Sunday, March 1, 2015

TRUST, BUT VERIFY

“Trust, but verify.”
It was one of the iconic phrases of the waning Cold War, uttered by President Ronald Reagan as he negotiated an arms control deal with the Soviet Union.

The phrase wasn’t actually coined by Reagan; it was an old Russian saying that the President used against the Soviets when it served his needs, but it’s still good advice.

It’s something that’s important to remember, because more and more, we’re seeing states and various industry groups trying to augment, or even replace, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Recreational Information Program with self-reporting programs of various sorts that rely on anglers and for-hire operators to do the right thing every time they go out.

The effort seems to be particularly popular in the case of fisheries that are subject to strict federal regulations that require short fishing seasons, small bag limits or other similar, unpopular measures.

The federal-waters red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico is arguably the most heavily-restricted recreational fishery on any of America’s coasts.  Thus, it is hardly surprising that, last year, the State of Alabama initiated a mandatory self-reporting program intended provide better (from a snapper fisherman’s standpoint, if not necessarily from a biologist’s, that translates to “smaller”) estimates of recreational red snapper landings.

Alabama states that it initiated the program because

“The credibility of the current federal surveys used to estimate recreational red snapper harvests among private and charter anglers has been under ever increasing scrutiny…recent changes to the federal law that governs how red snapper are managed have led to the imposition of stricter regulations each year with slim hopes for improvement.  A timely and accurate method of counting fish such as the mandatory reporting program could improve the predicament that we face in this fishery.”
In other words, the program was put in place with the hopes that it would produce lower harvest estimates than the method used by the feds.

And in its first year, that’s exactly what happened.

Last June, when the federal red snapper season was open, NMFS estimated that Alabama anglers landed about 1,041,000 pounds of such fish, while the Alabama survey estimated that harvest to be a mere 418,000 pounds. 

The question, of course, is “Which number is right?”

The federal MRIP estimates were derived from a program intended to improve upon the admittedly flawed Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey; however, MRIP remains a work in progress that is still transitioning from the MRFSS format into its final form.  

It is based on a rigorously analyzed statistical format, and consists of both physical surveys of angler catch and telephone and/or mail surveys used to estimate angler effort.

To implement the Alabama survey,

“Representatives from recreational vessels with red snapper on board are required to report red snapper prior to landing fish in Alabama.”
They may make such reports through

“…smartphone app for IOS and Android devices found under the Official Outdoor Alabama App…at respective app stores, online…, or on paper forms found at select coastal public boat launches...”
It’s not clear how a vessel is supposed to report red snapper “prior to landing fish in Alabama” through the use of paper forms (perhaps fold them into airplanes and toss them toward shore?), or how many anglers without the required app take the trouble to get such paper forms if they don’t happen to return to one of the “select coastal public boat launches.”

With a system like that, it might be that a few red snapper fall through the cracks and aren’t counted, either because there isn’t a paper form close at hand, or because anglers, hungry and tired at the end of a long day offshore, just don’t get around to reporting, electronically or otherwise, despite the new requirements.

After all, NMFS requires all bluefin tuna caught by anglers to be reported, too, but when I spoke with one of the NMFS staffers responsible for managing bluefin at NMFS' Recreational Fishing Summit held down in Alexandria last April, he lamented that anglers actually reported only about one out of every five bluefin caught.

If Alabama snapper anglers are no more conscientious than their bluefin-catching counterparts elsewhere on the coast, it’s not surprising that the state survey figures come in a little bit low…

But recreational underreporting isn’t just a tuna or red snapper problem.

Here in New York, and throughout the northeast, party and charter boats are supposed to fill out Vessel Trip Reports setting forth all of their landings.  New York may have the strictest requirements, using a VTR that is essentially identical to the federal form.

Yet when we look at striped bass, we seem to find problems.

NMFS estimates that anglers fishing from for-hire boats in the State of New York landed 234,650 striped bass in 2014.  At the same time, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation reports that Vessel Trip Reports filled out by the state’s party and charter boats say that just 12,309 striped bass—a mere five percent of the landings estimated by NMFS—were landed by their customers in that year.

Comparable numbers for last year were similar; NMFS said that the for-hires landed 125,558 fish, while the for-hires themselves claimed just 6,477—again, just 5% of the NMFS number.

It’s impossible to say for certain which number is right, or even which is closer to the truth.  But just think about this:

Last July, Montauk experienced a spectacular run of big striped bass.  During that run, passengers on Montauk party and charter boats had no problem limiting out with bass weighing from 20 to more than 50 pounds.  

