Thursday, December 18, 2014

AN URBAN LEGEND?

If you go to any fisheries management meetings at all, you’ve heard the argument.

When it comes to regulations, states must make sure that their regulations, at least those governing the for-hire fleet, are no more restrictive than those in force elsewhere or. at least, in the general vicinity.

If any state dares to protect its fish stocks, and adopts regulations that are more conservative than those of its neighbors, the for-hires complain, insisting that anglers will flock to the places where bigger kills are allowed.

It sounds plausible, and it drives a lot of states’ policies.

Right now, here in New York, the for-hire fleet is demanding two striped bass, instead of the one 28-inch fish that ASMFC originally decided upon.  They argue  that Rhode Island will be giving its fleet two stripers, and if New York does not follow suit, all of their clients will flow to Rhode Island.

But is that really true?  Or is it merely an urban legend in the fishing community that has led a lot of well-meaning managers to make bad decisions?

It’s entirely possible—in fact, it’s extremely likely—that some anglers will choose to fish where the regulations allow a big kill, and eschew ports closer to home. 

But do such anglers make up a significant proportion of the fishing public, or are they the exception to a very different rule?

This year, we have an opportunity to take a look at that question.

The inquiry isn’t based on striped bass, but summer flounder, a fish that is far more of a “meat” fish than the striper, which is often sought for just the experience. Thus, if regulations do make a difference in where anglers choose to go fishing, we should see it in the fluke fishery.

For much of the recent past, summer flounder were subject to wildly divergent regulations even in adjacent states.  Probably no neighboring states’ regulations differed more than those of New York and New Jersey; in most years, New York had the most stringent regulations on the coast, and New Jersey the most liberal.

Such widely differing regulations, imposed on boats that sometimes fished within sight of one another, caused a lot of anger and bitterness among New York’s anglers, who felt that they were bearing the brunt of a conservation burden that would be better shared by all.  

They caused even more angler and bitterness among New York’s for-hire fleet, which felt that it was at a severe competitive disadvantage, losing a lot of business to boats from New Jersey.

Finally, in 2014, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted a regional management system, that lumped Connecticut, New York and New Jersey into the same region, and required them to have the same size limit, bag limit and season length (New Jersey started and ended its season a week later than the other states, but otherwise had the same regulations).

New York’s for-hire fleet was pleased, feeling that they were, at last, on common ground with their neighbors, and would win back some business as a result.  New Jersey’s fleet, on the other hand, was unhappy, and now made the same argument that New York’s made before—that they’d be losing business to neighboring Delaware, which had a size limit two inches smaller.

So, if the industry’s arguments were right, we’d expect to see some significant effort shift in 2014 fishing effort.  New York anglers would be expected to fish close to home, since there was no longer any advantage in making the drive to New Jersey, while fluke fishermen from southern New Jersey, and probably from Pennsylvania, too, would abandon the Garden State and flock to the south side of Delaware Bay, where they had a better chance of keeping a bucketful.

If that happened, the Marine Recreational Information Program’s effort data should show increased fluke trips in New York and Delaware, while fluke trips out of New Jersey declined.

That just didn’t happen.

Instead, the data showed that summer flounder trips actually increased in all three states; New York, New Jersey and Delaware anglers all made more trips targeting fluke this season than they did in 2013.  And in terms of raw numbers, New Jersey showed the greatest increase of all, a net gain of 301,370 trips (a 20% increase over 2013), as opposed to increases of 109,174 trips (10%) in New York and 39,833 trips (29%) in Delaware.

So far, there’s nothing to indicate that anglers switched their fishing areas to follow the most favorable regulations, but there’s nothing to say that they didn’t, either.  Since there were more directed summer flounder trips made in each of the three states, it’s at least possible that an increase in the number of people fishing masked a movement of anglers from state to state.

So the next thing that I looked at was the change in the percentage of trips in each state that targeted fluke.  If anglers were truly moving to follow the rules, it would be logical to expect that 2014 would see a higher percentage of anglers chasing fluke in the states with the more favorable regulations, and a lower percentage in states losing summer flounder anglers to their neighbors.

But that didn’t happen either.

Instead, once again, we see the percentage of trips made for summer flounder (obtained by dividing the number of trips targeting summer flounder by total number of trips made in each state from May through October) going up in all three states.  Summer flounder trips increased in New York by 3.4%, in New Jersey by 2.0% and in Delaware by 3.6%.  (It should be noted that such increases should not be taken as absolute numbers, as the Percent Standard Error in the estimate is large enough—ranging from 9.8% to 11.6%--that the most you can say is that, statistically, 2014 may have seen no change at all.)

So far, no signs of change in that calculation, either.

But maybe, we’re looking at the wrong numbers.  I keep my boat on the South Shore of New York, and am not likely to move it elsewhere just to kill a couple more fish.

Maybe we should really be looking at the for-hire anglers, who aren’t anchored to one boat or marina, but are free to take their business to whatever boat and port they happen to like at the time.

If we look at those numbers, we find—about the same thing, although the PSEs are higher (ranging from 15.9% to 30.6%), which means that the actual figures might vary by quite a bit. 

