Thursday, February 22, 2018

FISHERMEN THREATENED; WHY ARE ADVOCACY GROUPS SILENT


With all the hype taking up the news outlets these days, whether we’re talking about the national news or things that matter mostly to fishermen, it might have been easy to miss the fact that the administration’s proposed budget slashed quite a few dollars from the NOAA Fisheries budget.

The overall budget for NOAA Fisheries is being cut by 14%.  However, law enforcement is taking a 25% hit, and all of that money would be taken out of the budget for cooperative enforcement programs; if the cuts go through as planned, there will be no federal money available for joint enforcement agreements, which funnel federal money to the states’ various environmental enforcement staffs.  If you’re a striped bass fisherman, such joint agreements, and the related federal funds, support the apprehension of poachers targeting bass in the EEZ; striped bass and many other important species will suffer, and poachers will benefit, on every coast should the program be defunded.

$17.7 million would be cut from the science and management budget, while $5 million less would be spent obtaining the data needed for stock assessments.  The proposed budget would also provide $2.9 million less for cooperative research.  The bottom line is that you might believe that our fisheries would benefit from more and better science and more and better data, but the administration apparently disagrees. 

Or doesn’t care.  Which, come to think of it, is probably more likely, but still takes us to the same place.

Of course, we don’t need science to tell us that fish need a place where they can live, feed and reproduce, or to tell us that a lot of coastal habitat has been degraded by development, polluted runoff, and the loss of coral reefs and seagrass beds.  We can hope that the administration includes folks who know that as well, but if there are such folks down in D.C., those who drafted the budget ignored them as well, since they hope to cut $4.8 million from habitat and conservation programs, thus eliminating all funding for fisheries habitat restoration projects.

And the National Sea Grant College Program, which for more than half a century has been conducting fisheries research and providing support to the fishing community, would receive no funding at all.

That makes it pretty clear that neither fisheries science, informed fisheries management nor fisheries education ranks very high on the administration’s priority list.

But perhaps you missed the news.  If you don’t live in a coastal town with a big fishing industry and a newspaper that covers fisheries issues, you may not have heard anything about it at all.

Certainly, the big sportfishing groups that have spent the past few years blasting out press releases attacking federal fisheries managers and fisheries management have not seen fit to mention the topic.


“the nation’s leading advocate for saltwater recreational anglers.  The Center organizes, focuses and engages recreational fishing stakeholders to shape federal marine fisheries management policies.”

“Recreational anglers are America’s leading conservationists,”
and that

“Anglers work to sustain healthy fish stocks and access to these public fishery resources.”
Certainly, the current budget proposals, which are a clear reflection of the administration’s federal marine fisheries policies, promote neither conservation nor healthy, sustainable fish stocks, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the Center to speak out against them.




And when you put all those things together, perhaps it’s not surprising that the Center hasn’t issued even a mild condemnation of the proposed budget cuts.  After all, this administration is willing to violate federal law in order to let recreational anglers overfish the red snapper stock.  That’s clearly the sort of thing that the Center supports, so why would they want to alienate a friend over such apparently trivial things as good science or fisheries habitat?

The websites of other Modern Fish Act supporters reveal a similar pattern. 

The American Sportfishing Association represents the fishing tackle industry.  Its website contains a lot of support for the Modern Fish Act, and praise for both the regressive H.R. 200 and Commerce’s decision to let anglers exceed their Gulf red snapper quota.  But it says nothing about the bad proposals in the administration’s budget, or the threat that such budget cuts pose to fisheries science and management efforts.

Anglers’ rights organizations take the same sort of positions, then follow up by asking their members to take political action.


“is to advise and educate the public on the conservation of marine resources.”
That is, without doubt, a worthy goal, but it’s hard to understand how supporting both the latest incarnation of the Empty Oceans Act and overfishing red snapper advances the cause. 

Perhaps the problem lies with CCA’s current understanding of the word “conservation,” for when you click on the “conservation” tab on CCA’s website, and then on “TAKE ACTION,” you’re directed to a page that asks you

“to tell your representatives in Congress to support the Modern Fish Act,”
even though the Modern Fish Act will weaken federal mangers’ ability to restrict recreational harvest and make it more likely that anglers will overfish various stocks.

It could just as easily have said “tell your representatives in Congress to restore NOAA Fisheries’ funding,” but CCA apparently decided against doing that--if they thought about it at all.

