Thursday, March 23, 2017


Over the past few years, anglers in New England and the upper mid-Atlantic have seen an abundance of black sea bass invade their local waters.  Unfortunately, because abenchmark stock assessment, completed in late 2011, was found to be inadequatefor management purposes, fishery managers have had to set regulations without the aid of clear biological reference points.  Do to such lack of data, black sea bass catch limits have been very restrictive, to avoid overfishing the stock.

At the same time, the abundance of fish has drawn a lot of attention from anglers, who are always eager to bring some of the good-tasting sea bass home.  Recreational black sea bass landings increased 46% between 2012, when 1.87 million fish were landed, and 2016, which saw 2.73 million black sea bass brought home. 

During that same time, the average-sized fish has been growing larger.  When measured by weight rather than numbers of fish, landings increased by 77%, from 3.18 million to 5.82 million pounds.

A combination of low catch limits and increasing recreational landings have forced fishery managers to impose very restrictive regulations in an effort to avoid overfishing.  Such regulations often angered anglers, who couldn’t understand why the rules needed to be so restrictive given the abundance of fish.

Thus, the angling community eagerly awaited the results of anew benchmark stock assessment, which was completed late last year.  Last January, rumors began to spread that the assessment had successfully passed through the peer-review process, and would allow the annual catch limit to be substantially increased.

It wasn’t long until the rumors were confirmed; the 2017annual catch limit for black sea bass would be increased by 52%, compared tothe year before.  For a brief time, anglers were happy. 

Then word got out that the estimate of 2016 recreationalblack sea bass landings was actually higherthan the 2017 recreational harvest limit, even though that limit had been increased by about 50%.  Recreational regulations would not be relaxed after all; based on the available numbers, regulations actually needed to be a bit more restrictive, to reduce landings by 8%.  The National Marine Fisheries Service actually gave anglers a break by waiving such additional restrictions, and maintaining the 2016 status quo.

However, anglers didn’t feel like they were getting a break; they expected some regulatory relief. 

And things got worse when the original estimate of landings in November/December of 2016 was replaced by actual figures from the Marine Recreational Information Program, which showed that landings in the last two months of the year were far higher than expected; now, anglers were very possibly facing regulations tight enough to reduce landings by over 20%.

So the question is, given that the population of black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina is currently more than twice the number of fish needed to produce maximum sustainable yield, and given that the recreational harvest limit has been increased by roughly 50%, why are anglers looking at more restrictive regulations in 2017?

The answer lies in the uncertainty surrounding the harvest estimates provided by the Marine Recreational Information Program .  The problem doesn’t arise out of MRIP itself, but in the way the MRIP numbers are used.  Managers try to apply the landings estimates on too small a scale, and by doing so, introduce a high level of uncertainty into their predictions of how effective management measures will be.

“The size of sampling error depends upon the sample size, the sample design and the natural variability within the population.  As a general rule, increasing the sample size decreases sampling error.
“…the more samples you draw, the more precise your estimate will be.”
The MRIP Handbook also notes that

“In MRIP, sampling error is reported as percent standard error or PSE which expresses the standard error as a percentage of the estimate.  The lower the PSE the greater the confidence that the estimate is close to the population value.”
That being the case, managing a fishery on a coastwide basis, using annual landings estimates, would provide the largest sample size, the most accurate estimate of black sea bass landings and regulations, based on such landings estimate, that are most likely to constrain harvest to or below the annual harvest limit.

Unfortunately, that’s not how black sea bass are managed.

While NMFS does establish size limits, bag limits and seasons for federal waters, it is the states, acting through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which establishes regulations for each state.  And it is those state regulations that create the real problems.

Most black sea bass are landed in the states that lie between Massachusetts and New Jersey.  None of those states shared the same regulations in 2016.

In New Jersey, anglers could keep 10 black sea bass, at least 12 ½ inches long, from May 23 through June 19.  Then the season closed for a few days, to reopen on July 1; from then until August 31, the bag limit dropped to just 2 fish, although the size limit remained the same.  After that, the season closed for nearly two months, reopening on October 22 and remaining open for the rest of the year; however, during that period, the bag limit increased to 15 fish, and the size limit increased to 13 inches.

Confused yet?  And that was only one state…

New York was a little better.  It maintained a 15-inch minimum size throughout the year, but steadily increased its bag limit from 3 between June 27 and August 31, to 8 in September and October and 10 in November and December.  

On the other side of Long Island Sound, Connecticut had the same 15-inch size limit, but its season ran from May 1 through December 31.  For most anglers, the bag limit was 5 fish per day, but if they fished from a party or charter boat, the bag limit increased to 8.

In Rhode Island, the sectors were all treated the same, and a 15-inch minimum size prevailed throughout the season.  However, the bag limit changed with the seasons, from 3 fish from June 24 through August 31 to 7 fish from September 1 through the end of the year.