If just three party boats, carrying only 30 passengers each and making just one trip each day, limited out for a week, they would have landed 1,260 stripers—landing, in just one week, nearly one-fifth of all striped bass reported on all vessel trip reports filed by all of the state’s party and charter boats for the entire year.

Given that the run lasted for much more than one week, and that the 1,260-bass estimate was for only three party boats, didn’t include any fish caught by Montauk’s large and active charter boat fleet, and didn’t include striped bass caught by for-hire vessels running out of any other New York port at any other time of the year—including South Shore ports which, from Staten Island to Shinnecock, also enjoyed an excellent spring run of big bass feeding on menhaden—the notion that New York’s for-hires killed fewer than 6,500 striped bass all season just doesn’t seem credible.

That’s why VTR data, and any other self-reported information, should always be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

Many captains just don’t feel that it’s in their interests to diligently report every fish killed on their boat.

Consider the infamous case of a New Jersey party boat that came into port a few years ago with 819 illegal (out-of-season) black sea bass on board.  When a local paper asked the captain whether he knew that the fish were there, he said that he knew that a few were being kept, but

“I didn’t think it was that many.  And I’m not getting paid by the state of New Jersey to take fish out of people’s buckets.”
So what do you think his Vessel Trip Report would have included?  Perhaps 5% of the fish that were actually killed?

And yet, in their thankfully-defeated effort to open January and February, when NMFS data is not collected in the northeast, to black sea bass fishing, the party boats argued that a lack of harvest data should not hinder the opening, because NMFS could rely on the data reported in their VTRs.

The for-hire fleet loves to question NMFS’ data, which everyone has to admit falls short of perfection.  However, the accuracy of the for-hires’ data, provided on VTRs and elsewhere, is also open to question.

At least the NMFS data, with all of its flaws, is collected by objective surveyors, with no interest in how it is used; there will always be a temptation for anglers and for-hire captains to “accidently” misreport landings in an attempt to engineer a desired result.

Which means that managers should always be leery of accepting electronic catch reports and other data provided by for-hires and anglers, unless there is a protocol in place to objectively ground-truth that data and assure that no creative accounting appears.


For whether we’re talking about nuclear fission or party boat fishing, “Trust, but verify” remains good advice.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

GOODBYE, PROCRUSTES

You remember Procrustes.

He was the old Greek innkeeper with the marvelous bed guaranteed to fit any guest.  Of course, Procrustes couldn’t adjust that big iron bed, so he had to work with the guest.  If that guest was too tall and hung over the mattress, he’d just lop off their legs at the ankles.  On the other hand, to avoid wasted space, short folks would be stretched ‘til they fit.

It’s an approach that today’s hoteliers have long since abandoned, but with fisheries managers, it’s still in vogue.

Fish differ, fisheries differ and the motives of fishermen differ.  There are “gamefish” and “food fish” and forage fish and fish with multiple roles.  But in today’s fisheries management world, they all are managed for yield.

Yield takes a number of different shapes.  There’s “maximum sustainable yield,” which is the most fish that can be caught on a long-term basis without doing harm to the stock.  Then there’s “optimum yield,” which starts with maximum sustainable yield, but might reduce it a bit to achieve some laudable goal.  And lately we’re hearing about something called “maximum economic yield,” which is pretty much whatever the person using the term happens to want it to be.

Adjectives vary, but the noun remains constant.  Fisheries management is all about yield—putting dead fish on the dock.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s actually the right approach when we’re dealing with fish caught mainly for food, fish such as New England groundfish, southern snapper/grouper, Pacific rockfish and most of the species managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council.  

Such fish support large commercial and recreational fisheries, and while anglers find them fun to catch, they’re valued more as food than for fight.

On the other hand, we have species such as bluefish, which are managed in an all-too-Procrustean fashion.  Bluefish are certainly edible, and some of them—the small ones that enter the bays in the spring, and the big, skinny racers that we run into offshore—taste pretty good, but most anglers agree that the fat, oily, bunker-fed fish that are caught in places such as Long Island Sound are better when caught and released.

In the case of such “gamefish” (a term I use here to denote fish caught primarily for sport rather than food, whether or not a legal commercial fishery also exists) which are frequently released, managing for dead fish on the dock makes little sense, as their primary use is pure recreation.  

In such case, managers should be striving to increase the abundance of fish in the water, in order to maximize angler “encounters” and improve the recreational experience.

