Thursday, August 27, 2015

CAN WE REDUCE STRIPED BASS BYCATCH?

It’s almost that time of year again.  Nights are getting longer, and the extra hours of darkness are allowing the waters to begin to cool.

Up north, striped bass are getting restless.  In just a few more weeks, the first fish from New England will begin to appear in the waters off eastern Long Island.

And as soon as they do, the stories will start of hundreds of stripers floating dead on the surface, victims of trawlers that couldn’t, or couldn’t bother, to rein in their bycatch.  
Although there will sometimes be a little exaggeration, for the most part the stories are true, and the problem they describe is real.

Unfortunately, many states, including New York, don’t do enough to prevent it.  The reasons vary.  One of the biggest obstacles to solving the problem in New York State is that, while the Department of Environmental Conservation has the authority to regulate stripers, it lacks the authority to restrict the use of destructive gear types in other fisheries in order to reduce striped bass bycatch.

Establishing seasonal no-trawl zones to protect the migrating stripers is something that it just can’t do.

The problem is worsened by a well-meaning rule that prohibits trawlers from targeting bass, but allows them to keep up to 21 stripers per trip if they are caught “as bycatch.”  Such regulation tempts too many trawlers to make a tow their nets through the bass schools, keeping their 21 fish while throwing back mostly dead bass that exceed that number, or are above or below the state’s “slot” size limit.

Some commercial fishermen deny that such targeted effort takes place, but at the January 2010 meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, trawler captain Paul Farnham of Montauk, tried to get the “bycatch’ limit increased to 100 stripers per trip, reportedly arguing that

“the current by-catch allowance forced a trawl fisherman with a full-share allocation of striped bass tags to make a lot of trips to catch tag allocation.  That was economically wasteful and unnecessary.”
While it’s illegal for a trawler to target stripers, the phrase “make a lot of trips to catch tag allocation” pretty well says it all…

For many years, it has been very difficult to quantify the striped bass bycatch.  However, recent efforts by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Technical Committee have begun to shed some light on that question.

The effort arose out of the benchmark striped bass stock assessment that was completed in 2013, the update to such assessment which included the 2012 data, and the resulting Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass which, in accord with the assessment, adopted a fishing mortality target of 0.180 and a fishing mortality threshold of 0.219, both substantially lower than the previous fishing mortality reference points.

Striped bass landings had to be reduced by 25% in order to have at least an even chance of constraining harvest to the new fishing mortality target, and ASMFC took the actions needed to do that last October.  However, there was a strong dissent from the jurisdictions bordering on Chesapeake Bay, which had previously fished under different rules than the coast, and felt that a 25% reduction was not fair.  They asked that the Striped Bass Technical Committee derive a unique set of reference points just for the Bay.

And this is where things got interesting.

Since the assessment assumed a unified stock, in order to break out the Chesapeake fishery, the Technical Committee broke down the striped bass harvest according to “fleets,” and calculated target and threshold fishing mortality for each one.

The biggest was the so-called “Ocean” fleet, which encompassed all of the recreational and commercial striped bass fisheries that took place outside of Chesapeake Bay—including those prosecuted in places such as the Hudson and Delaware rivers, even though calling them “ocean” was a bit of a stretch.  The Ocean fleet was assigned a fishing mortality target of 0.141 and a threshold of 0.172; as of 2012, the last year of the assessment, actual Ocean mortality was estimated to be 0.141—precisely on target.

The next-largest fleet was the “Chesapeake Bay” fleet which, naturally enough, included only the fisheries within Chesapeake Bay.  The Chesapeake’s fishing mortality target was set at 0.052, its threshold at 0.64; actual 2012 fishing mortality was set at 0.59, over target but less than the threshold—and high enough to suggest that the Bay jurisdictions’ protest that the proposed 25% cut was unfair was not well supported by fact.

The final and smallest fleet was “Commercial Discard.”  It was assigned a fishing mortality target of 0.0194 and a threshold of 0.0236, tiny in compared to the other two fleets, but still pretty significant when you realize that all of the mortality consisted of waste

The Commercial Discard fleet was the only one that overfished in 2012.  Its estimated fishing mortality rate was 0.041, well beyond the 0.0236 overfishing threshold and fully 52% above target. 

And maybe, finally, we have a tool we can use to get things under control.

If managers could be convinced to begin a new addendum that required the states to end overfishing by its Commercial Discard fleet, a lot of the current waste might finally be avoided.

