Thursday, September 18, 2014

THE "SEAWEED REBELLION"

Do you recall the “Sagebrush Rebellion”?

It arose forty years ago, when ranchers, loggers and miners, who had happily overgrazed, clear-cut and strip-mined public lands for years, suddenly became indignant when the federal government finally woke up, realized that taxpayers expected them to take care of their lands, and began imposing basic conservation measures on what had been a privileged few.

The Sagebrush Rebels demanded that the federal government turn its lands over to the states, who were supposedly more familiar with the situation on the ground, and “knew” how to manage land the right way—using the tried-and-true tools of overgrazing, clear-cutting and strip mines...

Legal efforts to end federal ownership of western lands went nowhere, and the “rebellion” drifted off the front page for a while. 

Tensions, however, stayed high. 

Then, six months ago, the news was filled with stories of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who insisted on his “right” to run cattle on federal lands off-limits to livestock, and seemed ready to force a confrontation with federal officials planning to round up his herd.  Implied threats of violence from Bundy’s supporters, a number of whom were armed, eventually caused the feds to halt the roundup and seek a resolution in court.  It also catapulted Bundy to the top of the “rebellion’s” list of heroes.

In the meantime, the State of Utah had passed legislation ordering the federal government to turn all of its Utah lands (other than military bases, Indian reservations and national parks) over to the state by the end of this year.  Utah’s attorney general is threatening legal action if the feds don’t comply, but has yet to figure out how to win such a suit.

Once again, the theory behind the anti-fed feelings is that the states are closer to local issues, and know how to deal with them better than the federal government does.

It happens that my wife and I were out in Utah a few weeks ago.  As we drove from Green River to Jensen, and from Jensen to Salt Lake City, we heard regular “public service” advertisements on our car’s radio, that urged residents to protect the “Western way of life.”

One urged citizens to attend public hearings, and oppose new federal rules to regulate coal (and, by extension, Utah’s open-pit mines).

Another was deeply critical of efforts to protect the dwindling sage grouse population, claiming that the energy companies drilling and digging in the area, and not the Fish & Wildlife Service, were the true champions of conservation…

So what does all this have to do with fisheries?

Well, it appears that the spirit of the sagebrush has now infused the fishery management debate.

There are a lot of powerful folks out there—both politicians and big angling industry and angling rights groups—who are seeking legislation that would turn management authority for various fish species, currently managed by federal managers, over to the states.

Like the ranchers and the loggers and the strip-miners, they argue that the feds are out of touch with local realities, and that state managers, who are more familiar with key issues, are better able to care for the resource.

And like the ranchers and the loggers and the strip-miners, the folks arguing for state management of such fisheries know that if they can escape federal regulators and their troublesome rules, they can wring a lot more money out of the resource—for as long as the resource lasts.

The first shot of this new conflict—I’ll call it the “Seaweed Rebellion”—was probably fired by the State of Louisiana when it unilaterally, and contrary to the Supreme Court decision in a 1960 case, United States v. Louisiana, declared its jurisdiction over all waters extending out 10.357 miles from its shore (the court found that Louisiana state waters only extended out three miles). 

After that, the Seaweed Rebellion quickly began to spawn its own Cliven Bundys (but without the threat of violence), folks who are willing to support Louisiana’s actions by fishing in the disputed waters, paying federal fines and then going back into those same federally-closed waters again.

It has also been producing the same kind of rhetoric.


“There are many examples where a shift to state-based management of a given fishery resource has been called for, producing better results.”
Jeff Crane, President of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, alleged that

“…federal management of the Gulf of Mexico recreational red snapper fishery is fundamentally flawed, and it is negatively impacting anglers and the coastal economies that depend on access to that fishery.  State-based fishery management has proven to be far more effective…”
Chester Brewer, while serving as Chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association’s national Government Relations Committee, echoed those sentiments, and also provided a little insight into how “effective” management is defined by the Seaweed Rebels, saying

“Red snapper has been under federal management for decades and our season this year is 28 days…State-based fishery management has proven to be far more effective, and has engineered some of the greatest marine conservation victories in the country.  We have faith in the states to be philosophically capable of not only conserving and managing robust fisheries, but also providing greater access to those resources for their citizens.  [emphasis added]”
Brewer’s statement makes things pretty clear. 

While federal managers are legally bound to use the best available science, and must limit harvest in order to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, state managers know no such constraints.  So they are free to “[provide] better access”—that is, allow anglers to kill more fish.

Which is what the Seaweed Rebellion is all about—the desire to escape federal conservation measures and harvest more fish than either the science or prudence would allow.

When I hear the Seaweed Rebels talk about giving state managers control of the fish in federal waters, I hear echoes of those radio ads in Utah, telling me that the future of the sage grouse is far more secure in the hands of the energy companies…

For the fishermen of the Seaweed Rebellion sing their tune in harmony with the clearcutters and the open-pit miners, although the song seems far more dissonant when it comes from the lips of those who would call themselves sportsmen:

More for us, more for us, and the science, and the resource, be damned.”
Fortunately for the nation, the Sagebrush Rebellion hasn’t gained very much ground.  The Sagebrush Rebels have been soundly defeated both in courts of law and, ever more often, in the court of public opinion.  Even in states where legislatures have demanded that that the U.S. surrender its lands, no one in authority is trying very hard to force the issue.

Unfortunately, for the nation and its marine resources, the Seaweed Rebels still have a lot of energy.