Out of all the five northern states, only Massachusetts had one simple set of regulations—a 5-fish bag, 15-inch minimum size and a season that ran from May 21 through August 31.

When you look at the widely varying regulations between neighboring states that, in many cases, share the same waters, you can’t help but wonder how such a hash of regulations can properly manage the fishery.  And the truth is, they don’t manage it well at all.

Remember the percentage standard error, or PSE, that gauges the precision of the recreational harvest estimates generated by MRIP?  It tells the whole story.

If we look at the estimate for all black sea bass caught in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region in 2016, without breaking the estimate down by state, sector or wave, we find a PSE of 8.3.  That’s reasonably precise, and provides a pretty good basis for management measures. 

But if we start breaking that down into states—say, the estimate for Massachusetts, which maintained consistent regulations throughout the year—the PSE jumps to 18.5, which is still adequate for management purposes, but lacks the precision of the regional estimate.  Regulations based on state-by-state catch estimates, rather than the regional estimate, will embody greater uncertainty, and are somewhat less likely to achieve their management goals.

Then, when you go beyond mere state estimates, but begin to slice-and-dice the state landings by sector or by two-month “wave,” the uncertainty is compounded.

If we look at New Jersey, the PSE is 27.1 for the short May-June season and 22.8 for July and August.  It then jumps to an effectively unusable 55.8 for the few days that the season is open in September and October, and an unreliable 45.2 for November and December.  Given those PSEs, anyone who believes that the harvest estimates are reliable, or that the regulations will do much to stop overfishing is just kidding themselves.

Elsewhere in the northeast, where bag limits change but the size limit is constant and the seasons are not broken up by interim closures, PSEs are not quite so large, but still indicate a relatively low level of precision.  In New York, the PSEs are 20.9 for July and August, 28.6 for September and October and 33.0 for November and December.  In Rhode Island, the PSEs for the same periods are 21.3, 29.7 and 56.1, respectively, and 48.5 for the few days that the season was open in June.

That’s not very good.

Connecticut demonstrated that maintaining different bag limits for sectors, rather than for time of year, might only make things even worse, as 2016 PSEs were and completely useless 101.9 for shorebound anglers, 27.2 for party boats, an undependable 78.5 for charter boats and 17.0 for private vessels.

Yet no one should be surprised by such results.  Prior to the December 2015 joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board, the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee advised that it

“encourages the development of more consistent regulations between states within the regions.  The Monitoring Committee notes that the difficulty of analyzing the effects of new regulations increases with management complexity and hyper-customization of measures.  One of the intended benefits of ad-hoc regional management was to have similar regulations by region.  Complex sets of measures, including splits by mode, season, and sector, continue to be implemented, contrary to previous recommendations of the Monitoring and Technical Committees.  Additionally, MRIP data for state, wave and mode combinations is typically associated with very high PSEs that often are higher than the percentage of the landings adjustments required…”
However, the states ignored that good advice, and again adopted management “hyper-customized” management measures that, in the end, don’t represent an intent to properly manage the fishery as much as they do an effort to manipulate the data in a way that is likely to provide the longest season and biggest kill for that states anglers.

By doing so, the states gain in the short term, as the increased harvest opportunities tend to mitigate anglers’ and the angling industry’s complaints about restrictive regulations; however, such actions end up hurting the management process over the long haul, as overfishing ensues, which results in the sort of tightening regulations expected in 2017, that serve only to alienate anglers from fisheries managers.

Quite simply, the current approach to black sea bass management doesn’t work. 

It is time for the states to stop coddling the complainers who will never be satisfied with any restrictions on landings, and start acting responsibly, for the benefit of the fish, the fishermen and the fishery management process.

It is time to abandon overly-complicated regulatory schemes that stress the available data beyond the breaking point, and result in management measures that are doomed to fail.

It is time to adopt simple management measures that are consistent throughout the year, and throughout the region.  

Such approach was first tried with scup in 2004, when the states that accounted for more than 95% of the recreational landings joined together in a region that shared the same size limit, bag limit and season length.  Since then, the recreational scup fishery, which was once plagued by constantly fluctuating state harvests and resulting regulatory changes, has been remarkably stable, with abundant fish and generous bag limits.

Taking a similar approach to black sea bass management, with all states between Massachusetts and New Jersey sharing a common set of regulations, would probably be equally beneficial, and would almost certainly result in a more stable and predictable fishery than exists today.

That’s the right way to manage the fishery.  But to get there, states must abandon their narrow, partisan views, and look to the good of the whole.  

In today’s world, that’s always easier said than done.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


The White House has recently released its budget outline for the next fiscal year.  Titled America First:  A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, it charts a very different course than budgets proposed by other recent administrations.  

Whatever such budget proposal would do for, or to, other federal programs, it bodes ill for saltwater fish stocks and the fishermen who seek them.