That might now be what you’d expect from a group that talks a good conservation game, but then again, most of us learned, well before we cut our first wisdom tooth, to judge a person—or an organization—not by what they say, but by what they actually do…

There is no such seeming dissonance at the Recreational Fishing Alliance, an organization that is smaller and less polished, but ideologically similar to, CCA.  RFA recently announced that

“In an effort to bring cohesion to the saltwater recreational fishing community, the RFA has launched the RED ALERT campaign.  We can no longer afford to work as individuals or splinter cells.  We have to work together and pool our resources or the days of freedom in our fisheries may well be over.
“In cooperation with our state chapter [sic] we are launching this campaign to raise money, awareness, and membership so that we can for once and for all stand up to the corrupt and unfair management practices that have plagued us for so long.  [emphasis added]”
And, like the other organizations, it never spoke out against the proposed cuts to NOAA Fisheries, even though there has been plenty of time to do so in this era of Voter Voice and Constant Contact and like applications, that allow messages and “action alerts” to be sent out to members with a minimum of delay.

Given the similarity of all the organizations’ positions, it’s not hard to believe that they all have the same motivations as well, although most of them probably realize that there could be political and public relations advantages to letting those motivations remain unsaid.

It's not hard to believe that they all want to escape the bounds of annual catch limits and stock rebuilding deadlines, and enjoy the sort of “freedom in our fisheries” that lets them overfish red snapper, or any other fish stock, should they have a mind to.  

It's easy to believe that they all feel “plagued” by, and wish to escape, the kind of “corrupt and unfair management practices” that use science and data to restrict anglers’ landings, instead of letting such landings by guided by the simple marketplace forces of scarcity and abundance, as they were before the Sustainable Fisheries Act was passed in 1996.

Given that, its also easy to believe that they would also be fine with the administration’s plans to cut money for data and science and, perhaps particularly, enforcement, tools that have historically been used only to restrict their “freedom” to fish without chafing rules.

The good news is that the administration budget needs to be passed by a Congress that doesn’t necessarily agree with all of its provisions.  In fact, this particular budget has strayed far enough from the norm that many people, including some well-known lawmakers, have called it “dead on arrival.”

Yet even if much in it is changed, some provisions will remain largely intact, and it is very possible that the cuts to NOAA Fisheries could be among them.

So individual anglers have their own choice to make.

They can do what the various organizations tell them to do, tell Congress to support the Modern Fish Act, and perhaps be able to kill a few more fish while they can still find enough fish to kill.

Or they can think for themselves, and think strategically.  

They can realize that without science-based management, without good data, without restored habitat and without good law enforcement, there’s going to be a time when they won’t be able to bring many fish home, regardless of what the regulations might be.  

And they can understand that, instead of asking Congress to weaken federal fisheries laws, they would be better off using their calls and letters to insist that their folks in Washington oppose cuts to NOAA Fisheries’ budget be restored, so that our fish populations can continue to be restored as well.

Because if those cuts survive, nothing else will really matter.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

OVERFISHING: BY ANY OTHER NAME, IT'S STILL WRONG


Overfishing isn’t good for fish stocks.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has observed that

“Overfishing transforms an originally stable, mature and efficient ecosystem into one that is immature and stressed.  This happens in various ways.  By targeting and reducing the abundance of high-value predators, fisheries deeply modify the trophic chain and the flows of biomass (and energy) across the ecosystem.”
People who hear the term “overfishing” have an instinctive understanding of what it means—taking too many fish for the health of a population—although many slightly different definitions of “overfishing” exist.  It is said to occur

or
Here in the United States, where all fishing in federal waters is governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, that law includes a definition of overfishing based on the health of fish stocks.  Pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens,

“The terms ‘overfishing’ and ‘overfished’ mean a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis.”
Such fishing mortality represents the aggregate number of fish killed as a result of fishing activity, whether such activity is recreational or commercial in nature, and whether the fish killed are harvested, represent dead discards or otherwise die as a direct result of fishing efforts.

