermen prosecute the fishery primarily for personal economic gain.  They want to catch as many fish as possible, as efficiently as possible, in order to maximize profit.  Conversely, recreational fishermen fish for enjoyment, to provide fish for their families, for the challenge of catching specific species, and for spending quality time with family and friends.
“The description is a total myth.  First, the ‘recreational sector’ is as business oriented as any in our society, and the money and lobbying from these organizations comes from the businesses – from boat and motor manufacturers to guides and lodge operators – who are as profit oriented as anyone else.
Once again, we see the author of the editorial viewing the world through a tunnel constructed out of his personal biases, the greatest of which appears to be an inability to distinguish between recreational fishermen and the recreational fishing industry, which are really two very different beasts.

To argue that recreational fishermen are not “fundamentally different” from commercial fishermen is nothing less than inane.  

By the simple virtue of their occupation, commercial fishermen intend to come away from any trip on the water with more money in their pockets than they had before.  The faster that they can catch their annual quota (market conditions permitting), and in doing so minimize their expenses for fuel, ice and other expenses, the more money that they will have.  Recreational fishermen, on the other hand, must spend money to go out on the water, and often engage in catch and release to extend the time that it takes to harvest their catch limit, thus intentionally increasing the cost of any fish that they bring home. 

That is a pretty big difference, and makes it pretty clear that recreational fishermen are not “profit oriented” at all.

On the other hand, members of the recreational fishing industry, just like members of the commercial fishing industry, are in it for the money.  And because of that, they often find themselves in conflict with recreational, as well as commercial, fishermen.

That’s certainly true in the case of striped bass management today where, in many of the states (including here in New York), the primary conflict isn’t between recreational and commercial fishermen, but between recreational fishermen, who are seeking to conserve striped bass and advocate conservative size and bag limits, and the recreational fishing industry—primarily in the form of headboats and “six-pack” charters—who believe that they can make more money if the regulations allow them to kill more striped bass, regardless of the impact of that on the stock.

And still, the editorial goes on.

“Secondly, most fishermen are not simply there for a paycheck.  They could earn more money elsewhere.  Instead, they are devoted to a way of life that is satisfying, independent, and deeply connected to the ocean.  There is no difference between an individual recreational and commercial fisherman’s love for the outdoors.”
Maybe there’s no difference between some “individual recreational and commercial fisherman’s love for the outdoors,” but there can be a real difference between the way recreational and commercial fishermen look at the resources that live there.  

To most commercial fishermen—here on the East Coast, at least—fish are “product” to be caught, processed and turned into money.  They tend to lack any sense of precaution, and instead seek to harvest right up to—and sometimes (particularly in New England) beyond—prudent limits, without providing any sort of buffer for scientific or management uncertainty.  That is a trait that they share with members of the recreational industry, who are also trying to monetize public resources and generally support the highest possible kill.

Recreational fishermen, on the other hand, tend to place more value on living marine resources and, depending on the species involved, may release far more than they kill.  

Individual fish are more valued—sometimes even romanticized just a bit—and shown more respect.  That’s not true of every recreational fisherman; we have, regrettably our fish hogs and our slobs.  However, anglers typically show more reverence for their quarry than those that put a price on its head.

That’s why, in most cases, it is the anglers and not the commercial fishermen (or the recreational fishing industry) who are at the forefront of conservation efforts.

On the other hand, some fish can be eaten, too.  The editorial gets that part right, but seems somewhat confused about the details when it says

“Third, the public benefit of the United States seafood resources is in providing an import [sic] and unique source of food to the American people, and even though commercial operations have to be profitable to exist, they use a public resource for a larger public purpose:  providing fish and seafood to eat.
“It is this aspect of the commercial recreational divide that is so often overlooked.  Why should a few hundred thousand people lock up access to striped bass along the Atlantic coast and prevent the 100 million Americans living near the coast from eating that fish at restaurants.  A national resource should be available to most Americans.“

Although I believe that the editorial meant to say that seafood is an “important and unique” source of food for Americans, perhaps the author made an unconscious slip when he stated that seafood eaten in this country was “import and unique” because, in fact, about 90% of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported.  

In the overall scheme of things, the amount of fish eaten by Americans that it actually caught by American commercial fishermen isn’t really all that important at all—although it’s pretty important to American commercial fishermen that somebody buys and hopefully eats what they catch.

