Thursday, May 28, 2015

DESPERATION

We all know that the cod situation up in the Gulf of Maine has gotten pretty bad.  With the population down to just 3 or 4 percent of target levels, “stock collapse” is a relevant term and it is even possible that a Newfoundland-like moratorium could loom in the future.

Even so, it’s probably hard for folks with no connection to New England to understand just how bad things are, and how far King Cod, which once ruled both the recreational and commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Maine, has fallen.

To put things in context, in order to keep some sort of business flowing now that the recreational fishery for Gulf of Maine cod has been completely closed, some of the region’s party boats are now targeting at least one fish that is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

No, I’m not kidding.

In an article that appeared in the May 25 edition of the Newburyport (MA) Daily News, Tom Orrell, owner of the Gloucester, Massachusetts based Yankee Fleet of party boats, said

“We can’t fish for cod this season and there’s nothing we can do about that right now.  There’s just been so much negative publicity, but what we’re trying to get across to folks is that there are species we can fish for and that the experience of fishing out on the North Atlantic and the experience of Gloucester and the experience of getting some fish to take home are still there.”
And that’s all true.  But when it comes to those “species we can fish for,” the Daily News reporter goes on to explain that

“In the place of cod, Orrell and other big boat operators are trying to sell their customers on fishing for species such as haddock, pollock and cusk.”
Haddock, I can understand, because that fish has recovered pretty nicely and produced a few big year classes, although I can also understand why a lot of fishermen might not think that bringing home just 3, possibly sub-20-inch haddock isn’t worth the long trip offshore.  And I can understand pollock, too, because the last benchmark assessment said that they’re pretty abundant, even though that optimistic assessment was based on a “cryptic biomass” that might not really exist.

But it is hard to think of targeting cusk, which the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Office of Protected Resources has considered a “Species of Concern” for quite some time, and named as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2007.  That’s a long time to linger on the candidate list, but the truth is that there is just so little information out there about cusk that the actual health of the stock is hard to determine.

Thus, they still can be fished, even though what little data is out there makes the situation seem bad.

According to the Office of Protected Resources,

 “A declining population trend has been evident since the late 1960s.  All abundance indices remained at or close to record low levels from 1985 through 2002.  The NMFS Northeast Fisheries Science Center biomass index for cusk was near zero in 1998 and is the record low.  In the early 1970s, individual fish weight averaged 7 lbs (3 kg) but declined by 50% to 1.5 kg (3 lbs) through the late 1990s.  Landings and survey indices have dropped considerably from 1984 to 2004.  The ratio of landings to biomass estimates has been increasing since 1986, which implies increased exploitation over time.
“The catch per unit effort from 1970-2001, or just over 3 cusk generations, declined by about 90% while population estimates for cusk greater than 20 inches (0.5 m) in the same time frame demonstrated a 96% decline…”
And this is a fish that is being promoted to anglers as a good alternative to cod, proving that the recreational fishing industry up in New England is truly desperate…

The interesting thing is that, despite the precarious state of the population, cusk are not currently managed by NMFS.  There is no real directed fishery for cusk.  Although they are often taken as bycatch in longline fisheries for various groundfish species, and occasionally caught by recreational fishermen  seeking cod and similar species, the New England Fishery Management Council did not choose to include them in the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan.  Thus, they have no meaningful protection short of the Endangered Species Act.

So in the absence of cod, New England fishermen are now targeting other species, including some of dubious health, and others that we know aren’t in good shape.  We have to wonder just how long the merry-go-round of fishing on depleted stocks can go on.

Most of the cod are now gone, and flounder stocks are not healthy.  Wolffish and ocean pout may not be retained, and what remains of the recreational fishery now depends on small haddock, pollock of “cryptic” abundance and a few lesser species, including the potentially threatened cusk.  

Yet even when faced with this reality, New England fishermen tend to fight regulation rather than embracing the chance to recover their fisheries offered by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Such stubbornness can only lead to a steadily worsening situation.

If nothing changes, it is easy to foresee a time when all stocks have fallen too far for fishing to continue, with not even threatened species available to soak up some effort when once-popular stocks have collapsed.

And should that occur, New England fishermen and the industries they support may learn in the hardest way possible how bad desperation can be.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

AND THE WHITE HOUSE WEIGHS IN...

H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, grinds forward in the House of Representatives.

After it was voted out of the Natural Resources Committee, a floor vote was expected during the third week of May, but that has been delayed until June.  In the meantime, the House Rules Committee issued the proposed rule for consideration of the bill, which authorizes debate on eight amendments as well as the bill itself.