Even so, in the minds of many people—and certainly in the minds of many, and probably most, anglers, overfishing is something done by the commercial fleets.  Often, such attitudes are justified; as noted by National Geographic magazine,   

“large, profit-seeking commercial fleets were extremely aggressive, scouring the world’s oceans and developing ever more sophisticated methods and technologies for finding, extracting, and processing their target species.  Consumers soon grew accustomed to having access to a wide selection of fish species at affordable prices.
“But by 1989, when about 90 million tons (metric tons) of catch were taken from the ocean, the industry had hit its high water mark, and yields have declined or stagnated ever since.  Fisheries for the most sought-after species, like orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, and bluefin tuna have collapsed.  In 2003, a scientific report estimated that industrial fishing had reduced the number of large ocean fish to just 10 percent of their pre-industrial population.”
Perhaps because of the obvious damage done by the industrial fishing fleets, anglers have rarely admitted or willingly accepted their role in overfishing fish stocks.  That can frequently be seen in the language used by various recreational fishing organizations.  The Coastal Conservation Association, arguably the largest anglers’ rights group in the country, proudly proclaims in its origin story that

“CCA began in 1977 after drastic commercial overfishing along the Texas coast decimated redfish and speckled trout populations.  14 concerned recreational anglers created the Gulf Coast Conservation Association to combat commercial overfishing.  [emphasis added]”

"The world of modern fisheries management is a complex and oftentimes contentious environment.  Many of our favorite recreational fisheries are imperiled due to habitat degradation and commercial overfishing.  Sadly, recreational fishing interests often take a backseat to commercial fishing practices.  The reason for this is simple.  Commercial interests are much better represented on management and political levels.  Recreational fishing as an ecologically friendly and economically viable alternative to unsustainable commercial fishing is a relatively new concept.  Thus, it is vital that recreational anglers are during the fisheries management decision making process.  Fisheries managers need to be shown that recreational fishing is a growing and vibrant entity of its own that has considerably participation and economic impact globally.  This cannot be done without active participation and interaction with fisheries management.  [emphasis added]”
While its impossible to disagree with the notion that recreational fishermen should be more involved with the management process—after all, the primary purpose of this blog is to encourage salt water anglers to do just that—it’s clear from the selections quoted above that angling organizations tend to present at least one aspect of the management process in black and white terms:  Recreational fishing is always a good thing, while commercial fishing is bad.

And it’s very possible to disagree with that.


“The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s marine hatcheries produce juvenile red drum, spotted seatrout and southern flounder for stock enhancement.  Stock is the release of hatchery-reared juvenile organisms into the wild to supplement the existing population.  It serves as a tool used by TPWD to manage the marine fishery along the Texas coast to ensure that harvest levels are sustained and stocks are replenished.  [emphasis added]”
Thus, despite CCA's willingness to criticize commercial overfishing, it seems unwilling to admit that recreational anglers can overfish and cause harm to stocks, too; instead of working to reduce recreational harvest to naturally sustainable levels, it instead champions the use of artificially-reared fish in order to keep the recreational kill high.

And just as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has adopted the more benign-sounding “stock enhancement” as a euphemism for “fish stocking,” CCA, along with other industry and anglers’ rights organizations, have developed their own euphemism for recreational overfishing. 

They call it “access.”


“would improve public access to America’s federal waters, promote conservation of our marine natural resources and spur economic growth.  [emphasis added]”
It would do that by, among other things,

“allowing alternative management for recreational fishing, …smartly rebuilding fishery stocks, [and] establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit.”
Right now, federal recreational fisheries, like commercial fisheries, are managed with annual catch limits designed to prevent overfishing, and require stocks to be rebuilt promptly, and within a time certain; the law requires fishermen to be held accountable if they overfish a given stock.

So in order to “improve…access,” the Modern Fish Act would allow “alternative management” that does not necessarily require annual catch limits, promptly (or, perhaps, ever) rebuilding fish stocks or holding recreational fishermen accountable for their overages.

In other words, it would “improve…access” by allowing anglers to overfish.

To get a good idea of how that works, it’s only necessary to look at what happened to Gulf of Mexico red snapper last summer.



“the approach will necessarily mean that the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit, which was designed to prevent overfishing the stock,”
and predicted that

“this approach may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as 6 years.”

“the increased angler catch will result in the overall catch limit for this year being exceeded by 30% and 50%,”
yet they still allowed the reopening.

So did recreational fishing organizations, including those who rail against commercial overfishing, object to the reopened season and the inevitable recreational overfishing that would result?

Hardly.

Instead, they praised the Department of Commerce’s action.


