Thursday, February 27, 2014


Earlier this month, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership issued a report entitled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” (  The report is apparently intended to inform federal legislators during the run-up to the Magnuson Act reauthorization, and serve as a guide to how anglers want federal fisheries laws to work.

The problem is that I’m an angler, and you’re probably an angler, and there’s a pretty good chance that TRCP never asked any of us whether we shared this “Vision” of theirs.  I’m not sure who represents my point of view these days—the folks who once did have since changed their minds—but given how the “Vision” came out, I don’t think that anyone consulted them, either.  Yet, because of the people behind the “Vision”, it is going to be promoted as our agenda, whether or not we were asked, and whether or not we agree.

That said, the “Vision” report isn’t irreparably bad.  It contains some pretty good ideas.  But because it tries to please everyone connected to recreational fishing, it also contains some really awful suggestions that, on balance, outweigh the good.  After I read what was probably the inspiration for the “Vision” report—a paper produced by one of the report’s “contributors” about a year ago—I walked away from the folks responsible, even though I had worked with them for seventeen years.  Those bad parts are really bad…    

Do you remember Procrustes?  In Greek myth, he was a sort of innkeeper from Hell, who invited weary travelers to spend the night.  If someone was too tall and didn’t fit in his bed, Procrustes would just chop of their legs to fix things.  And if someone was short and didn’t use the full mattress, he was more than glad to stretch that squat body until it filled the available space. 

TRCP’s “Vision” is a sort of Procrustes’ bed for the angling community.  TRCP notes that

“The work to implement a national policy for recreational fishing will take a collective effort in which all segments of the recreational fishing community will need to come together and engage with fisheries managers, policymakers and other stakeholders to create a unified vision.” 
That sounds pretty nice in a Kumbaya sort of way, but when TRCP took it upon itself to “set the foundation for a management system that addresses the needs of anglers and industry,” it assumed an impossible task.

That’s largely because, despite wishful thinking, no “recreational fishing community” truly exists; rather, there are a lot of discrete and often mutually hostile interest groups that are involved with recreational fishing.  What is mother’s milk for one group is anathema to another.  The folks who contributed to the “Vision” report have been involved in their share of internecine squabbles, and know that as well as I do.

As far as anglers go, there are fish hogs who kill everything that the law allows—plus a few more—and anglers who never keep fish at all.  Most, including me, fall somewhere in between those extremes.  And as far as the angling industry goes, there are those who cater to the pigs, those who cater to the catch-and-release folks and the majority who sell to anyone with a dollar to spare—which usually means catering to the least common denominator, because that way, their doors are open to all.

To get all of those folks under the same big tent, the “Vision” report must also take a least common denominator approach.  It freely admits that conservation is important to anglers (the report makes 22 references to “conservation” in just 11 pages of text).  But when it becomes time to put words into concrete recommendations, conservation concerns are subordinated to economic and allocation issues that require weaker fisheries laws. 

Thus, the “Vision” will appeal to people who want to kill more fish, people who sell stuff to anglers who kill more fish and to people who run boats out to places where more fish can be killed.  It probably won’t be so attractive to those who want to promptly restore distressed fisheries, who enjoy an abundance of fish or who want to leave healthy fisheries behind for their children.

I’m one of the latter sort, and TRCP’s vision certainly doesn’t resemble mine.  But then, I’m probably never going to agree with headboat captains over in Sheepshead Bay, where enforcement folks can run out of summons books when they take on the poachers.  Yet those captains are part of the “recreational fishing community,” and if TRCP wants them to share in the “unified vision,” some compromises must be made.

I worry about fish stocks collapsing.  I have watched winter flounder, once the most abundant recreational fish in our bays, all but disappear.  Representatives of the local marine trades, bait dealers and tackle shops freely acknowledge that there’s a problem—but oppose any concrete efforts to fix it, out of fears that their incomes could fall.  Those folks are a part of the “recreational fishing community” too, and given TRCP’s emphasis on economics, a more important part of the “Vision” than my fellow anglers and I.

I’ve been involved with fisheries advocacy for a long time.  I don’t get paid for it, and it’s more work than fun—if I ever quit, I’d have to start sticking pins in my eyes to keep up the pain—but I’ve been an angler for all of my life, and I feel an obligation to leave something good behind for the generations that follow.  If there is anything that I’ve learned along the way, it is that the professed interests of fishermen and the fishing industry seldom coincide.

That doesn’t make intuitive sense, because fishermen are the industry’s customers, but it seems true just the same.

A decade ago, when I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, the debate over summer flounder was reaching is rhetorical peak.  The greatest opposition to needed rebuilding measures came from party boat operators and tackle dealers—members of the “recreational fishing community.”  If they had their way, the spectacular recovery of the summer flounder, which led to the abundance and the size of the fluke we enjoy today, might never have happened.  As an angler, do you share that “vision”?

Take that a step further.  Many—probably most—of the captains and mates on the for-hire boats also hold commercial licenses.  They’re more than happy to sell their passengers’ fish.  Do you think that their “vision” is anything like yours?

There is a reason that the Magnuson Act contains different definitions for “charter fishing” and “recreational fishing.”  The sectors’ interests and motivations just aren’t the same.  If they can’t be included in the same definition, why should we think that they can be included in the same “Vision”?

Maybe I’m a little sensitive about this, but I’m a veteran of the various striped bass fights here in New York, when conservation-minded anglers repeatedly squared off against a profit-minded industry.

I was here during the moratorium, when some Montauk boats engaged in “civil disobedience,” publicly landing illegal bass, to protest regulations that impeded their business.

I was here the only time that legislation outlawing commercial bass harvest had even a slim chance of passage, when the Montauk Captains’ Association refused to support the bill, because—well, a lot of them sold fish.

