Sunday, January 15, 2017

A DUTY TO FULLY INFORM

Time passes quickly.

I still remember being a boy, obsessed with fishing, waiting each month for the new magazines to come out.  I read the “big three”—Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, Field and Stream—beginning when I was in grade school, finding dreams and adventure, as well as how-to, on every poured-over page.

I fished in salt water since I learned to walk, catching flounders and eels, tomcod and young-of-the-year “snapper” blues, fish that would never make the pages of a glossy national publication.  Although they sometimes held stories of bonefish or marlin, fresh water fishing and hunting were their primary subjects—novel subjects to me, since my family did neither one.

So I read the folks who wrote about those different worlds.  

And because I knew nothing about them, I ended up trusting the writers.

OK, I was a 10-year-old kid, still young enough to take adults’ words on faith.  At least if those adults were in a position of authority, which the various writers seemed to be.

Still, regardless of age, there is a tendency to believe that anyone who writes for publication possesses at least the authority conveyed by knowledge, and that the fact that something is published suggests that it might be true.

Intellectually, we know that’s not true, as the current “fake news” imbroglio, which has both sides of the political spectrum pointing fingers, demonstrates to our dismay.  Even so, we have a tendency to accept what we read as true; at least we do unless it conflicts with one of our closely-held beliefs.

Thus, to avoid betraying such trust, writers have an obligation to fully inform their readers, taking care to present all of the facts to the extent that they can be known.  Even in opinion pieces, where the author is trying to convince readers to come to a particular conclusion, facts should not be concealed. 

After all, if knowing all the facts might lead a reader to disagree with a writer, perhaps the writer is wrong…

Taking that sort of forthright approach is particularly important when addressing technical subjects, where data and science drive the issues, and writers must act as interpreters, presenting the facts to their readers in language that the readers can readily understand.

Outdoor writers frequently find themselves in that role when addressing conservation and wildlife management issues.  While some topics, such as the harm caused bycoal mines that remove entire mountaintops and dump the debris into Appalachian brook trout streams, can be understood without much technical knowledge, others require writers to provide more detailed explanations.

That’s particularly true of marine fishery management issues, which tend to revolve around complex stock assessments and population models, along with concepts such as maximum sustainable yield, biological reference points, recruitment and acceptable biological catch, none of which are part of most anglers’ everyday conversations.

When addressing such concepts, that are foreign to so many readers, a writer must be careful to define each term used, let readers know why it is important, and then explain to the reader how it applies to the issue at hand, so that the reader can understand the factors that go into making a decision, and the consequences that any likely decision might have on the species or population being managed.

If writers truly want their readers to understand how various species are being managed, they need to ensure that such readers are fully informed of why fisheries management decisions need to be being made as well.

On the whole, they do that pretty well, at least when freshwater fish are involved.  We can read plenty of articles supporting no-kill sections in trout streams, or warning of threats toBristol Bay’s salmon from the so-called Pebble Mine.

But in the salt water world, things are a bit different.  There, far too many writersactually tell anglers that conservation efforts are bad.  

It seems that there are folks in the recreational fishing industry who think that conservation is bad for business, and that magazines’ primary duty is convincing readers that all is well with our fisheries, and that they should be out buying more boats, rods and reels.

If I ever had any doubt about that—and I never did—it would have been cleared up by a series of private messages that I received on Facebook a couple of years ago.  The sender will remain unnamed, although I will say that  he was employed in the industry, most recently (as of the time when the messages were sent) by a tackle company based in New Jersey.  

The guy started out by criticizing something that I wrote, finishing his first message by saying

“It’s a very important topic, but I’m not sure your take on it is the correct one for our industry (recreational).  [emphasis added]”
The exchange went on.  I was criticized for wanting to prosecute poachers, and for other positions that I’d taken.  

And then things began to get threatening.

“So how do you reconcile your stance with the advertisers who support your writing?
“…Your stance is not popular with a lot of folks on the rec side who are also well informed and whose businesses support many.
“You are certainly entitled to your position, but it galls some of us quite a bit that you promote it while being active in a recreational fisheries publication.  That is not opinion, it is a fact.  [emphasis added]”
In other words, if I want to keep writing for the angling press, I’d better concentrate on keeping advertisers happy, and not on keeping readers fully informed.

Which makes sense, for knowledge is power, and industry—any industry—never likes the public to have enough power to get in that industry’s way. 

Better to keep the plebs dumb.  Don’t let them question the industry’s line…

Now, outdoor writers who cover saltwater issues are going to have another opportunity to put their integrity to the test.

For years, when the recreational fishing industry attacked proposed regulations, one of their primary arguments was that the estimates of the fish killed by anglers was far too high.  A recent article in The Fisherman, which criticized new restrictions on anglers’ summer flounder harvest, is typical.