Such an approach would not have to be overly prescriptive; states could tailor the discard reductions to local conditions.  However, the states would all be compelled to take some sort of meaningful action to cut discard mortality, lest they be found out of compliance and their entire striped bass fishery shut down.

The threat of a federally-imposed moratorium on all striped bass fishing, and the knowledge of the economic problems such a moratorium would cause, could go a long way to spur legislators in states such as New York to take some sort of action to get bycatch under control.  It would also be an incentive for commercial and recreational striped bass fishermen to make common cause to see such laws enacted, lest they both lose their shot at the fish.

No one has yet suggested that such an addendum be drafted, and the chances of getting it done remain slim.  After the long and bitter debate leading up to Addendum IV, starting a second addendum so hard on its heels will be a difficult thing to do. 

In addition, fishermen responsible for the lion’s share of the discards would fight hard against any restrictions, which would probably also reduce their harvest of target species.  And some of those fishermen may very well sit on ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board.

And that may be the best argument of all for moving forward.

For the people who fight the hardest against conservation measures are the ones who are afraid that they’ll work.



Sunday, August 23, 2015

BLOOD FROM A STONE


The speaker, the governor’s appointee from the State of Rhode Island, was objecting to a proposal to sharply curtail or even suspend lobster harvest south of Cape Cod.  Even though the stock was apparently suffering recruitment failure, and the population threatened with collapse, he objected to the only measures that might have a hope of halting the decline, saying

“I don’t know whether you people are aware of it or not, but if you chose a five-year fishery moratorium to keep the fishery from collapsing, you’ve kind of jumped the shark and guaranteed that the fishery collapses without even giving the opportunity to collapse, because there would be no fishery left after five years.  There would be no infrastructure.
“The average age of the lobster fishermen in Southern New England is something like 57 or 58 years; so if you take those people and you put five more years onto their average, they’re well up into their sixties.  At that point there is no fishery to come back, so it seems like the board would be considering an option that it seems nice to say, oh, yes, well, we can do this, this and the other thing and then everything will be fine and hunky dory, but there wouldn’t be anybody to fish…”
And that is the crux of so many fishery management debates.

How do we apportion the benefits of fisheries management? 

Should we accept the risk of putting some—perhaps many—of today’s fishermen out of business, or at the least expose them to severe economic harm, in order to better assure that their fishery will thrive in the future?  Or should we allow those fishing today to collapse a once-vital stock, in the hopes of keeping their businesses alive for a few more years, and let the future fend for itself?

Is it ever acceptable to risk extirpation of local stocks—or even the extinction of a species—in order to keep businesses going for a few seasons more?

Does a stock even have value, if no one can fish it?

And do the answers change when the science is a little fuzzy, or suggests that even with managers’ best efforts, a stock may not recover?


Unfortunately, such things have happened before.

In February 2009, Dr. Steven Correia informed ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Management Board that
“The [Technical Committee] believes the Southern New England winter flounder is in serious trouble.  There is no evidence of any year classes coming through.  Projections indicate the stock is not going to be rebuilt for quite a bit even at very low [levels of fishing mortality]…
“The concern that comes up is that where the fisheries occur within state waters, that they’re occurring on the spawning groups, individual spawning groups as they’re moving in and out of the estuaries, and so the inshore fishery could actually have a bigger impact on some of these spawning groups because they’re getting ready to go in as opposed to the EEZ where they’re mixed with various components…”
Faced with the dire condition of the stock, the Management Board was contemplating emergency action to completely close the fishery for the southern New England winter flounder stock before any significant harvest took place in the spring.  ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel unanimously endorsed such closure.  

However, once again, the interests of those exploiting the stock were elevated above the health of the stock itself.

Philip Curcio, an attorney representing the United Boatmen of New York, the New York Fishing Tackle Trades Association and the New York chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance admitted that

“we have an extreme situation here,”
but objected to the emergency action solely on business grounds.  He argued that

“The gentlemen who represents New York on this panel has no economic interest in the fishery whatsoever, and I have no doubt that he was part of the group that opined as to the fact that there would be no economic impact because nobody catches these fish.  I come directly against that opinion and say that even if people don’t catch them or catch very few of them, they still do fish for them…
“Basically, you’re looking at these guys now staying tied to the dock probably until the 1st of July or the very end of June, if we’re fortunate enough to get away with even that situation.  There are several partyboats that still make a living at this.  Even though they don’t catch a lot of fish, they’re providing the opportunity for people to come out in the spring and wet a line.  There is an economic impact here…”
So once again, even though the speaker knows that the fish are in extremely bad shape, he supports further exploitation because there are still a few dollars yet to be made.