And the editorial seems to completely ignore the fact that fish harvested by recreational anglers are used for food, too.

Not to mention the fact that the comment about “a few hundred thousand people [locking] up access to striped bass along the Atlantic coast and [preventing] the 100 million Americans living near the coast from eating that fish” is a complete non sequitur.

Although there are people and organizations who seek to end the commercial striped bass fishery on the entire Atlantic coast, to date, they have not succeeded.  

In 2013, 6,042,022 pounds of wild striped bass were landed by fishermen on the Atlantic coast.  That’s not an inconsiderable number of fish, and while it (as well as recreational landings) are going to be reduced a bit going forward, it’s about as much, when combined with recreational landings, that can be safely killed without endangering the long-term health of the stock.

That means that each of those “100 million Americans” would be able to eat about 0.06 pounds—a little under one ounce—of striped bass every year, if the fish was evenly distributed, which pretty well explains why everyone can’t go out and buy some wild striped bass for themselves—even if they all wanted to do so.

Sometimes, managing a scarce resource for those who choose to harvest it for their own use just makes sense, from both and economic and a management perspective.  Although in the case of striped bass, the commercial folks get to sell some fish too.

All that I've written above is just a long way of saying that when we look at fisheries issues, we must always try to take an inclusive view.  No matter whether we’re commercial fishermen, anglers, fisheries managers or conservation advocates—or some combination of such folks—it’s always a mistake to think that our interests are the only ones that matter, and our viewpoints the only ones that hold any validity.

Fish are a public resource, and should be managed for the overall public good.

Which usually means that we should start by doing what’s right for the fish themselves.

For healthy stocks benefit all of us.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

HOW SHOULD WE VALUE STRIPED BASS?

Yesterday, I first heard about something called the “StriperFest,” which takes place down in Wilmington, North Carolina, on the banks of the Cape Fear River.  Organized by the Cape Fear River Watch, it is intended to help scientists learn more about, and hopefully restore and conserve, the striped bass population within the Cape Fear River.

That population isn’t a part of the coastal migratory stock.  Instead, like a lot of southern populations, it is resident in a single river.  And, like a lot of anadromous fish populations, whether in the south and elsewhere, it has been seriously harmed by the construction of dams that separate fish from their spawning grounds.

The striped bass in the population has fallen so low that no harvest is allowed.

However, on one day of the year, anglers participating in the Tag & Release Striped Bass Fishing Tournament—it costs $1,000 to sponsor a boat for two anglers—are allowed to catch, tag and release a few bass.  Although it is a “tournament,” there is no big prize for the winner.
Instead, the prize that the anglers fish for is merely the chance to catch and release a striped bass, and perhaps to add a bit to what biologists know about the Cape Fear population.

The Cape Fear bass don’t even run very big; in 2014, the largest one caught wasn’t quite 30 inches long.

But that doesn’t matter to the folks who fish in the tournament, for they know what a striped bass is worth.

The story of StriperFest struck me particularly hard when I read it, because the message it sends is so different from what we hear, far too often, in the northeast. 

Maybe familiarity does breed contempt.  Maybe it’s true, as Joni Mitchell once sang, “that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”  But up here in New York, and in our neighboring states, you see a lot of folks who don’t seem to value the striper at all. 

That’s particularly true of the folks in the party boat fleet, who seem to view the striped bass as some sort of scrip that they can turn over to their customers in exchange for cash; they act as if, when the striped bass grow scarce, they can simply print more.

Most striped bass anglers don’t feel that way, particularly if they fished through the last stock collapse.  They are nearly unanimous in their call for real harvest cuts with just a one-fish bag and a minimum size of 28 inches or more.

And they are held in contempt because of that.  At last Tuesday’s meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, one party boat operator ridiculed such anglers as people “who worship striped bass as some kind of pagan god.”

To him and his industry colleagues, a striped bass only has value when it is dead, and the more fish that their passengers kill, the more valuable they deem them to be.

If you believe the party boat folks, anyone who pays $50 or so for an evening trip has to kill two striped bass; killing one isn’t worth the price of the ride.

So just how should we value striped bass?  