Looking only at party and charter boat trips targeting summer flounder in those three states, we see a big increase in New York, a smaller increase in New Jersey and a small decrease in Delaware.  So it’s pretty clear that, based on the numbers, the boats down in south Jersey, who want to split the state in half, so that they can fish under regulations similar to Delaware’s, don’t have a leg to stand on. 

Any argument that the south Jersey anglers might have made is further undercut by the fact that the percentage of Delaware for-hire trips targeting summer flounder seems to have dropped significantly, from 30% to less than 23%, just the opposite of what should happen if there were an influx of flujke anglers who used to fish in New Jersey waters (but remember the big PSEs; it’s possible that, when error is considered, the Delaware figures did not change at all—in which case, there would still be no sign of New Jersey anglers shifting ports).

Making the case for or against New York anglers “coming home”—or not—is quite a bit harder than arguing that New Jersey anglers never did go to Delaware.  The number of for-hire fluke trips estimated to have been taken in New York in 2014 allegedly tripled over the number taken the year before, although the overall number of for-hire trips remained, statistically, flat.  The percentage of all for-hire trips targeting fluke supposedly jumped from 20% to 55% of all trips made between May and October.

At the same time, the number of for-hire summer flounder trips down in New Jersey increased by about 67%, which is solid, but nowhere near as high as New York’s increase.  

The percentage of for-hire trips targeting summer flounder 
increased by about one-third, from 33% to 44%, while the overall number of for-hire trips also appear to have increased a bit.

So the question is whether New Jersey could have lost New York fluke anglers, who returned to home waters once the two states adopted the same bag and size limits, and still see increases in both the number of for-hire fluke trips and the percentage of for-hire trips targeting summer flounder. 

Or was the big jump in the New York directed effort figure merely an artifact of big PSEs?

I suppose that if I was crunching these numbers for the Discovery Channel’s show Mythbusters, I’d have to say this:

The argument that New York anglers never shifted effort to New Jersey to take advantage of that states liberal fluke rules, or else did go to Jersey and didn’t come back last year when both atates’ rules were the same is “PLAUSIBLE.”
And the argument that New Jersey lost for-hire anglers to Delaware because of the difference in size limits is pretty clearly “BUSTED.”
But here in the fisheries management world, we know that things are never so easy.

You can’t take just a few bits of data and draw broad conclusions, although folks try to do so all of the time.

However, the back-of-the envelope numbers that I set forth above certainly open up an important topic for further inquiry, that deserves some real statistical analysis by qualified experts, to find out what, in fact, may be true.

Of course, that means that the for-hires’ claims that states must engage in a race to the bottom, in which every state ends up letting folks to kill too many fish just to level the competitive playing field, should also be rejected unless statistics prove that it’s right.

Certainly, such claims shouldn’t form a basis for policy, no matter how loud their supporters might be.  For policy should be founded on facts, and not urban legends.

That’s true with summer flounder down in southern New Jersey.

And it’s true with striped bass here in New York as well, despite anything that Rhode Island and New Jersey might do.





Sunday, December 14, 2014

A DANGEROUS TREND

There has been a trend slowly building in fisheries management that largely flies under the radar.

I came across it again just before the December meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, as I read the Summer Flounder Amendment Scoping Comments Summary, and came across the notes of a meeting held up in Rhode Island, which read, in part,

“Recreational for-hire attendees were generally in strong agreement that the for-hire sector should be managed separately from the private angler recreational sector, and most agreed that any for-hire quota would be taken out of the existing recreational quota…”
Capt. Rick Bellavance, a charter boat owner/operator who is also spokesman for the Rhode Island Party & Charter Boat Association (yes, the same Capt. Bellavance and the same Association that is trying hard to scuttle the coastwide striped bass limit of 1 fish at 28 inches, and replace it with a two fish bag for folks who fish with him and his fellow for-hire captains) reportedly said on the record that it was “extremely important” to separate the for-hire sector from the rest of the angling community, although he apparently didn’t provide much of a reason.

Capt. Denny Dillon, another charter boat operator, was apparently a little more forthcoming.  The Comments Summary provided the gist of his position.

“The party/charter fishery should form their own identity and go their own way as an organization.  Party/charter operations are both commercial and recreational.  The difference is that party/charter boats take their market to the product, while the commercial fishery takes their product to the market.  Party/charter operations are not entirely recreational; they are their own entity.  The party/charter sector should have its own allocation in all fisheries.  Restrictions have been put on them for multiple species, often leaving them for little to fish for.
“Speaking to the issue of where the separate party/charter quota would come from, their proposal is that it would not come off the commercial quota.  The for-hire sector is lumped under the recreational sector now, so it should come from the recreational quota…”
So let’s make this completely clear.  The party/charter fishery is at least partly commercial.  Like the commercial fishery, it connects “market” with “product.”  But all of the quota for a proposed for-hire sector would come out of the fish allocated to recreational anglers, who aren’t selling “product” at all…

It would appear that the for-hire’s goal is to shift the burden of maintaining a steady supply of “product”—that is, the burden of conserving fish stocks—to the backs of private-boat anglers, while the for-hires get only the benefits.