In the end, he and folks who thought like him carried the day, and the fishery was never closed.

And some folks undoubtedly made a few dollars in the years since, while driving the population of New York’s winter flounder so low that biologists studying it warn that more management missteps

“may lead to decline and extinction.”
However, extinction seems to be an acceptable risk when there is money to be made, an unfortunate truth often demonstrated at various ASMFC management board meetings, where fishermen with direct economic interests in the species being discussed are permitted to vote on how such species are managed. 

That may help to explain why not only southern New England lobster and southern New England winter flounder have suffered stock collapse while under ASMFC’s aegis, but stocks of northern shrimp and weakfish as well.  It may also help to explain why, since 1995, ASMFC has failed to recover a single stock under its sole management authority, although it has seen a number of other stocks, including but not limited to American shad, river herring, striped bass and tautog, decline sharply during that time.

It also demonstrates very clearly why, if fishermen are to have voting roles on management boards, there must be laws in place that clearly require them to place the long-term health of the stock above their own short-term economic interests.

That is why the National Marine Fisheries Service has been so successful in rebuilding stocks over the past fifteen year or so; the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires that NMFS must end overfishing, and must rebuild overfished stocks as quickly as possible.

At the August 2015 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, members of the recreational and commercial fishing industries came to the podium to ask the Council not to recommend reductions in summer flounder landings, even though the best available science indicated that such reductions were needed.  But no matter how sympathetic fishermen on the Council might have been to such pleas, federal law did not allow the Council to heed them; it was bound to follow the scientists’ advice.   Thus, efforts to rebuild the stock will begin soon .

We see the same thing up in New England, where the collapse of the Gulf of Maine cod stock has led to very severe—but very badly needed—harvest reductions.  


“a completely idiotic program…intended to kill fish and kill fisherman,”
but the reductions are mandated by federal law, unlike the proposed reductions in lobster harvest, and were put in place despite fishermen’s complaints.

And that’s what makes Magnuson-Stevens such a good and important law, and why anyone concerned with the health of America’s marine fisheries must urge their representatives in Washington to resist efforts to weaken the law to allow a harvest of fish that is greater than science or common sense would allow.


For if we let Magnuson-Stevens be weakened, more fisheries will start to look like southern New England lobster.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

SOMETHING IN THE WATER

There are a lot of refineries and chemical plants near the New Jersey coast, and it wasn’t too long ago that the Delaware River, which runs along the western border of that state, was so polluted that anadromous fish had to think twice before trying to make it upstream.

Sometimes, after coming away from a fisheries management meeting, you have to wonder whether some of that sort of stuff is getting into the state’s drinking water, because it’s hard to come up with any better explanation of why New Jersey is so often radically out of step with fisheries managers from the rest of the coast when it comes to conserving fish stocks. 

That really stood out last October, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board met to consider harvest reductions needed to rebuild the declining striped bass stock.  Representatives from just about every state with a coastal striped bass fishery recognized that reductions were needed; anglers all along the coast overwhelmingly supported dropping the bag limit from two fish to one and increasing the minimum size from 28 to 32 inches.

However, the 28-inch minimum size had prevailed on the coast since 1995, and biologists suggested that, from a statistical standpoint, it made sense to leave the size limit alone.  Managers took that advice and adopted such size limit which, coupled with a 1-fish bag, would probably reduce landings by about 31%, comfortably above the 25% reduction that was the minimum needed to reduce fishing mortality to the target level.

Thus, a motion was also made that would require that if any state proposed alternate regulations, such regulations would have “conservation equivalency” to one fish at 28 inches; that is, they would have to reduce landings by 31%.  

Unfortunately, ASMFC had earlier voted to reduce coastal harvest by 25%, and the New Jersey commissioners would not let that go.  Tom Fote, the state’s governor’s appointee, objected loudly, saying

“We just voted on a 25 percent reduction; and now because you’re picking out one fish at 28 inches, you’re basically saying that we have to have a 31 percent reduction, which is 6 percent greater than we voted on and we went through the plan.  This makes no sense whatsoever…
“It might be perfectly acceptable for [another state’s] fishermen to have one fish at 28; and that is great, let them go one fish at 28; but we have to accommodate the fishermen in our state, the charterboat, the partyboat and the recreational guys, and the guys that fish from the beach.  We need that flexibility as long as we make the 25 percent reduction.  I didn’t [vote?] for a 31 percent reduction; I don’t think anybody around this table voted for a 31 percent reduction…”
For whatever reason, the management board went along, and ended up passing a motion that read