“One by one, members of advocate groups like [Jersey Coast Anglers Association] and the Recreational Fishing Alliance spoke out against the data used by NOAA Fisheries in mandating the cuts, with Nick Cicero, Sales Manager of a Mahwah, NJ based national tackle distributor, noting recreational overage numbers in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are unfounded based on his tackle wholesale numbers for 2016
“’If more people went fluke fishing and more fluke were caught, more Gulp would be bought, more fluke hooks would be bought, more jigs would be bought, that’s not the truth,’ Cicero said.  ‘I can substantiate my numbers, they can’t substantiate theirs.’
“…At issue for many in the room was the status of the recreational data harvest survey…NOAA Fisheries has been working to redesign the collection methodology ever since a 2006 National Academy of Science (NAS) review deemed it ‘fatally flawed’ and desperately in need of an overhaul. 
“…not many fishermen in New Jersey seemed impressed with NOAA’s efforts thus far in their comments to [the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission].
“’I taught science for 31 years,” said Capt. Steve Bent of the Cape May based charter boat Free Spirit.  ‘If these biologists, if this is the way they gather information, and they were in my science class, I would’ve failed them.”
However, the National Academy of Science apparently disagrees with Capt. Bent.  The Academy issued a report on the Marine Recreational Information Program last Tuesday, comparing it to the former program that was deemed to be “fatally flawed.”


“Work to redesign the National Marine Fisheries Service’s recreational fishery survey program (now referred to as the Marine Recreational Information Program) has yielded impressive progress over the past decade in providing more reliable catch data to fishery managers.  Major improvements to the statistical soundness of the survey design were achieved by reducing sources of bias and increasing sampling efficiency as well as through increased coordination with partners and engagement of expert consultants.  [emphasis added]”
No, the survey still isn’t perfect, with the Academy noting that

“Some additional challenges remain for the survey program, including those associated with nonresponse, electronic data collection, and communication and outreach to some audiences.  [emphasis added]”
Still, it seems to have received pretty good marks.

Now, the question is whether writers for The Fisherman, and for all of the other publications that have criticized harvest estimates so loudly for so long, will provide their readers with balanced articles on the National Academy of Science’s report.

If they see themselves as serving the truth and their readers, they’ll admit that, while there are still improvements that need to be made, the Marine Recreational Information Program is a workable tool for providing estimates of recreational landings.  Such writing will assist NOAA Fisheries in their effort to communicate with “some audiences” that remain skeptical of the survey, and by reducing the level of skepticism and resultant nonresponse, probably increase the quality of the survey results.

If they see themselves as tools of the advertisers, they will tell their readers whatever such advertisers believe will best benefit their businesses, regardless of the impact on readers, the survey, and the quality of landings estimates.

Right now, the odds in favor of truth and full disclosure don’t look very good.

The American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, placed an opinion piece about the National Academy of Science’s report in Sport Fishing magazine.  That op ed, which will probably be read by thousands of anglers, never mentioned the Academy’s findings of “impressive progress” or “major improvements to the statistical soundness” of the data developed by the recreational harvest survey. 

Instead, it latched onto one recommendation found halfway through the full report, which said that, in order to address concerns expressed in the past by various stakeholders, NOAA Fisheries

“Evaluate whether the design of MRIP for the purposes of stock assessment and the determination of stock management reference points is compatible with the needs of in-season management of annual catch limits.”
The American Sportfishing Association then spun that simple and reasonable recommendation into a finding that

“A full evaluation of this issue would almost certainly conclude what anglers have long known.  The inability of MRIP to allow for in-season adjustments exposes one of the core flaws of the federal saltwater fisheries management system.
“Addressing this core flaw will require both alternative management approaches and alternative data-collection approaches…
“Anglers who would prefer that the NAS report simply have concluded that ‘MRIP sucks’ may have come away disappointed.  But that doesn’t get us anywhere.  Instead, we can take this opportunity to question whether MRIP is capable of fulfilling federal law’s unfortunate expectation:  to manage recreational fishing the same way as commercial fishing.”
It’s not my intention here to point out all of the flaws in the American Sportfishing Association’s editorial, although that may happen in the next week or two.  

For now, I just want to focus on tone.  And judging from the tone of the editorial, the American Sportfishing Association would have made an attempt to use the National Academy of Science’s report to condemn MRIP even if it had found the survey program to be flawless.

Because it has a bigger mission in mind, its continuing effort to undermine federal fisheries law.

Given the American Sportfishing Association’s response to the Academy’s report, it’s pretty likely that the angling industry will remain hostile to the MRIP program, and to the estimates that it produces.

That means that outdoor writers covering fishery management issues have to ask themselves one big question.

To whom do they owe their allegiance? 

Is it to their readers, who have come to know them through their writing and have come to trust them over the years?  Do they have an obligation to keep those readers fully and accurately informed, regardless of the consequences?

Or is their allegiance solely to their advertisers’ bottom lines?

And having made that decision, I suspect that a lot of folks are going to have to ask themselves one more thing.  

Are they going to keep on shaving, and be forced to look themselves in the eye every morning when they face the mirror, or will it be easier, and less conscience-jarring,  to just grow a beard?