They haven’t won any fights yet, but their Congressional allies are still fighting hard.  Earlier this summer they, along with others more interested in ideology than in getting things done, helped to kill the Bipartisan Sportsman’s Act of 2014 by attaching numerous riders to the bill, including one that would have taken authority to manage red snapper away from federal managers and hand it over to the states. 

But there are already reasons for hope.  

The website www.govtrack.us which, among other things, predicts the fate of federal legislation, gives the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act (a typically misnamed bill that does nothing to conserve red snapper, but would merely allow states to manage the fishery) only a 5% chance of making it out of committee, and a 1% chance of being signed into law.

That’s encouraging.

Hopefully, the Seaweed Rebellion’s other bills will meet similar fates.

For America’s living marine resources—whether we’re talking about New England cod, South Atlantic grouper, Gulf of Mexico snapper, Pacific rockfish or Alaska halibut—belong to all of America’s citizens, not just to the folks who happen to live and fish along one stretch of coast.

They are a national heritage, to be passed down, intact, to generations yet unborn.

They must be managed and conserved.


And saved from the Seaweed Rebels.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A WORTHY PASSION

I caught my first striped bass back in the early ‘60s, and before that decade ended, I fished for them whenever I got the chance.  My father and I would go out on weekend mornings, and sometimes in the evenings after work, and troll sandworms, rigged behind a Cape Cod spinner, along the rocky Connecticut shore.

By the time that I was in my mid-teens, I began taking the boat out during the week, trolling sandworms at first, and then taking my first uncertain steps into the world of artificial lures.  Before I was graduated from high school, I was a hard-core striped bass fishermen, and rarely chased anything else when bass were around.

Somehow, the striper can do that to people.

They’re the biggest fish that northeastern anglers are likely to encounter in inshore waters, and within their range, they can be just about anywhere—high up in big rivers (New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has gotten complaints that they’re eating too many trout way up in the Delaware River), in protected bays and sounds and along high-energy coasts where waves shatter against jagged boulders and send shards of spray a dozen yards inshore. 

That size, and that access, certainly makes them attractive.

And they eat lures, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes with a wild and unrestrained fury that makes them blow up on a pencil popper and knock the plug six feet or more into the air. 

That, too, partially explains their appeal.

But neither factor explains the extraordinary passion of striped bass anglers not only to pursue the fish, but to protect it.

That really became clear for me last Friday, when I was rushing to make my comments on the National Marine Fisheries Services’ proposed Salt Water Recreational Fishing Policy.  Friday was the last day for comments, so after I provided my thoughts, I perused other anglers’ comments that were posted on the site.

NMFS was looking for comments on how to manage recreational fisheries generally; it was not looking for comments on any specific fish or any specific fishery.  Yet when I started reading what other anglers wrote, it was clear that many of the comments—probably a majority, but perhaps a few less than that—were solely about striped bass.

Which was pretty remarkable, when you consider that NMFS doesn’t manage stripers at all, except to maintain a prohibition on fishing in federal waters.

But what was even more remarkable was what the comments said.

Many anglers from outside the striper coast complained about not being permitted to kill enough fish.  They said things such as

It is a concern of mine that the fishing regulators are way too heavy handed on recreational fishing. There are folks like me who have limited access, limited time to go fishing offshore. Time must be spent in planning and organizing a trip with a private guide. Now you're telling me that Red Grouper is closed, and you may close Gag grouper?
and made self-serving—if scientifically unsupportable—comments such as

“…In Texas, our red snapper population has expanded to the point of overpopulation in most areas. Anywhere where there is structure you can catch red snapper. Many times red snapper will be the only species present because their voracious appetites have decimated many other species of reef fish, particularly triggerfish and spade fish. We have also lost several age classes of red snapper because of cannibalism. …”
Others didn’t even try to make a rational argument, but merely threw out petulant statements such as

“I feel like you don't consider the facts,and it does not matter. No wait I think I'll change my mind. I don't trust your judgement [sic] or your numbers. I should find another coast to fish on.
and
“I don't know how to help you do your job. But I do know you are responsible for putting a lot of people out of business,”
which were almost certainly related to NMFS efforts to restore and conserve various fish stocks.

Fortunately, a few were more enlightened.  One charter boat captain said that

“As a federally permitted charter fishing guide operating in the northern Gulf of Mexico, and who depends on having a lot of fish for my customers to target, I want the NOAA to manage our fisheries to abundance. Secondly, I want NOAA to manage our stocks for a better age and size structure, which means, I want to have more big fish for my customers to catch. I want to see conservative, science based management with real accountability measures in place that will ensure that all recreational anglers don’t exceed our quotas each year. I want yours, mine and our kids, grandkids and great grandkids to have fish to catch. I want to see fishery management and policy go beyond just having our fish stocks "rebuilt." From a conservative approach, I believe we all would benefit from having fish stocks that are much bigger than Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), because they will ultimately lead to having larger fish and the recreational anglers will have a greater chance to actually hook, fight and hopefully land a trophy fish,
while another person noted that

“The limit on mutton snappers in Florida is just too high. The current limit of ten fish per person and no max limit per boat is ridiculous. There are non-commercial boats going out as we speak and slaughtering the spawning grounds at night. Boats are going out with five people and catching 40 to 50 muttons each and every night. No one needs that many fish and the fishery cannot be sustained with this type of reckless fishing. Ask any responsible captain in the Florida Keys and they will tell you that two to three Muttons per person is more than plenty. We have already seen the incredible decline of groupers, please don't let Mutton snappers be the next on the list.
However, nothing matched the number of striped bass fishermen that commented on the proposed policy, nor did any other group show such unanimous support for conservation efforts.  Just a very small sampling of the comments from the striper coast turned up such responses as