I was here in ’95, when striped bass were declared to be “recovered,” and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission said that it was OK to take two 28-inch fish.  New York’s striped bass anglers filled hearing rooms, asking that the state keep the old limits of one fish at 36 inches, while the for-hires and the tackle shops demanded two at 28.  There was money to be made by turning a gamefish into a panfish that could replace disappearing fluke, tautog and flounder in their customers’ buckets, conservation considerations—and public opinion—be damned. 

And I was here during the Amendment 6 debate, when the owner of a fishing website and magazine asked his readers whether they wanted harvest reduced, so that more big spawning females survived.  Anglers strongly preferred conservation, and the site owner said so at an ASMFC hearing.  Early the next morning, the shops and the boats initiated a boycott to punish him for representing anglers’ interests instead of theirs.

Based on such experience, when people talk about a “unified vision” of the “recreational fishing community,” I hear “the unified vision of the recreational fishing industry,” because the price that the industry imposes for “unity” is doing things their way—making sure that conservation never interferes with their business.

Which takes us back to TRCP’s “Vision”, and to this blog.

As  I wrote at the beginning of this piece, TRCP’s “Vision” isn’t mine. However, it might be yours—that’s up to you to decide.

To decide, you need information, and that’s not easy to come by.  Pretty soon, you’ll probably start reading a lot of articles hyping the “Vision” in the angling press.  But you’re unlikely to find much thoughtful analysis, and you probably won’t see any criticism at all, because advertisers would never approve.

So, beginning with this post, and continuing for the next three weeks, I’m going to be analyzing aspects of the “Vision”.  I’ll tell you what I think, and more importantly, why.  You might think I’m right or you might think I’m wrong, but in many ways, that doesn’t matter.

What really matters is that you think—long and hard—about how people want to change the Magnuson Act, and whether making such changes is the right thing to do.

And when the time for thinking is done, I’m going to ask you to follow up and to act—to contact your Congressmen, your fishing clubs, your friends—and tell them exactly what YOUR vision for fisheries management might be.

Because the industry doesn’t just have their “Vision.”  They have their staff and their lobbyists and a friendly press at their beck and call.

But we anglers, particularly we anglers who care about rebuilding and conserving the fish we depend on, have no one but ourselves.

But there are a lot of us.  And if we think and act and speak with the courage of our convictions, maybe—just maybe—that will be enough to win the day.


I’ve touched on a number of fisheries management issues over the short life of this blog.

The “One Angler’s Vision” series of posts that began with this post may well be the most important thing that will ever appear here.  There are about 11,000,000 salt water anglers in the United States, and right now, maybe two dozen people, representing a handful of business and fishing advocacy organizations, are getting ready to tell Congress and federal policymakers how the fish crucial to those 11 million anglers should be managed.  They will try to shape policies that may well determine whether your children’s children ever see a winter flounder, catch a codfish or experience the diversity of a healthy southern reef.

The TRCP’s “Vision” represents those folks’ effort to shape the fishery management process.  We can expect it to be rolled out in the press and at conferences, as its supporters try to create a bandwagon effect and win broad angler support.  But anglers should know what they’re supporting before they jump on that wagon.

So I’m writing this series, which reflects my own vision for the management process, to provide anglers an alternative to the stories they’ll read in an industry-friendly press. 

If you believe that it’s important for anglers to hear what I have to say, and if you think that this blog is worthwhile, I ask you to forward it to your fishing friends, and to anyone else who you might think is interested.  Mention it in a club newsletter, or post it on a Facebook page.  Just try to get out the word, and ask others to do the same, before the coming hype makes folks deaf to others' voices.

Maybe my vision is wrong, and TRCP got it right.  Maybe it’s the other way around.

But either way, anglers should decide for themselves, and not let a handful of industry folks and a few of their friends make the decision for them.

In case you’re interested, the whole series will look like this:

Part I:  The Myth of “Community”
Part II:  Managing for Abundance
Part III:  Groundfish and Gamefish
Part IV:  South vs. North
Part V:  The “Cooperation” Con
Part VI:  A Time for Visionaries