Such amendments include one by Louisiana Congressman Garrett Graves that would strip the National Marine Fisheries Service of management authority for red snapper, and hand such authority over to the states.  The same amendment was actually decisively rejected by the Natural Resources Committee in April, but Rep. Graves apparently believes that it still stands a chance to be adopted on the House floor.

All in all, the speed with which H.R. 1335 moved forward in the House, despite the minor delay in the floor vote, was a setback for anglers and other conservation interests who don’t want to see the current, successful science-based management measures replaced by the sort of weak and easily-evaded measures that the House bill would allow.

However, responsible anglers and other conservation advocates got a big boost during the week, after the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a Statement of Administration Policy which opened with the welcome words that

“The Administration strongly opposes H.R. 1335, which would amend the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), because it would oppose arbitrary and unnecessary requirements that would harm the environment and the economy.  The MSA currently provides the flexibility needed to effectively manage the Nation’s marine commercial, recreational and subsistence fisheries.  In contrast, H.R. 1335 would undermine the use of science-based actions to end and prevent overfishing.
“The current requirements of MSA are working—the percentage of stocks that are subject to overfishing and the percentage of stocks that are in an overfished state are at historic lows.  H.R. 1335 would interfere with the tremendous success achieved in rebuilding overfished fisheries by setting rebuilding targets that are not based on sound, credible science, and that unnecessarily extend the time to rebuild fisheries.  In making these changes, H.R. 1335 introduces a series of ambiguous provisions that could improperly extend rebuilding periods, delaying the significant economic and environmental benefits of rebuild fisheries to both fishermen and the Nation as a whole…”
The White House statement pretty well summed up why H.R. 1335 is a very bad bill, although plenty of us with far less influence but a lot more free time have burned up thousands of words setting forth all of its flaws in detail.
However, the key words of the White House statement come at its end, where it unambiguously says that

“…H.R. 1335 would introduce uncertainty and delays in rebuilding fisheries, undermine science-based management, weaken the protections provided by other important environmental statutes, and generate sector and interstate conflicts.
If the President were presented with H.R. 1335, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.
And just like that, the playing field changed.

No, the fight is not over, and anyone who believes that it is would be very foolish.  But the White House statement did buy some time.

Even if the House does pass H.R. 1335 in June, which it probably will, there is no companion bill in the Senate, and few Senators are likely to fall on their swords to sponsor a similar bill after the White House threatened a veto.  Right now, it is likely that even Senators who would like to weaken Magnuson-Stevens will be playing things close to the vest, trying to interpret the White House statement and deciding just how bad a bill might be able to be and still escape being vetoed.

It is also possible that there is just not enough appetite in the Senate for significantly amending a law that is working well, and that instead of producing the sort of radical reauthorization bill that will probably come out of the House, various Senators will pick their fights, chipping away at particular provisions that their constituents find objectionable.

With any luck, that is what we also saw last week, when Senator Marco Rubio of Florida reintroduced his Florida Fisheries Improvement Act.  Although the bill, despite its name, would make some changes to Magnuson-Stevens that have nationwide impact, such changes are nowhere near as far-reaching as the provisions in H.R. 1335, and are generally consistent with the stated purpose of the bill, which is

“To amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to support sustainable conservation and management for the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic fisheries and the communities that rely on them, and for other purposes.”
One still might not like Senator Rubio's bill.  However, shince he is the Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, the fact that he has chosen to introduce such a modest bill at this time, rather than something far broader, could be an encouraging sign, suggesting that a companion bill to H.R. 1335 will not be coming out of his Subcommittee at any time soon.

At any rate, it provides reason to hope that real damage to Magnuson-Stevens, just as the White House Statement of Administration Policy provides reason to hope that H.R. 1335 will not become law.

Even so, conservation-minded anglers must remain diligent, as there will inevitably  be repeated efforts to weaken Magnuson-Stevens throughout this session of Congress.  Like a B-movie monster, H.R. 1335 is going to be very hard to get rid of, and will keep coming back time and again no matter how hard folks try to kill it.


We must never forget that the opponents of science-based fisheries management can lose time and again and still not be any worse off.  

On the other hand, we only have to lose once to see our fishery management system regress to the days when overfishing and overfished stocks were the norm, and the abundance that we enjoy today, thanks to Magnuson-Stevens, was only a distant dream.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

AS DIFFERENT AS SUMMER AND WINTER

The fishing season for summer flounder, locally known as “fluke,” has just opened up here in New York.  The waters are cooler than they should be in mid-May, so the fluke were still pretty sluggish, but even so, opening day saw anglers catch a reasonable number of fish.