The for-hires get their “own allocation in all fisheries,” while everyone else is still gets stuck with “[r]estrictions…[that] leave them little to fish for”.  

If I thought that I could get that deal, I’d probably want it, too…

Unfortunately, the for-hires have had a lot of encouragement, particularly in the northeast, where various states have created special rules favoring the for-hire industry.

Here in New York, we began giving the for-hires special privileges back in 1995.  That happened after surf and private-boat anglers overwhelmingly supported conservative management of a newly-recovered striped bass population, while for-hire vessels wanted to exploit the stock to the greatest possible degree (if you’re thinking that nothing much has changed in the last twenty years…).  The resulting debate was long and acrimonious, and finally quieted down (but never ended) after the state gave for-hires the two 28-inch bass that they wanted, but only allowed other anglers a single 28-inch fish.

Surf and private-boat anglers were eventually allowed to take one “slot” fish between 28 and 40 inches, along with a second over-40-inch bass, but the for-hire fishermen kept their 2 @ 28 inches, perpetuating a privileged position for the for-hires that they still refuse to surrender. 

That feeling of privilege was clearly enunciated just this fall, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was accepting public comments on proposed new striped bass management measures.  Capt. Robert W. Busby, representing the North Fork Captains Association, had no problem putting it in clear black and white when he wrote

“Of course we would like to continue to see charter/party boat regulations be improved over normal recreational regulations, thereby giving people another reason to sail with us. [emphasis added]”
Once again, the private boat and surf angler is expected to take a back seat to the for-hires’ profits.

We see the same thing in other northeastern fisheries, including scup and black sea bass.

The problem arises because the for-hire owners have successfully convinced managers that they—as business owners—are somehow more entitled to a share of the resource than the rank and file of ordinary citizens to whom such resources actually belong.

That is a flawed analysis.

Anglers, not vessels, are the units being managed.

We should be regulating angling catch as a whole, whether individual anglers choose to fish from shore, from a bridge or pier, or from a private, rental or for-hire vessel.  The idea is to create a level playing field, so that all anglers, regardless of the platform that they fish from, are treated the same.

Of course, when anglers themselves break that bargain, and try to push the for-hire fleet into second-class status, problems rightly arise, and when anglers get too selfish, they may find themselves sitting in the loser’s chair.

Back in late March, I wrote an installment of this blog entitled “Red Snapper Anglers Embarrass Us All”.  In that essay, I noted that

“If the thoughtless, self-serving demands of Gulf-states fishermen only affected red snapper, I would have discussed something else today.  But the antics surrounding that one southern groundfish can—and very possibly will—hurt anglers on every shore of the United States.
Commercial fishermen will probably use the decision in Guindon v. Pritzker to punish anglers when the opportunity arises.  I can easily see them trying to penalize us in the Mid-Atlantic, should we overfish black sea bass or fluke.  Recreational fishermen, everywhere on the coast, risk being tarred with the same brush as the red snapper anglers, even for inadvertent overages rather than the kind of chronic and predictable overfishing that takes place in the Gulf.”

I almost got it right.

It wasn’t the commercial fishermen who used developments in the Gulf red snapper fight to threaten anglers elsewhere on the coast.  It was the for-hires.

Because of the piggishness of red snapper anglers down in the Gulf, and their refusal to accept the science-based limits required under federal law, a great disparity arose.  Federal rules called for a brief 9-day season, a 2-fish bag limit and a 16-inch minimum size, while regulations in state waters could be as liberal as Texas’ year-long season, 4-fish bag and 15-inch size limit.

That meant that when the federal season closed, private-boat anglers could retreat to state waters and kill quite a few snapper, but the for-hire boats, which had to hold federal snapper permits to fish outside state waters, were limited to the far more restrictive federal rules.  

Worse, the snapper killed by the private boats fishing in state waters when the federal season was closed were counted against the overall recreational quota, meaning that the for-hires’ season was shortened as a result of the private boats killing too many state-waters snapper.

In an attempt to balance the scales, the for-hires convinced the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to give them a separate quota unaffected by the private boats’ excesses and by state fishing regulations that were not in compliance with federal rules.

They called it “sector separation” and in the Gulf it made sense, because the private boat anglers knowingly and intentionally slanted the playing field in their favor, and the for-hires needed to get things back on an even keel.

Unfortunately, the northeastern for hires are now jumping all over sector separation, trying to use events down in the Gulf as precedent for creating their own special quotas in northern waters where, for now, we already have a level playing field, and no such separation is justified.

The northern boats are trying to use sector separation to obtain special privileges that no one else has, not to restore a balance that someone else took away.

Fortunately, last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council refused to include sector separation as an option in the proposed new amendment to the Fishery Management Plan for Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass.

That is a very good thing.

But if anglers suspect that our local for hires are done trying to steal a disproportionate share of our fish, I believe they are sadly mistaken.

Remember that just last August, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council also defeated an effort to create a special January/February season for black sea bass, which would have only been open to the for-hire fleet and would have taken away fish from the regular season that we all can enjoy.