“Regarding Striped Bass regulations, clearly there are declining stocks of these fish. I feel this is both a commercial as well as recreational issue. It has become quite easy here in NJ as well as other places along the coast to catch multiple large bass, primarily from boat but occasionally from shore with the resurgence of Bunker. Snag and drop is causing prolonged stress on the breeding stock. I know there are large fish outside the 3 mile limit but these fish are not accessible to fisherman. I feel a limit to the size and number of fish needs to be implemented, not just for those large fish but also for the 8-15 pound fish that are caught from shore in the fall. One fish of this size is more than enough per day, actually per week. I'm tired of reading the weigh ins from tackle shops with the same individual keeping two fish per day every day of the week. Fish from 34 inches and bigger need to be completely protected, catch and release single hook tackle…”
and

“I believe striped bass populations are declining. I support cutting commercial harvesting by 50% and making recreational fishing for stripers catch and release only to see if we can get these populations back to harvestable levels once again. This fish needs to be protected,”
and

You can not achieve the goal outlined above as long as you put recreational fishing first in your priorities. Or commercial fishing which is oddly missing from your statement. THE FISH NEED TO BE OUR FIRST PRIORITY. The data does not support any taking of striped bass by any constituency. What the data supports is, "leave the fish alone and let them stabilize." How painful can 5 years off be? You can not take ANY chances at this critical juncture that your policies may decimate and already problematic population. That was your policy the last time the stock was resuscitated. Do it again, now, before it is too late - and too late could be just around the corner. Why chance it?
Now, that last comment is probably a little extreme—we’re not at the moratorium stage yet, and hopefully the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will do the right thing in October and assure that we’re never going to have to go there—but given all of the political maneuvering over the last half-year or so about a “Vision” for salt water recreational fishing that would delay rebuilding stocks and give greater weight to “socioeconomic impacts,” it’s still refreshing to read comments by people of character who are still willing to say that the needs of the fish are more important than those of recreational fishermen.

But serious striped bass anglers are like that.

I can’t say exactly why, but I can feel it in my gut, because I was already an active striped bass angler when the stocks began to collapse in the 1970s.  After I first spoke to the late Bob Pond, creator of the Atom line of striped bass plugs, and he made his case for the coming calamity, I felt compelled to take my first hesitant and stumbling steps into the frustrating world of fisheries conservation.

Bass just affect you that way.

So I feel a sense of déjà vu, and a deep sense of pride, in these days of striped bass decline, when I see a new generation of anglers—some belonging to established organizations, others organizing themselves as they gird for the fight—taking up the old cause and speaking with the same passion that others felt four decades ago.

And when ASMFC holds its hearing in New York next Tuesday, you can be sure that I will be in the audience, ready to do my part.

For the worthiest passions never die.

And that is good, because the most important fights never really end.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

NOTES FROM THE EXTINCTION TOUR

The fish was only 3 ½ or 4 inches long, but it was perfect.  In some ways, it looked like what a talented sixth-grade student would draw if told to draw a fish; streamlined body, sharply forked tail and a single dorsal fin, with the tip of a longish pectoral sticking out down below.

It was clearly a herring.  Without a field guide, you might not know just what kind, but no one could fault you if you guessed “alewife” or “Atlantic herring” or maybe even “juvenile menhaden.”

But all those guesses would be wrong, because the fish belonged to the genus Knightia, and last swam though its home waters about 50 million years ago.

Yet, although so many years have passed, it was remarkably familiar.  It was already built to the basic herring blueprint, and like today’s menhaden, it often schooled up in the shallows, where too much hot weather could turn the water hypoxic, and kill the fish by the untold thousands.

And that’s how Knightia and I crossed paths. 

For the past nine days, my wife, Theresa, and I were wandering around southern Wyoming and northern Utah, visiting places such as Fossil Butte and Dinosaur National Monuments, immersing ourselves in deep time and getting a feel for what came before.

In Wyoming, we found a lost world that was, in many ways, remarkably similar to the one we know today.   The limestone of Fossil Lake—a huge body of water that once spread over much of the region—holds a number of species very similar to those we all know. 

We visited a fossil quarry a few miles outside of Kemmerer, where we spent half a day splitting stone and finding the remains of fish—mostly Knightia—that last saw the sun 50 million years ago.  Each time one of us split a slab and disclosed a new fossil, we laid eyes on something that had never before been seen by man, but was present on Earth about 250 times longer than Homo sapiens sapiens has walked on this planet.  

It was humbling, yet familiar.  Knightia acted so much like menhaden, and filled such a similar forage role, that it was hard not to see one emerging from the rock and think “I’ve got another ‘bunker.”  Then there were Priscacara, a fish that we’d probably call a “panfish” if it still swam today, for it filled the same ecological role as a crappie or bluegill, and was roughly the same size and shape.

And, although their remains are far rarer and we never saw them, creatures such as sturgeon, bowfin, gar and pike also swam in the Fossil Lake waters, and would be clearly recognizable to today’s freshwater anglers.

After we left Kemmerer, we drove down to Jensen, Utah.  

There, we sampled some of the 200,000 acres of Dinosaur National Monument, where 23 exposed strata of rock tell a story of Earth dating back over one billion years.  It is a story of change over eons, as conditions on Earth gradually altered, and life itself altered and adapted to new conditions.

Again, it was humbling to look at a stone in the Morrison Formation, and realize that a dinosaur leg bone was sitting an arms-length away, still half-buried in the stone of a Utah mountainside.

