Thursday, January 23, 2014


I’ve been involved with fisheries management issues since the striped bass collapsed back in the late ‘70s.  In that time, some things have gotten better, some have gotten worse and a lot has remained the same.

At the January meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, I was reminded of how little fishermen’s attitudes have changed. 

MRAC’s members represent a good cross-section of New York’s commercial and recreational fishing communities.  Most of the councilors derive at least some of their income from the harvest of marine resources so, human nature being what it is, MRAC decisions tend to favor profit over resource protection.  
At the January meeting, the hot topic was whelks.  Whelks aren’t high on many folks’ priority lists, but given all of the talk at the federal level about the need for “better science” in fisheries management, what went on at MRAC that day provides a pretty good look at how scientific data is actually received, understood and accepted by the folks who make the decisions as well as by the regulated fishing community itself.

Whelks are big snails native to the inshore waters of the northeast.  Historically, they were a minor commercial species in New York—often taken as bycatch in the Long Island Sound lobster fishery—that commanded a relatively low price.  Historically, many were sold to local seafood restaurants, where they were used in various pasta dishes and called “scungilli.”

Recently, a crash in New York’s lobster population, combined with increased demand in Asian countries, has led to increased whelk harvests.  In many states, biologists have noted a decline in the size and number of whelk that are available, and have begun to regulate this once unrestricted fishery.

In New York, the proposed regulation took the form of a minimum length of 5 ½ inches—the size at which whelk first begin to reproduce.

Fishermen immediately began to rebel, and the well-worn refrain that “If you do this, you’ll put me out of business” rang out at hearings, in calls to regulators and, ultimately, at the January meeting itself.

Fishermen claimed that whelk began reproducing while less than 5 ½ inches long, although there is no scientific evidence that is true (with the exception of one Rhode Island study which found that, at most, 10% might mature before reaching that size).

One fisherman waived a handout in a state biologist’s face, pointing to a graph and claiming that just a quarter of the whelks in Long Island Sound would be legal under the new rules.  She patiently explained the graph to him, which showed that about three-quarters of the whelk in the survey were 5 ½ inches long or larger.  But he kept pointing to the one bar on the graph indicating that a quarter of the whelk measured 5 ½ inches, and kept ignoring the bars for 6 inches, and 6 ½, and 7…

When the matter was brought before MRAC for formal discussion, the biologist mentioned that the new regulations should be in place by the spring of this year, which elicited the definitive comment of the discussion.

It came from a long-time councilor on the commercial side, who fished lobster in Long Island Sound and was completely conversant with the whelk fishery.  “If you put these regulations in for the spring,” he noted, “you’re not giving us time to dispute your data.”

Which pretty well says it all.

Because the sad truth is that, despite all the talk about science, most fishermen just want to hear that they can keep catching fish (or whelks).  “Good science” lets them keep catching; “bad science” restricts harvest.  “Good science” confirms what they want to believe is true; “bad science” forces them to face reality and make hard decisions about conserving the resource.

Thus, that MRAC member spoke with complete honesty.  He and his fellow fishermen had no desire to “validate” the data, or to “confirm” the data, even though the process of doing so might ultimately show that the data was wrong.  As far as the whelk fishermen were concerned, their job was to “dispute” the data, so that their harvest would not be reduced.

Almost all of the comments made to MRAC that day followed the same pattern.  The data was either declared wrong, or was completely ignored as fishermen talked about lost income, a declining lobster harvest or the rules in neighboring states.

When the vote was finally tallied, MRAC had narrowly rejected the whelk regulations.  Gruff elation erupted in the audience, with comments like “We showed ‘em” and “That’s right!” heard above the general din.  I was the target of disdain after I suggested that “eating the seed corn” by killing immature whelks probably didn’t bode well for the future of the fishery.

My friend Peg was in the audience that day.  She is an avid angler and an experienced field biologist, but relatively new to fisheries management issues.  As a scientist, she was appalled by the reaction of the crowd and their unwillingness  to consider either the data or the possibility that without regulations, their fishery might just collapse.

When she mentioned that after the meeting, I just smiled and said “Welcome to my world.”

And, unfortunately, I mean my world—not just my world as a conservation advocate, but my world as an angler.

The January MRAC meeting dealt with whelks, and with commercial fishermen, and commercial fishermen are often blamed for frustrating conservation efforts.  But anglers are often no better. 

In recent years, various spokesmen for the angling community have called for “better science” in fisheries management, then turned around and rejected the science when it said things that they didn’t want to hear. 
Perhaps the best—or the worst—example is the current effort by anglers’ rights groups to reshape the federal fishery management system, in order to avoid science-based restraints on their kill.

Just like my colleague on MRAC, they keep looking for ways to dispute the data.  But unlike MRAC’s vote on whelk, if those folks win, it will hurt us all.

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