Thursday, January 16, 2014


Managing East Coast fisheries was once a classic “Tragedy of the Commons” situation.  Fishermen from the various states competed among themselves for whatever fish were available, and meaningful conservation efforts were effectively unknown.

After the striped bass stock collapsed, Congress acknowledged that things had to change.  It passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984, which threatened any state that failed to comply with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s striped bass management plan with a complete closure of its fishery, imposed by the Department of Commerce.

It was a serious threat.  States, for the first time, worked together to restore the stock, and the concept of cooperative state management took root on the Atlantic seaboard.

Congress followed up by passing the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act in 1993.  That bill expanded the Commerce Department’s closure authority to all stocks managed by ASMFC.  The old days of anything-goes management were over.

However, even the Garden of Eden sheltered a malevolent serpent, and ASMFC’s cooperative management system also housed one snake in the grass.  And the name of that malignant reptile was, and remains, “conservation equivalency.”

Conservation equivalency was supposed to allow for differences between the various states, which hosted very different fisheries for the same species.  ASMFC would still develop a fisheries management plan designed to constrain fishing mortality below a set target.  States could either accept the ASMFC plan in all its particulars, or take advantage of conservation equivalency and adopt alternate regulations that, while different, would still keep landings acceptably low.

When the folks at ASMFC adopted conservation equivalency, they probably had good intentions.  But we know where a road paved with good intentions leads…

For many of us, it led to a dysfunctional summer flounder fishery.  For many years, flounder harvest had been governed by a set of coastwide regulations adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service.  But states began to complain about their effects on local fisheries, so ASMFC decided to allocate each state a discreet share of the recreational quota, based on anglers’ landings in 1989, and let them set their own “equivalent” regulations.

Unfortunately, ASMFC adopted that system just as NMFS began its spectacular recovery of the flounder population. The number and size of the fish increased quickly, the range of the species expanded, and the fishery soon looked nothing like it did in 1998.

But by then, the new allocation system was well established.  Northeastern states, particularly New York, saw their waters invaded not only by more flounder, but by larger fish than anyone had seen in years.  As a result, such states caught far more fish than ASMFC had allotted to them, and their regulations grew very restrictive in an attempt to avoid overages.  On the other hand, states from New Jersey south accounted for a smaller percentage of the harvest than they had before, yet still retained their original allocations.  As a result, they enjoyed comparatively liberal regulations.

Efforts were made to reallocate fish to match the new reality, but they were repeatedly rebuffed.  No state wanted to adopt more restrictive regulations, and none felt the need to cooperate with the few states that were shouldering most of the conservation burden.

The situation largely pitted New Jersey, which had been allocated over 39% of the recreational harvest, with its neighbor New York which, with 17.5% of the landings, had the next-highest share.  New Jersey anglers consistently enjoyed some of the smallest size limits and highest bag limits on the coast, while anglers in New York fished under the most restrictive regulations adopted by any state.

New York regulators often asked their New Jersey counterparts to share some of “their” fish, but without any success.  The spirit of cooperation just didn’t fill those Jersey boys’ hearts.

But finally, the spirit of change did fill the air.  Once NMFS restored the summer flounder, southern states actually had more fish than they could utilize.  Most became willing to share with their northern colleagues.  So last Tuesday night, I attended a hearing on Addendum XXV to ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Plan (the fact that there have been 24 previous addendums speaks volumes about what had gone before), to support a proposal that would have all the anglers between New Jersey and Rhode Island share their flounder and fish under a single set of regulations.

Right now, that proposal seems to have enough support to be adopted.  Certainly, it went over big in New York, where it won unanimous support at the hearing. 

But down in New Jersey, the flame of cooperation doesn’t burn very bright—if, in fact, it burns at all.  The New Jersey hearing was held last Monday.  Ahead of that hearing, leaders of the fishing community were haranguing anglers in an effort to shoot the regional management proposal down.

Tom Fote, a member of New Jersey’s ASMFC delegation, penned an article for the Jersey Coast Angler’ Association’s newsletter, which contained the following passage.

“New York has been pushing for mandatory regionalization with New Jersey for the last few years.  New Jersey and the Commission have rejected this course of action saying it should be voluntary.  Given the differences in the fisheries among New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, I have difficulty imagining how this would benefit New Jersey.  I have also seen this as a veiled attempt to reallocate New Jersey’s larger share of the summer flounder to the benefit of the other states… [emphasis added]”
Chris Zeeman, who holds one of New Jersey’s seats on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, also holds the similar views to Fote’s, noting that

“If regional management is approved, states will be forced to enter into regions, even if they vote against regional management.  Regional management will be similar to coastwide management and states’ allocations will be meaningless…If regional management will be similar to coastwide management, New Jersey should be concerned it will lose the flexibility to regulate its summer flounder fishery and control its own fishing future. [emphasis added]”
So much for cooperation…

Yet elsewhere on the coast, they try to emulate our mistakes. 

Down in the Gulf of Mexico, a coalition of industry and anglers’ rights groups are trying to rip red snapper management away from NMFS and hand it over to an interstate group similar to ASMFC, which would manage the stock “cooperatively”, deciding on issues such as size limits, bag limits, seasons and—yes—allocation.

Red snapper managers face a lot of the same problems that summer flounder managers faced up here, although snapper live a lot longer than flounder and mature a lot slower, so their problems are going to take a lot more time to solve.

However, NMFS has been rebuilding red snapper.  The rebuilding has progressed significantly farther in the western Gulf; east of the Mississippi, it is taking longer, perhaps because the eastern Gulf holds very few fish more than ten years old (red snapper can live for more than 50 years). 

If I was a fisherman in Texas or Louisiana, I’d jump on the state management bandwagon just as fast as I could.  They’d be fools if they let a chance to make their states the “New Jerseys” of the snapper fishery pass them by.

On the other hand, if I fished out of Florida, Alabama or Mississippi, I’d be having second thoughts, knowing that I’d probably be getting a very small share of the allocation pie.  I’d look at the way summer flounder allocations worked out for all of those states that weren’t New Jersey, and ask myself “When our snapper fully recover, will I be able to catch them?"

"Or will an old allocation hold down my harvest, just because folks in Texas and Louisiana won’t share?"

And yes, I’m sure that the people pushing state allocation down in the Gulf are telling folks now that the folks in Texas and Louisiana will be “cooperative.”

Maybe they will be, just like people say.  But up here, a decade or so ago, we were assured that the folks in New Jersey would be “cooperative” too…

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