And those who were at the November meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting will recall the Captree party boat owner who said that such boats as his should have their own, special regulations.

So it is up to the anglers to assure that public fisheries resources remain in the public domain, and that all anglers are allowed equal access, regardless of the platform they fish from.


For if we fail in our vigilance, and let this new threat gain ground, we may wake up one day to find that the only ones denied reasonable access to public resources are us.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

WHERE HAVE ALL THE WILD MEN GONE?

I first got dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of fisheries management during the summer of ’74.

Striped bass were just coming off what was, at that time, the biggest year class in history.  We were up to our kneecaps in four-year-old fish, and there were plenty of big bass around.  I broke 50 myself that July.

I was working for a small tackle shop up in Cos Cob, Connecticut, where I packed sandworms, fixed reels and sold fishing gear to a mostly dilettante crowd who owned some of the thousand or so boats moored along the west shore of the Mianus River.

One day, a guy in late middle age wandered into the store.  

He had a Massachusetts accent and a box full of jars; he talked for close to an hour without catching his breath.  

When he finally finished his say, I was convinced of two things.

Striped bass were facing a serious problem.  And this guy was trying to fix it.

It turned out that he was Bob Pond, famed along the striper coast for creating the Atom plug, one of the most popular and productive striped bass lures of all time.

Pond had noticed that striped bass spawning in Chesapeake Bay was not going well, and he feared for the fish’s future.  

So he took a big chunk of the money that he made selling lures, and he spent it on efforts to help the striped bass.  

The jars that he handed out by the dozen were for scientific samples; he was asking shops to collect the reproductive organs from bass caught by their customers, so a laboratory could analyze them for chemical contaminants that might be causing the spawning failures.

Some of the cost of the research, and Pond’s endless odyssey from shop to shop telling the striper’s story, was funded by membership dues to Stripers Unlimited, an organization that he founded.  The rest came out of his pocket, and put a pretty big dent in his worth.

But Pond was too passionate to care.  He intended to make a difference.

In the short term, he failed.  His research went down a dead end, and the bass stock went down in collapse.  

In the long term, though, he succeeded, inspiring a generation of anglers to enter the management arena.

Organizations, too, were filled with passionate people back then.

Just a little later, in the early 1980s, after the bass stock had already collapsed, New York City began moving forward with “Westway,” a huge development project that would have reshaped the shoreline of southwestern Manhattan.

Part of the Westway project called for destroying a lot of old and decaying piers that once supported Manhattan’s shipping industry, and pouring tons of fill in the place where they had stood. 

If you were a developer, that sounded good, because the rotting pilings of abandoned piers don’t offer much chance for profit, but you can put up buildings on fill.

If you were a striped bass, the idea spelled disaster, because those same rotting pilings hosted an array of marine life, creating an artificial but nonetheless very important ecosystem that supported juvenile bass spawned in the Hudson River.

So sportsman’s groups, such as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, teamed up with environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, to engage in years of costly litigation against the project.

At the time, suits to protect salt water fish stocks were almost unheard of.  Most folks didn’t think they could win.

But the organizations plowed ahead anyway, and defying the odds, they prevailed. 

And striped bass anglers weren’t the only ones out making waves.

Down in New Orleans a good Cajun chef had found a new way to cook redfish.

Redfish might be called a “striped bass analogue,” for they live in about the same sort of habitats as stripers, can be caught using similar methods and attract the same hordes of passionate anglers.

One of the big differences is that, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, a lot of the effort targets immature fish in the surf and the shallows; big reds are offshore for a good part of the season.  The meat of big redfish can also be coarse, and wasn’t much valued as food.

Until that chef, Paul Prudhomme, came up with the notion of “blackening” it. 

At that point, “blackened redfish” gave birth to a craze, and commercial fishermen, attempting to meet the sudden demand, began to destroy entire schools of spawning-sized reds as the congregated over deep water offshore.

The population started to crash.

On the Texas coast, a number of anglers, among them Walter Fondren, didn’t want their redfish to disappear, and decided to do something about it.  They formed the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, figuring that they’d get the problem fixed with a little bit of work and maybe $10,000 or so.

What followed was what some folks called “The Redfish Wars.”  A number of years and many hundreds of thousands of dollars later, those wars ended with redfish fully protected in federal waters, commercial redfishing outlawed in most Gulf states and GCCA evolving into the Coastal Conservation Association, the largest and by far the most effective salt water angling advocacy group in America.

For conservationists on the coast, those years were a special time, that spawned a sort of wild men (and a few women) in the angling and conservation communities, who threw caution to the winds and risked time, treasure and reputation in their effort to protect declining fish stocks.

In form, it was almost reminiscent of the Cambrian Explosion, half a billion years ago, when life on Earth took advantage of a mostly empty space (and that marine conservation arena in 1970 was mostly empty space) to explode into a myriad of weird and wonderful forms.

Today, the angling and marine conservation organizations that date back to those times have big budgets and boards of directors.  They have lawyers and lobbyists and experts on call. 

They have friends in Washington and in the state capitols.  

They have celebrity spokesmen, their own branded merchandise and in-house magazines, too.

Only the wild men, and their passion, are gone.