In New York, fluke less than 18 inches long must be returned to the water.  Most of the summer flounder caught on the first day of the season were too small to keep, but there were enough bigger fish around to keep anglers happy and to assure that most of those anglers got to take some fish home. 

The most fortunate anglers latched onto true “doormats,” summer flounder that weighed more than ten pounds.  A fluke  that size is about ten years only, which seems pretty impressive.  It seems even more impressive why you realize that just twenty-five years ago, biologists surveying mid-Atlantic fish stocks had great difficulty finding any fluke more than two years old and perhaps 14 inches in length.

In 1989, summer flounder levels had fallen to the lowest levels of abundance ever recorded for the species.  The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council made desultory efforts to begin rebuilding the stock, but continued to elevate short-term economic interests over the long-term health of the stock. 

Such deference continued even after the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 became law, and required stocks to be rebuilt within 10 years.  The Mid-Atlantic Council, apparently not believing that such law would be vigorously enforced, responded with a fishery management plan for summer flounder that was extremely unlikely to succeed.  In fact, there was a better than 80% chance that it wouldn’t.

Prior to the Sustainable Fisheries Act’s amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, such a high probability of failure wouldn’t have turned many heads; it was merely business as usual.  However, although people were loath to admit it, the Sustainable Fisheries Act had completely changed the management landscape.

That quickly became apparent after the Natural Resources Defense Council challenged the summer flounder management plan in federal court, claiming that it failed to meet the minimum standards imposed by the new law.  A federal appeals court agreed, noting in a scathing opinion that

“The disputed 1999 [total allowable catch] had at most an 18% likelihood of achieving the target [fishing mortality].  Viewed differently, it had at least an 82% chance of resulting in [a fishing mortality] greater than the target [fishing mortality].  Only in Superman Comics; Bizarro world, where reality is turned upside down, could the [National Marine Fisheries] Service reasonably conclude that a measure that is at least four times as likely to fail as succeed offers ‘a fairly high level of confidence.’”

Chastened by the court’s decision, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council changed the way it did business.  It adopted firm, poundage-based annual catch limits, and made a bona fide effort to rebuild the summer flounder population within ten years.

The harvest cutbacks required by the rebuilding effort made plenty of people unhappy, none more so than the recreational fishing industry, which blamed the new rules for a decline in angling activity.  That industry regularly impugned fisheries managers and condemned federal fisheries law, claiming that it unduly harmed their businesses.  However, when they finally chose to litigate the matter in 2006, the court, in United Boatmen v. Carlos Gutierrez et al, found their arguments without merit, noting

“With federal and state control, and cooperation among the many agencies and private parties involved, the fluke fishing stocks in this area have improved dramatically over the last few years.  If present federal and local policies are followed—and nature cooperates—the available healthy fluke population should by 2010 permit substantially higher sustainable fishing quotas.”

Those policies worked well enough that when opening day in New York dawned cool, foggy and damp, the fluke moving into the bays were met by a fleet of party boats carrying good loads of passengers, and by many private fishing vessels as well.

They were also met by their distant relatives, the winter flounder, which were headed the other way.  But while the incoming body of fluke was robust, the outgoing movement of winter flounder was spotty and thin, a body of fish far smaller than it was a few decades ago.

Winter flounder are managed by the New England Fishery Management Council which, although also governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, has long chafed at the restrictions that federal law imposed.  Thus, instead of taking the path of the Mid-Atlantic Council, and embracing effective fishery management measures, the New England Council did all that it could to evade the intent of the law.

The New England Council, always averse to science-based annual catch limits and the restrictions on landings that they ensured, adopted “alternative” management measures such as restrictions on days boats could be at sea.  As a result, harvests were never effectively constrained.  While some fish, most notably haddock, managed to eventually recover, the state of others grew worse. 

The southern New England/mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder, which are caught in New York, suffered more than most.

At best, the stock is currently at about 9% of its spawning potential.  As a practical matter, things seem to be far worse.  Recreational landings in New York fell from an estimated 7,400,000 in 1984 to just 331,000 in 1994 and a mere 24,000 last season.  Yet, although managers were fully cognizant of the winter flounder’s steep and relentless decline, they seemed both unable and unwilling to end it.

Yet even with populations falling so low that a team of biologists at Stony Brook University have warned that New York’s winter flounder are threatened by inbreeding, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is not governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Act and generally employs a “flexible” management approach, has taken action to increase the recreational kill.

At its February 2014 meeting, it chose to extend the recreational winter flounder season from 60 days to 10 full months.  Its sole excuse for doing so was “to increase fishing opportunities in the southern range where other species’ availability may be limited later in the year.”