To be fair, the budget outline calls fisheries management a “core function” of the Department of Commerce, and states that the Administration’s budget

“prioritizes and protects investments in core Government functions [and]…supporting the Government’s role in managing marine resources.”
We can only hope that will turn out to be true, and that the Administration’s approach to managing marine resources will emphasize long-term sustainability over short-term gain and long-term depletion.  However, particulars that appear in various sections of the budget outline give cause for concern.

In the northeast and throughout most of the Mid-Atlantic, one of the greatest concerns relates to the complete elimination of federal funding for efforts to improve water quality in ecologically-important regions such as Chesapeake Bay, where 70% and 90% of the Atlantic coast’s migratory striped bass are spawned each year. 

The Administration justifies such cuts my saying

“The Budget returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities, allowing [the Environmental Protection Agency] to focus on its highest national priorities.”
Such a position ignores the fact that water bodies such as Chesapeake Bay are merely a portion of far larger systems, in which water is first collected in small tributary streams, flows into larger rivers which are themselves tributary to major waterways that eventually flow into coastal bays.  Pollution can and is introduced into the water at any point along its journey, and often crosses state boundaries before it flows into salt water.

Consider how the potential affect on striped bass spawning in Chesapeake Bay.

“Eric Schaeffer, a former director of the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] Office of Civil Enforcement, said the federal agency’s enforcement authority plays a crucial role in negotiations among the six states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, particularly those like Pennsylvania that contributes a significant portion of the agricultural pollution but lack bay frontage.”
Absent federal involvement in Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, it could become very difficult for the states of Maryland and Virginia, where the striped bass spawning rivers are located, to prevent Pennsylvania farmers from allowing pollutants, whether in the form of pesticides, fertilizers or livestock waste, to run off into waters that will eventually flow into and degrade the bay.

“Larval striped bass are…very susceptible to toxic pollutants like arsenic, copper, cadmium, aluminum and malathion, a common pesticide.  Studies showed that chlorination of effluent from sewage plants and electric power stations adversely affect zooplankton, leading to starvation of newly hatched striped bass that feed on it.”

“A 10-year study of Chesapeake Bay fishes by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science provides the first quantitative evidence on a bay-wide that low-oxygen “dead zones” are impacting the distribution and abundance of ‘demersal’ fishes—those that live and feed near the Bay bottom.
“The affected species—which include Atlantic croaker, white perch, spot, striped bass, and summer flounder—are a key part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and support important commercial and recreational fisheries…
“Low-oxygen conditions—what scientists call ‘hypoxia’—form when excess loads of nitrogen from fertilizers, sewage, and other sources feed algae blooms in coastal waters.  When these algae die and sink, they provide a rich food source for bacteria, which in the act of decomposition take up dissolved oxygen from nearby waters.”
Thus, the proposed budget’s defunding of the Chesapeake Bay program would create a double-barreled threat to striped bass.  It would take away the EPA’s ongoing enforcement effort, making it easier for out-of-state polluters to degrade water quality, and it would remove money available to clean up pollution sources.  That clean-up money is critical, for as the Richmond Times-Dispatch also noted,

“Since 1983, the [Environmental Protection Agency] has been the lead federal partner to work to reduce agricultural and other pollution in the bay, a relationship that has achieved resurgent clam and oyster populations, renewed growth of the underwater grasses that shelter them, and decreased ‘dead zones,’ or areas of oxygen-deficient water.  About two-thirds of the federal funding goes to direct pollution-reduction grants to farmers and municipalities.  The rest goes to monitoring the bay’s water quality.”
And anything that degrades Chesapeake Bay’s ability to produce and sustain healthy year classes of juvenile striped bass will also degrade the commercial and recreational striped bass fishery in every state between Maine and North Carolina.

Up in New England, striped bass aren’t the only important species threatened by the proposed budget.

“Since 2004 the [Gulf of Maine] has warmed faster than anyplace else on the planet, except for an area northeast of Japan, and during the ‘Northwest Atlantic Ocean heat wave’ of 2012 average water temperatures hit the highest level in the 150 years that humans have been recording them.
“As a result, many native species—boreal and subarctic creatures at the southern edges of their ranges—are in retreat.  Lobster populations have been shifting northward and out to sea along our coast as they’ve abandoned Long Island Sound almost entirely.  Many of other commercially important bottom dwelling fish—including cod, pollock and winter flounder—have been withdrawing from Maine and into the southwestern part of the gulf, where the bottom water is cooler.”