I hope that you read them and pass on the word.  And that you find them worthwhile.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Most people, even if they live in Nebraska and never saw an ocean, would probably agree that “overfishing” is bad and that stocks should not be “overfished”.  Which is probably why a lot of the same folks who want to weaken federal fisheries laws are trying to eliminate the term “overfished” from the Magnuson Act, and replace it with the term “depleted”.
“Overfished” has fallen out of favor, we’re told, because it suggests that fishermen are at fault every time that a stock declines (  And that is supposedly a bad thing.
The House of Representatives bought into that argument.  Its current draft bill to reauthorize—and emasculate—the Magnuson Act would remove all references to “overfished” stocks and instead call such stocks “depleted”.  
Apparently, the same Congressmen who deny that people can cause climate change feel free to blame declining fish stocks on global warming.     
The first institutional use of the term “depleted” in place of “overfished” probably occurred at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  That makes a certain amount of sense, since the term “overfished” only has legal significance in the Magnuson Act, which doesn’t apply to ASMFC.  It also made a kind of sense because some of the “depleted” stocks managed by ASMFC run up rivers either to spawn (river herring, Atlantic shad) or to spend their lives prior to spawning (American eel), and influences such as dams, which cut off access to much of the species prior inland range, might actually cause stocks to decline in the absence of any fishing at all. 
Of course, if dams and such placed the fish in great peril, fishing could only increase the risk to the stocks.  So one has to wonder why ASMFC waited so long before imposing meaningful restraints on fishing for shad and river herring, or why Maine fishermen may kill juvenile “glass eels” at all…
Because, in the end, fishing mortality is always a part of the problem, and that’s where the fans of “depleted” go wrong.  If a stock is facing increased stresses from climate change, habitat loss, disease, predation or some other factor, fishing mortality becomes a critical issue.
Here’s why.
There are only so many ways that a fish can die, or that a stock of fish can be forced into decline. 
Fish can be eaten, die of parasites or disease (Mycobacteriosis in striped bass), or be killed by a sudden change in the weather (speckled trout off Virginia and North Carolina this winter).  That all falls under the heading of “natural mortality”.
Or fish may be killed by fishermen.  Those fishermen may be recreational or commercial.  They may kill the fish by harvesting them, or by hurting them so badly that they die after (or, in the case of many commercial fisheries, before) being returned to the water.  But all fish killed by fishermen constitute “fishing mortality”.
"Total mortality" is a combination of both natural and fishing mortality.  
Because fish die, new fish have to be “recruited” into the population to replace them.  If the recruitment rate is equal to the total mortality rate, the population will remain stable.  But if recruitment falls below the mortality rate, perhaps because of environmental conditions on the spawning grounds (Chesapeake Bay striped bass), excessive predation on juvenile fish (southern New England/Mid-Atlantic  winter flounder) or interspecies competition (the “bottleneck” of Year 1 weakfish), the population will decline.
If a stock’s natural mortality rate increases, fishing mortality must be decreased to keep total mortality constant.  If fishing mortality isn’t cut (assuming that the recruitment rate doesn’t change), fish will be killed faster than they can be replaced.  Abundance will decline, and when it does, the stock won’t be “depleted” by conditions outside of human control.  It will be “overfished”.
The same thing holds true if recruitment declines while mortality remains constant.  Fish will again be removed faster than they can be replaced.  And again, the only realistic way to prevent a stock decline is to restore the balance between removals and recruitment by reducing fishing mortality.  Fishermen will need to kill fewer fish.  If they fail to do so, they shouldn’t escape responsibility by calling the stock “depleted”.  For it is truly “overfished”; reducing harvest would have fixed the problem.
It’s unfortunate, but fishermen seem to think that a big part of fisheries management is about blame.  If they can blame some outside agent—seals, dogfish, warm water, cold water, habitat loss, etc.—for a stock decline, they’ll argue that the decline wasn’t their “fault” and that they shouldn’t be “penalized” with harvest reductions as a result.
They just don’t seem to understand that, if the stock collapses, the reason for the collapse won’t matter; there still won’t be anything left to catch (for a recent, real-world example of this, see the earlier post “Of Stock Collapse, Shrimp and ASMFC” 
It’s a lot like a homeowner who has a neighbor that smokes in bed.  One day, the inevitable happens, and the neighbor sets his mattress on fire.  So the homeowner sees it and says “I told the guy to stop smoking at night; it’s his problem,” and doesn’t call the fire department.
Eventually the neighbor’s whole house is engulfed in flame, and the wind blows some cinders toward the homeowner’s abode.  He could get a hose and start spraying some water on his roof, to put out any cinders that might be smoldering there, but then thinks “Why should I go to the trouble.  I didn’t start the fire,” and in the end, does nothing.  He doesn’t even go outside, where he might have noticed the low orange flames when his shingles started to burn, because he didn’t do anything wrong, and he couldn’t see why he should be inconvenienced because his neighbor did something dumb.
And after the homeowner’s own house lay in crumbling ruins, and everything that he owned or valued was reduced to ash and char, he calls out and says, “I didn’t sit idle and let my house “burn”, it was “ignited” by my neighbor.  I had nothing to do with it.”
But “burned” or “ignited”, the house was still gone, and the homeowner could have kept that from happening.
In the same way, whether we call them “overfished” or “depleted”, overstressed fish stocks will still collapse, unless managers cut harvests to prevent it.
Merely changing a word will not change that reality.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Back when I was in junior high—or maybe it was high school, I can’t quite recall—one of the books that we had to read was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

You probably had to read it, too, but if you didn’t, the plot generally traces the fate of a group of boys in wartime, who end up alone on a desert island after surviving a plane crash.  It describes how, left on their own and without the strictures imposed by adult society, the boys devolved into an undisciplined and ultimately destructive state, and eventually began murdering their own.

About the same time that I first read that tale, my own testosterone-spawned aversion to discipline and order manifested itself.  Friday and Saturday nights were a time for celebration, and the simple phrase “My parents won’t be home” murmured into the phone was a clarion signal that, for a while, the rules need not apply.

I look back at those days with some embarrassment now.  And I reflect on how, in so many ways, the fishery management system remains stuck in adolescence, and never found a way to grow up.

It goes back to the beginning, or at least the beginning of modern times, when the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, the forerunner of today’s Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, first became law. 

Much of the impetus for passing such legislation was a desire to push highly efficient—and thus highly destructive—foreign fishing fleets away from American shores, and to help U. S. fishermen to thrive.  However, as the name suggests, fisheries conservation and management were part of Congress’ motivation, too.

In those days, as today, the law required that fish stocks be managed for “optimum” yield.  But back then, the definitions were a bit different.  “Optimum” yield was

prescribed on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as modified by any relevant social, economic, or ecological factor… [emphasis added]
That almost sounds reasonable.  But fishermen, like adolescents, don’t really care for rules, and are habitually testing their limits.  And when they pushed up against that word “modified,” they found out that they really had very few limits at all.

“Maximum sustainable yield” (“MSY”) is the generally-accepted overfishing threshold; take more than that, and the harvest becomes unsustainable—the size of the fish stock will decline, and the size of the harvests will eventually decline as well, although skilled fishermen will often be able to land a lot of fish right up to the time that the stock collapses, just because they know how to find whatever scraps remain.

Thus, biologists view MSY as a line that never be crossed.  In the real world, prudent managers try to keep harvests well below that level, simply because there is always some uncertainty in the science, and landings can’t be predicted with absolute accuracy.