The upstarts of a generation ago have grown up.  They have bills and mortgages now, and salaries to meet.  They can’t afford to embarrass their friends.

Years ago—in fact, just before all of this fish stuff started happening—a former CEO of Avis, the rent-a-car folks, wrote a book called Up the Organization.  If I recall right, his name was Robert Townsend, and he was in charge of Avis when it ran a national advertising campaign that launched the company into the general public’s consciousness.

The book sort of explained how he did it, and warned companies against “Becoming an institution.” 

By that, he meant that a company had to avoid becoming one of those places where policy and procedure get in the way of innovation, and the same cast of characters do the same sort of things year after year after year.

Institutions don’t have any room for wild men. 

We see that in fisheries today.

Angling organizations that once proudly put the fish first are now walking in lockstep with the tackle and boatbuilding folks.  Their former goals of restoring and conserving fish stocks have been subordinated to promoting policies that will let the industry prosper, even if fish stocks stay small.

And environmental groups, which once had a vaguely hippie cachet, are now as buttoned-down and structured as any bank or law firm. 

That’s not altogether a bad thing.

The folks who oppose conservation have pretty deep pockets, and friends on Capitol Hill.  To have any hope of prevailing, anglers and environmentalists need the cash, contacts and technical expertise needed to play in the same league.

But alone, I don’t think that’s enough.

Over the course of my life, I’ve had the privilege of meeting both Bob Pond and Walter Fondren, speaking with them, and seeing what burned in the back of their eyes.  

They were two very different men, with different personalities, from different backgrounds, who had very different ways of approaching the world.

Yet in their passion for the fish that they treasured, and their willingness to lead from the front, investing their hearts in the fight, they were both wild men in their souls.

Meeting them both changed the course of my life.

And their passing left holes in our world.

For we need a new generation of passionate leaders, who will inspire today’s anglers to fight for the health of our fisheries.

We need passionate advocates, who won’t be deterred by the odds against them, or the cost or the difficulty of the fight.

We need people who will do what is needed, and fight for what they know to be right, and not worry what the critics might say.

I see those needs and I wonder, where have all the wild men gone?



Sunday, December 7, 2014

DUMPING ON THE DATA

I’ve just finished reading the summary of the recent joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council’s and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Advisory Panels.

The panels are dominated by members of the commercial and for-hire fishing industries, and when recreational measures are being discussed, as was the case at the recent meeting, the for-hire industry dominates the discussion.

That being the case, the summary can almost be written before the meeting takes place.  

Advisors will find that the bag limit needs to be higher, the size limit needs to be lower and the season needs to be longer.  All those changes are justified because the scientists are undercounting the fish in the water and that National Marine Fisheries Service is overcounting the number of fish that are caught.

At least, that’s what the advisors usually say…

The December 2014 Advisory Panel meeting pretty well stuck to the script.  NMFS’ recreational data-gathering program got dumped on again. 

While there’s certainly room for improvement, some of the comments made were so out of line that it seemed like a good time to take a look at the issue.

Complaints fell into two broad categories.  There were those who criticized the Marine Recreational Information Program (“MRIP”) itself, and those who had an issue with the estimates that it produced.

It’s pretty clear that the latter group of critics either attacks any results that they find inconvenient, or just doesn’t understand how the survey works.

Or both.

This comes out in the meeting summary, which notes that

“Advisors agreed that MRIP catch estimates for black sea bass are very problematic, with some comments noting that the numbers are very far from reality and should not be taken seriously or used for management. Specific examples were cited, including MRIP estimates that describe New York and Massachusetts private boats as harvesting 1,250,000 lb of black sea bass through wave 4 in 2014, which is more than all party/charter and commercial landings combined for black sea bass in the entire U.S. fore that same time period. Several advisors agreed that this was highly improbable or impossible…”
If you actually take the time to put the data referred to in context, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.  Nor, standing alone, is it particularly relevant.  It must be viewed as part of a whole.

Querying the NMFS data on recreational landings  quickly reveals that there is nothing anomalous about the private boat numbers for either state. 

Preliminary 2014 estimates show that New York’s private boats landed about 455,000 pounds of black sea bass through the end of August 2014.  That’s actually less than the 511,000 pounds that they landed during the same period in 2013; 2012 landings for the same period were a little smaller, about 293,000 pounds. 

However, it should be noted that the “Percent Standard Error” used to measure the precision of the estimate was about 61% in 2012, about twice as high as the 34.7% in 2013 and 30.4% in 2014, meaning that when the error inherent in the calculation is taken into account, the New York private boat landings in 2012, 2013 and 2014 were not very different in  size.

We see about the same thing in Massachusetts, with the 635,000 pounds of black sea bass landed through August 2012 not too much below the 795,000 pounds landed through August 2014.  The 292,000 pounds landed through August 2013 was significantly less.  However, it should also be noted that anglers took significantly fewer trips targeting black sea bass in 2013, which could explain a lot of the difference.

But there is another, bigger reason that some advisors’ efforts to play “Gotcha!” by disputing isolated bits of data should be ignored.  MRIP just isn’t intended to work with such small parts of the whole.  It is designed to provide estimates at a relatively high level, and the more detailed the analysis, the less precise those estimates become. 