“to approve Option B-1, one fish at 28 inches, with all conservation equivalent measures equaling a 25 percent or greater reduction in harvest.”
It seemed that the New Jersey folks got what they wanted, but when the roll-call vote was taken, they still decided to vote against

It didn’t take long to see where New Jersey was headed when it argued for the smallest possible harvest reduction, for in the months to come, when representatives of the northeastern states came together in an effort to maintain constant regulations throughout the region, all of the states from Maine to New York agreed on one fish at 28 inches for everyone.  But New Jersey went its own way, playing with the numbers until they could find a way for their anglers to take not one striped bass, nor even two, on every trip, but three, one measuring between 28 and 43 inches, one at least 43 inches in length and, beginning on September 1 of this year, a third fish between 24 and 28 inches in length--a fish that, most likely, had never had even one chance to spawn.

Thus, while anglers in most other coastal states may take home only one adult fish, in New Jersey, they get to kill one average adult fish, one prime spawner and one immature bass that will never get to contribute to the future of the stock.

Because down in New Jersey, any fish is a good one as long as it’s dead…

That being the case, I wasn’t surprised to see, in the wake of the joint Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council/Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission decision to reduce summer flounder landings, that the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a New Jersey organization if there ever was one, put out a press release condemning such action.

The title was typical bluster: “Vote to torpedo recreational fishing community.  Council and Commission turn deaf ear to floundering industry.”  Even so, it was better than the text, which was little more than an extended, petulant whine, lamenting that the Council and ASMFC followed the scientific advice to reduce summer flounder landings in the face of a population decline.

To be fair, there weren’t any flagrant untruths in the release, although it skipped over so many important facts that the whole truth was still hard to find.  

For example, it lambastes the Council for making a 29% landings cut, while ignoring the fact that a 43% cut was originally proposed, but Council and Commission staff, working with the members of both management organizations, found a way to pare that down by one-third in order to reduce any resulting economic pain.

That’s hardly turning a deaf ear to industry concerns.

The release says that

“12 members voted in opposition to a measure that would have led to a smaller, 20% overall reduction,”
which is true, but it failed to mention that the Council was legally barred from adopting harvest cuts any smaller than those recommended by its Science and Statistical Committee, which endorsed the 29% reduction.  

Yes, there was a motion to remand the question to the SSC for further consideration, but that motion was essentially out of order, as it lacked any of the substantial grounds (SSC error, etc.) needed to justify such a remand.

Even had a remand occurred, the only way that the SSC could have limited harvest reductions to 20% would be to find that the science in the latest stock assessment was perfect—that there was no scientific uncertainty at all.  And everyone--most particularly the SSC--knows that is not true.

The bottom line is that the 29% reduction was in accord with the best available science, and was clearly the right thing to do.  It was overwhelmingly supported by Council and Committee members. 

The effort to limit harvest reductions to 20% was effectively a New Jersey effort. 

With respect to the Council, the motion to remand the question to the SSC was made by Jeffrey Kaelin, of the New Jersey delegation.  The motion failed with only 5 votes in favor.  Three of those votes were from New Jersey.

With respect to the Commission, the motion to remand the question was made by Tom Fote, the governor’s appointee from New Jersey.  The motion failed when only New Jersey voted in support.

And even in the public comment period that preceded the vote, all three spokesmen who supported the remand came from—you guessed it—New Jersey.

Because no state but New Jersey tries so hard to kill so many fish.  They seem constitutionally unable to comprehend conservation.

I’m not sure why that is.

I’ve spoken with folks from New Jersey--even have a handful of friends down there--who seem like normal people, with a normal desire to properly manage the fish that we pursue.  

But I also know a lot of the folks who represent New Jersey on regional panels and in public forums, and they’re a completely separate breed, always trying to eke out a few more dead fish, regardless of the health of the population.

Maybe there’s something seeping into the water they drink that makes them think so perversely.

I don’t know about that.


But I do know that if they get their way, with stripers or weakfish, with fluke or with flounder, there will be a lot less in the water for folks to catch.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A WHOLE DIFFERENT ATTITUDE

I recently came across a news article stating that Minnesota just shut down fishing for walleye on Lake Mille Lacs, one of the most popular walleye fisheries in that state.