The fact the winter flounder’s very chances for survival may also be limited didn’t seem to concern them at all.

And thus we are presented with the clash of two management systems.  One, the approach of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which embraced the spirit of Magnuson-Stevens, and has left us with restored populations of fish, with none overfished and none experiencing overfishing.  The other is the approach taken by the New England Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which embrace “alternative” management approaches and “flexibility” in fisheries management, and preside over many overfished stocks, some of which have collapsed,

It’s an important conflict to remember, because the House of Representatives will soon be debating H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, which will abandon the current, successful approach to fisheries management used to recover the fluke, and replace it with the sort of “alternative” and “flexible” measures that failed to recover the flounder.


In that debate, Congress will be forced to choose between management approaches that differ from one another in no less a degree than summer differs from winter.

__________

NOTE:  This blog will also appear on the Marine Fish Conservation Network's website, http://conservefish.org/blog/ where blogs from a number of other thoughtful anglers and conservation advocates are also published regularly

Sunday, May 17, 2015

IT PAYS TO KEEP ANGLERS IGNORANT

Today’s anglers are more dependent upon fisheries management and fisheries managers than they have ever been before.  Swelling coastal populations place additional pressures on local marine resources, and regulators respond by placing restrictions on commercial and recreational harvest.

Such regulations, in turn, put a lot of pressure on the commercial and recreational fishing industries, who respond by becoming politically active.  In their fight against laws and regulations that might put a crimp in their incomes, they spend a lot of money on lobbyists and public relations, and they seek to use anglers as pawns.

Since I was in college, I have written for outdoor publications, often focusing on conservation issues.  That was fine when striped bass collapsed back in the late 1970s and everyone was on the same page.  Magazines were filled with stories about saving the striper.

But starting about 20 years ago, with the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and the beginning of real marine fish conservation, things quickly began to change as regulations began cutting into industry incomes.  Suddenly, conservation stories came with a price that the angling industry wasn’t willing to pay.

They began doing their best to dissuade writers and magazines from printing anything that supported recreational harvest restrictions—writing about commercial cuts was OK—while encouraging them to publish articles intended to undermine conservation efforts and make anglers suspicious of fisheries regulators.

Here on Long Island, I recall countless “conservation” columns filled with vitriol aimed at efforts to rebuild summer flounder and other species.  I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council back then, and am proud to say that I was the target of some of them.

But being the target of anti-conservation industry spokesmen means a lot more when you own the magazine.  Back in 2000 or 2001, the owner of a weekly fishing publication and associated website found himself in the crosshairs of a widespread industry boycott the morning after he spoke at an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission striped bass hearing, because he noted that a poll of his readers supported more restrictive regulation.

When his magazine came out the next week, there was a very prominent editorial explaining to everyone why killing striped bass was OK—particularly for charter and party boat passengers.  His cash flow was then restored…

I and other folks that I know have been blackballed at some publications for our conservation efforts, even when what we write is straight fishing how-to, and some industry folks have tried to get us blackballed at others. 

Back in 2013, I received a message from an industry representative (who will remain unnamed) who didn’t like a fairly innocuous Facebook comment, of all meaningless things, that I made on a regionally controversial issue.

“So how do you reconcile your stance with the advertisers who support your writing?
“…Your stance is not popular with a lot of folks on the rec side who are also well informed and whose businesses support many.
“You are certainly entitled to your position, but it galls some of us quite a bit that you promote it while being active in a recreational fisheries publication.  That is not opinion, it is fact.”
My response to him was pretty simple.  The first paragraph pretty much said it all.

“I write what I believe to be true.  Doing anything else, just to please a potential source of funding, is too close to prostitution for my taste…”
I would never be surprised if I was closed out of more markets, because some of these folks can be ruthless. Even so, I’m bound by one rule:

As a writer, whether of this blog or of something that is published elsewhere, I have an absolute obligation to tell the reader the truth.  Opinion is fine so long as it’s labeled, but anything dishonest is not. 

That obligation doesn’t change just because the truth is offensive to an advertiser or two.  Advertisers who, one might argue, shouldn’t really be trying to mislead their customers by limiting what they may read.

After all, one of the reasons that the United States Constitution guarantees a free press is so that people can learn both sides of an issue, and make up their minds for themselves.  Unfortunately, the First Amendment only prohibits governmental restrictions, and not censorship imposed by private persons.

Still, from a purely ethical standpoint, aren’t anglers entitled to a full airing of both sides of the issues?