“Anglers commend the Trump Administration and Members of Congress for hearing our calls for more access to federal waters—and for taking action.  [emphasis added]”

“to improve recreational red snapper access after a record low three-day federal season was announced earlier this year.  [emphasis added]”

“the chefs are associated with the Gulf Restoration Network, which is an environmental group (there are others) intent on restricting public access to public resources (fisheries under federal management)…  [emphasis added]”
He went on to say make the statement that

“[the Coastal Conservation Association] contends that the recreational angling community is more committed to conservation of fishery resources than any proprietary group that exists in the marine world.”
Let’s think about those two claims for a minute.

The Gulf Restoration Network says that

“The health of Gulf fish are at risk because of overfishing by commercial and recreational fishermen.  The lack of scientifically based catch limits created significant problems for the Gulf.  Catch limits that were too high led to the decline of many fish populations including red snapper and goliath grouper…
“…To ensure that the Gulf supports healthy fish populations now and in the future, we support science-based management of fish.
·         GRN works with Gulf and national partners to set annual catch limits that rebuild fish stocks and prevent current and future overfishing,
·         Focus on the ecosystem as a whole, including stronger protections for fish habitat and better management and conservation of forage (or small “bait” fish) species that feed larger fish and other predators, and
·         Ensure a sustainable future for Gulf fish.”


“action to extend the Gulf of Mexico red snapper season is a welcome boon to anglers…
“…anglers are right to be encouraged by the willingness of this Administration and the snapper fishery.  This alone is a tremendous achievement.
“The recreational angling community should feel vindicated, and we should take heart that after years of being systematically sidelined by NOAA Fisheries, our efforts to encourage our elected officials in Congress to engage on this man-made management disaster are yielding results…”
So, asking the most obvious question first, who is really “more committed to fisheries conservation”:  The anglers of CCA, who cheered when the Department of Commerce allowed them to overfish red snapper in the Gulf, or the Gulf Restoration Network, which fights for annual catch limits that would prevent such overfishing?

At the risk of offending some folks that I know, I’d have to say that the Gulf Restoration Network wins that one…

But it’s probably the second question that deserves more attention.  What does CCA—and the Center for Sportfishing Policy and all of the other groups that support the Modern Fish Act and criticize current federal management efforts—mean when they say that managers are “restring public access to public resources” when they manage fish stocks?

The answer to that one can be found in the fact that they hailed the increased “access” to red snapper that resulted from last summer’s reopened season, even though it also was expected to cause them to overfish their quota by thirty to fifty percent.

Which leads to another, and most significant, question.

Had the shoe been on the other foot, and the commercial red snapper fleet overfished their quota by a similar percentage, would the angling groups have celebrated the fact that commercial and consumer “access” to the resource had increased by more than thirty percent?

Or would they have complained that the commercial sector had “overfished” by a substantial amount, and demand that the commercial fishermen be held accountable?

We’ll never know for certain, because the commercial red snapper fleet, unlike the anglers, have stayed within their quota for more than a decade.  But I think that we can all guess how the anglers would have reacted.

And that, in the end, tells us two things.

It tells us who is “more committed to the conservation of fishery resources,” because a committed conservationist holds the health of the resource paramount, and is willing to make sacrifices to assure that such health is maintained.

And it tells us that the various angling groups who talk about weakening federal fisheries laws know that overfishing is a bad thing.  So when they overfish, exceeding the annual catch limit and impeding the recovery of an overfished stock, they call it “improved access” in a clumsy effort to disguise what they’re doing. 

Perhaps it’s an effort to conceal it, most of all, from themselves, and prevent them from looking in the mirror and having to admit that they’re not the good guys anymore.

Because overfishing is bad, no matter what you call it.

And it’s not something that a “good guy” would do.



Thursday, February 15, 2018

THE COST OF CLOSING YOUR EYES


Over the past few weeks, Carlos Rafael, New Bedford’s infamous “Codfather,” has been back in the news.



Instead most of the stories didn’t directly involve Rafael himself, but instead NMFS’ decision to suspend the groundfish allocations assigned to “Sector IX,” the sector of the New England groundfish fishery to which Rafael belonged.

For those not familiar with that New England fishery, groundfish—or, more properly, fish managed under the Northeast Multispecies fishery management plan, which includes cod and related species, various flatfish and a handful of other things such as ocean pout, Acadian redfish and spotted wolfish—are managed under a unique hybrid system. 