Yet when one looks at Amendment 1 to the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Bluefish Fishery Management Plan, one finds that the opposite is true.  Instead of managing the recreational allocation (which constitutes a full 83% of the overall annual catch limit) to reflect the way anglers actually utilize and value the resource—as a largely catch-and-release fishery—the Mid-Atlantic Council evidences a Procrustean determination to get dead bluefish piled up on the dock, and actually penalizes anglers for not killing fish by transferring some of their allocation over to the commercial sector.

Looking at the fishery and the desires of the largest user group, such management makes no sense, but to managers who elevate yield over all other considerations, it makes all the sense in the world.

Of course, it goes the other way, too.

Black sea bass are one of the finest eating fish caught along the upper mid-Atlantic coast.  On the other hand, they don’t get too big or fight all that hard; you catch them to toss in the cooler.

In recent years the stock has been fully restored, a lot more anglers are fishing for them and managers have been struggling to keep landings anywhere close to the target.  

There are enough fish around that anglers often catch them by accident while fishing for something else, but actually going out to target black sea bass takes some time and effort; they’re usually caught on wrecks or hard bottom, which means running anywhere from three to twenty miles offshore, finding a wreck, anchoring properly and finally catching some fish.  The cost of fuel, alone, can be significant.

Thus, it doesn’t make a lot of sense when states such as New Jersey set a 3-fish bag limit for much of the summer, when most recreational fishermen are on the water, making it impractical for anglers to gear up and run offshore on black sea bass trips, and relegating the fish to a “bycatch” species (taking home just three 12 ½-inch sea bass also hardly makes sense as a “food fish” management measure).  

The effect is to shift most of the effort to the spring and fall months, when for-hire boats dominate the fishery. 

That becomes clear when New Jersey’s 2014 landings are compared to those in New York, which had more private boat-friendly regulations (8 fish bag, 13-inch minimum size, July 15-December 31 season); New Jersey’s private boats accounted for a mere 27% of the state’s sea bass landings, while private boats in New York accounted for over 70% of recreational landings.

In terms of yield, it doesn’t make any difference whether the black sea bass are caught by anglers on private boats or on for-hire vessels.  But if the goal is to give the overall fishing public the greatest possible access to the public black sea bass resource—as I believe is proper—it’s the New York regulations that get the job done.  Eight black sea bass is still a smallish bag limit when you run miles offshore, but it puts enough meat in the cooler to make it worthwhile—and when you’re fishing for “food fish” such as sea bass, that’s what it’s about.

And then there’s the fish we don’t usually eat—menhaden, river herring, hickory shad and the like—that are caught for bait and fertilizer and chicken feed, and killed in industrial numbers.  Managing them for sustainable yield might keep stocks intact (and would be a good first step we have not yet achieved where river herring and such are concerned), but completely ignores such species’ role in the ecosystem, where they serve as forage for everything from weakfish to whales.  

A harvest may be small enough to be sustainable may still be far too large to provide sufficient feeding opportunities for the array of marine predators that rely on such species.

To account for that problem, biologists are developing the concept of “ecological-based reference points” that are based not only on old-fashioned notions of yield, but also on still-developing concepts based upon a species’ role in the food web.

Here on the East Coast, environmental reference points have probably been most discussed in connection with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden, although even there, they have not yet been adopted, and have been facing some resistance from participants in the fishery.

Yet every fisherman knows that the adage “If you want to find fish, first find the bait” holds true, and it’s difficult to argue that we are going to need a robust forage base to support fish populations if managers are to succeed in rebuilding and maintaining stocks at healthy levels of abundance.

So even as we try to put old Procrustes and his bed built of yield out to pasture, perhaps it’s time to construct a new paradigm that, applied across species, can better guide efforts to manage our fisheries.

I suggest that we manage for yield’s mirror image; basing management actions not on the number of dead fish we can put on the dock, but on the number of live fish we need in the water to achieve our objectives.

It’s not too different from today’s approach of adopting a biomass target, but instead of basing such target on yield, with Bmsy—biomass at maximum sustainable yield—the objective, we must develop a new value—call it “optimum biomass,” for lack of anything better—that is based on the number of fish that we need in the water, not on sustainable kill.

For “food fish,” it won’t look much different, because when harvest’s the primary goal, managing for optimum yield remains a valid approach.

But for “game fish” biomass would be much higher, as managers would have to keep enough fish in the water to assure that anglers have ample opportunity to both encounter fish on a regular basis, and hook on to a big one every now and again.