For freshwater anglers in the upper Midwest, the walleye is probably the leading sport and food fish, which probably plays the same role there that summer flounder does in the Mid-Atlantic.  So the Mille Lacs closure was about the equivalent of a state shutting down its summer flounder fishery around the first week of August.

As is currently the case with summer flounder, no one is entirely sure why the walleye declined, but the decline is a big one.  Until a few years ago, the harvest quota for the lake was 500,000 pounds, split between anglers and net fishermen belonging to the indigenous Ojibwe people, with anglers receiving a little over 70% of the harvest.  But the population fell so far and so fast that the 2015 quota for the lake was a mere 40,000 pounds.

That’s a lot sharper reduction in landings than the 29% cut that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council recommended for summer flounder next year.

But what I find interesting is the attitudes of the fishermen who are affected.

I was at the August Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council meeting, and listened to fishermen, both recreational and commercial, respond to the proposed summer flounder cuts.  Just about every speaker either challenged the science behind the reductions or, in effect, asked that it be ignored. 

On the recreational side, New Jersey attorney Ray Bogan, representing the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said that the 29% reduction would be

“a true management and human crisis.”
And to be fair, for some in the business, that might be true.

Representatives of the for-hire industry were far blunter than that, with one, Captain Jeff Gutman of the New Jersey-based party boat Voyager, reading a letter from Capt. Ed Yates, the President of the United Boatmen’s Association.  Yates wrote that United Boatmen “strongly reject” any harvest reduction, and went on to write that there was

“no reason for the cuts other than to destroy the for-hire fishing fleet,”
and made the fairly pointed claim that

“I know and you know that the numbers are bogus.”
Other recreational comments were somewhat milder, but the bottom line is that, among those in the crowd, there wasn’t a lot of support for harvest reductions.

The commercial sector was no happier about the pending cuts.  Long-time industry spokesmen, such as Greg DiDimenico of the Garden State Seafood Association and Jerry Schill, who represents commercial interests in North Carolina, spoke about economic hardship and the loss of infrastructure that harvest reductions might cause, and asked that steps be taken to minimize the reductions.

Individual commercial fishermen universally condemned the science used to justify the harvest cuts, sought more “transparency” with respect for how the data was gathered and used and asked that the full 29% reduction not be made.

As was the case with the recreational side, there were some less measured commercial comments, too.  A spokesman for New Jersey’s Belford Seafood Cooperative said that the fishermen couldn’t take any additional cuts.  He addressed the Council, saying

“All you do is steal our lives”
and asked

“When are we going to be left to make a living?”
He finished up by accusing the Council, saying

“You stoled [sic] our licenses, you stoled everything”
and compared the Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service to Bernie Madoff.

That’s very different from what happened in Minnesota.

In Minnesota, it does look like the science is flawed, with a local paper reporting that biologists

“now believe they overestimated by a significant margin how many fish they could take from the lake.”
Yet, although

“area resorts, marinas, and tourism-dependent businesses [stand] to lose millions [of dollars]”
if harvest quotas remain low, there is no evidence that guides, tackle shops, boat dealers and the rest of the angling-dependent businesses are pouring out to fight the harvest reduction.  Instead, they have joined with the state to try to figure out why the walleye population in the lake has collapsed, and to figure out how to restore it, recognizing that there are no easy answers.

And the biggest group of commercial fishermen on the lake, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, have stated that they will voluntarily forego any walleye harvest in 2016.

That’s a very different thing than we see on the coast.

Yet it seems to be a recurring theme.

Whether we’re talking about walleye or whitetails, trout or turkeys, sportsmen in the interior of the nation, as well as the businesses that support them, seem to generally be far less hostile to needed conservation measures than their counterparties on the coast.

Some of the objections that you hear to salt water management measures are extremely difficult to comprehend.

At the August Mid-Atlantic Council meeting, managers also set 2016, 2017 and 2018 harvest limits for scup (usually referred to as “porgies” here in New York). 

Scup management is a success story.  The biomass has risen to more than twice the target level, and neither the recreational nor the commercial fishery has been able to land its full allocation in recent years despite, in the recreational fishery’s case, a steadily declining minimum size and increasing bag limits.

However, everyone understands that today’s bounty won’t continue forever, and the scup population will eventually decrease to more typical levels. 

At least, everyone in fisheries management understands that basic truth.  Thus, Council staff proposed annual catch limits that declined slightly in every year through 2018 to reflect, among other things, decreasing—but still more than healthy—recruitment levels.  Staff noted that, by 2018, the annual catch limits might be reduced to the point that they finally do constrain landings.