And yet it was comforting, since over those billion-plus years, life endured, despite the great warming at the end of the Permian that killed off 90% of the creatures on Earth, the asteroid strike that closed the Cretaceous and sent every last non-avian dinosaur to their eternal doom and other, similar extinction events that, in the end, merely reset the clock and brought new and wonderful forms of life into being.

Which brings us, of course, to today, and the health of the fish stocks that we have all known so well during the course of our own lives.

None, at the species level, is nearing extinction; at least that’s true here in the Northeast and along the mid-Atlantic shore.  But at the same time, we can look at our coastal ecosystems, and the holes that we have torn in the web of life, and realize that they are no longer as healthy and complete as Fossil Lake was 50 million years ago, even though we probably only know about a fraction of the life that once swam there.

We can look at the slow changes that took place through the ages, and the gradual extinction and replacement of species, and wonder whether we are contributing to extinction today, and leaving nothing behind to fill the niches that we alone have emptied.

Consider the rock coast of southern New England, perhaps along the western Connecticut shore where I first learned to fish.  When I was a boy, tautog—we called them “blackfish”—bit from May through November; in the spring, just casting from shore, it was possible to land a few dozen good fish on a single tide.  The only problem you faced when trying to fill a feed bag were pesky bergalls—more properly, “cunner”—who picked and nipped at your baits remorselessly, and were generally considered a “trash fish” because they were too small and bony to be prized for food.

Tautog were tied to the rocks, the wrecks and the mussel beds; with square crushing teeth that looked surprisingly human, they scraped barnacles from the sides of boulders and crushed whatever mussels and crabs they could find.  Bergalls, their distant relative, were too small to tackle large shellfish, but had the same sort of dentition and cruised the same habitat seeking appropriately smaller fare.

However, in the past thirty or so years, a new market for live tautog and cunner has led to unprecedented commercial harvest—both legal and illegal—which has driven down the numbers of both species.  Tautog, once lavishly abundant in both spring and fall, have grown scarce, and harvest is strictly—if ineffectively—regulated.  Where cunner once swarmed in such numbers that anglers cursed them as a nuisance, they are now notable for their absence. 

No superior competitor has driven down the tautog’s numbers; it has not succumbed to the relentless rules of natural selection.

Instead, it was yanked out of its niche by an unnatural desire for profit, often illegally gained, and no one walking the Earth today seems responsible enough to say that such devastation is wrong.

We can see the same thing in the bays of Long Island (and elsewhere), where winter flounder numbers are falling ever lower, and may—we can’t know ‘til it happens—be approaching some point of no return.

Again, extinction at the species level is not an issue, for another stock on the banks of New England still thrives.  However, for some “distinct population segments”—that’s a term from the federal Endangered Species Act, intended to cover just this situation—the possibility of extinction looms large.

The best known example is in Shinnecock Bay, where researchers from Stony Brook University, deploying acoustic tags, determined that the bay is apparently home to two different populations of flounder that spawn at different times and have different life histories.  One population spawns in the bay during the winter but travels offshore during the summer, while the other population remains in the bay year-round. 

Overfishing and other factors have badly depleted both populations—depleted them so badly that they are now threatened by inbreeding—but the State of New York is now considering regulations that would allow anglers to target the flounder all summer (current regulations give the fish a respite from May 30 through March 31).  Such additional angling pressure may well be enough to drive the unique population that summers in the bay beyond the brink of extinction, and there is no reason to believe that similar populations, living in other Long Island bays, won’t be destroyed as well.

If that occurs, through the irrational actions of man rather than the irresistible forces of evolution, yet another niche will be left unnaturally empty, and our world will be further impoverished.

So I return from my recent vacation—which, because of its focus on fossils, I’ve dubbed “The Extinction Tour,” with markedly mixed emotions.

On one hand, I am again awed, fascinated and inspired by the pageant of life across the ages, and the distant familiarity of places such as Fossil Lake and even the landscapes of the Mesozoic, where creatures never seen by human eyes lived out their time on Earth until other creatures, more suited to changing conditions, stepped in to fill their niche.

On the other hand, I am again angered, embarrassed and disgusted by the pageant of uncaring greed that has destroyed coastal habitats, impoverished marine ecosystems and left near-empty niches in biotic communities up and down America’s coasts.  For while evolution and extinction are constants that lead to new and wonderful life, the irresponsible depletion of our native waters—and regulators’ unwillingness to step up to the plate to fix the problems—is an aberration that is neither natural nor rational.

Viewed against the great pageant of life that Theresa and I sampled on our recent trip, it is nothing less than an offense against life itself, against nature and against whatever creative force each of us may choose to believe in.

And thus it is deeply, and morally, wrong.



Sunday, September 7, 2014

THE "GRASSROOTS" FIGHT FOR OUR FISHERIES

Lately, there’s been a small but somewhat interesting argument going on in the fisheries management community over the nature of “grassroots” organizations.


“Such seeming grassroots organizations [as the Herring Alliance] might well be termed ‘Astroturf roots’…”
as a result of environmental groups’ financial and logistical support.

Stolpe’s argument rested, in part, on a report issued by the minority members of the United State’s Senate’s Committee on the Environment and Public Works entitled The Chain of Environmental Command:  How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA.  

The report itself is the usual sort of black helicopters stuff that posits a

“’Billionaire’s Club, who directs and controls the far-left environmental movement”
comprised of various large trusts that fund environmental and conservation organizations that, according to the report, prefer to operate out of the public eye.  