But back in the early days of federal fisheries management, the fishermen who peopled the regional fishery management councils viewed maximum sustainable yield a little differently.  They didn’t want to set quotas below MSY, because that would just be leaving money on the table.  Then fishermen—who might be the council members’ friends and neighbors, and in any event looked a lot like the folks making the rules—would come to a council meeting to complain that if the quotas weren’t increased, their incomes would be slashed, and maybe they’d have to sell their boats and take a shoreside job.

And that’s where the word “modified” in the definition of “optimum” yield came in.  It gave the councils carte blanche to raise quotas well above MSY for “social and economic” reasons, while still constraining harvest to “optimum” yield.

The fishermen—including those sitting on the councils—grasped, childlike, for instant gratification, while giving no thought to the future consequences of doing so.  But those consequences were as inevitable as time and tide:  Fish stocks crashed.

Summer flounder bottomed out around 1990; a few years later New England groundfish stocks dropped so low that their collapse became news not just in local papers, but on national television and in The New York Times.  Plenty of other stocks, from South Atlantic snapper to Pacific rockfish, followed the same depressing trajectory.

The kids had gone too far, and it was time for the grownups to regain control.

So Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which required federal fisheries management plans to promptly end overfishing and, if biologically feasible, rebuild overfished stocks within ten years.  “Optimum” yield was redefined in a way that no longer permitted perpetual overfishing; after 1996, it was to be

prescribed on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant social, economic, or ecological factor… [emphasis added]
In response, the regional fishery management councils adopted a truculent attitude, and still pushed to see what they could get away with.  The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council adopted a summer flounder management plan that only had a 17% chance of successfully meeting the Sustainable Fisheries Act’s mandates, then sat quietly and watched to see whether they’d get away with it.

As things turned out, they got their knuckles rapped.  The Natural Resources Defense Council brought suit challenging the summer flounder plan, and when the court handed down its decision ($file/99-5308a.txt), it was very clear that the Council had failed its test, and had some remedial work to do.  Federal fishery management plans unlikely to timely recover the stocks would no longer make the grade.

The federal fishery management process was finally coming of age.  Fishermen had to start taking responsibility for their past excesses, and accept the harvest cuts that they should have adopted a couple of decades before. 

Enforced responsibility is never popular, and the fishermen responded predictably, crying and complaining that the cuts weren’t fair.  They blamed the law and the regulators and the scientists.  They blamed anyone who wanted to conserve the fish.  As they wailed and thrashed and threatened, they blamed everyone except themselves.

But the law did not yield to intemperate outburst.  Fish stocks started to rebuild, at least, in places where councils had matured into their responsibilities, and proved willing to cap harvest at sustainable levels.  In places like New England, fishermen still wheedled their way out of the chore of rebuilding depleted stocks.  And the council encouraged their continued irresponsibility by shunning the “tough love” of hard caps on harvest, and instead indulged them with ineffective half-measures such as restrictions on days at sea.
In the end, as before, New England fish stock suffered.  So did the fishermen, because they had no one willing to straighten them out and set them on a sustainable path.

Unfortunately, the folks in New England weren’t alone.

At the same time that the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act were proving successful in federal waters, fisheries management in the states, coordinated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, stubbornly refused to mature. 

The Magnuson Act’s strictures didn’t apply, and without the supervision of law or the courts, the fishermen on the Commission, who outnumber professional managers by a two-to-one ratio, acted without restraint.  They frequently ignored the advice of both their scientists and their advisory panels, in order to kill more fish.  They allowed overfishing to continue, and refused to rebuild overfished stocks.

For depleted fish stocks, it was a Lord of the Flies moment protracted over decades.  Stock after stock was figuratively impaled upon a stick, and their lifeblood allowed to drip freely into the ground.  Stocks of formerly abundant tautog, winter flounder, shad and river herring, among others, all managed irresponsibly, slid toward depletion at the same time that, in federal waters, formerly depleted stocks were returning to abundance.

Now, in the U. S. House of Representatives, a bill being advanced by Rep. “Doc” Hastings of Washington would remove the most important legal constraints that now bind federal fisheries management.  The proposed legislation would insert abundant language into current law, language that, like the old word “modified”, will give fishermen more opportunities to overfish once again.  There are even provisions that would allow the councils to avoid rebuilding stocks altogether, if doing so might force a little unwanted restraint or otherwise prove inconvenient.

Hastings seems poised to announce that the adults will be taking an around-the-world cruise, and that the kids are going to have to take care of things while their parents are gone.

That’s probably not a good idea.  It would be better to keep the adults in the room.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Last fall, a photo showing a number of large, dead striped bass piled up in the stern of a New York party boat made its way around the Internet, where it caused anger and consternation among anglers concerned with the declining health of the striped bass stock. 

The photo was just one of a number of similar pictures posted by various for-hire vessels.  What bothered a lot of anglers about the photos wasn’t just the number of prime breeding fish killed—although that was bad enough—but the language used to promote the action. 

The party boats called it a “Striped bass slaughter!” or words to that effect; promotional photos showed crewmembers standing up to their knees in piles of dead bass.  Breathless reports described how every angler on the boat was able to “limit out” and kill two big fish.

If you had heard some of the descriptions, and didn’t know that people were talking about striped bass, you might have thought that the boats were proclaiming a great victory against a hated enemy that threatened their lives and their homes.

But even then, if they were talking about warfare, you might expect to hear someone express some measure of respect for the skill, honor or courage of an opposing warrior.  Here, there was no sign of respect at all.

That was unfortunate.  Folks who lack respect for their quarry really aren’t sportsmen at all.