That becomes a very important question as legislation reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act moves forward in the House of Representatives, and could begin moving in the Senate.
Because the big salt water advertisers—the boat and boat equipment manufacturers represented by the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association, and the tackle manufacturers and associated businesses belonging to the American Sportfishing Association—are out there actively trying to weaken America’s fisheries laws.

They are seeking legislation that would promote “flexibility”—the “flexibility” to not employ science-based catch limits, the “flexibility” to keep overfishing, the “flexibility” to delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks—in order to reap what they call “socioeconomic” benefits.

And if those “socioeconomic” benefits—some might call them “industry profits”—mean that the public will be denied healthy and fully-restored fish populations, well…that’s something they don’t want anglers to think about.
So they convinced the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to create a “Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management” co-chaired by—hopefully, to no one’s surprise—the CEO of one of the largest fishing tackle retailers and the President of a fishing boat manufacturer.  Ten organizations “contributed” to the Commission’s work, including both the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association and the American Sportfishing Association, five of their crony organizations from the Center for Coastal Conservation and the Center for Coastal Conservation itself.

That makeup pretty well assured that the result, a report entitled “A Vision for America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” would be very industry-friendly, and that it would say such things as

“…the 10-year rebuilding deadlines should be revised to provide greater flexibility than is currently allowed under the law.  Instead of having a fixed deadline under the law…the regional councils and fisheries managers [could] set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
That’s a nice way of saying that, at least for a while, there will be fewer fish in the ocean so that the industry can have better cash flow…

Yet, if you pick up a magazine, you’ll probably read that the TRCP “Vision” report represents the future of sportfishing, and that anglers should all get behind it.

You won’t read a critical word.

And that makes sense, given that that the folks behind that report hold the magazines’ very survival in their hands.

There is no easy way to fix the problem.

And that, in the end, makes things very difficult for anglers to learn much about the issues involved.

I can only ask those who do dig a little deeper, and who take the trouble to understand both sides of any important fisheries debate, to share what they learn with their fellow anglers, fishing club members and such.

People try to control what anglers can read because they’re afraid of the truth getting out.


It’s our job—and the job of all writers—to set that truth free.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

SADLY, HE WAS NEARLY RIGHT

I read a news article during the week.


I never met Mr. Shedd, nor can I set forth his conservation credentials.  However, I’m very familiar with the Center, and can state, without qualification, that its contributions to marine conservation fully equal the contributions that the tobacco folks made to curing lung cancer.

Even as you read this blog, the Center for Coastal Conservation is working very hard to make H.R. 1335, a bill that is for all practical purposes a twin of former Rep. Doc Hastings’ “Empty Oceans Act,” the law of the land.  

It issued a celebratory press release when Empty Oceans II was reported out of Committee in April, and is now looking forward to a time when science-based catch limits, a prompt end to overfishing and the timely rebuilding of overfished stocks become artifacts of the past, compromising the public interest so that its members can partake of what the tobacco dealers might have called “socio-economic benefits.”

So when I saw the piece in the news, I read a bit farther, to see just what Mr. Shedd did to further the Center’s somewhat unique notion of conservation.

The article didn’t say just what those efforts were, but Mr. Shedd’s words, reported in the article, provided a bit of enlightenment.

“Major fisheries conservation efforts can be traced back to the boating and fishing communities, including gill net bans that revived fish stocks, the building of saltwater hatcheries and tens of thousands of artificial reefs, the striped bass conservation effort and the more than $1 billion that the fishing and boating community spends every year through its excise taxes and license fees that goes to states that help their fisheries resource issues…”
His comments are right, as far as they go, although they leave a bit too much unsaid.   

He’s quick to point out how anglers spearheaded gill net bans, and he could have added pot bans and trawl bans in some places, too.  But there’s a funny thing about all those bans; when you look at them closely you realize that the anglers he mentioned have had great success in conserving other folks’ fish, but fight efforts to conserve their own.


That doesn’t sound like “coastal conservation” to me…

But it does help to explain why, as Mr. Shedd notes, anglers

“are looked upon as takers of the resource—the negative guys toward the resource”
down in Washington, D.C.

A few of the other “conservation efforts” are even more dubious.  Hatcheries, for example, don’t promote conservation at all.  They are its very antithesis, and represent a profound failure of fisheries management.  Instead of encouraging the use of disciplined, science-based management measures to maintain healthy, naturally-reproducing stocks of fish, they encourage irresponsible use of our fish stocks with the promise that any overfishing will be remedied not through harvest constraints, but by dumping yet another load of man-made fish into the bay.