And for forage fish, that optimum biomass would be the highest of all, as the “ecosystem services” provided by the relevant species would be elevated above any harvest, which would be restricted to whatever could be safely removed from the population after the ecosystems needs were fully met.

Such an approach, which shifts emphasis to live fish in the water rather than dead fish on the dock, would best serve the overall interests of the nation, providing food, recreation and healthy ecosystems.


Over the long term, it would undoubtedly provide the “maximum economic yield,” however one chose to define it, as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

THE LACEY ACT ADVANTAGE

Ask serious anglers here in New York what frustrates them most, and more than anything else, they’ll tell you it’s poaching.

Anglers are just sick and tired of seeing other fishermen abusing the resource, taking too many fish, undersized fish and fish out of season.  They’re tired of commercial boats killing too many fluke, and party boat captains who don’t say a word when their customers ignore regulations.

They want to see the Department of Environmental Conservation hire enough enforcement folks to make a dent in the number of bad guys, and they want to see those folks paid a good enough wage to let them stay on the coast and not transfer upstate where their salaries go quite a bit farther.

But most of all, they want to see judges give poachers penalties matching their crimes, fines and, yes, jail time onerous enough that they can’t be dismissed as mere business expenses.

Because that, in the end, is the most frustrating part of the process—watching DEC enforcement make a good case against a bad actor, and then watching the judge let the guy off with a slap on the wrist.  Yet that happens much of the time.

If you look at the Department of Environmental Conservation’s marine law enforcement reports, some of which are available on the website of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, you notice the names of some violators—mostly, but not exclusively, for-hire vessels—coming up more than once, yet no meaningful action is taken to stop them from fishing.

The problem isn’t unique to New York.

Recently, a poacher down in Delaware pled guilty to exceeding the annual individual commercial quota of striped bass; he was fined a mere $112 and given no further penalty by a Sussex County court!

With penalties like that, it’s not surprising that poaching is common.

But a little farther south, the law is fighting back.  And it’s fighting back hard.

When violations occur in state waters, and the fish remain within the state where they’re caught, there’s only a limited amount that the enforcement folks can do.  However, when violations touch upon federal waters, much stiffer penalties can often be imposed.

That’s because the Lacey Act, the first federal law ever enacted to protect fish and wildlife, provides federal law enforcement agents with a very powerful tool to go after poachers engaged in interstate commerce.  Although the act was passed 115 years ago, it remains one of the most effective means to combat the abuse of America’s marine resources
.
The Lacey Act makes it a federal crime

“to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase any fish or wildlife or plant taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law, treaty, or regulation of the United States or in violation of any Indian tribal law…
“to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce…any fish or wildlife taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any State…”
and
“within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States…to possess any fish or wildlife taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any State …”
And it doesn’t stop there.

The concepts of “sale” and “purchase” can be a little slippery in the case of recreational violations on for-hire vessels.  So the act includes two very valuable definitions which state that

“It is deemed to be a sale of fish or wildlife in violation of this chapter for a person for money or other consideration to offer or provide…guiding, outfitting or other services…for the illegal taking, acquiring, receiving, transporting, or possessing of fish and wildlife,”
and

“It is deemed to be a purchase of fish or wildlife in violation of this chapter for a person to obtain for money or other consideration…guiding, outfitting or other services…for the illegal taking, acquiring, receiving, transporting, or possessing of fish and wildlife.”
The Lacey Act also provides for significant civil and criminal penalties. 

Civil penalties may be as high as $10,000 per violation—far higher than normally provided in state laws.  

Criminal penalties are much more severe; the illegal purchase or sale of fish, wildlife and plants worth more than $350 may be punished by a fine of up to $20,000 and/or 5 years in jail for each violation.  For lesser violations of the act, courts may impose a fine of up to $10,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to 1 year.

In addition, in the case of any felony conviction involving the purchase and sale of fish, wildlife or plants, any vessels, vehicles and other equipment used to aid the commission of the crime is subject to forfeiture.

Now, that’s a deterrent.

We can certainly see that deterrent at work in recreational fisheries.

For many years, Virginia supported a very active winter fishery for big striped bass.  Tourism and tournaments thrived, and a lot of the biggest, most valuable females—fish that exceeded 50 and sometimes even 60 pounds—were tossed dead on the docks.

It was good for the charter boat business, but the only problem was that a lot of the fish were taken in federal waters, where no striped bass fishing was allowed.  For a long time, federal law was largely ignored by the fishermen, who worked together to frustrate the efforts of federal enforcement agents.