In The Old Man and the Boy, Robert Ruark looked back on a conversation with his grandfather—the “Old Man”—in which he was told

“A sportsman, is a gentleman first.  But a sportsman, basically, is a man who kills what he needs, whether it’s fish or bird or animal, or what he wants for a special reason, but he never kills anything just to kill it.  And he tries to preserve the very same thing that he kills a little of from time to time.  The books call this conservation.  It’s the same reason why we don’t shoot that tame covey of quail down to less’n ten birds.”

Ruark’s Old Man probably would have disapproved of the way the party boats—and a lot of private boats, too—treated the striped bass south of Long Island last fall.  It’s pretty certain that he wouldn’t have liked their tasteless promotion of the “slaughter.”  And he would only have shaken his head at how, in their frenzy of killing, none gave any thought to “preserve the very same thing that he kills.”

Fortunately, there are groups of sportsmen who still cling to the ideal.  In an earlier post, I pointed out the good efforts being made by folks such as Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, with their “My Limit is One” campaign, and those who created that “One @ 32 Pledge” page on Facebook.  But I don’t want to be parochial, and concentrate on folks in the northeast.  There are sportsmen working hard to protect marine resources all around our coast, and they deserve some recognition, too.
Down in Florida, one group has proven themselves to be giant-killers.  They call themselves “Save the Tarpon” (  Save the Tarpon isn’t part of any national organization.  They are just a bunch of fishermen, guides and other people who got tired of seeing their local tarpon and their local tarpon fishery abused by people who seemed to have no respect for the fish or for other fishermen.  But they are also sportsmen determined to make things right.
For the Save the Tarpon folks, things probably started going wrong when the “Boca Grande jig” was introduced into the waters of Boca Grande Pass, which support what is arguably the oldest and best-known tarpon fishery in America.  The Boca Grande jig differs from typical jigs in that both its weighted lead head and its body hang below the bend of the hook.  Tarpon aren’t expected to actually strike the lure; it is designed to snag tarpon in the head.
The jig rapidly became popular, as it allowed fishing guides’ customers to hook up regularly even when tarpon were not striking the live baits that anglers traditionally drifted through Boca Grande Pass.  Because boats need to stay directly above the tarpon in order to snag them with the jig, the snaggers’ presence made it very difficult for ethical anglers to fish the pass successfully.  
(Some might object to my use of the word “ethical” here so, in order to avoid any possible misunderstandings, let me be perfectly clear:  Sportsmen don’t intentionally snag gamefish.  Such conduct demonstrates a marked disrespect for the fish involved; it allows an angler to score a “cheap” win, hooking up without the effort required to entice a reluctant fish to strike.)
Following close on the heels of the snagging came a glitzy, televised tournament that brought additional jig boats crowding into the pass, further displacing local fishermen.  Tarpon caught in the tournament were unnecessarily stressed by being dragged—generally by gaffs punched through their lower jaws—a substantial distance to a weigh station before being hauled onto a scale before being set free.
That was too much for the Save the Tarpon folks to take; they felt that the jig fishing not only displaced traditional anglers, but also caused the tarpon to change their behavior.  They also believed that far too many tournament-caught tarpon died after release.  So they adopted the simple message “Respect the Fish; Respect the Pass,” set out to outlaw the jig and took on the folks who abused it, including the tournament promoters.
I can’t describe everything that happened it this brief post.   I’ll just say that Save the Tarpon stood in defense of the fish and the pass, and that things got pretty ugly as a result.
Last September, thanks to Save the Tarpon’s unceasing efforts,  Florida regulators adopted new rules which require that tarpon be released promptly (no kill is permitted unless a fish is a potential world record), and prohibit removing tarpon more than 40 inches long from the water.  The use of the “Boca Grande jig” in Boca Grande pass was outlawed (
Save the Tarpon won a complete victory, and its accomplishments should serve as an example and an inspiration to sportsmen everywhere on the coast. 
Those who support ideals of conservation and respect for the resource really can prevail.
But what is most inspiring about the Save the Tarpon folks is that they’re not done yet.  They are expanding their recent success at Boca Grande into a new effort called simply “Respect the Fish” (, which promotes the traditional sportsman’s ideals.  They note that
“Fishing is both a privilege and a responsibility, and each one of us is a steward for the resources we cherish.  It is both our responsibility and our privilege to ensure the longevity of our resources so that future generations can follow in our footsteps to make the same memories we have made, and live the adventures we have lived.
“Because, as we know, a fisherman’s life is a journey.
“It is our outright obligation and our duty to ensure longevity and sustainability of our fisheries while we take the journey.  Those of us that live this Code understand it is also our obligation and duty to enjoy the hell out of this journey while we do…”
Those are the same sort of sentiments that gave birth to this blog.  And I couldn’t have expressed them any better.
“Respect the Fish” really says it all.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


In February, aspiring candidates for seats on regional fishery management councils must get their names in to governors’ appointment secretaries, and hope that something about their purported qualifications will catch a governor’s eye.  It is a highly political process, with representatives of national organizations representing conservation and fishing industry interests bringing whatever pressure they can in support of their chosen candidates.

Such efforts are made, of course, because the regional fishery management councils are effectively responsible for setting marine fisheries policy in the United States.  Thus, the various organizations are intent on advancing the names of candidates who will further—or, at the worst, not hinder—their corporate objectives.

The candidates usually have their own interest-driven agendas. Almost all are related, in some way, to the recreational or commercial fishing industry, although there have been a handful of folks appointed (including, about a decade ago, myself) who are merely recreational fishermen, and an even smaller number (offhand, I can only think of one) who represented mainstream conservation groups.

Ask most of the industry representatives why they are seeking appointment (apart from the money—council members are paid a per diem rate based on the same government pay grade applied to a brigadier general; if you know how to play the system and take advantage of the meeting schedule, you can get some pretty nice checks), and you’re likely to hear “to support my industry” or perhaps “to support my sector.”