About 55% of the fishing vessels participate in a catch share program, which assigns a defined percentage of the landings to vessels that have voluntarily grouped into 17 separate “sectors”.  Vessels within a sector are subject to less day-to-day regulation, in terms of trip limits, etc., but such vessels must stop fishing when their sector harvests its share of the fish (unless it can purchase or lease additional quota from another sector).  The remainder of the vessels participate in a traditional derby fishery, targeting the “common pool” of fish that remains once quotas are awarded to the catch share vessels.  Common pool vessels’ harvests are governed not by individual or sector quotas, but by trip limits, limits on the days that may be spent at sea, etc.

Sectors were generally established by fishermen from the same part of the coast, who shared a common gear type and targeted the same species.  According to the final environmental assessment that preceded the creation of Rafael’s sector, Sector IX,   

“Members of [Sector IX] would primarily land their catch in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and secondary ports would include Provincetown, Massachusetts and Point Judith and Newport, Rhode Island.  The primary fishing activity would occur on Georges Bank…and inshore southern New England waters…Some fishing, on a limited basis, could also take place within statistical areas in the Gulf of Maine…The primary gear for [Sector IX] would be trawl gear, although a limited amount of gillnets (<10 percent) may also be utilized.  [Sector IX] would consist of 51 permits, however, it is anticipated that only 22 active vessels would fish these permits.”
In reality, almost all of those 51 permits were assigned to vessels owned by Carlos Rafael.


“sector members may be held jointly liable for violations of the following requirements:  Annual Catch Entitlement (ACE) overages, discarding of legal-sized fish, and misreporting of catch (including landings and discards)."

If there is an overage,

“The overage(s) would be deducted from the next fishing year’s allocation(s) for those stock(s) for which the overage(s) occurred.  Because sectors are required not to exceed their quota, a sector that does so could be subject to enforcement penalties.
NMFS also requires each sector to file an operations plan, and have it approved by the agency, before it may begin fishing each year.

That being the case, and given both Rafael’s dominance of Sector IX and the extent of his illegal activities, it’s hardly surprising that, late last year, NMFS withdrew its approval of Sector IX’s 2017 and 2018 operations plans and ordered all Sector IX vessels back to port.  In taking such action, NMFS explained that

“The Regional Administrator determined that the sector and its participants have not complied with the requirements of their approved operations plan, and that the continuation of the Sector IX operations plan will undermine achievement of the conservation and management objections of the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan.  This action follows the guilty plea and sentencing of Mr. Carlos Rafael, a major participant in Sector IX, who admitted to falsely reporting catch information.”
It all would seem reasonable and in accord with the law.  However, a lot of people disagreed.  Virginia Martins, the president of Sector IX, reportedly called NMFS’ decision “surprising and troubling,” telling NMFS that

“Sector IX strongly believes that your initial determination was based upon incomplete information and respectfully asks that you reconsider your position.”
That’s sort of a puzzling statement, as there is no doubt that Rafael both overfished multiple sector quotas and intentionally misreported his landings.  And NMFS made it clear years ago that all members of a sector would be held jointly responsible should any sector member engage in such conduct.  

That being the case, the only “incomplete information” likely to bear on a question is an incomplete accounting of Rafael’s illegal landings.  His vessels might have poached a lot more fish than NMFS realizes right now…

But that’s not the way people are thinking up in New Bedford.


“The tying up of these vessels will deprive crew members opportunities to earn a living and it will eat into the revenues of shoreside businesses that support the industry.”
Such concerns might be valid, had such crew members been free of guilt.  However, it’s hard not to believe that they were Rafael’s willing co-conspirators, and were fully aware that 
something illegal was going on.

As the New York Times recently reported, Rafael was a larger-than-life figure on New Bedford’s waterfront, and he admitted that he’s been illegally harvesting fish for “over 30 years.”  It’s na├»ve to believe that no one knew what he was doing.  He didn’t earn the nickname “Codfather” by consistently obeying the law…


“Carlos Rafael has been well known in the commercial fishing industry for 30 years.  And for almost as long, federal law enforcement has heard rumors and concerns about Rafael acting illegally.”
If federal law enforcement had heard that kind of rumors for so many years, you can be sure that the facts behind the rumors were well-known, and well-discussed, on the docks and in the bars of New Bedford.  The fishermen, the ice houses and the other waterfront businesses knew just what sort of man they were dealing with, but they were willing to keep on dealing, and ignore his illegal activities, in order to share in the revenues that tons of poached groundfish brought to the port.