Some of the violations were described in a NOAA release announcing the convictions of two of the charter boat captains, Jefferey S. Adams and David Dwayne Scott.

“Adams and Adams Fishing Adventures, Inc., admitted that they sold a chartered Striped Bass fishing trip on January 19, 2010, for $800.  As part of that trip, Adams knowingly took his charter clients into the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to harvest striped bass, even though Adams knew that it was a violation of federal law to harvest striped bass inside the EEZ.  Adams’ clients illegally harvested 10 striped bass within the EEZ and Adams transported the illegally harvested striped bass back to Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach, Va.  According to other documents filed in connection with the sentencing, Adams and Adams Fishing Adventures, Inc., routinely harvested striped bass illegally from within the EEZ from 2007 to 2013…
“In a statement of facts filed with Scott’s plea agreement, Scott admitted that on February 7, 2009, he took a charter fishing trip into the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to fish for striped bass and when approached by law enforcement, 19 striped bass were dumped overboard in an attempt to avoid detection by law enforcement.”
That’s pretty outrageous conduct, but also pretty typical of what had been going on.  But for once, the punishment did match the crime.  A United States Justice Department release described each poacher’s sentence.
“Agner, captain of the Flat Line…was sentenced to pay a $3,500 fine.  He and his corporation, Agner, Inc., were also placed on three years’ probation with special conditions requiring them to purchase and maintain a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) device on any vessel that they own or operate for fishing purposes during the term of probation.
   
“…Scott, captain of the Stoney’s Kingfisher, was sentenced to a $5,600 fine and $1,900 in restitution to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Scott was also sentenced to three years’ probation with special conditions prohibiting Scott from engaging in either the charter or commercial fishing industries, anywhere in the world, in any capacity, during the term of his probation.  Scott is prohibited not only from captaining a vessel, but also rendering any assistance, support, or other services, with or without compensation, for other charter or commercial fishermen. 
“…Adams, captain of the Providence II, and his corporation Adams Fishing Adventures, were sentenced to three years’ probation with special conditions requiring them to apply for and receive a Federal Fisheries permit, and to purchase and install a VMS device on any vessel that they own or operate during the term of probation.
“…Lowery, captain of the Anna Lynn, was sentenced to 30 days’ in jail, followed by 12 months of supervised release with the special conditions that Lowery surrender his captain’s license to the U.S. Coast Guard and that he not be eligible for reinstatement of that license.  Lowery is also prohibited from engaging in the charter fishing industry in any capacity during the term of his supervised release. 
“…Webb, captain of the Spider Webb, and his corporation Peake Enterprises were sentenced to pay a $3,000 fine and $1,000 restitution to NOAA.  Webb and Peake Enterprises were also sentenced to three years’ probation with special conditions requiring them to apply for and receive a Federal Fisheries permit, and to purchase and install a VMS device on any vessel that they own or operate during the term of probation.  [emphasis added]”
That’s a lot better than the slaps on the wrist that the state courts hand out.

Did those sentences have a deterrent effect?  It’s always hard to say for sure.  But consider this.

The captains were indicted in late 2012.  Since 2004, the Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout, a striped bass tournament, has been run out of Virginia Beach during early January. 
For the first nine years of the tournament—through January 2012, before the indictments were handed out, tournament contestants weighted plenty of fish.  One article in a local paper noted that the tournament director

“was used to weighing in three-fish limits of more than 100 pounds.”
But in the event’s 10th year, after the poachers had been charged, only a single 30-pound fish hit the scales after three days of fishing.  All of the other contestants, fishing on nearly 180 boats, couldn’t catch one legal striped bass between them.

And in January 2014, after the poachers had been convicted, participants didn’t catch any striped bass at all (quite a few fish were caught in the most recent event, which was moved back to December 2014, to allow anglers to fish within Chesapeake Bay rather than forcing them to seek bass in the ocean).

Was the sudden drop in weighable fish due solely to a decreasing abundance of stripers, to weather, or some other natural occurrence?

Or was it attributable to a sudden and understandable reluctance of captains to risk the penalties that they could face for violating federal law? 

(It should be noted that a tournament rule now requires all boats to have a GPS running throughout the event, to prove that they didn’t fish in the EEZ; it is not clear from the tournament website whether such rule existed prior to the 2013 event, or whether it was adopted only after the five captains were indicted.)

One can only speculate.

But still, it would be nice to see the NOAA enforcement agents apply the Lacey Act to violations here in the northeast.