That’s too bad, because when you hold a council seat, your job is to act in the best interests of the nation.  All of the nation, including the folks who you might not particularly like.  While you are expected to bring the experience and perspectives you’ve gained as a commercial fisherman, charter boat captain or angler to the table, so that everyone on the council can gain an appreciation for the needs and concerns extant in each fishery, when it comes time to a vote, you are supposed to put your own personal, industry and sector concerns aside and make a decision that is right for the nation as a whole.

That ideal is honored as much in the breach as in practice, sometimes because people who become council members didn’t really understand what they’re signing up for, sometimes because the people appointed couldn't care less about ideals.

Thus, when I was thumbing through the fisheries news a couple of weeks ago, it was refreshing to read an article from the Albany (Oregon) Democrat Herald.  It said that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was seeking folks interested in a seat on the Pacific Fishery Management Council (  And it noted that

“… the ideal candidate would be knowledgeable regarding the conservation and management of fishery resources off the West Coast.  Specific knowledge and experience on management issues and fisheries is also important as well as a strong conservation ethic.  They must also work collectively with other council members to make difficult decisions to end overfishing and fulfill other standards set forth by the Magnuson Act…”
Imagine if we had had candidates like that up in New England for the past 15 or 20 years! If the New England Fishery Management Council was filled with folks with “a strong conservation ethic” willing “to make difficult decisions to end overfishing,” we might have a recovered cod stock today, rather than a depleted population and a groundfish fleet rapidly transitioning toward irrelevance.

Winter flounder might be as abundant as they were thirty or forty years ago, not just the scattered remnants of stocks that we see today, remnants of stocks that have collapsed so badly that inbreeding has become a recognized threat.

In the Mid-Atlantic, council members with “a strong conservation ethic” might have adopted real and meaningful measures to protect anadromous forage fish—American shad, hickory shad, alewives and blueback herring—from bycatch losses in small mesh trawl fisheries.  Perhaps such council members would have been more concerned about the impacts of trawls on hard bottom habitat, or on tilefish habitat at the edge of the continental shelf.  Perhaps they would have even addressed the problems posed by abuses in the federal-waters tautog fishery.

In the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, maybe council members “willing to make the difficult decisions to end overfishing” would have found something better to do than think up new ways to avoid rebuilding red snapper and increasing the size of their kill.  Perhaps they would finally have taken a more holistic approach to reef fish management, and acknowledged that a seemingly minor species could bear a striking resemblance to a spring in one of their fishing reels—not a big part, but even so, something that the whole system just doesn’t work well without.

If they truly had “a strong conservation ethic,” council members in the southeast region might even acknowledge an unspoken and very inconvenient truth that has gone largely ignored so far:  Southern reefs are models of biodiversity, but the actual biomass is pretty low.  In other words, a lot of different kinds of fish live on the reefs, but the habitat is less productive than that normally found in cooler and more fertile seas.  If they admitted that fact, they’d also have to admit that long open seasons aren’t appropriate for southern reef fisheries; even if some stocks could support them, the bycatch of fish from stocks that couldn’t would be far too high.

That would be a “difficult decision” indeed…

And that explains why, today, Oregon stands alone.  In seeking council members with “a strong conservation ethic” willing to “make difficult decisions to end overfishing”, Oregon is seeking the same sort of people that the fishing industry tries to exclude.

Up in New England, the groundfish fleet is always thinking up new ways to evade the spirit of federal fisheries law, in order to kill more cod, flounder, haddock—fill in the blank with just about anything that swims and can be sold at a profit—than can be justified by science or even by common sense.  In the Mid-Atlantic, the recreational fishing industry, with help from the commercial side, has weakened measures intended to hold fishermen accountable for exceeding their allotted quotas.  And in the southeast, anglers’ rights groups are not only clamoring for an increased kill; they are trying to escape the constraints of federal fisheries law, so that their kill can exceed anything that the generally accepted science will allow.

It is not a pretty picture, and it has grown uglier since I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Council about a decade ago.

But there is hope.  We just need to get to work, and try to hasten the day when qualifications for council appointees from every state look like the qualifications for council appointees from Oregon.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Do you remember fishing for winter flounder?

If someone said that I’d be asking that question half a lifetime ago, I would have called them a liar.  Flounder were a year-long fishery then; you could catch them in the winter if the bay was ice-free, and you could find enough for dinner near the inlets when the summer sun was high.

They were a fixture of my childhood.  When I was eight or nine years old, on days like Good Friday when we didn’t have school, a bunch of us would meet at one of the boatyards.  We weren’t supposed to be there, but the yard hands would look the other way as we wandered out onto the finger piers to catch flounder and tomcod off the docks.  

From the time that our boat went into the water in the spring until it came out around the first of November, my father, mother and I spent most of our Sundays fishing for flounder—and whatever else might bite, but mostly for flounder—off the western Connecticut shore.

As I grew older, the flounder were always there.  No spring break from college was complete without a trip to the town beach, where I’d toss out a line and catch the flounder that swarmed just a dozen yards from shore.

When I was in law school, and met the woman who I would eventually marry, it turned out that flounder were one of the many things that we had in common.  Her grandfather loved to fish, and had taken her flounder fishing on party boats since she was a little girl.  She told me stories of fishing through February snow in search of the season’s first flatfish, and I suspect that such early adventures explain how she managed to put up with my antics for the past 30+ years.

For many years, we celebrated the coming of spring with a dinner of asparagus fresh from our garden and flounder fresh from the bay.  It was a sort of affirmation that despite all of the things that can happen over the course of the year, winter was over and the world was still spinning as it should.

But that ended quite a few years ago.

The flounder that once seemed to pave the bottom of every bay and estuary between Delaware Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence have grown scarce.  Those that make up what biologists call the “southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock,” found in all the waters south of Cape Cod, are particularly troubled.