“A team of marine scientists found that rising temperatures in the [Gulf of Maine] decreased reproduction and increased mortality among the once-plentiful Atlantic cod, adding to the toll of many decades of overfishing…
“[The scientists] speculate that the warmer waters might result in young cod starving from a lack of prey or dying from increased exposure to predators before they reached maturity.  The cod, they say, might move from shallow to deeper waters where more predators lurk, and earlier seasons might extend predation.  The researchers also report a link between temperatures and mortality in adult fish, though some other scientists question that finding.”
Yet, despite the clear connection between rising water temperatures and the abundance of fish stocks, the proposed Administration budget would do away with funding related to climate change.  Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, baldly stated that

“Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward.  We’re not spending money on that anymore.  We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.  So that is a specific tie to his campaign.”
New England fishermen, who are watching ocean ecosystems mutate before their eyes, might not agree that investigating the impacts of climate change is “a waste of your money,” but it’s not clear that anyone cares about their opinion.

But at least there is research suggesting a connection between cod an climate change, and between striped bass and pollution.  The Administration’s proposed budget would also eliminate funding for important fisheries research, so we not even be aware of what we don’t know.  The budget outline notes that the Administration’s budget

“Zeroes out over $250 million in targeted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education including Sea Grant, which primarily benefit State and local stakeholders.”

Fishermen may often overlook the value of Sea Grant programs, and I admit to being a sometime critic of Sea Grant researchers being too focused on the desires of the fishing industry, and not focused enough on doing independent research.  But I’ll also admit that Sea Grant researchers here in New York have done valuable work that affected both the recreational and commercial fisheries.

During the 1990s, Sea Grant biologist Mark Malchoff did extensive work to determine the survival of fish released by recreational anglers; his study on the survival of released summer flounder led to a substantial reduction in the estimate of discard mortality, and thus let anglers enjoy more liberal recreational fishing regulations.  He also helped to prepare information that was distributed to anglers, telling them how to better assure the survival of fish that they released.

Such research, impacting fisheries on every coast, will be lost if the proposed budget’s cut to Sea Grant funding is made.

Regulators would thus lose a source of information that is important to the regulatory process; however, the regulatory process itself has little value unless regulations are enforced.  The proposed budget would hinder enforcement as well.

Yet if planned cuts to the Coast Guard budget go through, enforcement would be compromised.

According to the New York Times, the Administration intends to slash 14% from the Coast Guard’s budget in order to pay for its much-ballyhooed border wall and increased immigration enforcement.  

Any reduction in Coast Guard patrol capabilities would, ironically, make it harder for the agency to intercept Mexican lanchas that sneak into American waters of the Gulf of Mexico to poach the already fully-utilized red snapper, protect striped bass in federal waters from illegal harvest and conduct other fishery enforcement efforts.

And we need to remember that the Coast Guard doesn’t just protect fish; it protects fishermen, too.  I’ve spent decades running to offshore shark and tuna grounds, and often found myself taking my boat to the edge of the continental shelf, many miles and many hours from shore.  

When you’re out there, no matter how well you prepare, anything can happen (a few years ago, someone I know was running along the East Wall of Hudson Canyon, about 80 miles from port on a dead-calm and seemingly empty sea, when a fin whale surfaced beneath his boat, lifting it from the water and completely destroying his running gear, but fortunately leaving the vessel water-tight).  There is something very reassuring in knowing that the Coast Guard is standing by in case of emergency, ready to respond to the first signal from an emergency beacon.

Should the proposed budget go through in its current form, some of that reassurance will no longer be there.

The good news is that there is virtually no chance that the Administration budget will make it through Congress unscathed.  As the Seattle Times recently observed,

“Presidential budgets rarely get approved.”
It’s far easier for a president to propose budget cuts than it is for a member of Congress to approve them, as each of those cuts—to the Chesapeake Bay programs, to Sea Grant, to the Coast Guard—affects real people in districts that those members of Congress represent.  Constituents’ opinions matter.

And, as a practical matter, it will take 60 votes to pass a budget in the Senate, where 48 Democrats, and hopefully some Republicans, won’t easily be convinced that climate change spending is “a waste of your money.”

The Administration’s proposed budget is the first step in a long process of negotiation with Congress, which will try to strike a balance between President, party and constituents.  

Striking that balance is a hard thing to do.

Our job is to make it harder, and to let our Representatives and Senators know that portions of the proposed budget are bad for the fish, and bad for us.  And that we would be very upset if those bad proposals somehow became law.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


Fisheries management is a complicated endeavor.
Before issuing regulations that will prevent overfishing and maintain healthy fish populations, managers need to consider multiple factors.

They must estimate the size of fish populations, and decide whether such populations must be rebuilt. They must determine how many fish are lost to predation and other natural causes each year, and how many new fish, from the most recent spawns, are being recruited into the population. And they must determine how many fish are removed from the population by commercial and recreational fishermen each year.
Other considerations also come into play. Is abundance increasing or decreasing at current levels of harvest? Are environmental conditions, such as warming water temperatures, having an impact on the stock? Is fishing pressure constant, or are fishermen shifting effort away from one species and onto others?
Stock assessments can be extremely complex and based on data obtained from multiple surveys conducted at the state and federal level. Some surveys will be “fishery-dependent,” meaning that they are surveys based on fishermen’s effort and catches, while other will be “fishery-independent,” when conducted solely for research and management purposes.
Managers know from the outset that, even under the best conditions, there will be some uncertainty in their assessments, and therefore in the regulations that result. However, they do their best to identify the sources of possible error, and to make allowances for both “scientific uncertainty” and “management uncertainty” when setting each year’s rules.