Such decrease caused a number of fishermen at the meeting, from both the commercial and recreational sectors, to rise in indignation, asking why a fishery that is now at twice the target level should be subject to future reductions.

Apparently, the difference between “now” and “future” was not something that the fishermen could comprehend…

And perhaps that is the greatest difference in attitude between fresh and salt water anglers. 

For the most part (although there are exceptions, such as last year’s angler demands to reduce striped bass landings), salt water fishermen are primarily concerned with today’s harvest.  Earlier this year, I reported on how a significant portion of New York’s recreational fishing industry wanted to quintuple the length of the flounder season, even though New York’s local stocks are facing a real threat of extirpation.  That’s not an atypical reaction here on the coast.

Yet in the rivers that flow into the bays where New York’s flounder spawn, there are remnants of Long Island’s heritage strain of brook trout.  Although the population in one of those waters, the Carmans River, appears to be holding its own, if at low levels, the remainder are on their last legs, in at least as bad a shape as the flounder.  But when the Department of Environmental Conservation outlawed any taking of Long Island brook trout at all, no one—not the tackle industry, and certainly not the anglers—objected to an action that clearly was the right thing to do.

So why the difference?

It’s hard to say, but it’s possible that inland habitats are small enough that sportsmen can see just what is happening, and can’t avoid the truth of a population’s decline, while in the ocean, it is all to easy to believe—if you choose to—that the fish just went elsewhere or the data is bad.


But the reason is not important, for too many fish populations experience far too much stress in both inland and out in the sea.  And if salt water anglers don’t make an attitude adjustment sometime soon, they might find themselves without much to catch, whatever the regulations might be.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