Thursday, January 12, 2017

JUMPING THE GUN: FISHERIES RESEARCH AND THE NULL HYPOTHESIS

Science is not static. Instead, it is a continuing act of discovery, in which even long-established truths may be questioned, modified and sometimes abandoned altogether as new knowledge comes to light.
Yet, in order to assure that research is revealing new truths, and not providing false and misleading information, each purported new discovery must be met with an appropriate dose of skepticism, as experts in the field analyze the data, try to reproduce the reported results and otherwise test the validity of the researcher’s conclusions.
In the fisheries world, we see this most often in stock assessments which, once completed, are reviewed by a panel of disinterested scientists. Such panel decides whether each assessment meets its stated goals, called “terms of reference,” and whether the analysis of the relevant data was rigorous enough to render the assessment “adequate for management purposes.”

However, stock assessments aren’t the only sort of fisheries research being conducted. At any given time, a number of studies are underway. Some are purely academic in nature, intended only to expand the pool of knowledge. Others have industry sponsors, who hope to use the studies’ results to promote industry interests and guide government policy.
Any of those studies can result in flawed data. Yet it is not flawed data, but flawed conclusions drawn from good data, which may pose the greatest threat to the management process.
That’s where the “null hypothesis” comes in.
The null hypothesis may be defined as “a general statement or default position that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena, or no association among groups.” A researcher must disprove the null hypothesis in order to successfully defend a study’s conclusions.

The null hypothesis is often ignored here on the coast, where fishermen readily accept any data that might support their calls for less restrictive regulations and bigger harvests. They seldom wait to see whether there is any connection between such data and the health of a fish population.
The current debate over summer flounder regulations provides an example.
Due to six consecutive years of below-average spawning success, summer flounder are becoming less abundant. In response, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will reduce the annual catch limit by 30%, in order to protect the spawning stock from overfishing.

The recreational fishing industry is actively opposing such harvest reductions, claiming that they will cause economic harm to various coastal businesses. As part of their campaign against the harvest reductions, industry spokesmen have repeatedly cited a study sponsored by an organization calling itself the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (SSFFF), which suggests that current regulations, and more particularly current size limits, result in a recreational harvest that is composed primarily of female flounder.

The implication is that such harvest of female flounder is having a direct, negative impact on the species’ spawning success. A long rant against the proposed reductions published in The Fisherman magazine asked, “could it be all the tinkering over the past 8 years, the increasing size limits and intensified harvest on broodstock fluke that actually impacted the overall biomass and recruitment numbers?”

A lot of readers, faced with that question, will intuitively answer “Yes.” But fisheries management decisions aren’t based on intuition or the theories of disgruntled magazine editors. They’re based on demonstrable facts.
Right now, there is no data that demonstrates a relationship between the number of female summer flounder landed by recreational anglers and the number of young-of-the-year summer flounder that are recruited into the population each year.
The null hypothesis has not been disproven, and until it is, the SSFFF study has no relevance to summer flounder management.
Another recent example of ignoring the null hypothesis occurred after a team of biologists, including a number employed by NMFS, found larval bluefin tuna in the so-called Slope Sea, an area that lies just off the edge of the continental shelf, east of the Mid-Atlantic coast.

The biologists published a paper which argued that the presence of 6-day old bluefin larvae, so far from known spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean Sea, was evidence that a third spawning area, probably used by young adult bluefin, had been discovered.

As the scientists noted, “The implications…are most pronounced for western Atlantic bluefin tuna, which [if they also spawn in the Slope Sea] have a life history less vulnerable to overexploitation and extinction than is currently estimated.”
In other words, if bluefin spawn in the Slope Sea, fishermen would be able to harvest more of them without putting the stock at risk.
Fishermen were quick to validate the results of the study. Sport Fishing magazine noted that “there are already suggestions being heard from various interests that bluefin populations may be more resilient than we had thought, that stocks may be in better shape, and that more generous fishing quotas may be called for.”


Barbara Block, a Stanford University biologist who has long been involved with bluefin research, called the study “interesting,” but not conclusive, and feels that more evidence is needed before the Slope Sea can be considered a bluefin spawning ground.
Even if the fact of bluefin spawning in the Slope Sea is accepted, biologists disagree as to what such finding would mean. While the paper suggests that, if young bluefin are actually spawning in the Slope Sea, it “will increase estimates of spawning stock biomass and will likely lead to higher estimates of sustainable fishing mortality rates.”

Duke University researcher Andre Boustany disagrees. He argues that if bluefin are spawning in the Slope Sea, and the current spawning stock is larger than previously believed, then the historic spawning stock was also larger. And if bluefin were, historically, more abundant than biologists had thought, then the target biomass defining a rebuilt stock must also be modified upward, to reflect that historical abundance. He then goes on to say that achieving that higher target might even require a reduction in landings.
Turning again to the null hypothesis, in order to justify increasing bluefin landings, the biologists who claim that young bluefin tuna spawn in the Slope Sea must prove not only that such spawning occurs, but that it justifies an increased harvest.
Clearly, some noted bluefin tuna biologists aren’t willing to draw that conclusion just yet.
On the other hand, tuna fishermen are more than willing to do so, and have no patience for any scientist or conservationist who requires more proof. A comment made on the Downeast Boat Forum, a discussion board, expresses such fishermen’s view:

“I just returned from the [International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas] meeting and after the discovery of such good news it is almost laughable how certain scientists, [non-governmental organizations] and green groups tried to poke holes in the discovery…They are very smart, well-funded, narrow minded and focused on ‘proving’ that this fishery/stock is in trouble and will go to any length to get people to believe it.”
It never occurred to the fisherman making the comment that he was being at least as “narrow minded and focused” on accepting the existence of a bluefin spawning ground in the Slope Sea, and supporting an increased harvest.
And that is the value of the null hypothesis in fishery management.
It requires management decisions to be based on established facts, and not merely on data selected to support a particular, perhaps politically palatable, position.

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This post first appeared in From the Waterfront, the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

MISPLACING THE BLAME

Last week, someone sent me an article from the Boston Globe, which described the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ effort to prove that there are more fish in the sea than federal fisheries managers believe.

According to the article,

“National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration [sic] estimates put the Gulf of Maine groundfish stock at historically low levels, dictating a corresponding reduction in catch limits.  Between 1982 and 2013, the number of metric tons of cod landed aboard commercial vessels plunged from more than 13,000 to 951, according to federal estimates.  That, predictably, has drastically undercut the industry…
“The 55-foot Miss Emily, skippered out of Scituate by captain Kevin Norton, has been equipped to approximate a smaller version of the Henry B. Bigelow, a 209-foot floating research vessel operated  by NOAA, that is used to count fish for the federal government.  Using a small portion of $21 million in federal fisheries disaster relief, the state launched a series of random ‘tows’ to counter what some think is the less accurate federal vessel.”
Why is Massachusetts taking such action?  Because

“Federal catch limits—caps on how many fish each boat can catch—have devastated the state’s most iconic commercial sector, fishermen say.  [emphasis added]”
Other folks, who aren’t fishermen, might say something else.

They might say that it’s the sharp decline in groundfish abundance that caused the harm to the fishing industry.

Or maybe, folks with a bit of a historical bent might argue that it was the recalcitrance of the New England Fishery Management Council, which for many years refused to impose hard annual quotas on most fisheries under its jurisdiction, and thus subjected already overfished stocks to continued, chronic overfishing, which caused the industry’s ills.

But if you’re a fisherman, the odds are pretty good that you won’t blame fishermen’s stubborn refusal to accept scientific advice for the problem, because that would be too much like taking responsibility for your own misdeeds.  There’s a pretty good chance that you won’t even admit that changing oceanographic conditions have made the population more vulnerable, meaning that landings must be pared back.

If you’re a fisherman, you know that here are still cod out there somewhere, and that you’re  a good enough fisherman to figure out where they are.  You'd know that, if it wasn’t for those regulations, you’d still be making good money putting those cod on the dock—at least until they were gone.

That doesn’t mean that Massachusetts’ new survey isn’t a good idea.  Fishery management is data-driven, and the more data managers have—provided that it is accurate data, obtained through reliable means—the better they can do their job. 

From a management perspective, if the Massachusetts effort can cast a little more light on the state of New England groundfish, whatever data it develops can only be good—even if it confirms that cod are growing ever more scarce.

But from a fisherman’s perspective, the effort will only be worthwhile if it compels federal managers to relax regulations.

That puts Massachusetts fisheries managers in a difficult place, as far as their relationship with the fishermen is concerned, for as the Boston Globe article reports,

“The last time the state conducted a similar exercise, from 2003 to 2007, it stopped short of picking up the ‘collapse’ of the cod stock, [Bill] Hoffman [a senior state biologist] says.  Had the research continued, ‘We probably would never be in the predicament we’re in with cod right now.’
“Clear evidence might have led federal officials to impose catch limits or other measures, like time- and area-specific closures.”
If such regulations had been imposed in a timely manner, the collapse of the cod stock might have been avoided, any decline in abundance mitigated, and the fish more abundant today.

However, such timely intervention would, very likely, have angered fishermen, since

“some fishermen believe that additional research would have revealed more fish, perhaps undercutting the argument that the stock has dropped off.”
Given how so many New England fishermen think, it is probably a lot more than just “some” fisherman who believe that a study would have discovered more fish.  Because it is regulations, and regulations alone, that are causing the industry harm…

That’s sort of thinking isn’t unique to New England, or even to the fishing industry. 

We’ve just gone through a long national debate which taught us that coal miners believe that regulations, and not the price of other fuels or advances in cleaner energy technologies, is killing off their industry. 

But coal can’t be easily mined without removing mountaintops, polluting waterways or leaving gaping wounds in the ground.  And even if it could, in time the coal would run out.

Fish are different.  If harvest is limited to demonstrably sustainable levels, which are adjusted to accord with natural fluctuations in the abundance of the various stocks, both commercial and recreational fishing could go on indefinitely, without harming the integrity of marine ecosystems.

But it’s those limits on harvest that cause all of the problems, because fisherman and fishery managers tend to disagree on just what a “sustainable” harvest looks like.