For most sources of uncertainty, that works out pretty well. However, there is one sort of uncertainty that fisheries managers can’t control and can’t account for in their assessments no matter how hard they try.
That’s the uncertainty that results when politicians get involved in the management process.
Unlike scientific or management uncertainty, political uncertainty isn’t related to any sort of data at all. It is not subject to quantification, and it is unpredictable. Political uncertainty arises not out of surveys, biology or any sort of fact, but out of some combination of emotion abetted by legislators who are so eager to help their constituents that they sometimes do not stop to think about whether it’s the right thing to do.
Such legislators sponsor bills that replace well-considered, data-driven fisheries management with arbitrary measures that, in just about every case, conflict with biologists’ advice and threaten the long-term health of the fisheries that they address.
Two recent bills introduced into the House of Representatives by congressmen from the mid-Atlantic region illustrate that principle all too well.
The first of those bills is H.R. 1195, the so-called “Local Fishing Access Act,” introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY).
H.R. 1195 would permit the Secretary of Commerce to open certain federal waters north and west of Block Island, Rhode Island to striped bass fishing. The bill is substantially similar to H.R. 3070, legislation, which Rep. Zeldin introduced in 2015. However, while H.R. 3070 addressed only recreational striped bass fishing in federal waters, H.R. 1195 contains no such restriction, and so would presumably allow commercial striped bass fishing in federal waters as well.

That presents a problem because, on October 20, 2007, President George W. Bush issued an executive order that outlawed commercial fishing for striped bass and red drum in federal waters (the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ). Thus, unless H.R. 1195 contained language specifically overriding such executive order, even if the Secretary opened up all or part of the EEZ to striped bass fishing, commercial striped bass fishing in the EEZ would remain illegal.

That’s a clear oversight, but one that provides a good example of why fisheries management should be left up to professionals who are intimately familiar with the details of the process, and not to legislators who, at best, have a more limited knowledge of the issues and can sometimes be too quick to crank out bills merely to please a vocal constituency.
In the end, Rep. Zeldin’s legislation is relatively harmless. The Secretary of Commerce already has power to allow, or to continue to prohibit, recreational striped bass harvest in the EEZ. A bill such as H.R. 1195, which merely provides that “The Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, may issue regulations to permit and regulate Atlantic striped bass fishing” in the EEZ doesn’t change the legal status quo at all.

That’s not the case with another recent proposal.
On February 23, Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) announced plans to introduce legislation that would prevent the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) from implementing its planned 30% reduction in the annual catch limit for summer flounder.

Such reduction is necessary because summer flounder recruitment—the number of new fish entering the population—has been below average for six consecutive years, causing the biomass to drop to just 58% of the level needed to produce the largest sustainable harvest. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee has warned that “the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken [emphasis in original].”

Yet Rep. Pallone appears to be focused solely on short-term economic concerns, saying, “These cuts are a body blow to the recreational fishing industry in New Jersey and that is why Congress has to take action. The recreational fishing industry contributes over $1 billion to our state’s economy and directly supports 20,000 jobs…”

Rep. Pallone appears to give no thought to what will happen to the recreational fishing industry in the event that NMFS is right, which appears very likely. In such case the proposed legislation would cause the stock to shrink further, making summer flounder harder to catch, something which would hardly be good for New Jersey’s fishing industry.
He also made the curious statement that “The cuts for New Jersey are greater than what NOAA had required for the region,” which is patently untrue. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) ultimately adopted an option that would reduce 2017 recreational harvest by 28 to 32 percent, when compared to 2016. That is a significantly lesser reduction than the 41 percent regional reduction that NMFS had called for.

Rep. LoBiondo also made a number of questionable statements when he referred to “draconian cuts to New Jersey fishermen which allow neighboring states to freely pillage our waters at more favorable limits,” and complained that “the use of questionable methodologies and outdated science by NOAA bureaucrats will cut our fishing industry off at the knees.”

The option selected by ASMFC will include New Jersey in a region that also includes Connecticut and New York, which has been the case since 2014. All states in the region will have the same 3-fish bag and 19-inch minimum size. All will share the same season length. And the region that includes Delaware, New Jersey’s southern neighbor, will adopt regulations that are less restrictive than New Jersey’s. Thus, Rep. LoBiondo’s statement about “cuts…which allow neighboring states to freely pillage [New Jersey] waters at more favorable limits” is just plain wrong.

