Sunday, January 12, 2014

THE ELEPHANT IN THE COCKPIT

Right around New Year’s Day, one of my friends sent me a link to a guest editorial that had appeared in the Miami Herald.  It was written by John Brownlee, who earns his pay as a writer and as an editor for a couple of glossy fishing magazines.  The thrust of the piece was that recreational fishermen were getting short shrift from federal fisheries laws and the fishery management system.

You can find Brownlee’s op-ed at http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/12/29/3840120/all-fishermen-dont-belong-in-the.html.  It’s pretty short, but if you read it, you'll see that it covered a lot of ground.

Brownlee got some things right, made a few iffy statements and said a few things that were pure and unadulterated bull.  He raised more points than I can effectively address in a single essay.  I plan to come back from time to time and take a look at them all in the weeks to come.

Yet for all the ground that Brownlee covers, the thrust of his entire editorial can be boiled down to a single sentence that appears about a third of the way through the piece:  “A father taking his son to fish in the Gulf of Mexico will be put to the same strict standards that regulate commercial fishermen.” 

The line seems disingenuous, and intended to provoke an emotional response.  Perhaps that’s because Brownlee and his “anglers’ rights” colleagues are trying to weaken the most successful fisheries management law in the world.  Manipulating people’s—particularly legislators’—emotions and avoiding hard facts could be their route to success. 

Last spring, I happened to overhear the executive director of a big anglers’ rights group tell some of his fellows that “We have to get away from the fishhead stuff.”  “Fishhead stuff,” of course, means things such as science, data and the proven successes—or failures—of various approaches to management.  The kind of objective measures that don’t support an anglers’ rights agenda at all.

So Brownlee evoked the Norman Rockwell-like image of a father taking his son out to fish and juxtaposes it against the image, not of a single waterman earning his pay, but of “commercial fishermen” as a whole, thus evoking all of the negative connotations that the term “commercial fishermen” can have among anglers.

Negative connotations, because you and I know exactly how much damage a poorly-regulated commercial fishery can do.

However, if we want to be honest, we must also admit—in print and in public—just how much damage a poorly-regulated recreational fishery can do. 

Brownlee left that part out, but plenty of other anglers understand, particularly here in the northeast, where no fish is as important to the recreational community as the striped bass.  The stock has been in decline for a number of years, and striped bass anglers, many of whom still recall its collapse three decades ago, have been clamoring for more restrictive regulations, both on the commercial fishery and on themselves, to ensure that the stock does not collapse again. 

Last October, a peer-reviewed striped bass stock assessment was completed.  It clearly shows that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s striped bass management plan allows far too many fish to be killed.  Despite that assessment, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board overwhelmingly refused to reduce 2014 harvest to a more sustainable level.  ASMFC’s inaction dismayed a legion of responsible recreational fishermen, who have decided to take matters into their own hands and promote voluntary restraints on recreational harvest until ASMFC and state managers finally get around to doing the right thing.

So we see grassroots efforts such as the 1@32 Pledge 
https://www.facebook.com/groups/433685153423751/, a Facebook-based effort encouraging anglers to adopt a personal limit of one fish no less than 32 inches long, in lieu of ASMFC’s more profligate 2 @28. 

In Maryland, where immature bass just 18 inches long are fair game, state fisheries managers took advantage of ASMFC’s delayed response to the striper’s decline.  This spring, thanks to the 2011 year class—the only strong year class in the past decade—there will be lots of barely-legal bass in Chesapeake Bay.  Maryland will thus allow fishermen to kill 14% more fish than they could in 2013, despite the fact that the 2012 year class was the worst in history.  In response, Coastal Conservation Association Maryland has stepped in where the state would not, initiating a “My Limit Is One” campaign http://www.ccamd.org/?p=2020 in an attempt to better protect the striper’s future.

Such anglers understand something that Brownlee apparently does not.  They have seen the elephant in the cockpit, and know that elephant is too large to ignore.  For the elephant is made up of us.  It includes Brownlee’s hypothetical father and son, and all the other fathers and sons, along with daughters, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers and people who never had any kids at all, but who nonetheless averaged well over 22 million fishing trips just in the Gulf of Mexico (over 60 million trips nationwide) each year.  And that 22 million doesn’t include anglers in Texas; add Texas fishermen and the number of recreational trips taken in the Gulf would certainly climb well above 25 million, and maybe above 30 million, too.

But even 25 million recreational trips kill a lot of fish—over 65 million fish each year, not including whatever died off Texas. 

65 million dead fish provide a lot of good reasons to subject fathers and sons, and everyone else, to strict conservation standards.  It’s not unreasonable, and it’s not punitive.  It’s plain common sense.

Because nothing is more important to recreational fishermen than healthy populations of fish.  Fishing in an empty ocean is just not much fun. 

Millions of anglers, who take upwards of 25 million trips each year, can have a big impact on Gulf fish populations, just as commercial fishermen can.  They may not be able to empty out an ocean, but they can deplete local wrecks and reefs, and put enough pressure on already overfished stocks to slow or stall out a recovery.  In the end, that’s bad for all of us.

To keep it from happening, anglers and commercial fishermen alike must be subject to standards that avoid overfishing and allow overfished stocks to be promptly rebuilt.

Even the fathers taking their sons to fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

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