The minority members of the Committee state that

“The scheme to keep their efforts hidden and far removed from the political state is deliberate, meticulous, and intended to mislead the public…these individuals and foundations go to tremendous lengths to avoid public associations with the far-left environmental movement they so generously fund.”
 It’s just the sort of over-the-top report that one could expect from a bunch of folks who never saw an oil well, strip mine or dam they didn’t like (click on each of their names and check out their stance on such issues), and who apparently believe that anyone who wants to swim in—or drink—clean water or breathe clean air is card-carrying member of the Comintern.

It makes a big fuss about a number of foundations funding environmental efforts, but apparently other sorts of funding didn’t bother them anywhere near as much.  For example, there was no companion report entitled “The Chain of Political Command:  How a Club of Oil, Coal, Lumber, Mining and Agriculture Interests Financed Our Campaigns and Made Us Write and Say Foolish Things…”

But Stolpe does raise an interesting issue:  Just what is a “grassroots organization” in the fisheries context?

And to follow up just a bit, in the end, does it matter?

The Herring Alliance, the particular target of Stolpe’s “Astroturf” claims, certainly believes that it does.  In a sharp response to Stolpe’s comments which called such comments “unfair and misinformed,” it said
The piece, written by seafood industry consultant Nils Stolpe, argues that Herring Alliance member groups don't meet his definition of "grass roots." In doing so, Stolpe relies on outdated information about the Herring Alliance from seven years ago, and acts as if the Alliance has only ten members.
“Had Stolpe simply clicked on the Herring Alliance "members" page he would have seen that the Alliance has grown to more than 90 member organizations stretching from North Carolina to the Canadian line. They represent a mix of community-level volunteer groups, regional watershed associations, and national conservation organizations.”
Before we can address the question of whether the Herring Alliance really is a “grassroots organization”, it’s  probably necessary to figure out what a “grassroots organization” is.  

Stolpe begins with a definition from Wikipedia, which reads

"a grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is driven by a community's politics. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures."
But he doesn’t stop with that relatively clear and concise definition.  Instead, he goes on to provide two examples of “grassroots” from the real world of fisheries politics, and ends up confusing the issue.

The first illustration involved a handful of drift gillnetters in California who joined together to successfully fight anti-gillnet legislation.  Stolpe argues for their grassroots status, saying that

There was no formal organization, no outside (and undisclosed) financial support, and no "piling on" by other organizations with undisclosed relationships of an Astroturf nature; just threatened businessmen and an interested observer with the facts on their side and a roomful of California Legislators who were willing to listen to them.
In some ways, that would seem to mesh with the Wikipedia definition, although calling a handful of businessmen who share common interests a “community” might be stretching the point a bit.  “Grassroots” implies a somewhat larger number of interested parties, the term itself conjuring up images of a broad swath of lawn, in which each blade of grass shares common needs with all others.

If we used that analogy, Stolpe’s group of gillnetters might better be compared to a small patch of dandelions.

Stolpe’s other example was “Fishermen’s Energy,” a corporation designed to give fishermen a chance to influence coastal energy development.  Fishermen’s Energy was organized by Atlantic Capes Fisheries, a very large and well-financed commercial fishing operation, and as Stolpe notes, it operates “at the highly structured and well-financed corporate level.” 

Although commercial fishermen throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic participate in Fishermen’s Energy, if we apply the Wikipedia definition, it is hardly a “grassroots organization.”  Its creation was hardly “natural and spontaneous;”  it was the creation of a big fishing business that is very much a part of the “traditional power structure,” and it attracted other commercial fishermen who are active players in the politics of fisheries management. 

The folks who belong to Fishermen’s Energy include some of the same people who regularly seek higher quotas from fishery management councils, lobby Congress to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and, perhaps most relevant to this discussion, oppose the Herring Alliance’s efforts to protect forage fish from excessive harvest.

Stolpe tries to keep Fishermen’s Energy within the “grassroots” community by arguing that it was

“started and carried out primarily by people who are dependent on sustainably harvesting our rich coastal and offshore waters. That's important, and they can rightfully claim that they represent working fishermen.

“There's a world of difference between them and fishermen in organizations which are dependent on ENGOs and/or huge foundations who claim to be representing fishermen but are in actuality pushing the agenda of the people who are supplying the dollars.”
That’s a pretty dubious argument. 

It assumes that “working fishermen” supporting groups such as the Herring Alliance don’t share the same conservation agenda as the environmental groups and foundations. 

Stolpe appears to argue that preserving the drift gillnet fishery, with all of its alleged bycatch problems, is an endeavor worthy of “working fishermen,” while trying to preserve the forage base that supports populations  of cod, haddock and tuna is somewhat questionable conduct.

And while the Herring Alliance does contain some big players that are as much a part of the “traditional power structure” as Fishermen’s Energy’s Atlantic Capes Fisheries, it also includes such organizations as the “Buckeye Brook Coalition” in Rhode Island, the “Spruill Farm Conservation Project” in North Carolina and “Operation SPLASH” in New York, which are about as small and grassroots as one is likely to get.

In fact, except for their goals and the names of the players, Fishermen’s Energy and the Herring Alliance look much the same, except that some members of the former group pay Nils Stolpe, directly or indirectly, to throw stones at the latter…

So is the Herring Alliance a “grassroots” organization?

In answering that question, I am going to focus on the words “natural and spontaneous” in the Wikipedia definition.   

Those words suggest that, for an organization to truly deserve the grassroots banner, the membership must drive the actions of the organization.  It assumes some sort of management by consensus, a minimum of bureaucracy and, probably, a focus on a single issue or issues. 