UNREASONABLE ACCESS

People who attempt to push controversial measures through Congress aren’t fans of straight talk.
They rarely set out their goals in plain black-and-white language, preferring words likely to appeal to the public while cloaking their true intent. And then they garnish those words with assurances that their efforts are “reasonable” and merely “common sense.”
Recent legislation, which would exempt some banks from rules prohibiting the sort of excessive risk-taking that led to the 2008 financial crisis, has been named the “Community Bank Sensible Regulation Act of 2015.”
Some of the most vehement opponents of private firearms ownership employ terms such as “gun sense” while calling for “common sense, gun-safety laws” that would significantly change the status quo.
In fisheries debates, we see the same thing, as organizations seeking to weaken federal fisheries laws and legalize overfishing talk about improving “access” or, quite often, “reasonable access” to marine resources.
Right now, in the Mid-Atlantic, we’re seeing such language applied to summer flounder.
Summer flounder support one of the most important recreational fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic region. According to NOAA Fisheries’ landings data, anglers landed more than 6,000,000 pounds of summer flounder in the Mid-Atlantic last year, an amount second only to landings of striped bass.
The agency’s effort data estimates that Mid-Atlantic anglers made over 3.6 million trips targeting summer flounder last year (that doesn’t count trips on which flounder were caught as secondary targets or by accident on trips not targeting them at all).
Landings and effort data certainly makes it appear that anglers had “reasonable access” to the fishery.
However, there are those who disagree.
That became particularly apparent last month, after Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council staff issued a memorandum that suggested that next year’s summer flounder landings limit be reduced by 43%.
The reason for such reduction seemed perfectly reasonable; between 2010 and 2013, the number of new summer flounder entering the population was well below average. In order to maintain a healthy flounder stock in the face of such poor recruitment, harvest must be reduced until recruitment, and the spawning stock biomass, recovers a bit.
However, members of the fishing industry oppose any reduction, no matter how justified it may be. Thus, in The Fisherman magazine, we see the comment
“In response to this grim forecast, managers, scientists and fishing advocates have been meeting regularly on the subject in an effort to stave off any dire cutbacks. The latest word from management circles is something more in the neighborhood of a 23% reduction in harvest for both sectors (commercial and recreational) starting in 2016. While a 23% loss is far better than 43%, annual reductions are adding up for fluke fishermen along the Atlantic Coast, with angler access sharply reduced and the plight of our local industry once again in the spotlight. [emphasis added]”
But in this context, just what does “angler access” mean?
There have been no marine sanctuaries or no-take marine protected areas created in the region, so anglers still have full access to fishing waters.
Season lengths have changed from what they were in the past, with some states’ getting longer and other states’ getting shorter. Overall, it’s difficult to say that the length of time that anglers may legally access the fish has changed very much.
Thus, in The Fisherman article and in the broader debate over fisheries regulation, “angler access” has been redefined. Anglers have “access” if harvest remains high, even if overfishing occurs, and they “lose access” if regulations, however necessary, reduce landings.
Such language is intended to evoke an emotional reaction. Tell anglers that summer flounder regulations are going to be a little more restrictive next year because of four consecutive below-average spawns, and most will probably say, “That makes sense.”
But tell anglers that “They’re taking away your access to summer flounder!” and their reaction is likely to be very different, involving a different part of their brains.
However, the use of the word “access” to connote “overfishing” is even more common in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, where an effort to perpetuate overfishing threatens the very foundation of federal fisheries management, the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Not too many years ago, the Gulf red snapper stock was badly overfished. However, federal fishery managers adopted a rigorous, science-based management plan, and rationalized the commercial fishery by adopting a catch share-based quota system. As a result, the commercial fishery hasn’t overfished its quota in nearly a decade, and the red snapper stock is rebuilding nicely.
However, the recreational fishery remains a problem, largely because federal rules don’t apply within state waters. States can and do adopt regulations far less restrictive than the federal rules, which are completely without scientific support. The worst in that regard is Texas, which has no closed season at all; it allows anglers to retain four red snapper per day, twice the federal limit, and its fifteen-inch minimum size is an inch shorter than the federal minimum.
Because federal fisheries managers must consider the entire red snapper stock, which includes fish caught in state waters, when they set federal regulations, the overly-permissive state rules result in federal regulations that are far more restrictive than they would otherwise be.
Angling industry representatives have publicly blamed the federal government, not the states, for the restrictive federal rules. They have thus convinced Gulf-region congressmen to introduce legislation that would overthrow the science-based management regime employed by federal red snapper managers, and replace it with the politically-motivated, scientifically unsound state regulations.
And they would do it all in the name of “access.”
A quote by Jeff Angers, president of the misnamed Center for Coastal Conservation, an umbrella organization representing a number of industry groups, summed up that effort when he said that such legislation “will better conserve Gulf red snapper and finally give recreational anglers reasonable access to red snapper fishing. [emphasis added]”
As Angers’ organization sees it, politically-driven state regulations would have a “better” conservation impact on red snapper than the current, science-based regulations that are already successfully rebuilding the stock.
Such state regulations would give anglers “reasonable access” by allowing them to kill many more red snapper than the science-based rules would permit, and significantly exceed the overfishing threshold.
Maybe overfishing fish stocks and placing their recoveries in jeopardy seems reasonable to the industry spokesmen on the Gulf and East Coasts. But overfishing is never reasonable, and allowing it under the rubric of “reasonable access” may be the most unreasonable act of all.
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NOTE:  "Unreasonable Access" was first published as part of "On the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.  Find some of my other blog posts, along with others written by a number of fishermen and marine conservation advocates, at http://conservefish.org/blog/ 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

SCOURGE OF THE SEAS

The northern scup—here on Long Island, we just call them “porgies”—isn’t a big fish. 

The International Game Fish Association, which keeps track of the biggest fish caught by anglers, recognizes a 4-pound, 9-ounce scup as the all-tackle world record, and it’s unlikely that they get too much larger than that.

Scup have a pretty small mouth, and no teeth to speak of, but to hear some folks tell it, they’re the scourge of the seas.

That became pretty obvious a week or so ago, when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council released the summary of the most recentSummer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Advisory Panel meeting, where Marc Hoffman, a recreational fisherman from New York said

“All those scup are eating lobster roe, small crabs, shellfish, and baby flounder…When one species grows so much, it’s going to wipe out some other species…”
Hoffman made similar comments about black sea bass, a somewhat larger species often caught along with scup, that on rare occasions can grow to nine pounds or so.  In that case, he said that

“They’re wiping out other species.  If we don’t act soon, you’re going to lose the lobster fishery throughout the northeast.  We need an emergency opening of both the commercial and recreational black sea bass fishery…”
And he made the impassioned plea

“Sea bass and scup are growing enormously and need to be contained to a reasonable amount.  You can’t allow one species to devour everything else.”
His last sentence may have even had value if, when he said “one species” he had Homo sapiens in mind…

But it’s pretty likely that Hoffman wasn’t thinking that way when he said what he did, but rather envisioned some maritime Armageddon that saw a horde of fish perhaps the size of your foot running rampant and scouring life from the seas.  