Once again, they represent the sort of activity that only the Center could call conservation…

Yet behind all of the excessive rhetoric lies a kernel of truth.  

Most anglers instinctively understand and support conservation efforts.

The “striped bass conservation effort” Mr. Shedd referred to is certainly real.  I saw it in action back in the ‘80s, when the stock first collapsed, and again in ’95 when, throughout the northeast (defined as north of New Jersey), anglers rallied to oppose increasing the recreational kill.  Back then, they lost the fight, as the tackle shops and for-hire boats demanded the “socio-economic benefits” that a big kill could, for a time, produce.

And I saw it again in the last few years, when a wave of concern that began in New England swept down the striper coast as the bass population waned, igniting a grassroots movement that filled hearing rooms and flooded the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission with letters, and convinced fisheries managers throughout the northeast (or at least, once again, north of New Jersey) to take needed action, reduce fishing mortality and cut our own bag limit in half in order to halt the decline.

That was real coastal conservation, not of the Center kind, that merely seeks to reduce other folks’ kill, but the kind of conservation that comes from the heart and a desire to do right by the resource, even if it means taking fewer fish home yourself.

It’s the kind of conservation that I hear about at fishing club meetings, when fellow anglers—folks who keep their boats in the slips next to mine—ask representatives of New York’s Marine Bureau why they don’t shut down the winter flounder season to help restore the fishery, instead of allowing anglers, as well as commercials, to pick the bones of the stock.

It’s the kind of conservation that my father taught me when I was a boy, and the sort that we should be teaching the kids today, the kind of conservation that begins and ends with respect for the fish, and for fishermen yet to be born.

I have learned, over the years, that it’s the sort of conservation that grows out of time on the water, out of red, salt-burned eyes and tanned hands traced with scars earned in pursuit of the wild, living beauty that only an angler can know.

It’s the sort of conservation that puts the fish first, regardless of personal hardship.

And yes, Mr. Shedd, such notions of conservation are real.  

They live in our hearts, on the edge of the canyons and on night-shrouded beaches and wave-blasted shores.  But you’ll not find them close to the Center, where they’re just words blown apart by the wind.



Sunday, May 10, 2015

TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK FOR MENHADEN

Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s’ Atlantic Menhaden Management Board took actions that will affect menhaden harvest and the management of the stock in this year and beyond.

After the Management Board meeting, everyone, on all sides of the issue, began to spin the outcome in an effort to shape public opinion and cast the meeting’s results in the best possible light.  A few of the comments came a lot closer to the truth than others, but if you make a real effort to see past the smoke and mirrors, you can get a pretty good idea of where folks are trying to go with this important forage species.

The best way to start is probably to see how ASMFC described its own actions.  As part of a meeting week summary that described the actions taken,and motions made by members of the Management Board, there was an ASMFC press release which stated

“The Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board approved a total allowable catch (TAC) for the 2015 and 2016 fishing seasons at 187,880 mt per year, a 10% increase from the 2014 TAC.  The increase responds to the positive findings of the 2015 Atlantic menhaden benchmark assessment which indicates the resource is not overfished nor experiencing overfishing relative to the current biological reference points…The Board also committed to moving forward with the development of an amendment to establish ecological based reference points that reflect Atlantic menhaden’s role as a forage species.  The amendment will also consider changes to the current state-by-state allocation scheme…” 
It was an artfully done press release, which at the same time managed to accurately set forth everything that happened at the meeting, strike a very upbeat tone and yet still touch on the controversy that underlies menhaden management today—whether the fish should be managed on a single-species basis through the use of menhaden-specific biological reference points, with sustainable harvest the primary criterion, or whether it should be managed in a way that emphasizes its role as a forage species for other valuable food and recreational species by means of “ecological based reference points.”

Exactly where an organization stood on the single-species management vs. ecological based reference points debate determined how each such organization was going to spin the outcome of the meeting.

Larger-scale bait harvesters, as well as the reduction fleet, were on the single-species side of the debate, and emphasized the fact that the stock appeared to be neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing. 

The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, which describes itself as
“a collective of fishermen, related industries and supporting businesses [that is] [c]omprised of over 30 businesses alont the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts,”put out a press release on May 5th entitled “ASMFC’s Menhaden Quota Increase Signals Step in Right Direction”, which declares that

“…the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adhered to the best available science on Atlantic menhaden, and took a step in the right direction in deciding to increase the allowable coastwide harvest on the commercially valuable species by 10 percent.  Though still only half of the 20 percent harvest cut imposed on the fishery in 2012, today’s decision signals a promising move toward responsible management of the species in accordance with the best available science.
“…The 2015 Atlantic Menhaden Benchmark Assessment, released earlier this year, found that menhaden are not overfished, and have not been for decades.  Its findings all point to a healthy fishery:  there are large numbers of adult menhaden that previous assessments assumed to not exist, levels of fecundity have risen to near-record highs, and fishing mortality has plummeted to record lows.”
Of course, the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition release left out a few key points, such as the fact that while adult menhaden are relatively abundant, juvenile menhaden are not, leaving open the question of where the next generation of adults is going to come from.