A manager might cap the upper limit at maximum sustainable yield, the most fish that can be removed from a population each year, over an indefinite term, without causing such population to decline.

A fisherman is more likely to say that is the amount of fish that were caught in the past—which is likely to be no less than the amount of fish that he thinks he can catch in the future—without any reference to the health of the stock.

For “We used to be able to catch” is a well-used phrase at fisheries meetings…

Probably the hottest fisheries debate going right now involves 2017 recreational regulations for summer flounder.  


So regulations are, again, under fire.


“Fishermen packed a public hearing Thursday night to discuss a federal regulation that some say would effectively kill summer flounder fishing in South Jersey.”
Granted, unlike New England groundfish, the summer flounder population wasn’t driven down by overfishing; instead, natural influences on population seem to have played the primary role, and “overfishing” only occurred because harvests that had been perfectly safe and sustainable became too much for a declining stock.

Even so, is it realistic to assert that regulations, and not an increasing lack of fish, is most likely to kill the summer flounder fishery?

The impending regulations would result in anglers being able to keep fewer summer flounder than they could in 2016.  Yet without such restrictions, the stock will continue to shrink, and a shrinking stock will obviously make summer flounder that much more difficult to catch.  

Since recreational fishing isn’t very entertaining when you can’t catch anything, and in view of the poor recruitment and shrinking spawning stock, would greater restrictions on harvest really “kill” summer flounder fishing, or save it?

Ask a fisherman, and he’ll probably say "kill."  

As one fisherman quoted by the Press of Atlantic City complained,

“What they’re doing is taking away our ability to fish.  They’re just making it harder and harder for the average guy to catch fish.”
He didn’t seem to consider the possibility that it’s “harder and harder for the average guy to catch fish” simply because there are fewer fish around.

And that’s a problem, because the anti-regulatory beliefs of the incoming administration, which are shared by the incoming Congress, will probably make regulatory agencies far more willing to accept fishermen’s arguments that, even in the face of declining, perhaps collapsing, populations, it is regulations that cause of fishermen the most distress.

And given that anti-regulatory environment, we are likely to see regulations that, like those adopted in New England for so many years, don’t adequately conserve, and do nothing to restore, fish populations.

Fish populations are likely to shrink.

And that brings us back to the Boston Globe article mentioned at the beginning of this essay.

It reported

“Hoffman says that, although it’s still early in the research, the study so far has revealed smaller and fewer cod, the opposite of what the fishing industry is hoping.”
Even so, it’s a good bet that the fishing industry will still blame the regulations for all of their woes.









Thursday, January 5, 2017

PROFIT AND LOSS

The summer flounder population is not in good shape.  


Professional fisheries biologists, who examined the most recent data, agree on those points.

However, a number of amateurs disagree. 

If you read the tripe being put out by various magazine editors, party boat captains, tackle industry reps and similar folks, you’d believe that the population is in perfect health, and that measures being imposed to keep the spawning stock from declining farther are some kind of sinister plot.

I’ve discussed some of their bullshit in recent essays, making me a little reluctant to take on summer flounder again, but a recent post on Facebook incorporates all of their specious arguments so well that it seemed worth discussing at least one more time.

It came, not surprisingly, from someone who works in the tackle industry down in New Jersey; both the industry and New Jersey have long been hotbeds of opposition to effective fishery management laws.  The beginning of the comment is telling, because it sets the stage for the rest.

“The following was written by our sales manager.  Please take a minute to read it.  The livelyhood [sic] of many people is in jeopardy.
“My name is Nick Cicero and I sit on the board of both the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund and the Recreational Fishing Alliance.  However, my comments today are from the perspective of how the pending regulations will affect jobs and small businesses in New Jersey and East Coast…”
So we know right off the bat that the guy is a salesman, not a biologist.  And that his concern, from the beginning, is “how the pending regulations will affect jobs and small businesses,” not coincidentally including his, and not the health of the summer flounder stock.

Thus, when reading the rest of his comments, which often attack the accuracy and validity of the science used to assess the summer flounder population and set regulations, we have to remember at all times that they were written by a salesman, and not a biologist.  

We also should note that such comments were, by the author’s own admission, not written from the perspective of the health and needs of the summer flounder stock and that, despite the author’s professed concerns, they do not contemplate the effect on jobs and small businesses should the summer flounder stock continue to decline and fish become even less available.

The comments aren’t without some internal irony.  They lament

“Gone are the days when tackle shops and the for-hire fleet were busy year-round with anglers flocking to the shore to fish for Cod, Silver Hake, Red Hake, Winter Flounder and Boston Mackerel—all species that National Marine Fisheries Service and its regulatory initiatives has failed to restore to historically abundant levels!”
And he’s right—the New England Fishery Management Council, comprised primarily of fishermen who did not wish to impair the profitability of the groundfish fishery, ignored data that showed a decline in stocks of fish such as cod and winter flounder, and imposed inadequate regulations that led caused populations of both species to crash.