Whether we’re talking about for-hire boats that knowingly enter federal waters to catch some stripers, or party boat captains who give a wink and a nod to passengers keeping coolers of black sea bass in winter when the season is closed, the imposition of a few penalties like those handed down in Virginia would go a long way to keep local folks honest.


And given the state of striped bass stocks right now, a little more honesty is just what we need.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

SCHRODINGER'S STRIPED BASS

“The stock is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.”
We’ve heard folks say that for years, and sometimes it’s even been true.

Quite often, however, it wasn’t.  Folks uttered the line to maintain their kill and, quite often, those who managed the stock had to timely data to dispute the claim.

It became a big issue around 2010.  Anglers were catching far fewer fish than they had a few years before, and were beginning to push managers to take some sort of action.  However, in the Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update issued in 2011, biologists confirmed that

“the striped bass stock complex…is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.” 
Female spawning stock biomass remained 9% above the biomass target, and the fishing mortality rate for 2010 seemed a mere 0.23, well below the 0.34 threshold and even the 0.30 target.  Biomass was just two-thirds of what it had been just six years before, and still falling, but few managers appeared concerned.

One of the few exceptions were the folks from northern New England, who saw their fish disappearing and, at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s March 2011 Striped Bass Management Board meeting, asked for harvest reductions.  However, when the matter was discussed at that meeting, there was resistance from those commissioners traditionally opposed to conservation efforts.

Chief among them was Tom Fote of New Jersey, who said

“We see fluctuations in the stock, and we’re going to see that…We have taken a lot of for those fishermen who used to be concentrated on scup, summer flounder and sea bass and they had no other fish they can take home to eat, so they’ve wound up now taking striped bass, which they didn’t take before.
“The fishery is serving a purpose of basically supplying people that want to take home fish to eat; that opportunity to do that…
“We have a success story.  We have triggers in there.  I’m waiting to see the triggers.  It would be like me coming in and saying on summer flounder or any other species, well, we think we’re anticipating that the stock is going to crash in two years and now we’re going to jump—I don’t think that’s the right message to send to the public.
“…I’m not ready to basically start an addendum that would push us through a whole bunch of work until I start seeing triggers and I have not see [sic] any of those triggers showing me the concerns that I should be having.”
The “triggers” that Fote referred to were the fishing mortality and biomass triggers contained in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass that signaled that overfishing was occurring our the stock was overfished.

He was saying loud and clear that overfishing was not occurring and that the stock was not overfished, and that he refused to take any remedial action until he did. 
In his mind, there was no need to proceed with caution. 
Although he was probably wrong about that, given what managers knew at the time that he spoke, his comments about the fishing mortality rate and the health of the stock were completely justified, since they mirrored statements in the stock assessment that had just been released. 

But that stock assessment would be brought into question less than three years later. 

In October 2013, the benchmark Striped Bass Stock Assessment for 2013 was released, quickly followed by the Update of the Striped Bass Stock Assessment Using Final 2012 Data.  The latter document indicated that the fishery mortality target and threshold should be sharply reduced, from the Ftarget=0.30 and Fthreshold=0.34 of Amendment 6 to Ftarget=0.180 and Fthreshold=0.219.

Comparing the new fishing mortality reference points to fishing mortality in previous years showed that Fote and others had really been wrong.  F had exceeded 0.219 in a few of those years.

Overfishing had been occurring.

But F=0.20 in 2012, above Ftarget but not Fthreshold, so when New England commissioners tried to expedite striped bass measures at the end of 2013, Fote again addressed the management board and said

“In my estimation, we’ve been here when the sky is falling and a whole bunch of people yammering…
“As I said, I look at these figures and I don’t see the sky falling.
“I see that we’re coming to where we have decided where a threshold will be and then we’re getting close to that line, but we’re not under that line.  It is not overfished and overfishing is not taking place…  [emphasis added].
The idea of precaution clearly still left him cold.

Over the next year, the management process dragged on, and ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board eventually produced Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which purported to reduce harvest by 25% and get it back down to the fishing mortality target—although it contained so many concessions and loopholes that the actual reductions were probably less.

When the Management Board met again earlier this month, a number of commissioners expressed concerns about those concessions and loopholes, and spoke out for a little more certainty in the management plan.

However, once again an intrepid commissioner from the State of New Jersey stepped forward to pooh-pooh their concerns, and announce that the stock

“is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.”
Well, maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not.
The last data we have is from 2012, and is now two years old.