Do we look to the folks on the Cape Fear, who will pay hundreds of dollars just for the chance to catch—and release—a small striper?  Or do we take the party boats’ side, and value the bass at one or two dollars per pound, provided, of course, that they’re dead.

Or is there a third way?

Perhaps a way that places a value on what northeastern anglers have known for years.

That there is something special about the striper.  Something that commands respect.


Some people jump out of airplanes or go rock climbing for an exhilarating time.

“For me, it’s chasing striped bass—big, powerful, and beautiful. I always feel a rush of excitement as my fishing line goes screaming off the reel once a large bass takes my lure, knowing that while adult bass in the ocean typically weigh from 15 to 30 pounds, they can grow up to 6 feet and 125 pounds. They hit the lure with quick force, fight hard, and can, despite an angler’s best efforts, sometimes escape.”

Maybe that puts everything in just the right perspective.

There is a quid pro quo in fishing for stripers, but it is not, “If I pay $50, I get to kill a couple of bass.”

It is closer to “If I pay my dues—not just in money but in lost sleep and time—I may get to touch beauty and wonder.  I will come to know the sun rising out of the sea.  I will be awed by the dives of gannets feeding on herring, and in the depths of the night, I will hear the endless castanet clacking of stones being rolled in the waves.  And it will be the bass that gave me those things, for without the striper, I wouldn’t be there.”

In the discussions at management meetings, all that is lost. 

We are still stuck in the era of dead fish management, when top many are focused on “How much can we kill,” and not enough attention is paid to “How many should we leave in the ocean.” 

When it comes to striped bass, that approach is certainly the wrong one.

We have plenty of panfish already.  We have summer flounder, bluefish and sea bass, and literally more scup than we know how to use.  There are ling and some cod on the wrecks, and tautog in season. 

But there is only one “game fish,” and that is the striper, sought because it is big, challenging and prestigious to catch. 

And as the late outdoor writer Lee Wulff said nearly eight decades ago,

“A good gamefish is too valuable to be caught only once.”

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take a striper home for dinner from time to time if you want to.

It does mean that in order to get the most recreational and economic value out of the striped bass resource, managers need to recognize that in a “gamefish” fishery, abundance, and not harvest,  matters.

Other states have gotten that message long ago. 

In Florida, where out-of-state anglers are critical to coastal economies, red drum and snook are key inshore species.  For both species, the bag limit is one, and slot limits protect both the smallest and the largest individuals.  No one seems to be staying away because they can’t kill more fish.

In North Carolina, where big red drum attract anglers from all over the East Coast, fishing for the “bulls” is catch-and-release only. 

In Alaska’s Kenai River, you can keep just one king salmon per day; once you do, even catch and release is outlawed.  Yet the Kenai is flooded with tourist anglers each year.

But in the northeast, where striped bass take the place of the drum, snook and salmon, we’re told that they need to be killed to have value. 

That doesn’t make sense.

Striped bass should be managed like any other great inshore gamefish, in a way that maximizes anglers’ opportunities to encounter plenty of fish—including some large ones—while also being able to take a fish home from time to time.

When striped bass were abundant, the northeast saw an explosion of new businesses take off, in the form of light-tackle charters that emphasized catch-and-release.  Surfcasters brought business to beachfront communities in the autumn off-season, and small boat anglers filled the bays and nearshore ocean.  Traditional charterboats thrived.

We’re seeing a lot less business activity as striped bass abundance declines. 

The way to bring back that business isn’t to keep killing stripers, as the party boats ask, but rather to rebuild abundance so that people want to fish more often, again.

That means valuing the striped bass not as an icon that can never be killed, and not at two dollars a pound. 

Instead, it must be valued for what it is, the region’s iconic gamefish, which will always be worth more alive on the water than dead on the dock.

Because dead fish can’t be caught again, and there’s little value in that.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

IS THE SYSTEM TO BLAME?

Not long ago, the New York Times published a op-ed column on codfish.

It was entitled “Where Have All the Cod Gone?” and was a little different from what we ordinarily read, because it doesn’t concentrate on the crisis that had engulfed the cod fishery today.  

Instead, the author, W. Jeffrey Bolster, who is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, looks at the situation from a longer historical perspective.

He comes to the conclusion that today’s problems are the result of trends put in motion more than a century and a half ago.