Yet, in his comments, the salesman is asking NMFS to ignore the scientific data addressing the decline in the summer flounder population, in order to preserve the profitability of the summer flounder fishery.

And while that salesman was willing to write long and vehement comments opposing further restrictions on the summer flounder fishery, a long search of Internet archives failed to reveal a similarly intense effort to place needed restrictions on the flounder and cod fisheries, to avert their impending collapse (I’ve been a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel since the late 1990s, and can assure you that I never saw such a pro-regulation letter sent by such salesman during that time, despite amendments being made to the management plan),

He seemed to have a similar disconnect with respect to the changing distribution of the summer flounder resource.  

He complains in his comments that

“Recent information indicates that fluke populations are shifting northward and into deeper water yet the current NMFS data is not timely enough to incorporate those dynamic changes.”
Yet the salesman knows that isn’t quite true.  

In response to the northward shift of summer flounder abundance, NMFS and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board shifted from their former approach of single-state management, which awarded New Jersey 39% of all recreational landings, to a regional approach which grouped New Jersey with Connecticut and New York, spread a larger allocation across all three states, and required them to adopt similar regulations.

Given his recent comments, one would think that the salesman would also have embraced such regional concept, but that was not the case.  Instead, in a press release issued by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, headed “Summer flounder regionalization a shared recipe for disaster,” he complains that

“Forcing neighbors to argue with neighbors over a totally inadequate and scientifically untenable quota allotment is result of our government’s inaction and I just don’t see this plan can to cure the ills [sic] of a broken management system…”
Some might believe that such inconsistency casts considerable doubt on the credibility of any comments made…

And with credibility already in doubt, such comments go on to attack the entire management process.

The first axis of attack is to question the reference points—that is, the values that fishery managers have adopted which include the target size of the spawning stock and the maximum level of fishing mortality that the stock can tolerate before declining.  If one believes the salesman, such reference points

“are way too high and have been since their inception!  What are reference points?  Truth be told it is the contrived number of fluke that theoretically would exist in a utopian ocean that remained untouched by man, by pollution, weather , nursery habitat degradation and climate changes or forage base fluctuations.”
Biologists disagree.  The reference points were established in the benchmark stock assessment which was completed in 2013, and peer-reviewed by a panel of international experts.  The peer review report notes that

“Current [biological reference points] are based on the F35% MSY proxy.  The Working Group considered a number of analyses which have addressed the basis for [biological reference points] for this stock and which have suggested a less conservative approach, such as F30%...moving from F35% to F30% would result in a very small increase (2%) in yield but a moderate reduction (14%) in equilibrium [spawning stock biomass] and 22% increase in fishing mortality (ie. 0.378/0.309).  For this reason the Working Group proposed that the F35% [biological reference points] should be retained…”
In other words, biologists tell us that current fishing mortality and biomass reference points are based on a stock that is just 35% of the size of an unfished stock, and not “the contrived number of fluke that theoretically would exist in a utopian ocean that remained untouched by man, as the salesman would have us believe.      

The salesman complains that

“Because for the last 6 years NMFS research Vessel Bigelow has consistently been returning catch data on young of the year fluke that is substantially lower than previous research vessels reported.  Not only is that issue one that should have been questioned immediately, but more recently a review of the nets and techniques used by the Bigelow have come under scrutiny and the accuracy of the information is highly dubious at best…”
However, when one reads the benchmark assessment, it becomes immediately clear that the survey done by the Bigelow is only one of many surveys included in the population and recruitment models. 

“Research survey indices of abundance are available from the NEFSC, MADMF, RIDFW, CTDEP, NYDSEC, NJDFW, DEDFW, MDDNR, VIMS, VIMS ChesMMAP, VIMS NEAMAP and NCDMF surveys.  All available fishery independent research surveys except for the NCDMF trawl survey in Pamlico Sound were used in model calibration.”
When the results of a dozen different surveys, carried out in nine separate states and in federal waters, combine to provide a single result, trying to impeach such result by attacking one survey is nothing more than an act of desperation.

Then the salesman’s comments assail a new target, alleging that

“NMFS Recreational catch reporting is in fact nothing more than a government sponsored dartboard!...We hear a lot about ‘peer review’ of the science and data left on the cutting room floor and unusable by NOAA Fisheries—yet when will see [sic] a ‘peer review’ of the recreational harvest survey changes clearly demanded by Congress over 10 years ago?”
The short answer to that last question is “next Tuesday,” when  the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will officially announce the results of a review of the Marine Recreational Information Program, which NMFS itself asked to be conducted nearly a year ago, to uncover any flaws in the new program.

While it’s likely that the review will, in fact, find some flaws, it’s also likely that it will find that MRIP is far more than “a dartboard,” although we’ll have to wait until Tuesday to find out for sure.    