Thus, if we examine black sea bass landings in the entire Northeast (Maine through Connecticut) for the years 2012-2014, we find a Percent Standard Error that ranges from 13% to 22%.  A similar examination for the Mid-Atlantic (New York through North Carolina) would return PSEs of 14.7% to 18% (PSEs for the entire Atlantic coast are even lower, between 10% and 12%, but can’t be used in this example, as black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras are managed separately from those farther south). 

Such precision is more than adequate for managing harvest.

But when we try to manage at a finer scale, precision deteriorates pretty quickly. 

Break harvest estimates down from the regional to the state level, and PSEs for the same three years can be as low as 17.1% (Rhode Island, 2013) or as high as 86.4% (New Hampshire, 2012).  PSEs over 50% are generally deemed to be worthless.

Break state landings down into two-month “waves” and the PSEs spread out, from 12.6% (Delaware, November/December, 2013) to 100.2% (Virginia, May/June, 2013).

Try to break that down even farther, into sectors of the angling community, and the precision gets even worse, with PSEs ranging from 11.9% (Rhode Island, September/October, 2013, Party Boats) to 120.9% (Rhode Island, July/August, 2014, Shore Fishermen).

Thus, it is clear that those who try to use very small pieces of data, broken down into state, sector and two-month wave, to impeach a coastwide landing estimate don’t have much of an argument.

Instead of demonstrating that the estimate in question is faulty, all they are proving is that they understand neither how MRIP works nor the statistical framework that MRIP is built on.

Folks will say almost anything to kill a few more fish. 

An advisor who operates a boat out of Maryland is attacking MRIP data from here in New York, even though he doesn’t fish here and doesn’t have a clue about New York’s private boat black sea bass fishery (although I will grant him that the disparity between private boat and for-hire catch might not be as great as MRIP depicts; the for-hire landings could well be undercounted). 

Of course, then he goes on to rhapsodize about times gone by when there was only

a [very small] size limit that forced sea bass to start spawning young and a recreational release ratio that ran about 30%”
which pretty much tells you where the guy is coming from. 

On the other hand, the folks who criticize the recreational data-gathering program do have some very valid points.

NMFS recognizes that, and is working very hard to make sure that the MRIP program is a significant improvement over what went before. 

Anglers who really want to understand how MRIP works, and avoid the kind of foolish mistakes that appear in the Advisory Panel summary, are well advised to visit the NMFS webpage at http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/recreational-fisheries/in-depth/outreach-resources/index, which links to enough information on MRIP, how it works and work still to be done, to keep anglers occupied on many cold winter nights.

Anyone who don’t want to understand, and just wants to make noise and kill fish, need to do nothing at all.


In fact, the less that sort does, the better…

Thursday, December 4, 2014

THE FISHERIES MANAGERS' DILEMMA

Managing fish is a tough thing to do.

They live in an alien world that makes them hard to count with any sort of accuracy.  Countless factors, many still unknown, affect their survival, their movements and their spawning success.

Then there are the people who catch those fish, legally and illegally.  Some of their catch is easy to count, particularly that portion attributable to the relatively small number of commercial fishermen, who are generally required to report their harvest in near real time.  But the rest of the catch, the part that’s caught by hundreds of thousands, and often millions, of individual anglers who land only a few fish each, in countless ports scattered along hundreds of miles of coast, can only be estimated.

And once you have some idea who those people are, you have to design regulations  that will keep them from killing too many fish, without knowing exactly how many of them will actually go fishing, how many times they will go or what they will fish for each time they set out.

Add a species of fish with an unusual life history and without a valid stock assessment, and what do you get?

If you manage fish in along the mid-Atlantic coast, you get the black sea bass.

Next week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will meet in a joint session, to propose regulations governing recreational black sea bass fishing in 2015.

It is likely to be a tense and difficult meeting.

In many ways, black sea bass represent a fisheries management success story.  The stock has been fully recovered, and fishermen have been catching more and larger sea bass than they have caught in a very long time.

That’s good.

But it’s also bad, because it leads to what Dick Brame, a long-time fisheries advocate who works for the Coastal Conservation Association, calls the “Bubba Effect.”

That is, a guy goes out and catches a bunch of fish, and when he comes back from the trip, he tells his buddy Bubba all about it.  So Bubba goes out and catches his own bunch of fish, comes home and calls his friends, and…

In the end, there are a lot more people chasing that kind of fish, just because there are a lot of them around and word of good fishing got out.  Managers didn’t expect such an increase in effort, catches soar far beyond what was expected and overfishing occurs.

So the next year, the managers tighten up the regulations to prevent overfishing from occurring again, and the anglers complain that there are so many fish around that they can’t keep them off their hooks, yet the managers are telling them to throw most of them back.

That’s pretty much what’s been happening with black sea bass for the past couple of years, and it looks like it’s going to happen, perhaps on an even larger scale, once again.  

Black sea bass have become so abundant that party boats that once fished only for fluke all summer long are now regularly scheduling sea bass trips in June, July and August, and private boats are doing much the same thing.