He provides a brief history of the cod fishery and the species’ decline, then comes to his conclusion.

“If there is any lesson in this story of large-scale, long term environmental degradation, it is not that fishermen were (or are) to blame, or that scientists were (or are) to blame, or that politician were (or are) to blame.  Our system of degrading nature’s resources, with its checks and balances, its desire for prosperity and security, it’s willingness to honor a multiplicity of voices, and its changing sense of “normal” is insufficiently nimble to stop the desecration of commonly held resources on which the long-term good of everyone depends.”
That’s a profound insight, which becomes even more significant when you stop to analyze its implications. 

America’s fishery management process, at the federal, regional and state levels, is built around the ideal of inclusiveness, and incorporates ponderous procedural requirements to insure that every stakeholder, or at least every sort of stakeholder, not only has an opportunity to be heard, but a chance to actually become one of the policymakers.

At the federal level, we have the various regional fishery management councils, in which stakeholders far outnumber professional fishery managers.  They develop the management plans used to rebuild and conserve many important fish stocks.

At the regional level, we have various marine fisheries commissions, the best known and most influential being the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, where representatives of the recreational and commercial fisheries again outnumber professional managers by a ratio of two to one.  And unlike the federal fisheries management councils, ASMFC is not bound by any law that requires them to actually end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks.

At the state level, we have various boards and commissions that operate in disparate ways.  Some actually make the rules.  Others, like the Marine Resources Advisory Council here in New York, only advise the rulemakers, although its decisions are given substantial weight.  But one thing that all of such state boards have in common is that they are dominated by members of the commercial and recreational fishing industries.  Anglers, or representatives of the general public, may hold seats, but rarely if ever have enough to control outcomes.

It’s a strange way to manage wildlife, and is nearly unique to salt water fish.  And maybe that’s why the management of salt water fish lags so far behind the management of fresh water fish, big game and waterfowl.

Just think about this.  Ducks and geese are managed by biologists at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  In making their decisions, they try to accommodate the user groups if the science allows, and there are “flyway councils” where hunters can express preferences for a long season with a smaller bag limit, or a shorter season with a little bigger bag.  But it’s the scientists, and not the sportsmen, who decide how many ducks will die.

If someone ever seriously suggested that bag limits, seasons and such should be set by an “Atlantic States Migratory Waterfowl Commission,” composed largely of hunters, hunting guides and folks owning sporting goods stores, with complete freedom to decide how many birds would be killed and could even allow them to be shot in the spring on their nests, they would be chased out of the room amid hoots of derision.  And duck hunters, who understand the need for good management, would be hooting louder than most.

But the sort of management that we would deem ridiculous, if applied to ducks or to deer, is the norm when salt water fish are involved.  And it’s as dysfunctional as one would suppose.

I was reminded of that earlier this week, when New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council sat down to consider striped bass.  As I took my place at the table, I was one of just three members—out of eleven present (not counting the Chairman)—who didn’t make their living in some way connected to the commercial fishing, recreational fishing or recreational boating industries.

The meeting was held at 2:00 in the afternoon, which means that most folks with typical nine-to-five jobs, no matter how much they cared aboujt the issues, couldn’t make it, while representatives of the fishing industry, and particularly the for-hire fleet, who don’t have too much to do on a windy January afternoon, had no problem filling the room.

The bass didn’t stand a chance.

It didn’t really matter that ASMFC had recommended that states allow anglers to kill just one striped bass at least 28 inches long.  ASMFC had also allowed “conservation equivalency,” so the trick for the folks in the room was to make two bass equal one (although the size would be changed).

It didn’t matter at all that something like 90% of the anglers up and down the coast who submitted comments to ASMFC, and every angler at the biggest hearing of all, here in New York, supported a one-fish bag limit.  One of the “recreational” MRAC members said, right on the record, that the decision shouldn’t be guided by the public’s opinion (although there was no objection when other members talked about polling the tackle shops for guidance, and the for-hires present were not ignored).

No one seemed particularly worried that ASMFC’s Technical Committee had advised, prior to the October Striped Bass Management Board meeting, that the size of any reductions attributable to “slot and trophy” size limits was very difficult to predict; no one cared that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s striped bass biologist echoed those concerns as the MRAC meeting began.