His claims of “questionable methodologies” and “outdated science” are equally dubious.
The methodologies that were used to prepare the 2013 benchmark summer flounder stock assessment was peer-reviewed by a panel of internationally-recognized fisheries scientists, none of whom found such methodologies “questionable.” And even though the benchmark assessment was completed in 2013, it has been updated annually, with the last update completed in June 2016. That hardly qualifies as “outdated science.”

Thus, any legislation that the two congressmen might propose to block NMFS’ summer flounder management efforts would be based on a host of false premises and a clear desire to override science-based management measures. While such legislation might bring short-term economic relief, the science indicates that it would do so at the expense of the summer flounder stock and, ultimately, at the expense of businesses which depend on a healthy summer flounder stock for their very survival.
Legislators can be many good things. Sometimes they are lawmakers; at other times they are advisers, who help constituents navigate an often-confusing federal bureaucracy. Over the course of their careers, they may at times be orators, philosophers, dealmakers or even, when at their best, the conscience of the entire nation.

But they are not trained fisheries managers. When they try to be, and replace the scientists’ reasoned analysis with their own political passions, they enter waters that they are not trained to navigate. Mishap is the likely result.
This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Sunday, March 12, 2017


A few days ago, I wrote a blog post for the Marine Fish Conservation Network.  The thrust of the piece was that legislators who introduce bills to circumvent management efforts are doing both fish and fishermen a disservice.

The blog ended up on Facebook.  It drew a comment from one angler who seemed to disagree with the premise of the piece, writing

“We have been pushed around enough by limits for years we get less and less each year when does it stop”.
The commenting angler seemed to take regulations as a personal affront, a matter of a government bureaucracy intentionally “push[ing] around” anglers and arbitrarily reducing catch limits, rather than seeing them for what they really are—an effort by fisheries managers to prevent overharvest, so that anglers will have a better chance of catching something when they venture out into the water.

Such sentiments are nothing new, nor are they limited to the fishermen themselves.  A 2009 article by Karen Wall, published in The Fisherman, is subtitled

“NOAA finally reveals its punitive side with a closure that could cripple a struggling industry [emphasis added]”
suggesting that, in closing the black sea bass fishery after estimates of excessive harvest earlier in the year, the agency was acting to punish anglers and related industries, rather than merely trying to conserve the black sea bass resource.  

The same article quotes Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and the late Congressman Frank Adler (D-NJ) declaring that

“to continue this assault on recreational fisheries…is not acceptable.  [emphasis added]”
Apparently, allowing fishermen to overfish would have been completely acceptable, and would not have constituted an “assault” on the black sea bass resource…

Fisheries regulators aren’t the only people viewed as threats by the paranoid wing of the angling community.  In another article in The Fisherman, this one published last January, the author whines

“that’s pretty much how the law works; NOAA Fisheries holds all the cards, with the environmental non-governmental organizations (they call ‘em ENGO’s) set to legally close down the entire game anytime the fishermen get dealt a kind hand.”
Again, an unreasoning sense of persecution distorted reality almost past recognition.  The only way an ENGO can “legally close down” a fishery is if the fishermen were doing something illegal, which almost always translates into harvesting fish at unsustainable levels. 

What the writer terms “get[ting] dealt a kind hand” the rest of the world sees as “overfishing.”

And then there is the other aspect of taking fisheries regulations personally—the tendency to look at how a particular person or industry might be affected by regulations, and a failure to consider how the fish that such person or industry might depend on will be affected by a lack of regulation.

After news of a pending 30% cutback in the summer flounder catch limit spread through the angling community late last year, CBS News reported fishing industry representatives making comments such as

“A lot of boats have been put out of business already and more to follow if these rules go into effect,”
“Fluke are the bread and butter on Long Island, so we really can’t take anymore [sic] restrictions,”
“It can’t happen.  It’ll cripple the industry, and it affects everybody in the industry.  It affects all the tackle shops.  It affects tourism.”

Furthermore, unless restrictions very like those proposed are put in place, they warn that the stock could become overfished as soon as this year, which would require that a rebuilding plan, and even more restrictive regulations, be put in place.

If fluke become more and more difficult to find, will anglers still bother to chase them?  While it can certainly get frustrating when you catch nothing but undersized fish, it’s far worse to catch nothing at all.

And if the summer flounder population continues to decline, nothing is exactly what more and more anglers will be putting in the boat.  Anyone who believes that a dearth of fish won’t cripple the industry as badly—or worse—than increased regulation hasn’t been paying much attention to what has gone on in recent years.

Here on Long Island, we've lost our once-booming winter flounder fishery.  We lost the Coxe's Ledge party boat fishery for summer cod.  We lost the spring pollock run at Block Island and the winter whiting run in New York bight.  

Tautog is a mere shadow of what it once was, weakfish are scarce and the spring mackerel run, which once flooded our waters, now exists only in memory.