True “grassroots” organizations are, by their very nature, ephemeral.  People come together spontaneously for a particular purpose, and when that purpose is achieved, the organization withers away as certainly as a lawn in November.

For if the organization lasts any longer, the basic relationship between the members and the organization begins to change.  Anything resembling permanence requires some form of bureaucracy and governing structure.  

And once you have those, instead of the members shaping the organization and its policies, the organization begins to shape the members’ opinions, with slanted messages sent out in publications, press releases and the electronic media.

By that standard, the Herring Alliance is not a true grassroots organization, although many of its members are.  

However, it can still be, and I believe is, an effective and valuable member of the traditional power structure.

What does a true real “grassroots” organization in the fisheries arena look like? 

One of the best examples is the group that calls itself the 1@32” Pledge

1@32” was brought to life by a single person, a New York striped bass angler who was concerned that the striped bass stock was declining, and wanted to do something about it.

So he reached out to folks who were also concerned with where the striped bass stock was heading, and created an informal network that eventually spanned much of the striper coast.  Members of the network reached out to other people, and each time they did so, the network grew.  Some individuals contributed their knowledge of the fisheries management system.  Others took time to man booths at fishing shows, where the message could reach even more people.

Right now, as we near the October meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board, 1@32” can rightly take credit for turning anglers out at many state hearings and providing them with a coherent set of proposals to present to ASMFC.  Up and down the coast, those proposals to reduce fishing mortality and rebuild the stock are being repeated to each state’s ASMFC commissioners. 

All of that was created without an organizational structure, without dues, without any committee empowered to decide management policy.  It was all the outgrowth of a “natural and spontaneous” community effort to protect a valued resource.

Hopefully, 1@32” will succeed in achieving its goal.  But whether it succeeds or not, the organization will probably not survive much past the October meeting.

For that is the nature of true grassroots groups.  They are the “minutemen” of the political process, capable of firing “the shot heard ‘round the world” and winning individual battles.

But they lack what is needed to win a protracted war.

For that, as the American revolutionaries learned as they were being forced back toward their desperate winter quarters at Valley Forge, you need an army that’s led by professionals.

And a powerful ally or two doesn’t hurt.

So just as the minutemen started a revolution, but needed the Continental Army and a good deal of help from the French to get the job done, so do the grassroots advocates for good fisheries management need professional guidance and some help from well-heeled foundations.

Without it, they can’t ultimately triumph against an opposition that has money and manpower, and political allies, to spare.

The alliance described in the Senate Committee’s minority report is, when you think about it, the most American thing in the world.

Which is something that folks who like to talk about “patriotism” and “American values” should know from the start, without being told.



Thursday, September 4, 2014

BLUEFIN TUNA CATCH A BREAK

There’s no question that bluefin rank among my favorite gamefish.  I caught my first nearly forty years ago.  Ever since, I’ve been entranced by their size and their strength, and extremely pleased by the fact that they frequently pass through my home waters south of Fire Island, New York.

Over the years, I’ve caught my share; in the days when I ran tournament boats, I put my anglers on bluefin that put them, in turn, atop events’ leader boards.

But I stopped fishing for them a few years ago.

It just felt like the right thing to do.  The population was heading downhill too quickly, and I’d been fishing too long to tell myself otherwise. 

I could recall the days out of Pt. Judith, Rhode Island when bluefin the size of small cars crashed bait on the surface and left 50 square yards of fpam in their wake.

I could remember my first time in a fighting chair, looking over the top of the Penn 16/0, when the captain checked the fit of my harness by hanging onto the tip of the rod and lifting his feet off the deck.

And so, some years later, when I looked out across my angry green ocean, where the big fish now seldom swam, I knew just how much we had lost.

For a while, I hung on to fishing for bluefin, replacing the old gaff-and-gut days with nothing but catch and release.  That worked for a while, but back in ’06, a fish came up behind a Green Machine bar and took the trailer all the way down. 
Letting it go was out of the question; the blood flowed red from its gills.  It was of legal size, and wouldn’t be wasted, but something still felt much too wrong.

Logically, I knew that killing just one school bluefin every few years would have no impact at all on the stock; the fish would go on—or not—regardless of what I might do.  But as I tore the gills of the dying tuna, as its blood flowed over my wrists and stained the sleeves of my shirt, as its heart beat in its last fading pulses, spilling what remained of its life onto the ice in the fishbox, I felt the need to make an ethical call.

For now, this would be my last bluefin.  Until fisheries managers finally did the right thing, and took real action to preserve and rebuild the small, fragile western stock, I’d leave them alone.

Now, for the first time, I’m happy to write words of hope.

Last week, after more than two years of draft amendments, public comment, deliberation, debate and delay, the National Marine Fisheries Service finally issued Final Amendment 7 to the 2006 Consolidated Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan.

It was worth waiting for.

Biologists break the Atlantic bluefin tuna population into two separate stocks.  One, the eastern stock, spawns in the Mediterranean Sea.  The other, western stock spawns in the Gulf of Mexico.  Biologists can tell them apart by measuring the amount of one oxygen isotope—oxygen 16—present in each tuna’s otoliths (“ear bones” found in the fish’s head). 

It turns out that the two stocks never mix on the spawning grounds, but frequently cross the ocean and share common feeding areas.  When both stocks are at the same level of health, the eastern stock is roughly ten times the size of the western stock, and tagging studies suggest that perhaps 10% of the eastern stock crosses over to North American shores.   Thus, at any given time, at least half of the bluefin caught by American fishermen may have been spawned in the Mediterranean.