No one worried that calculations based on landings and the age structure of the striped bass stock in 2012 might not be appropriate for 2015, when above-average year classes had grown older and only the weak 2008, 2009 and 2010 year classes had recruited into the fishery.

Nor was anyone concerned that the striped bass stock was almost certainly going to fall below the biomass threshold this year, and become an “overfished” stock in need of recovery.

But there was plenty of concern about New York’s for-hire boats being able to compete with their rivals in neighboring states, even though the New York for-hire fleet so dominates its sector of the bass fishery that, in some years, it lands a higher poundage of fish than New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined, making a significant loss of business unlikely.

And there was lots of concern for the anglers who might want to kill more than one fish, who didn’t show up at the hearings or send in letters or comments, but who “should” be counted when the bass rules are set.

But the health of the striped bass, and its future?  Well, that wasn’t considered at all.

So MRAC agreed that two fish of differing sizes—one “slot” and one “trophy”—were really the equal of one 28-inch bass, and seemed to have no concern that such a limit might accelerate the striped bass stock’s decline.

And then they looked at the spawning stock up on the Hudson River—a spawning ground second only to Chesapeake Bay in importance—and decided that it, too, should die.

There were proposals on the table to limit the kill only to males, and leave the big, fecund females alone. 
When the DEC polled the anglers up in that region, fully two-thirds thought that sparing the females was the right thing to do. 

But there was another third who wanted to kill cows for cash prizes offered by tournaments held on the river.  So once again, MRAC in its wisdom decided that “you can’t take the tournaments away” from those people, and that they were “only” killing a few thousand bass (even if those bass were some of the largest and most important spawners).

So the bass, once again, were ignored.

Thus, when I read Professor Bolster’s op-ed, the words that he wrote rang too true.

A fishery management system that is focused on the users, and tries to make everyone happy, is destined to fail.

To succeed, you have to begin with the fish. 

No fishery, recreational or commercial, can long survive if there are insufficient fish to support it.  And because nothing in nature is constant, if a fish stock is going to survive through good times and bad, it must be maintained at levels high enough to assure that an adequate breeding population will remain after periods of adverse oceanographic conditions, and be able to restore the stock to health as quickly as possible when more favorable conditions return.

The current management system is to blame because, in most places, with respect to most species, it is not meeting that goal, but instead emphasizes short-term, if allegedly “sustainable,” yield over the long-term health of the stocks.

A long time ago, Art Neumann, one of the founders of Trout Unlimited, said

“If you take care of the fish, the fishing will take care of itself.“

That applies not just to trout, but to every fish that swims.


It was true when he said it, and will become ever more significant as we and our fisheries face an increasingly uncertain future.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

NO EXCUSE

Climate change has been in the news quite a bit lately.  

Globally, 2014 was the warmest year ever recorded, and there’s no reason to believe that 2015 won’t be pretty warm as well.

The ocean is warming as well as the air, and that can’t help but have an effect on fish. 

One group of researchers has determined that warming waters will have a significant impact on Atlantic cod off the northeastern coast, as they lose thermal habitat—that is, waters become too warm—on parts of Georges Bank and much of the Mid-Atlantic Bight.  In addition, increased water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are likely to lead to lower cod recruitment and make the fish more vulnerable to high fishing mortality rates.


“There has been mounting evidence that over extended periods of time, even small increases in water temperature can significantly affect species composition, distribution, and abundance of fish communities…It has been projected that with warming, the geographical distribution of cold-water species will shift toward the poles and to deeper waters where temperatures are cold, causing a general reduction of cold-water species while expanding the ranges of warm-water species.”
Rutgers University has gone a step farther.  Its School of Environmental and Biological Sciences has created the OceanAdapt website, which allows people to see the changes in the centers of abundance for various species, in terms of both depth and latitude, as the shifts described by Rhode Island Sea Grant take place.

There’s no question that a warming ocean is creating new challenges for fisheries managers.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges has nothing to do with the warming ocean itself.  Instead, it is taking the form of fishermen who fight against needed regulations, and now have added climate change to a list of excuses--which already includes predation, pollution and habitat change--used to try to evade responsibility for declining fish stocks.

While there is no question that warming waters are bringing change to fish distribution, those changes are not consistent across all species.  And rather than absolving fishermen from responsibility for declining stocks, they actually increase the need for more intense, and more restrictive, regulation of existing fisheries.