Losing all of those fisheries did real harm to anglers and the businesses that serve them, afloat and ashore.

So maybe, instead of worrying about how much short-term inconvenience regulations might cause, fishermen and the fishing industry might be better off worrying about how a lack of regulations affect the fish.

Because without the fish, fishing is not any fun.

Yet, despite that obvious truth, people continue to view regulations needed to conserve and maintain sustainable fish populations as personal attacks on their freedom and their economic well-being.  Perhaps the most rational comment on such attitudes was recently published on the Florida website, which addressed an unpopular decision not to open the South Atlantic red snapper season in 2017.

“Federal regulation isn’t a popularity contest…
“There’s no question that [for-hire] boaters would feel an economic impact [because of the continued red snapper closure].  But that impact is a matter of now or later.  If the red snapper is being overfished, it will crash.  If it does (as other species have), it will hurt [for-hire] boaters’ bottom lines (as many [for-hire] boaters have been bankrupted by other species’ crashes).  Protecting the red snapper isn’t just about protecting the red snapper.  It’s about protecting the future health of the fisheries that depend on the snapper.  [emphasis added]”
Take out the words “red snapper” and replace them with “summer flounder,” “winter flounder,” “gray triggerfish,” “cobia,” “tautog” or any other species, on any section of the coast, which is subject to controversial regulation, and the foregoing paragraph is no less true.

Thus, it is time for fishermen and the fishing industry to stop viewing needed regulations as some sort of personal attack, and to start viewing them as what they really are:  The only chance that their sport and their businesses will still be alive a decade or two from now.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


It was written by Jeff Angers, who is the President of an organization called the Center for Sportfishing Policy (formerly, the Center for Coastal Conservation), an alliance made up of representatives of the fishing tackle industry, the boatbuilding industry and several “anglers’ rights” organizations.

“Our mission is to maximize opportunity for saltwater recreational anglers by organizing, focusing and engaging recreational fishing stakeholders to speak with one voice to shape federal marine fisheries management policy.”
In other words, the Center for Sportfishing Policy exists solely to protect and further the interests of tackle dealers, boatbuilders and recreational fishermen.

That’s important to remember as you read Mr. Angers’ op-ed, because he is essentially complaining that representatives of the commercial and for-hire fishing communities sit on regional fishery management councils where, according to Mr. Angers, they seek to promote their best interests.

In his op-ed piece, Mr. Angers asks,

“Why are people who profit from the harvest and sale of America’s marine resources allowed to sit on management bodies that make regulations governing those resources?”

To answer Mr. Anger’s question, the first place to turn would be the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which states that one of its purposes is to create and maintain fishery management plans

“which will enable the States, the fishing industry, consumer and environmental organizations, and other interested persons to participate in, and advise on, the establishment and administration of such plans.  [emphasis added]”
Magnuson-Stevens further states that

“The members of each Council required to be appointed by the Secretary [of Commerce] must be individuals who, by reason of their occupational or other experience, scientific expertise, or training, are knowledgeable regarding the conservation and management, or the commercial or recreational harvest, of the fishery resources of the geographical area concerned.  [emphasis added]”
More specifically, with respect to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council,

“The Governor of a State submitting a list of names of individuals for appointment...shall include at least 1 nominee each from the commercial, recreational and charter fishing sectors…  [emphasis added]”
Thus, the easy answer to Mr. Angers’ question is “Because the law not only allows, but requires that people engaged in commercial and for-hire fishing sit on the various regional fishery management councils.”

But that answer, while true, doesn’t really do justice to the question.  

To give the question the sort of attention it truly deserves, one must ask a question in return.  

That question would be, “Who would sit on the management councils, and make the decisions, if those “who profit from the harvest and sale of…marine resources” were not allowed to do so.

For lo and behold, if the commercial and for-hire sectors couldn’t sit on such councils, the only folks left, outside of the state fisheries directors, would be the very same people represented by Mr. Angers’ organization.

Now, isn’t that something to keep in mind when reading the op-ed in Sport Fishing?

There’s no question that conflict of interests is a real problem on the fishery management councils.

“to conserve and manage the living marine resources of the United States of America…for the greatest overall benefit of the Nation…being careful to balance competing private or regional interests, and always aware and protective of the public interest in such resources...”
Magnuson-Stevens also requires Council members to disclose 

“any financial interest held by that individual, the spouse, minor child, or partner of that individual, and any organization (other than the Council) in which that individual is serving as an officer, director trustee, partner, or employee; in any harvesting, processing, lobbying, advocacy, or marketing activity that is being, or will be, undertaken in any fishery over which the Council concerned has jurisdiction, or with respect to an individual or organization with a financial interest in such activity.”
However, once a council member makes such disclosure, nothing prevents such member from fully taking part in all council votes and deliberations.  There are times when the law does require a council member to recuse him- or herself from a vote, but the circumstances under which that must occur are very rare.  Recusal is only required when

“a Council decision..would have a significant and predictable effect on such [Council member’s] financial interest.  A Council decision shall be considered to have a significant and predictable effect on a financial interest if there is a close causal link between the Council decision and an expected and substantially disproportionate benefit to the financial interest of the affected individual relative to the financial interests of other participants in the same gear type or sector of the fishery.”
Taken together, the oath and the disclosure requirements help to assure that members of the council actually work together to find a solution that benefits everyone, and don’t merely try to advance their own interests at the expense of the fish, other sectors and the nation as a whole.