And it doesn’t mention ecological based reference points at all.

In fact, the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition had previously issued statements that, intentionally or not, could easily have misled the public with respect to that issue.  In a May 1 press release entitled, in a pot-calling-the-kettle-black kind of way, “Menhaden Fisheries Coalition Analysis:  Environmental NGOs Miss the Mark, Misinform on Atlantic Menhaden Assessment”, the Coalition said

“criticisms that the 2015 assessment does not take an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management are incomplete and inaccurate.  It notes that, contrary to assertions from prominent environmental groups, who claim that the ASMFC makes no consideration in its assessment for the needs of predators, the 2015 menhaden assessment does include estimates of natural and predation mortality...”
No one can know for certain what the Coalition was thinking when it made that statement, but it is difficult to believe that there wasn't some intent to mislead those of the public who read it, for the nutritional needs of menhaden’s predators are very different from “natural mortality,” which merely represents the number of menhaden that such predators are able to feed on today

There is nothing in the definition of “natural mortality,” nor of the discussion of natural mortality in the 2015 menhaden stock assessment, which assumes that the number of menhaden eaten by predators is equal—or anywhere close—to the number of menhaden required to maintain a healthy predator population.    

But if you make money by killing menhaden, leaving more of them in the water to feed striped bass and seals has an adverse impact on your bottom line, so it’s not something that you want managers thinking about.

On the other hand, conservation groups do think of things other than turning dead fish into money, so their comments took a very different tone.  Ken Hinman, President of Wild Oceans, said

“We are very disappointed in the commission for not maintaining current catch levels.  In the big picture, however, the modest increase in quota for two years is less important than the Board finally committing to a definite process and timeline for adopting ecological reference points.  I view the catch increase as the final act under the old rules, one last nod to the past before we step into the future, where we will take care of the needs of the menhaden’s predators first, before we allocate to the fishery.  That future is closer now than ever before.”
Only time will tell whether Hinman is being prophetic or too optimistic when he says that we’re about to step into a future where menhaden’s ecological role is given precedence over menhaden harvest.  However, it’s clear that people are no longer willing to completely ignore that role.

Early in the Management Board meeting, Capt. Adam Nowalsky, proxy for New Jersey’s legislative appointee, put a motion on the table to increase the menhaden quota by 10% not just once, but no less than three times, in 2015, 2016 and 2017.  However, such motion had very little support, and never came up for a vote.

Thus, it’s pretty clear that some progress is being made with menhaden management.  The decision to move forward with a new amendment to the management plan, which will examine—but not necessarily adopt—ecological based reference points is a real watershed, sending ASMFC down a new and badly needed road that it has never explored before.  And re-examining allocations, to perhaps provide more fish for smaller operators and less to industrial fishing operations, could boost the economic value of the resource without causing any additional harm to the stock.

At the same time, the decision to increase harvest by 10% reflects ASMFC’s comfort with traditional single-species management, and suggests that adoption of an ecosystem-based approach is far from assured.

So, in the end, what came out of the meeting was a mixed bag, but there appears to be more good than bad.  

We now have good reason to hope that, despite the modestly increased quota, menhaden managers may finally be taking the steps needed to create a true ecosystem-based management plan.            




Thursday, May 7, 2015

FOR THE NEXT GENERATION

When I was down in Washington last week, speaking with legislative staff about fisheries issues, I was privileged to share some meetings with Holly Andreotta, Director of the Florida-based Snook and Gamefish Foundation.

The Foundation has been around for a while.  It has made a very big effort to bring anglers into the fishery management process, encouraging them to self-report their catches, thus providing far more data points than the National Marine Fisheries Service and state agencies would be able to collect on their own. 

The effort has borne real fruit, which takes the form of a smartphone “app” that allows anglers to record their landings in real time.  I’ve always been cynical about self-reporting by anglers, believing that too many fishermen would either report their catches selectively or make bogus reports in an attempt to manipulate the system, but I have to admit that the Foundation’s successes to date have made me rethink my position. 