The salesman’s final two points are related.  One attacks the benchmark stock assessment, one calling it “outdated” and “past its usefulness”, and stating that

“The newly developed sex specific model created by Dr. Patrick Sullivan  with funding from [the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund] and its partners needs to be incorporated [into the stock assessment] as quickly as possible as it will produce a far more comprehensive and accurate look at the fishery than the currently used model,”
which is bordering on puffery, given that such model has not yet been validated by an independent peer review.  And in any case, whether it “needs” to be incorporated into the assessment, and whether it “will produce a far more comprehensive and accurate look at the fishery” is really a matter for scientists, and not salesmen, to decide…

His final argument is that

“the recent [Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund] and Rutgers University onboard sex and length study results clearly detail what most fishermen already suspected which is that our current management strategy is putting undue pressure on breeding female fluke and that we would be better off harvesting a cross section of the population that would include more males…”
Once again, we have a salesman drawing scientific conclusions, this time about current management placing “undue” pressure on female summer flounder and that “we would be better off harvesting…more males.”  In doing so, he goes well beyond any conclusions drawn in the study he cited, which merely states that, under current regulations, females dominate the recreational catch, and makes no value judgments about the impact of such harvest on the health of the stock.

The bottom line is that it is the job of a salesman to sell
things.

And in the summer flounder debate, we’re faced with a host of salesmen, of various kinds, doing their very best to sell anglers on the idea that the summer flounder management program is fatally flawed.

By making unsubstantiated attacks on the science, the data and the fishery managers themselves, they seek to discredit the management process, and to enlist anglers in their fight to oppose needed, science-based harvest restrictions.

And they’re doing it for just one purpose—to keep income high in the short term, so long as the fishery lasts.

After that, well, that’s not their problem.  They’ve made their profit.

Only we anglers will be left behind, to deal with what’s lost.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE...

Remember The X-Files?

It was a science fiction show from two decades ago (briefly revived early last year), in which two FBI agents, from a special unit, followed up on reports of alien abductions, UFOs and similar unexplained phenomena.

The tagline of the show was “The truth is out there.”

Sometimes, when you read pieces about fisheries management, particularly in the local angling press, it often seems that truth is more elusive there than it was in The X-Files’ world.

The current debate over summer flounder management provides some good examples.


Such reductions will impose the lowest annual catch limitsin the history of summer flounder management, and will impose some real short-term economic distress on commercial and recreational fishing businesses.  People associated with such businesses are naturally unhappy with NMFS’ decision.

However, the landings reductions are necessary because recruitment—the number of young fish entering the population—has been well below average for six consecutive years.  

As a result, the population has been declining; currently, the spawning stock biomass is at only 58% of the abundance needed to produce maximum sustainable yield.  The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee has noted that, if such reductions are not imposed, the biomass is going to shrink further, and might fall below 50% of the level needed to produce maximum sustainable yield—and thus meet the definition of an “overfished” stock—by the end of this year.

All of that information is readily available on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s website.  However, it seems to have escaped the notice of reporters in the popular press and of writers who appear in various angling publications.


“Fishing advocates are seeking to head off what they described as ‘devastating’ reductions in the New York State quota for fluke next year are calling on regulators to forestall planned 2017 cuts until a more current assessment of the fish population is completed.”
The article quotes United States Senator Charles Schumer, who criticized federal fisheries managers for using a benchmark stock assessment completed in 2013 to manage the stock.

What the article doesn’t do is mention why the harvest reductions are necessary.  There is no mention of the six consecutive years of poor recruitment, or of the steady and steep decline in summer flounder abundance.  There's also no discussion of what will happen to the fishery if overfishing continues and summer flounder become less and less abundant.

And while the article quotes Sen. Schumer’s criticism of NMFS for using a stock assessment completed in 2013 to manage summer flounder, it completely fails to mention the fact that such assessment has been updated in every year since, and that the data underlying the harvestreductions came from an update to the assessment made in July 2016, only about one month before the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s August meeting,when the decision to impose the reductions was made.

The public was left with the impression that the harvest cuts were, to again quote Sen. Schumer, an “ideological” decision, rather than one made on recent and compelling data that showed a clear problem with the summer flounder stock. 

Newsday, already having committed sins of omission by not reporting on the biological basis for the harvest reductions, then compounded their error with sins of commission, ending the article with a box that laid out the supposed consequences of the reduced catch for anglers.  According to Newsday

“Planned federal limits on fluke fishing next year include
·         Reducing the number of fluke that can be taken from a current five per day to two.
·         Increasing the minimum size limit to 19 inches from the current 18 inches.
·         Reducing the season to 80 days from the current 128, starting in June rather than May.”
The problem is that no one has proposed such a suite of regulations.

No one at all…

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council decided that the states should be free to select any regulations that they choose, so long as such regulations reduce landings by a sufficient amount; all of the state proposals would be evaluated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  The Council, in a press release, stated that it

“recommended continued use of conservation equivalency to achieve, but not exceed, the 2017 summer flounder recreational harvest limit (RHL) of 3.77 million pounds.  Conservation equivalency allows individual states or multi-state regions to develop customized measures that, in combination, will achieve the coastwide RHL.  The combination of those measures should be equivalent to the non-preferred coastwide alternative approved by the Council and [ASMFC Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management] Board (i.e., a 4-fish possession limit, a 19-inch total length minimum size, and an open season of June 1-September 15).”
Those are the real “planned federal limits.”