Biologists started to notice back in the ‘80s.  The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted management plans and recommended management measures that would supposedly rebuild the stock.

Unfortunately, like so many other measures adopted by ASMFC, they always sought to do too little, too late, and needed restrictions were always watered down to appease the commercial and recreational fishing industries, which insisted on squeezing the last possible dollar out of the stock before it finally collapsed.

Because flounder are the first inshore fish to become active in the spring—for many years, St. Patrick’s Day was the traditional start of the season—and flounder fishermen are the first anglers to begin drifting into tackle shops as the weather starts to warm, representatives of the tackle dealers and the party boat fleets fought hard to keep the seasons long, the size limits short and the bag limits high.

Studies done by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation shortly after the Second World War recorded harvests that would be considered unsustainable today.  When New York first proposed to restrict recreational landings in the late 1980s, party boat owners fought reasonable bag limits, arguing that their customers would stop coming unless they had the “perception” that they could still make a big kill.

Ten years later, it was clear that the flounder was in pretty serious trouble.  By then, I was a member of ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel.  It is a discouraging job; the very concept of flounder conservation seems anathema to decision makers at the Commission.  

I attended ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Management Board meeting in February 1999 when, in order to end overfishing, every state between Massachusetts and Delaware would be forced to cut harvest.  The Management Board responded decisively.  In a unanimous vote, it suspended enforcement of the management plan's compliance measures.  That way, states could keep their old regulations, and fishermen could keep overfishing. 

It was one of those things that could only happen at ASMFC.

The flounder stock responded in a predictable manner.  It crashed.  The fish that once seemed to line the bottom of every bay, sound and creek on the coast all but disappeared.

Sometimes, you hear people use the term “last buffalo hunt” to describe what is happening to fisheries.  Usually, they use it to describe the incessant overfishing of charismatic, buffalo-sized animals such as bluefin tuna.  But considering how ubiquitous the buffalo used to be, and how far its numbers fell, the real “last buffalo hunt” is all about winter flounder.

In 1985, anglers took home about 16.3 million winter flounder.  Ten years later, that number had fallen by an order of magnitude, to 1.4 million.  Ten years after that, recreational landings fell by another order of magnitude, to just 0.175 million fish—about 1% of what was harvested 20 years earlier.

In 2009, responding to a 91% reduction in the spawning stock, the National Marine Fisheries Service prohibited landings of southern stock flounder caught in federal waters.  However, the ASMFC commissioners could not bear the thought of completely halting the kill.  Although the Winter Flounder Advisory Panel unanimously favored a moratorium, the Management Board set a recreational bag limit of two fish, a size limit of twelve inches, and a season sixty days.  A commercial trip limit of 50 pounds was also allowed. 

So by 2013, recreational harvest had fallen by another two-thirds, to less than 0.05 million pounds.
The southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock was in deep trouble.  Research done at New York’s Stony Brook University found that abundance has fallen so low that flounder are now threatened by inbreeding (  ASMFC’s own Stock Status Overview ( shows the stock on a “depleted” trend, overfished and at just 16% of the spawning stock target.
In an effort to convert inevitable dead discards into harvest, and incidentally provide some economic relief to New England groundfishermen, the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to permit some landings of southern stock winter flounder.
That was all ASMFC needed to know.  Last Tuesday, its Winter Flounder Management Board ignored its Advisory Panel, its Technical Committee and ASMFC’s own evaluation of the status of the stock, and voted to increase the kill of southern New England/Mid-Atlantic winter flounder by quintupling the length of the recreational season.
State seasons which once ran from April 1 through May 30 may now run from March 1 through December 31.  Thanks to ASMFC, anglers will now be able to kill flounder while they’re spawning, after they’re done spawning, and when they bunch up in at the inlets before leaving the bay.  They’ll be able to kill the resident fish during the summer when they are congregated in their cool-water havens.  And they’ll be able to kill the migrant fish as they return in the fall, before they can spawn again.
Apparently, the Management Board felt that if people could kill the dwindling stocks of flounder on the offshore grounds, anglers fishing inshore waters should be able to kill them off, too.
On the other hand, a motion directing the Technical Committee to examine the possible benefits of a moratorium was resoundingly rejected.

Management Board?  Perhaps “Extermination Board” would be a better title.  Because the only thing that it’s “managing” right now is the southern stock’s final demise.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


One of the advantages of having an undergrad degree in English is that, after reading a lot of great literature, you notice when life imitates art. 

For the past few years, as I watched the debate on Magnuson Act reauthorization begin to take shape, I kept being reminded of William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming”.  And I kept thinking that the political process shouldn’t resemble an apocalyptic vision…

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

If you are an angler concerned with the future of America’s fisheries, perhaps someone who is pleased with the Magnuson-inspired recovery of summer flounder, scup and black sea bass stocks, you probably appreciate the need for strong federal fisheries laws.  But the largest recreational fishing organizations disagree.  Working with their partners in the fishing and boatbuilding industries, they are determined to weaken the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act.  They are even trying to take away federal managers’ authority over some species, and grant such authority to the states.  They take no heed of your concerns. 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In 1996, when the Sustainable Fisheries Act was signed into law, and again in 2006, when the Magnuson Act was last reauthorized, representatives of the recreational fishing community worked with Congress to enact laws needed to rebuild and conserve fish populations.  Despite strong industry opposition and continual, rabid attacks from the anglers’ rights crowd, they stood strong, and helped to forge legislation that was good for fish and fishermen alike.

Today, the organizations which once fought so hard and so well to conserve our fisheries have turned against their own works.  They have abandoned the discipline of the Magnuson Act for the wild anarchy of regional panels such as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission which, free of any legal constraint, may ignore the best science and condone overfishing with impunity.  Those who once sailed under the banners of conservation have since hoisted the skull and bones of “anglers’ rights,” and seek to kill fish in quantities now forbidden by both the science and the law.