The National Marine Fisheries Service recently described a study that investigated how four popular fish stocks have responded to a warming ocean.  The stocks involved were black sea bass, scup, summer flounder and the sourthern New England/Mid-Atlantic Bight stock of winter flounder.  The study incorporated data collected between 1972 and 2008 by NMFS’ northeastern trawl surveys.

It turns out that the fish don’t all react in the same way.

Winter flounder exhibited no northward movement at all.  

The other three stocks did show northward movements, but the reasons for those movements were not all the same.

The researchers found that, in the case of two of the stocks,

“Northerly shifts in scup and black sea bass are linked to increases in temperature and are more tied to climate than fishing.”
However, in the case of summer flounder

“The fish were not shifting northward with warmer conditions, but simply re-colonizing their former habitat areas.”
That was happening because of

“…a decrease in fishing pressure and an expansion of the age structure…
“Fishing typically removes the larger fish from a population.  Large, older summer flounder are typically found further north, and as exploitation reduced the number of summer flounder in the 1980s and 1990s, larger fish were preferentially harvested by the fishery.  The remaining summer flounder population, dominated by smaller fish, subsequently became centered further south.  The northward shift of the stock in recent decades was linked to an increase in the number of larger, older fish as the population has rebuilt.”
Thus, as the study advises,

“multiple factors specific to individual species need to be considered when developing management regulations for living marine resources.”
NMFS, in announcing the study, noted that

“climate change can have major impacts on the distribution of fish, but the effects of fishing can be just as important and occur on a more immediate time scale.”
If we extend that thought to the cod discussed earlier in this essay, we can look at a study entitled “Reconciling overfishing and climate change with stock dynamics of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) over 500 years”, which appeared in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences in 2011.

In that article, the researcher reported that a population model that only considered fishing impacts on cod population trends between 1505 and 2004 failed to accurately predict historical fluctuations in the stock.  A model that relied only on climate failed almost as badly.  

However, a model that considered both factors tracked historical changes in the cod population with reasonable accuracy.

When the model is applied to fairly recent times—roughly the last 200 years—the finding was that

This model suggests temporal differentiation between fishing and climate effects, including (i) declines during the Little Ice Age (18001880) caused by lower productivity, (ii) collapses in the 1960s caused by overfishing, (iii) collapses in the late 1980s caused by both, and (iv) rebuilding now hindered by depensatory effects of low numbers.”
Based on that finding, it is folly to attempt to separate climate change from overfishing when we look at stock declines.  While both are detrimental to healthy stocks, together they create a sort of synergy that makes it even more difficult to conserve and rebuild fish populations.

Although conducted on the other side of the Atlantic, the conclusions drawn in the paper “Fishing, climate change and north-east Atlantic cod stocks,” written by three members of the Marine Biological Association of the UK in 2007, probably provide good guidance for the maintenance of our western Atlantic cod stocks as well.  The authors found that

“Cod stocks in the north-east Atlantic, especially the North Sea, have been impacted upon heavily owing to sustained overfishing by modern fleets.  It seems unlikely that global climate change warming is the primary factor causing the decline in fish numbers, but evidence suggests that this phenomenon may be exerting additional pressures on already overexploited stocks by further reducing recruitment rates that are already low due to reduced [spawning stock biomass].  Indirect effects of climate change on the availability of prey for juvenile fish are predicted to be detrimental to the recovery of fish stocks, and current climate conditions are likely to drive this decline in suitable prey supply for the foreseeable future.  Temperature effects on cod growth, reproduction and recruitment will cause significant effects that require consideration when making stock assessments and catch forecasts…
There is a need to take precautionary measures to give stocks a chance to rebuild.  Although climate change appears to be one of the factors responsible for non-recovery of cod in the North Sea, fisheries are no longer sustainable at the present level of fishing effort.  Future policy must take both factors into account when deciding upon sustainable catch quotas…  [emphasis added]”
Thus, there is no scientific justification for using climate change as an excuse to allow overfishing.  To the contrary, climate change probably amplifies the problems that overfishing causes, and makes the adoption of conservative annual catch limits even more important than it might have been before.


That’s not what a lot of the folks up in New England want to hear, but it is true nonetheless.