When anglers’ voluntary reports were compared to NMFS’ figures for some commonly-encountered Florida species, the numbers were pretty close to the same.  A lot of other folks seem impressed, too, as a somewhat amended version of the Foundation’s basic app is now being used by Coastal Conservation Association Florida’s STAR Tournament, and in other tournaments being staged anywhere from the Gulf of Mexico to Chesapeake Bay.

But what really impressed me wasn’t Ms. Andreotta’s app, but the comments she made in a number of meetings with congressional staff, as she repeatedly pointed out that we should manage fisheries for future generations, not merely for those fishing today.

She admitted that the words were not originally hers, but were borrowed from a writer she had recently read.  But that didn’t matter, because her obvious conviction that those words were right—not to mention the fact that they were—overrode all origin questions.  Whoever first put them on paper, it was clear that they're scribed on her heart.

It’s not an original notion.  Here in New York, the statute that sets the state policy for managing salt water fisheries, Section 13-0105 of the Environmental Conservation Law, begins with the statement that

“It is the policy of the state that the primary principle in managing the state’s marine fishery resource is to maintain the long-term health and abundance of marine fisheries resources and their habitats, and to ensure that the resources are sustained in usable abundance and diversity for future generations.”
It sounds good in theory, but in practice, things often work out a lot differently.

It’s very easy to talk about creating a better world for the next generation, but the fact is that they’ll be exceedingly lucky to get a world that is even somewhat as pleasant as the one that our ancestors handed down to us.  Leaving something for future generations requires that folks impose a bit of discipline on themselves today, and self-discipline is something that most members of my “Baby Boom” generation just don’t quite understand. 

Even when they decide to take action, it’s often the wrong one.

Our politicians talk about cutting the deficit, but in the end, few reductions are made.  Money still flows to politicians’ pet projects, creating bills that tomorrow’s children must pay.

As CO2 rises to prehistoric levels, and worldwide temperatures rise in accord, one governor allegedly fires staffers who dare to speak of climate changing, while North Carolina law prevents coastal managers from basing their policies on the best available science about rising oceans.  Yet temperatures increase despite politicians’ denial, and the Outer Banks keep losing sand.  Mitch McConnell may rail against the “War on Coal,” but coal’s war on the future goes on.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when fisheries issues show the same pattern.

Today’s campaign to roll back federal fisheries measures is just one more example of self-indulgent Baby Boomers—the same folks, now considerably grayer, who coined the phrase “He who dies with the most toys, wins” a few decades ago—taking as much as they can for themselves, while letting their kids and their grandkids pick up the bill.

I suppose that it makes some twisted sense to cut the red snapper recovery off at the knees, when you don’t know if you’ll still be fishing—or even alive—when the stock’s fully recovered in 2032.

On the other hand, some of us older folks get it, and don’t want our legacy to be a mostly empty and overfished sea.  And I’m happy to note that a lot of the younger anglers are a lot more aware of the future than the generations who went before.

My friend John McMurray is a perfect example.  A light-tackle guide on western Long Island, he was rightfully bragging when his twin children—one girl and one boy—decked a pair of summer flounder a few years ago.  They were quality fish; as I recall, one went close to six pounds, and with the other just a bit smaller, the fish were almost certainly older than the four-year-old kids who engineered their demise.

But John did a bit more than just brag; photos of his kids and their fish went with him to Washington where, while testifying before a Senate committee on the need for strong fisheries laws, he held them up to illustrate just what successful fisheries management looked like—and who was getting a chance to reap its benefits.

I don’t understand why others don’t get it.  

There is someone I know—he’s much younger than me—who has a son who’s three or four years old.  The man dotes on the boy; when I see photos he puts up on Facebook of him on his boat with his son, I get flashbacks of how it was with my father and me, fifty and some years ago.

My father and I caught winter flounder; we caught them in the spring, in the summer and fall.  I’d be surprised if the son of the guy I’m describing has yet caught his first flounder, and the way the population’s collapsing, there’s a good chance that he never will.  Yet his father seems oblivious; so far, when flounder issues arise, he’s always opposed conservation.  On other fisheries issues, his position’s no different; he supports the greatest possible kill.

I have to admit that I can’t understand it.  Sure, short-term profits are fine (and the guy is an industry spokesman), but I can’t comprehend how someone who so obviously cherishes his son can so casually condemn him to a depleted and less diverse sea.

Because that’s what the debate’s all about.

Should we take as much as we can for ourselves, maximizing our harvest and profits, but leaving our issue with nothing but dregs?

For Gulf red snapper anglers, New England trawlers and “flexibility” supporters on every coast, the answer would seem to be yes.

And that answer is certainly wrong.