I don’t see any 2-fish bag limit or 80-day season.

Do you?

The Mid-Atlantic Council and ASMFC also adopted “precautionary default measures,” to be imposed on states that do not adopt the required conservation equivalent regulations.  Such default measures are intended to scare fish into compliance, and are in fact scary—a 2-fish bag, 20-inch minimum size and a season comprised only of July and August.

But while such default measures are harsh, they don’t look much like the measures described by Newsday either…

To figure out what the conservation-equivalent measures might look like, one would have to go to ASMFC’s website, and take a look at the Draft Addendum XXVIII to the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan for Public Comment

Dealing only with the possible management options for New York (along with Connecticut and New Jersey, which share New York-s 3-state region), since those are what Newsday addressed, there are five possibilities.

The worst would actually impose more severe regulations than those cited by Newsday—a 2-fish bag, 18-inch minimum size, and 59-day season.  From there, depending on the methodology used to distribute the summer flounder among the states, they range from a 3-fish bag, 19-inch minimum size and 96-day season to the same size and bag with either a 99-day or the current 128-day season.  

Again, the combination of 2 fish, a 19-inch minimum size and an 80-day season is nowhere to be found (although such combination was discussed at one point, it did not make it into the draft Addendum).

At this point, I should make it clear that I’m not trying to single out Newsday for this sort of inaccuracy.  Similar information was circulated by CBS News, which said that

“Fluke season could now be cut nearly in half, and each person will only be allowed two fluke instead of five,”
while also failing to mention the six years of poor recruitment or the steadily declining stock size.  

A host of other newspaper articles, from a number of states, contained similar, misleading information.

Even Sen. Schumer apparently hasn’t seen some of the most current information on the state of the stock.  


“The limits that are put in four or five years ago that have produced more fish now—it’s not taken into account that we have more fish now.  So they can actually raise the limits.  Instead, they’ve lowered them dramatically, and that’s very, very bad.”
But as we know from the 2016 stock assessment update, there aren’t more summer flounder now than there were four or five years ago; because of poor recruitment, the stock is in decline.

So where are reporters, and legislators such as Sen. Schumer, getting such bad information about the summer flounder situation?

It’s clearly not from the Mid-Atlantic Council or ASMFC websites, but perhaps an article that recently ran in The Fisherman magazine provides an answer.  It was supposedly a feature intended to inform anglers about current summer flounder management, but it began

“I’m about to really tick you off,”
and soon after told readers

“I told you that you’d be pissed!”
so it’s fair to assume that the author never intended to provide a balanced account of the process.

The Fisherman article contains the same misleading comments about a 2-fish bag limit, and casts aspersions on the accuracy of the science used to manage the fishery, although to be fair it, unlike the articles quoted above, at least makes (very) brief reference to the declining spawning stock and below-par recruitment.

But that’s not the telling language.  The article also says

“Imagine of course when summer visitors see the ‘Two Fish at 19-Inch’ size limit on the sign at the party boat dock—alongside the already anemic seasonal black sea bass regulations which are also set to get cut back again in 2017.  Makes you wonder if this 40% hit will actually result in something more in line with a 70% to 80% reduction by way of lost business stemming from decreased angler interest and effort.
“Not to mention the cost and expense to the private angler, paying $50 for a tank of gas, bait, ice, and the tackle required for the opportunity to bring home just two fish (three if you’re lucky enough to get your weakfish bag limit too) –the American public is essentially being denied access to a natural public resource based on trawl surveys, mesh sizes, historic trends and sometimes arbitrary reference points.”
Now, I’m not sure what regulations should be based on if not scientific surveys, etc., although perhaps the answer is industry whims and short-term profits, for the article goes on a bit later to say

“The angler advocates at the American Sportfishing Association [the fishing tackle industry’s trade association] and Recreational Fishing Alliance say an act of Congress or response from the incoming Trump administration will ultimately offer the only salvation…the fact is the incoming administration and Secretary of Commerce are the only ones who can make a final legal and regulatory decision to help stave off dire socioeconomic impacts from these massive cuts to the fluke fishery.  [emphasis added]”
And there we have it.

Elements of the recreational fishing industry have long been trying to weaken federal fisheries law, in order to permit larger harvests—and anticipated larger economic returns—in the near term, despite long-term impacts on the health of fish stocks.


It’s easy to picture the same sort of folks providing reporters and legislators—and, directly or indirectly, anglers and the general public—with information that is more likely to ignite angler than provide  enlightenment, in order to further their anti-regulation, anti-management cause.

Anglers shouldn’t look for the truth in anything that passes through their hands.

Instead, anyone concerned or curious about fisheries issues should go to the source.  In the case of summer flounder, that’s the website of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, http://www.mafmc.org and of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, http://www.asmfc.org, where accurate information—probably more than most people really want to read—is readily available.

Because yes, when it comes to fisheries issues, the truth is out there.


But like The X-Files Agents Fox and Mulder, if you want to know that truth, you’ll have to hunt it down for yourself.