Western stock fish are hit hard when they cross over to Europe.  Eastern fish begin spawning at around 50 pounds, while western bluefin don’t reach maturity until over 200—perhaps close to 300—pounds.  Thus European commercial fishermen freely harvest juvenile western stock fish that are off-limits to the commercial fishery off North America.

However, western stock bluefin are also hit hard over here.  There is a substantial, and arguably sustainable, directed fishery.  However, about 68 metric tons of western stock bluefin are also taken as bycatch, and discarded dead, in the American pelagic longline fishery.  

On the spawning grounds of the Gulf of Mexico, far too many big bluefin have been killed by longliners seeking other pelagic species.  In the warm waters of the Gulf, successfully releasing such bluefin alive is close to impossible.

And that’s where Amendment 7 comes in.

Pursuant to that new regulation, which was widely and actively supported by both the marine conservation community and some angling groups, NMFS has created large gear restricted areas, where pelagic longlining will be prohibited during the two months when spawning bluefin are most likely to be in such places. 

The news gets even better, because the gear-restricted areas are about 30% larger than originally proposed, and include an area in the eastern Gulf that, in the beginning, seemed unlikely to be created.

And, because the only bluefin that manage to spawn are those that survive through the rest of the year, NMFS also maintained all existing seasonal closures in areas where longline bycatch of bluefin is notably high, and created a new gear restricted area off North Carolina.  The North Carolina area closure is only partial, as vessels that haven’t had much bluefin bycatch will be allowed in.  It is also a little smaller than hoped.  However, it includes most of the “hot spots” east of Cape Hatteras, and will prevent a lot of big tuna from being incidentally killed.

Longliners are also being made more accountable for their catch.

New rules, supported by real-time electronic monitoring of the decks of longline vessels, will require longliners to report all bluefin as they are landed and retain all legal-sized bluefin that are dead when brought to the boat.  Each boat will be assigned an individual bluefin quota, and when that quota is filled, the boat’s longline season will end.  In addition, the longline season for all boats will end when the Longline Category’s overall bluefin quota is landed.

Those provisions should go a long way toward helping the western stock bluefin.  But that doesn’t mean that Amendment 7 is completely wart-free.

Its biggest flaw is that it gives undue protection to the pelagic longline fishery by transferring quota from the Purse Seine Category, which normally underfishes its quota, into a reserve that can be used to cover excessive bycatch. 

Rewarding a dirty fishery with extra quota to cover its bycatch is bad fisheries policy, and sets an undesirable precedent.

But overall, Amendment 7 serves the bluefin tuna well.

And that’s a good thing. 


Because if the fish respond to Amendment 7 they way that I hope that they will, in a couple of years, I may well go out and bother them again.  I still have some bluefin tags on the boat, and it would be nice to be able to use them.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

YES, FISH EAT OTHER FISH (AND HAVE, SINCE THE ORDOVICIAN)

I was reading through the Draft Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan when a somewhat strange passage caught my eye.
It came in Section 2.2.3 of the Draft Addendum, which is entitled “Ecosystem Considerations,” and it said

“When fishery management changes are being contemplated, food web relationships should be considered…Striped bass are predators of other Commission managed species, including weakfish and shad and river herring.  As the striped bass population grows the demand on prey species also increases.  The increased demand on prey species may have impacts on those species undergoing rebuilding plans.  The current addendum’s goal of reducing fishing mortality to target levels may impact predation on other ASMFC-managed species.”
I don’t have any problems with the premise that striped bass eat fish—that’s certainly true—but I do have concerns about the overall tone of the section.

Because the best that I can tell, fish have been eating other fish since the Ordovician Period, about 450 million years ago; at least that’s when the first remains of presumably jawed and piscivorous sharks appear in the fossil record.  

Bony fish (as opposed to the cartilaginous sharks) started eating other fish about ten million years later, when the long-extinct Acanthodians appeared on the scene in the early Silurian.

In his book Discovering Fossil Fishes, Dr. John G. Maisey of the American Museum of Natural History noted that

“The developmental and anatomical complexity attained by gnathostomes [i.e., jawed animals] has been relatively stable at least since the Silurian.  We can view the rise of the gnathostomes as a second punctuated event, followed by more than 400 million years of relative stasis.
“It is quite remarkable that the basic diversity of jawed craniates became fixed so early in their evolution.  Sharks, ray-finned fishes and lobe-finned fishes all appeared about 400 million years ago and have survived to the present day.  Conservatism of design is striking…”
In other words, fish have been eating each other on a regular basis for a very long time.  Yet somehow, they survived—in fact, thrived and radiated out into an ever-changing plethora of species—for hundreds of millions of years, even though for all but a tiniest fraction of that time, predators existed at far higher levels than they did today—at 100% of their spawning potential, the level of an unfished stock.

There were no people around to control predators’ “demand on prey species.”  And there was no worry about predators affecting stock rebuilding plans, because with no people around to overfish forage fish stocks, there were no such plans and no need for rebuilding in the first place.

So let’s put the blame where the blame belongs, and stop blaming striped bass—or any other species—for fisheries problems.

If we’re talking about a lack of weakfish, let’s talk about ASMFC’s refusal to accept scientific advice to put a moratorium in place to assist in their rebuilding.