As the New York Times observed,

“Some people in New Bedford saw Mr. Rafael far differently—as a Robin Hood of sorts, with a pack of cigarettes and a dinged-up Silvarado.”
And so they looked the other way when their latter-day Robin Hood stole fish from the “rich” federal government and shared them with the “poor” fishermen.  But now that the Sheriff has Robin Hood locked up in his prison, the poor are asking him to overlook their complicity.

And yes, they were complicit.  The New York Times tells us,

“Mr. Rafael told the undercover agents that the captains knew of his schemes; Mr. Lelling, the prosecutor, said a decision was made to go after Mr. Rafael, and not the fishermen working for them.”
Had that decision gone the other way, at least some of those fishermen could have joined Rafael behind bars.

So it’s hard to feel any sympathy for folks who should be happy that they’re not sitting in jail, even if they’re not currently on the water. 

It’s hard to feel sorry for anyone in any fishery, commercial or recreational, who sees something wrong going on, and just looks the other way.  Such folks like to say that it’s none of their business but, in truth, it is.

Fish are a public resource, and every fish that we harvest—or catch and release—comes from the same resource pool.  When someone fishes illegally, taking more or smaller fish than the law allows, it does harm to that pool and so ultimately affects us all.

We might not be as clearly and directly affected as the folks in New Bedford, who benefitted from Rafael’s industrial-scale poaching, and have since suffered from federal regulators shutting off the flow of illegal cash, and forcing Sector IX to account for the damage it has done.  But we still suffer, as illegal harvest drives down the abundance of important fish stocks, and regulators must impose strict management measures that ultimately hold legitimate fishermen, who follow the rules, accountable for the poachers’ sins.

So we have to be careful to know who’s at fault.  Poachers aren’t our Robin Hoods, stealing NMFS’ riches on the public’s behalf.  They’re just resource pirates, out for themselves.

Back in the sailing ship days, pirates were deemed hostis humani generis, the enemy of all mankind, and could legally be apprehended, imprisoned and even summarily executed by anyone who encountered them, even if they had not suffered any loss at their hands.

In the same way poachers are the enemy of all legitimate fishermen, whether recreational or commercial.  While summary execution would be a little extreme, and more than a little illegal--we should never make the mistake of thinking them friends.

Providing state and federal law enforcement agencies with the information they need to take poachers down is, in the end, the right thing to do.

And as the fishermen in New Bedford have learned, looking the other way, and letting them continue to follow their illegal ways, is not just wrong.  It can prove personally costly as well.








Sunday, February 11, 2018

MANAGING FISH? SHOW US THE NUMBERS


One of the hottest issues in saltwater fisheries management is who—state or federal agencies—should have the power to manage the fish.
Federal fishery managers have a record of success. In 2000, 92 federally-managed stocks were overfished and 72 were subject to overfishing. By the end of 2016, thanks to the efforts of federal managers, only 38 stocks were still overfished and just 30 were subject to overfishing. Forty-one once-overfished stocks have been completely rebuilt.

However, such success hasn’t shielded federal fisheries managers from criticism.
The Center for Sportfishing Policy (Center) has complained that “current federal fisheries law is disenfranchising America’s recreational anglers,” and alleges that “Through their highly successful management of species like red drum, speckled trout, snook and numerous others, the states have demonstrated that they can successfully manage fisheries for both sustainability and access.”

“Access,” as that word is used by the Center, means less restrictive regulations that allow larger harvests.

A group of eight boating industry, angling industry and anglers’ rights organizations claimed that “The states have an outstanding track record of successful fisheries management, as evidenced by the numerous economically important and biologically sustainable fish stocks that are under state management, including red drum, speckled trout, snook and many others.”

But while it’s easy to say that species such as red drum and speckled trout are being well-managed by the various states, there is little or no hard data that supports such claims.
Federal fishery management, on the other hand, is data-driven.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) says that stocks must be managed for “optimum” yield, which is “prescribed as such on the basis of maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social or ecological factor.” A stock is “overfished,” and “overfishing” is occurring, if there is “a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis.”