Although I served on the executive board of one of those groups for seventeen years, I still don’t understand why former champions of conservation chose to abandon their path.  It takes a lot of moral courage to stick to your principles day after day in the face of fervent and often irrational attacks from the anglers’ rights crowd, and fighting off incessant criticism from ignorant chat board warriors and members of the angling press can be tiring.  Maybe their convictions just eroded away over time.  But when a high-level staffer at one of the groups—who nominally headed its conservation efforts—told me “Nobody wants to be a dead hero,” I knew that his stomach for the fight was gone. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!  Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with a lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Have you seen the “discussion draft” of the Magnuson reauthorization bill released by the House of Representatives?  The enviros call it the “Empty Oceans Act,” but it’s formal name is the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act”—which is how you say “Empty Oceans” using a lot more words.  You’ll note that neither “fish” nor “conservation” are found anywhere in the title.  They won’t be found in a lot of our waters, either, if this misbegotten bill becomes law.

“Empty Oceans” is a dismayingly ugly thing built from an unnatural assemblage of parts. 

Today, Magnuson requires that fisheries management plans end overfishing “immediately”; the House bill would allow overfishing to continue for three years—on top of the two years granted just to prepare the plan.  Five years of overfishing?  See my earlier post “Of Stock Collapse, Shrimp and ASMFC” ( which describes how that sort of thing works out.

Once overfishing is finally ended, “Empty Oceans” would extend the rebuilding period from the current 10 years (if the biology of the stock, environmental conditions and international agreements permit) to some longer period.  That initial deadline is supposedly “the time the stock would be rebuilt without fishing occurring plus one mean generation,” which is close to the standard already used for longer-lived species, so it might not sound too bad, although figuring out the relevant time periods for data-poor stocks may be practically impossible.

But then the bill begins adding qualifiers that make that supposedly “fixed” rebuilding period meaningless. 
Rebuilding could be extended indefinitely if “the cause of the stock being depleted is outside the jurisdiction of the Council” or “the rebuilding program cannot be effective only by limiting fishing activities.”  That could doom a fish such as winter flounder, which spawns in state waters “outside the jurisdiction of the Council” (such jurisdiction begins 3 miles from shore).  The Council merely needs to blame stock problems on ASMFC failing to protect spawning fish in waters outside of its jurisdiction, and perhaps on habitat issues rather than “fishing activities” to justify never rebuilding the stock at all.

In multi-stock fisheries, “Empty Oceans” would delay rebuilding indefinitely to avoid “significant economic harm.”  If, for example, the bycatch of cod in New England’s haddock fishery was so high that it prevented the cod from recovering, such recovery would be sacrificed so the haddock fishery could continue.

The bill would also allow a recovery to be delayed if its recovery would cause another stock in the fishery “to approach depleted status.”  In nature, that isn’t likely; all stocks thrived at healthy levels before we began to deplete them.  But it will play right into the hands of fishermen who frequently make claims such as “We have to kill more red snapper because there are too many and they’re eating all of the beeliners.”  You can replace “red snapper” with “bluefish” or “pollock” and “beeliners” with herring or…   Well, you get the idea.

If those provisions aren’t enough to stall rebuilding forever, there is the final catch-all.  Recovery times may be extended if “unusual events…make rebuilding within the specified time period improbable without significant economic harm to fishing communities.”  That’s broad enough to take in just about everything.

“Empty Oceans” tries very hard to live up to its nickname.  It would apparently even allow a Council to terminate a fishery management plan if it finds that a stock is not depleted—even if it is a very long way from recovered—two years after such plan, or any regulation issued pursuant to it, goes into effect, or after a stock assessment is completed.  Under such a provision, no stock need ever be rebuilt!

The bill contains many other changes, all of which would extend rebuilding times, increase annual catch limits and tolerate continued overfishing and otherwise elevate short-term economic gains over the long-term health of the stocks.  It would remove many protections from species that are not targeted in directed fisheries, and create loopholes so large that once-important provisions of the law would be rendered toothless.  It would further limit federal jurisdiction over parts of the Gulf of Mexico, but give the regional fisheries management councils the authority to decide how the Endangered Species Act should be applied to animals such as sea turtles and whales. 

What the bill does not contain is even a single provision that speaks to the need—or the obligation—to pass down healthy fish populations to the generations that come after ours.

In college, I once took a philosophy course taught by a long-time member of the Jesuit order.  He explained that that dark is not a thing in itself, but merely an absence of light, just as cold is the absence of heat. 

In the same way, evil represents the complete absence of good.

Judged in that manner, “Empty Oceans” is truly an evil bill.

Make no mistake about what is happening.  The fight over Magnuson is a fight for the soul of the angling community.  Do we take the right-hand path of responsibility to the resource and to future generations, the path of sacrifice, of self-denial and duty?  Or do we take the beguiling left hand path of self-indulgence, irresponsibility and ultimate desolation?

I don’t know which path most anglers will choose.

Personally, I’m a skeptic when it comes to Revelations; I suspect that the world’s end will come after the sun grows dim, reaches out and wraps Earth in a final fiery embrace.  But caught up in a fight over souls, I will choose the side of the angels—and not the fallen sort, who have abandoned conscience and duty to tread the easy path, but rather the righteous kind, who demand that we reach into the depths of our hearts to learn whether anything of value resides there.

Apologies for amending a great poet’s words, but in facing the coming battle, each angler owes it to him- or herself to examine their own heart, and to follow their conscience as the battle draws nigh.

The darkness drops again, but now I know
That twenty [years] of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a [reddish snapper],
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward [Washington] to be born?