 “The main discussion was a moratorium is more than likely the best way to go at this time…”
and public comment supported such moratorium by a two-to-one margin, ASMFC’s Weakfish Management Board heard comments such as those of Tom Fote, the current governor’s appointee from New Jersey, who said

“…I’m looking at a situation that doesn’t basically shut down a complete fishery and basically allow the person, if he catches a weakfish of a lifetime or something like that or the kid on a beach actually catches a weakfish on that rare occasion, they can go home with one weakfish.
“…at least they’ll have, you know, one fish to take home…
“You know, we also talk about we’re supposed to build a sustainable fishery for a sustainable industry.  If you start closing down both those industries, it takes a long time for that industry to recover…”
and seemed to consider such argument reasonable.  The Management Board rejected both the Technical Committee’s comments and their endorsement by the public, and left both the recreational and commercial fisheries open, although at much reduced harvest levels.

They didn’t seem to consider the possibility that, if you keep taking fish out of an already badly depleted weakfish stock, the stock will take at least as long to recover as the fishing industry—which, in the end, at least has many viable alternatives to harvesting weakfish.

Weakfish, on the other hand, have no alternatives if they get caught and die.

And now, a lot of the same folks who sat on that management board apparently want to blame the striped bass for the weakfish’s problems…

In the case of American shad, Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Shad & River Herring noted, as early as 1998, that

“Historically, American shad (Alosa sapidissima), hickory shad (Alosa mediocris), alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) (collectively termed alosines) were extremely important resource species and supported very large commercial fisheries along the east coast of both the United States and Canada…large declines in commercial landings were perceived as an indication that management action would be required to restore alosine stocks to their former levels of abundance…”
However, as is so often true with ASMFC plans, managers did not take decisive steps to reduce harvest, and declines continued.  ASMFC allowed many of the river-specific stocks to decline so badly that, in the case of shad in New York’s Hudson River, the latest stock assessment found that

“Over the last 20 years, the Hudson River stock of American shad has shown consistent signs of excessive mortality on mature fish…high adult mortality was caused by fishing and that this excessive fishing has now affected recruitment.
“…Results of this fishing pressure has left the stock in a historically depressed condition with high uncertainty regarding its recovery.  Few year-classes currently remain at high enough abundance to rebuild the spawning stock.”
Twelve years passed, while “high adult mortality caused by fishing” continued to drive down the stocks in the Hudson and elsewhere, before ASMFC finally decided to adopt more effective measures in 2010.  Unfortunately, by then things had gotten so bad that, at least in the Hudson, there is now “high uncertainty” regarding the stock’s recovery.

Yet ASMFC has the temerity to suggest that striped bass are to blame…

In the case of the alewife and blueback herring—the “river herring” referred to in the shad and river herring management plan—ASMFC decided merely to monitor the stocks—effectively, to just watch them decline—in 1989.  

It took them two full decades, after runs in many rivers had all but disappeared and the Natural Resources Defense Council had filed an ultimately unsuccessful petition to have river herring listed under the Endangered Species Act, to finally require states to take regulatory action in Amendment 2 to the Interstate Management Plan for Shad and River Herring.

But, once again, ASMFC wants to blame striped bass for river herring problems…

Yes, striped bass eat some weakfish, American shad and river herring.  They’re opportunistic feeders, which means that they eat most of the species that ASMFC manages—and a lot that it doesn’t—at some point in their travels along the coast.  But they’ve been doing that for millenia before Henry Hudson sailed up his eponymous river, where so many big stripers still breed.

Yet there is no indication that the bass posed mortal threat to weakfish, herring or shad before the first waves of colonists came over from Europe and began to “save” such fish from striped bass (and to save other prey from every other predator that, with a bit of work, could be converted into food, funds or fertilizer).

Somehow, before Europeans arrived to catch the ravenous striped bass (and everything else) with their nets, hooks and lines, “unprotected” weakfish, shad and herring still managed to thrive.  Before the otter trawl, haul seines, purse seines, pound nets, gill nets, fykes and baited lines, striped bass, river herring, weakfish and shad managed to live in a sort of harmony that allowed them all to exist at or near 100% of their spawning potential (although the oldest residents of the east coast, who walked there all the way here from Siberia, did kill a few).

And it wasn’t because the striped bass had been vegetarians before the white man arrived on this coast.

We are far more effective predators than the striped bass could ever hope to be, and we compete with them for every forage species.  Yet when forage declines, it’s always the striper’s fault.

It’s not a pattern unique to striped bass.  On every coast, we hear the same arguments.

In Chesapeake Bay, and down in North Carolina, the talk is all about blue crabs being killed by red drum, with one fish wholesaler saying

“If they don’t do something about this fish population and restoration of this habitat, I don’t see where crabs are going to have a chance.”
Down in the Gulf of Mexico, you hear folks talking about red snapper eating everything else on the reef.

Perhaps the best story came from a former executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association’s Florida chapter, who related a story about being at a shrimp bycatch hearing in Panama City when a woman wandered up to the microphone and said

“You all are trying to stop bycatch, but I’ll tell you that bycatch is good.  Back in the old days, we didn’t worry about bycatch.  We caught jacks and mackerel and things, and there was plenty of mullet and bait and everything was fine.  But now you’re stopping the bycatch, and the fish are eating everything so that there’s no bait around, and the pelicans are starving.
“And that’s why you’ll see the pelicans flying around and eating stray cats on the street in Panama City!”
It’s no less credible than the other tales, which are all aimed at convincing regulators to let fishermen do nature a “favor” and help drive down populations of striped bass, red drum or whatever the species in question might be, so that they can be as depleted as their forage and “balance” can be restored.

Of course, cutting back harvest and restoring the forage base is never a viable option…

That  sort of thinking is probably understandable when it comes from folks looking out for their wallets.

But when it comes from folks who are supposed to be looking out for our fisheries, it’s just not excusable.