Of course, as Mr. Angers’ op-ed inadvertently points out, things often don’t work out that way.

For Mr. Angers reserves his wrath for council members who are commercial fishermen or operators of for-hire vessels.  

He complains that

“someone who owns red snapper shares can sit on the Gulf Council and vote on every aspect of that fishery,”
and that

“on the Gulf Council, people who own charter businesses and stand to directly benefit from the [catch share] program are never required to recuse themselves from votes on that program.”
But there are plenty of other interests out there.

While some are indirect, and don't involve profit from the harvest of fish, they are nonetheless very real.

For example, the Coastal Conservation Association, an “anglers’ rights” group that was one of the Center’s founders and remains one of its most important constituent organizations, has criticized the current allocation of Gulf of Mexico red snapper between recreational and commercial fishermen.  

In a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Southeast Regional Office, CCA complained,  after the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council increased the recreational share of such allocation from 49% to 51.5% of all landings, that such change

“is not a reallocation…It is not a change that addresses the vastly higher value found in the recreational sector for harvesting a red snapper…
“It should be clearly understood that the allocation of Gulf red snapper has been static for more than two decades in the face of vast economic and demographic changes, and it remains static today regardless of the outcome of this amendment…
“CCA strongly supports the shift of 2.5 percent of the quota to the recreational sector.  However, there should be no illusion that the process that produced the shift is a true reallocation process or that this flawed result is evidence that an allocation process is working.  On the contrary, this experience demonstrates that the allocation process could not be more flawed.  [It] devolved into a purely political exercise and the results represent an injustice to all participants in the fishery, as well as the coastal economies of the Gulf Coast states.”

Although such CCA members/Center representatives don’t directly profit from the harvest of red snapper, they and the organizations that they represent certainly do have a very real interest in shifting more red snapper to the recreational sector, and in preventing the charter fishing sector from being allocated fish that might otherwise have been caught by private-boat anglers.

In fact, when the Gulf Council voted to set aside a portion of the recreational allocation for the federally-permitted for-hire fleet, the CCA members on the Council, who had vehemently opposed the action, issued aminority report urging NMFS to reject the Council’s actions, because

private anglers will be extremely disappointed next year when they begin planning their trips.  If current projections remain true, they may be faced with a one day fishing season for red snapper in federal waters…
“Amendment 40 [which created the set-aside for the for-hire fleet] disproportionately harms private anglers.  While their 2015 season may shrink to just one day, the for-hire charter boat season will grow by up to 266.7%.  Private recreational anglers who fish from their own vessels will be extremely limited in their fishing opportunities.  As a result, they will be forced to pay for charter services, which will have more than 30 days in fishing from federal waters…  [emphasis added]”
In drafting their report, the CCA members and their fellow dissenters conveniently ignored the fact that while private boat anglers could enjoy long state-waters seasons—seasons that could run for as long as 365 days each year, when private boat anglers land a large proportion of the total red snapper catch, and so force managers to shorten the season in federal waters—federally-permitted charter and party boats were not allowed to fish in state waters when the federal season was closed. 

The minority report never acknowledged that, when both the state and federal seasons were taken into account, for-hire vessels had far fewer days to fish than did private boats, even with the for-hire set aside.

Just as Mr. Angers, in his op-ed, is eager to chastise NMFS for allowing commercial and for-hire operators to vote on issues that impact their businesses, yet fails to point out that, by concentrating on the wants of the private recreational sector while never acknowledging the needs of the for-hire operators, the CCA members on the Gulf Council violated their oath to be “careful to balance competing private…interests.”

The regional fishery management councils are intended to be peopled by stakeholders, who all have some sort of interest in the fisheries that they help to manage.  The plain language of Magnuson-Stevens makes that abundantly clear.

And it is true that far too many council members, on every coast, ignore the words of their oath to manage “for the greatest overall benefit to the Nation,” and instead vote to support themselves and their sector, at the expense of everyone else.

That is unfortunate, but it is impossible to deny that there is conflict of interests on the councils.

However, it is the purest hypocrisy to point out the failings of other sectors’ representatives, while ignoring the failings of the folks whom you favor.  Such is Mr. Angers’ mistake.

“Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother , let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Luke 6:42)

That pretty much says it all…