The sort of event that might give rise to a movie such as “Scupnado:  This time, it’s even harder to believe…

Still, Hoffman’s comments weren’t all that unusual when folks are trying to stave off conservation efforts or even increase their kill.  At the Advisory Panel meeting, Michael Ireland, a North Carolina commercial fisherman, said that

“Sea bass are eating scallops, lobster, everything,”

and reported that

“I recently had a huge tow of scup and some of them got damaged while we were bringing them aboard.  We discovered they were eating small scallops.  There were 10-12 scallops in each fish.  When you think about how many scup are out there, that’s a big impact on other species…”
Yep, maybe even “Scupnado II:  The Sixth Extinction.”

But, no, our kind already has that one well underway.

And you have to wonder about how scallops ever survived for a few million years before we came along to “protect” them…

Yet the “Scupnado” scenario is just the lastest in a long series of claims that fish have to be killed off lest they somehow unbalance the ecosystem.

Spiny dogfish are a perennial whipping boy for anglers who want to blame predators—rather than fishing mortality—for the decline of various species, including summer flounder.  


“…one might reasonably assume that stringent preservation of other predatory species like spiny dogfish and black sea bass—an imbalanced effort to create preservation and abundance—could significantly impact the amount of young fluke.  While local commercial fishermen are once again allowed to harvest spiny dogs, the environmentalists’ [sic] who forced the closure of this fishery a decade ago ultimately destroyed that market, creating an overabundance of fluke-hungry sea wolves.”
Last October, as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was debating a reduction in striped bass landings, the same argument was made in a different form, with one member of its Striped Bass Management Board, Russell Dize, legislative proxy from Maryland, arguing that increasingthe abundance of striped bass wasn’t necessary because

“I’ve been a commercial fishermen for 55 years in Maryland.  I’ve watched the striped bass come and go.  At this time, we’ve probably got more striped bass in the bay than I’ve ever seen in my life.  We’ve got so many striped bass that it has affected our crab-catching industry.  We are probably down to a low ebb last summer on crabs.
“One of the predators is rockfish, striped bass.  When the charterboats catch the striped bass and they clean them, you can count anywhere from ten to forty small crabs in the belly of a rockfish…”
Of course, such arguments aren’t limited to the East Coast.  They occur anywhere and everywhere people want to kill more fish than the law will allow. 

Down in the Gulf of Mexico, where red snapper are about halfway through a long rebuilding effort, we’re told by Alabama charter boatcaptain Dale Woodruff that

“[T]here’s way too many Red Snapper out there, we’ve got to go thin the heard [sic] out.”
That follows comments by anglers and charter boat captains that red snapper are, well, snapping up everything on the reef, driving down the population of everything from beeliners to gray triggerfish.

But the most outrageous case of blaming one fish for the decline in other fish stocks probably came in the form of comments made by a major industrial fish catcher/processer opposing proposed  language that would provide greater protection for forage fish in the National Standard One guidelines.

The National Standards are provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that establish the framework for how the law should be applied, and the guidelines applied to such National Standards are intended to inform regional fishery management councils that must prepare fishery management plans that conform to the law.

It was proposed that forage fish be managed more conservatively than species at higher trophic levels, to better assure that their role in the food web, as well as their mere sustainability, could be maintained.

But the catcher/processer in question challenged that assumption arguing, among other things, that an abundance of forage fish, intended to provide food for predator species such as cod and haddock, could actually cause a decline in such species by eating their larvae and eggs.

Such argument isn’t without some support; in the North Sea, where cod and other groundfish have been overfished for many years, there is data suggesting that an abundance of herring can inhibit the groundfishes’ recovery. 

However, that problem only arose because groundfish populations had been so badly overfished that they were vulnerable to the forage fish’s predation.  Had groundfish been properly managed, an abundance of herring would only be a boon, not a potential obstruction, to their sustainability.

It was a perfect example of blaming the fish for a problem that fishermen first engendered.

So it is with all of the claims that the abundance of one stock of fish can only harm the health of another.  Fish of all species thrived at unfished levels of abundance for untold thousands—often millions—of years without causing harm to one another.

It was only after unregulated harvest threw the ecosystem out of whack that some problems seemed to appear.

Thus, we must realize that the answer to any such problems isn’t to fish all species down to some level of scarcity.  

Rather, it is to increase the abundance of depleted stocks, through restrictions on harvest when needed, to restore the balance once more.