Thus, if fishing mortality is too high to assure the stock’s continuing ability to produce the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), or if a fish’s abundance has fallen too low to produce MSY, federal managers are legally obligated to reduce fishing mortality and/or rebuild the stock. By definition, an overfished stock or one experiencing overfishing cannot be considered either well-managed or healthy.
State managers rarely employ such a clear set of standards. That makes it easy to claim that state-managed stocks are in good shape, as such claims are based on mere opinion, not on hard data.
Except that, at times, some data is there. That’s the case with both red drum and speckled trout, two species that are near the top of the list of fish caught, and of fish harvested, by anglers in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Center, and others, would have us believe that both are successfully managed, but the data tells us something else.
In the case of red drum, the most recent release of “Fisheries of the United States,” an annual report issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, notes that “Annual catch…has varied between 4.9 million fish and nearly 12 million fish over the last ten years, with an average catch of almost 8.7 million fish per year.” However, the 4.9 million drum caught in 2016 represented the lowest catch of the ten-year time series; it was even far lower than the catch in 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill limited fishing activity in a large portion of the Gulf.

Such declining catch numbers are usually a sign of declining fish abundance, and the need for more stringent management measures.

The red drum found off the Texas coast seem to be in a particularly bad condition. There, state fishery managers have apparently allowed recreational red drum harvest to rise to an unsustainable level, and so have had to resort to large fish hatcheries and artificially spawned fish to “ensure that [such] harvest levels are sustained and stocks are replenished.”

Reliance on such hatcheries is a tacit admission that the state does not maintain a healthy, self-sustaining red drum population, and directly contradicts the Center’s assertion that the states “can successfully manage fisheries for both sustainability and access.”
Speckled trout provide similar evidence of ineffective state management.
In Texas, speckled trout numbers and harvest levels are also propped up with hatchery fish. Elsewhere, populations are showing the effects of too much recreational “access” and too little regulation.

In 2001, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission released “The Spotted Seatrout Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico, United States: A Regional Management Plan.” It notes that various states have adopted conservation targets for speckled trout that range from an 18% spawning potential ratio (SPR) in Louisiana to a 35% SPR in Florida (SPR reflects the spawning potential of a fish population, when compared to the spawning potential of an unfished stock).

However, it’s not clear that such conservation targets mean much to some state fisheries managers.
Between 1981 and 2016, Louisiana saw speckled trout SPR drop as low as 8.7, with a median value of just 11 (in 2016, the SPR was 10), yet managers took no action to rebuild the stock to the conservation target. One Louisiana biologist noted, “The current limits, biologically speaking, are designed to maximize angler yield while not putting the stock into a condition where we may see recruitment overfishing.” He noted that state managers “walk the tightrope between getting full public use out of a renewable resource and harming a fishery.”

What constitutes “harming a fishery” is, like so many aspects of state management, a subjective judgment. While Louisiana claims to avoid “recruitment overfishing,” which occurs when too few fish are produced to replace those that fishermen remove from the population, anglers’ complaints about a dearth of larger fish suggest that Louisiana’s liberal size and bag limits—anglers may take home 25 speckled trout at least 12 inches long each day—have led to growth overfishing, which is described in the Sea Grant booklet “Understanding Fisheries Management” as what “occurs when the bulk of the harvest is made up of small fish that could have been significantly larger if they survived to an older age.”

Such growth overfishing, and the loss of bigger fish, is a threat to the stock because older fish tend to produce larger, more viable offspring. In addition, a population of older fish buffers the stock against consecutive years of poor reproduction; a lack of older, larger fish can place the population at a much greater risk of collapse.

Thus, the question of whether state or federal fishery management is “better” comes down to a question of values, not of data.
Those who prefer management measures that “are designed to maximize angler yield” and “walk the tightrope between full public use out of a renewable resource and harming a fishery,” will prefer to see fish managed by the states, which are not legally obligated to prevent overfishing or rebuild depleted fish stocks, and are not compelled to base management decisions solely on the health of fish stocks.
As Paul Diodati, the former director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries observed, with respect to striped bass, “The interstate fisheries management program [overseen by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission] does not reward a state or offer incentives for taking proactive conservation actions.”

On the other hand, those who are willing to forego a little bit of current yield to better assure that fish stocks will remain abundant well into the future will prefer the data-driven federal management system, which offers clear criteria that managers must use when evaluating stock health, and is under a legal obligation to prevent overfishing and promptly rebuild depleted populations.
As a sportsman, I have no doubt that such federal management, built on a dispassionate lattice of data, provides us with the best chance of meeting our greatest obligation: passing on to today’s children, and to generations yet unborn, healthy and abundant fish stocks, so that they, too, may know all of the joys that flow from the sea.
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This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/