If we look at landings from then until now, we’ll note that in 2012, anglers landed a little more than 19,500,000 pounds of striped bass.  F2012=0.20, just a little below the Fthreshold of 0.219.  Since then, landings rose to more than 24,000,000 pounds in 2013, then fell, just a little, to 23,500,000 pounds last season. 

However, while the recreational harvest was increasing in 2013 and 2014, the size of the stock was declining.

The 2013 Update to the benchmark assessment predicted that

“If the current fully-recruited F (0.200) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the SSB reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015…”
Since harvest actually increased in 2013 and 2014, F would also have increased, and very likely exceeded Fthreshold=0.219.  And the 2013 Update tells us that

“If the current fully-recruited F increases to Fthreshold (0.219) and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the SSB reference point increases to 0.92 by 2015…”
Which means that the people who were saying that the stock

“is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring”
are probably wrong on both counts.

But since the last analyzed data, from 2012, upholds their claim, today they can say they are right.

Back in 1935, a physicist named Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment to explain facets of quantum physics, which he described by writing

“One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
“It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation…”
  
In the case of striped bass, the pertinent data has not been assessed since 2013, and the state of the stock is unknown.

That lets people claim, right at this moment, that the striped bass stock is both overfished and not overfished, and that overfishing is taking place while, at the same time, it isn’t.

That’s a situation just as ridiculous as the one Dr. Schrodinger proposed.

It is time for “direct observation.”

Given the current debate about “conservation equivalency” and the widespread concern that Addendum IV will not prove effective, basic prudence demands that an interim stock assessment be performed after this season, to ascertain whether the addendum is meeting its goals.

The work involved would be minimal, merely requiring that three more years of data be added to the benchmark assessment be updated.

Yet that work is very important.

Because if striped bass are overfished, and if overfishing is occurring, managers need to take action in order to protect the stock.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

QUESTIONING WHAT YOU "KNOW"

If you’ve spent much time around fisheries management debates, one thing becomes pretty clear:  All of the folks speaking up at the hearings, along with the folks on the councils and management boards, are pretty sure that they know the right answers.

And they “know” that all of the other guys’ answers are wrong.

It’s not hard to think of examples.

Up in New England, we see a never-ending debate between biologists trying to conserve cod stocks and fishermen trying to catch them.

In the Gulf of Mexico, anglers have spent years fighting commercial fishermen, and more recently the for-hire fleet, over their share of red snapper.

And all along the striper coast, we have the current battle between recreational anglers and the for-fleet, who have different opinions about striped bass conservation.

Such thinking isn’t limited to fisheries issues.  Last week, while I was at work, I received an e-mail inviting me to read a blog written by someone called Rebel Brown, which had the absolutely awful title “When Leaders Wear Rose-colored Business Glasses.”

Despite its title, the blog itself wasn’t awful at all, and applied to far more than business—such as, for example, marine resources debates.

The premise of Brown’s essay is that we tend believe what we want to believe, regardless of whether it’s true.  She notes that

“Neuroscience has proven that when we are presented with information or insights that threaten our feeling good about ourselves or our situation, we bring out the rose-colored glasses. Our unconscious mindware proceeds to distort our reality, changing what we see and even fill in the blanks with evidence designed to reduce the threat and make us feel good.
To put that into a fisheries context, New England trawlers are really convinced that there are plenty of cod on the banks; they believe that the science is wrong.

If they believed anything else—say, that they’re only catching a lot of cod on Stellwagen Bank because the fish are bunched up there feeding on herring, and are scarce elsewhere in the region—they would have to make an unpleasant choice between cutting back harvest and making less money, or knowingly overfishing the stock and driving it toward commercial extinction.

Since either of those alternatives could only bring them discomfort, they have naturally chosen a third opinion—convincing themselves that the fish are still there and the scientists have to be wrong.

It’s not only commercial fishermen who think in that manner.  

I spent a number of years listening to very bright and very decent people complaining that federal regulators were burdening red snapper anglers in the Gulf of Mexico with “unfair” regulations. 

It was interesting to be an “outsider” who knew the people, understood the management system and had even participated in the fishery from time to time, but didn’t live on the Gulf and wasn’t emotionally or physically involved with the fishery on a regular basis. 

Although they would never admit it, and would be embarrassed if they ever did, my then-colleagues sounded just like the codfishermen up in Gloucester; they thought that they were the “good guys,” beset by bad science, overzealous regulators and a conspiracy led by conservation groups who wanted to drive them out of the fishery.  They could never understand that, to me, they sounded no different than any other fish hogs wanting to increase their kill.