I’ve fished for black sea bass for quite a few years, and often had wrecks all to myself.  Now, I’m just about guaranteed to have company every time I go out, even when I fish on wrecks that lie a long way from the inlet.

The effort shift from fluke to black sea bass is striking and 
real; it probably doesn’t help that a lot of anglers have learned that they can have the best of both worlds if they drift their fluke baits close to the wrecks that the sea bass call home.

The upshot is that, as a result of the black sea bass’ newfound popularity, the National Marine Fisheries Service has estimated that anglers exceeded their Annual Catch Limit by nearly 30 percent in 2014.  All of the overage can be attributed to high landings levels in the states between Massachusetts and New Jersey.

So when the Council and ASMFC meet next week, they’re going to be looking at some pretty restrictive regulations in order to get rid of that overage.  Right now, it appears that regulations won’t change in federal waters or in state waters between Delaware and North Carolina. 

But in the states that contributed to the overage, the 2015 rules are going to hit pretty hard.  Right now, it’s not completely clear what those rules might be, but if the states fail to put in needed reductions, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee is recommending coastwide rules that include a 3-fish bag limit, 14-inch minimum size and a season that runs only from July 15 to September 15.

That’s harsh, but if it’s any solace, think how much worse things would have been if the party boats had gotten their way last August, and the Council had allowed them to fish for black sea bass in January and February.  Since the catch for that special winter for-hire season was going to be deducted from what we could land during the regular black sea bass season, the rest of us might not have had any black sea bass season at all…

Even so, we can expect the party boats to howl when the new regulations are proposed.

We can already imagine what the complaints will be as the for-hires, their lawyers and the organizations that shill for the recreational fishing industry attack the science, the scientists and federal fisheries laws, claim that catch data is “fatally flawed” and, most particularly, ask why regulations need to be so restrictive when, out on the water, black sea bass seem to be everywhere.

The truth is, there really are a lot of black sea bass out there.

More particularly, there are a lot of black sea bass from the dominant 2011 year class out there, and those fish are going to be fully recruited into the fishery in 2015.

Not too long ago, I spoke with a biologist who was a member of the Monitoring Committee.  We were talking about black sea bass, and he told me that, in any year, the biggest factor that determines whether a big year class will be produced isn’t the initial spawning success, but rather whether water conditions out on the edge of the continental shelf, where the young-of-the-year fish spend their first winter, are conducive to the young fish’s survival.

In the warm winter of 2011-2012, conditions must have been pretty good, because 2011 produced a dominant year class.  

However, the Monitoring Committee report includes the following language

“The Committee notes that the 2011 year class of black sea bass is much larger than any other recent year class, and is contributing significantly to high availability in the northern states.  There has been no indication of high recruitment after 2011, and the Committee expects the 2011 year class to be fully recruited to the fishery by the spring of 2015.  The Committee noted that this year class is currently being fished down quickly, with no similarly large year classes coming in behind it.  [emphasis added]”
That leaves fishery managers impaled on the horns of a very large dilemma once the complaints start coming in.

Managers could yield to the folks who seek to increase short-term landings.  They can approach the Council’s Science and Statistics Committee, which sets the upper limit on harvest, and ask the SSC to consider replacing its current “constant harvest” management approach with something that will permit more of the 2011 year class to be killed. 

If the SSC agrees, 2015 regulations need not be as severe.

However, since the stock hasn’t produced a large year class since 2011, killing more fish now will merely be putting off the pain for a few years; if the 2011 year class is fished down, and no new year class comes in from behind to replace it, harsh regulations are going to be imposed anyway.  

And, by that time, the 2011 year class may be reduced so far that, even with strict regulation, the stock may struggle a while before it can recover.

On the other hand, managers can opt to protect the future of the fishery, and impose tough regulations today in the hope that there will still be enough fish remaining to produce a strong new year class a few years from now.  

However, if managers take that route, there’s no doubt that they will be subject to considerable vitriol by those people and organizations that consider large current harvests more important than the long-term health of fish populations.

It’s a no-win situation for fishery managers. 

Someone will criticize them no matter what they decide.


But I suspect that criticism will be a lot easier to take if they know in their hearts that they did the right thing, and guaranteed the black sea bass’ future.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

NEXT STEPS FOR STRIPED BASS

It’s looking ever more likely that what once seemed like a modest yet meaningful win—the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s vote to reduce striped bass harvest last October—was even more modest than it first appeared.

ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board seemed to be acceding to public demands that landings be cut and a 1-fish bag limit be adopted.  However, it is now clear that at least some of those who voted that way were merely blowing smoke in the public’s face.  Now that the smoke has cleared a bit, they are ignoring the overwhelming public sentiment for a single-fish bag, and seeking ways to let folks kill additional fish, at least when those folks are fishing from for-hire vessels.

I discussed the matter at length in a recent post, and don’t intend to rehash it all here. 

It’s now time to start thinking of the next steps in the dance—where we go and what we do when Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass proves to be another failed state management effort, and we have to step in again to try to recover the striped bass population.