Why the difference in perspective?  Brown noted

"the human program that drives us to prove ourselves right. That program is even stronger when it comes to protecting our beliefs about our businesses and ourselves in times of threat, or opportunity!

"This instinctual response is aided by another one. In any situation, our unconscious mind is wired to fill in the details, details that make the situation more the way we want it to be. Even if those details are inaccurate. For example, when our self-image is threatened, our unconscious mind will fill in the data it needs to create the reality we want and need.

"The challenge is this. If we’re filling in what we want to believe, and tinting reality to our favor – how do we have any hope of seeing what’s really happening around us?

And isn’t that all often the problem with fisheries issues?  People denying the truth until a collapsed stock or suddenly oppressive—if necessary—regulations catch them by seeming surprise?

So folks try to tell us we don’t have a problem; the striped bass are merely “offshore,” weakfish are just in “a cycle” and winter flounder are not overfished.

It’s all what they want to believe.

Brown suggests that anyone wishing to step out of their personal blind spots in order to better view reality take three meaningful steps.  They need to make an active effort to prove themselves wrong, they need to view issues from multiple perspectives and they need to get outside of their comfort zone and talk to people with opposing views.

Those aren’t easy things to do, but having done (and failed to do) all of them at various times over the years, I believe that they are absolutely necessary if we’re to get to the truth that lies at the core of fisheries debates.

Trying to prove yourself wrong is probably the easiest approach to master, because in the end, it’s all about fact, not opinions.  Brown suggests that a person

take any assumption or belief and go exploring. Look for evidence that says you’re wrong. Stretch your mind to see beyond information that agrees with you and find the information that says you are just plain inaccurate.

What she describes is really the essence of science, approaching any situation with a skeptical mind open to the possibility that our interpretations of what we observe may be wrong.

As an attorney, I learned long ago that the best way to prepare to make comments before a regulatory body or present a case in front of a court is to first try to write your opponent’s comments or brief.  Your opponent’s strongest arguments will be the weakest points in your case, and it you can’t craft an even stronger counterpoint, it’s time to stop and ask yourself what to do next.

On the other hand, if you can easily dismiss the best that the other side can offer, your argument is probably pretty strong.

Yet science alone doesn’t decide fisheries issues; the management process is highly politicized, and to succeed in the management arena, it helps to understand what everyone wants.

Normally, everyone wants more than they’re likely to get, but the key to a reasonable outcome is to listen to folks, and figure out what they actually need, and what they can live without.

Striped bass provide a good example.

For years, many anglers have wanted to end the commercial fishery, and make striped bass a “gamefish.”  In some states they have succeeded; in the rest, they currently lack the political support needed to get the job done.  Yet they still keep banging their heads against the same big brick wall.
Instead of doing that, they should be looking at things from a commercial perspective, seeking shared concerns. 

Here in New York, a large percentage of the commercial striped bass fishermen use rod and reel rather than nets of any sort.  When they see a hundred dead striped bass afloat in the wake of the trawler that killed them after boxing its 21-fish “bycatch” allowance, commercial “pinhookers” are, by and large, as disgusted as any angler.  They’re also unhappy when gillnetters kill loads of fish at one time, flooding the markets and driving down prices for everyone.

If anglers looked at this situation from the pinhookers’ perspective, not only their own, they might work together to bring both trawls and gill nets under control.

But that doesn’t happen, largely because the groups do not talk.

Go to a fisheries hearing, and you’re likely to see factions assembled like street gangs fighting a turf war.  Each side applauds its own spokesmen, and often hoots in derision at opposing groups’ spokesmen, whom they view with disdain.

I will never forget a winter flounder hearing that ASMFC held here in New York, when the perennially obnoxious captain of a Huntington party boat, as part of his recorded comments, publicly derided the speaker before him for wearing a suit, which proved that such speaker could not have a clue about what was happening out on the water…

That’s not atypical in the tribal world of fisheries management, where each user group shares a faith comprised of the “facts” that they choose to believe, and zealously defends that faith against heretics and outsiders.  

Because they talk only to one another, such faith is constantly reinforced, those with other beliefs are generally shunned, and objective truth is largely irrelevant.

Once people stop listening to one another, it gets much harder to get anything done.

And the first step toward listening is to concede that there’s a chance that you might be wrong.

You can only find answers if you’re willing to question. 


And there’s no better place to start than questioning yourself, and all you believe.