I know that a lot of folks are thinking about just throwing up their hands and leaving the fight.  After all, if the big angler turnout and overwhelming call for a 1-fish bag didn’t move mountains this time, why is there any hope that the next time will be any better?

I know that feeling pretty well.

After being involved in the fishery management process for a few decades, I know what it feels like to lose.

But, first of all, remember that anglers didn’t lose this round at ASMFC.  Its Striped Bass Management Board did what we wanted.  It’s the states’ management systems that are letting us down.

We are looking at new fishing mortality reference points that, in the long term, should do the bass good.

We defeated the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions’ efforts to draw out the harvest cut over three years.

A lot of the Management Board members were and still are concerned with the integrity of the management plan and the management process.

And if our greatest worry does come to pass, and the striped bass stock fails to recover, we still have a good leg to stand on.

Right now, we need to be looking at Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, and more particularly, at Management Trigger 2, which reads

“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [ten years].”
Because it is very likely that trigger will be tripped in a very few years.

Let’s start with a simple truth.

The biomass is probably below the threshold right now.

That’s a sobering thought, but the Draft Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass included a chart (on page 11) which projected that the biomass would fall below threshold—that the stock would be technically overfished—this year.


“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality] (0.200) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015.  After 2016, the probability is expected to decline slightly…If the fully-recruited [fishing mortality] decreases to the current Ftarget (0.180) and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point reaches 0.77 by 2015 and declines thereafter… [emphasis added]”
Based on that finding, the striped bass is already behind the eight ball.

Regulations in place during 2012 will not change until 2015; although we don’t have fishing mortality rates for 2013 and 2014, there is no reason to assume that, absent regulatory changes, those rates will be at least equal to the F=0.200 of 2012. 

In practice, fishing mortality was almost certainly higher in 2013 than it was in 2012; total landings in 2012 were estimated at a little over 19,500,000 pounds, while in 2013, that estimate jumped to more than 24,300,000.  Taking a more fish from a decreasing biomass will inevitably cause the fishing mortality rate to spike. 

We don’t have final figures for 2014 yet, but preliminary numbers show even more reason to be concerned.  In the first eight months of 2012, anglers landed about 14,000,000 pounds of striped bass.  That number jumped to over 17,000,000 pounds in the first eight years of 2013, and increased again to nearly 18,500,000 in the first eight months of 2014. 

The greater part of the 2014 increase can be attributed to a big kill of the immature and barely legal 2011 year class down in Chesapeake Bay, but it’s still bad news, and very possibly takes us to the third scenario envisioned in the Update,

“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality] increases to Fthreshold (0.219) and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass reference point reaches 0.93 by 2015 and declines thereafter.”
So given the trends in 2013 and 2014, there is an overwhelming likelihood that the stock will be overfished—below the spawning stock biomass threshold—next year.

Then, the only thing that needs to happen is for ASMFC to formally determine that there is a problem.

That may not happen right away.

Complete, benchmark striped bass stock assessments take place every five years.  Thus, we won’t see another one until late 2018, based on 2017 data.  That gives Addendum IV a long time to fail and adversely affect striped bass numbers.

However, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee has historically conducted interim “turn-crank” assessments in nearly every year.  Such assessments are far less formal and detailed than the benchmark, and merely plug annual harvest data into the model from the benchmark assessment, in order to update the results.

ASMFC’s striped bass website page shows some sort of assessment, benchmark or interim, for the years 2000-2005, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013.  However, due to a demand that the Technical Committee produce biological reference points unique to Chesapeake Bay, there will probably not be sufficient manpower available to do one in 2015.

Thus, we should begin petitioning our ASMFC representatives and demanding that an interim, “turn-crank” assessment be done in 2016.  

We won’t be asking for great detail, just an estimate of the size of the spawning stock biomass (although an estimate of 2015 fishing mortality, with the new regulations in place, would also be useful). 

And if the Technical Committee determines that the spawning stock biomass has dropped below threshold, and that Management Trigger 2 has tripped, we must insist that managers put in place a rebuilding plan that will restore the spawning stock to target levels within ten years.

Such a rebuilding plan will not allow the maneuvering and loopholes that we see today.

Because in order to have mature, spawning fish in the biomass, you have to have small fish first, and they’ve been lacking lately.  The average for the Maryland young-of-the-year index over the past 10 years was 10.4, below the long-term average of 11.7.  

Management measures sufficient to restore the striped bass stock to target levels, and not merely prevent current overfishing, will probably have to be a lot stronger than what we’re seeing today.

The question, of course, is whether the states and ASMFC’s state-based management system is up to the task of putting such measures in place.

As we come to the end of the Addendum IV process, we already see it failing the resource and the public, as the politically-connected for-hire fleet in New Jersey, Rhode Island and elsewhere seeks to undo, at the state level, conservation gains won by the public at ASMFC.

At the state level, there is nothing like the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to assure that overfishing is really prevented, or overfished stocks timely rebuilt.

In the end, there is only us, anglers with a burning desire to preserve and restore the fish that we seek, and to hand them down as our legacy to the next generations.

That will have to be enough.

And if we only hold firm, and don’t lose our faith, it can be.