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?


  1. I thought I would try to expand on and briefly explain our position regarding how ESA works with MSA and the changes we would like to see. As you know it is a complex topic but I will keep it simple.

    When a species receives an ESA listing determination a Section 7 biological opinion is conducted to determine if a fishery and its interactions with that listed species may inhibit or “jeopardize” its recovery. Depending upon the outcome and results of the biological opinion, Reasonable and Prudent Measures or Alternatives may be needed to reduce the impact of fisheries on the species.

    RPA’s and RPM’s are often in the form of regulations like gear modifications, closed areas, closed seasons or a combination of all three.

    We feel strongly that when these types of regulatory measures are necessary to reduce the impacts on an ESA species, the fishery measures should be developed by the Council that has regulatory control over the fishery in question.

    This requirement does not impact the ESA process but it will allow for a more deliberative process whereby modifications to a fishery will not only reduce the risk to an ESA species but also avoid a unnecessary burden on the fishing industry.

    Thank you.

    Greg DiDomenico

    Executive Director

    Garden State Seafood Association

    1. Greg--

      I agree that fishermen--including the fishermen on the various regional fishery management councils--should have input with respect to any regulations intended to address ESA mandates. However, I also believe that the final shape of any such regulations should be crafted by persons with real expertise in the needs of the listed animal, rather than by fishermen who may be more concerned with the viability of their fishery than with the ultimate fate of the species in question.

      My view arises out of my experiences as a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, when I served as a member of the Protected Resources Committee. When issues arose--which generally involved gill net interactions with sea turtles or recommendations of the Large Whale Take Reduction Team--my colleagues were not, as a whole, particularly sympathetic to ESA concerns. While I would be wrong to characterize their attitude as indifference to the fate of protected species, for they certainly didn't want to see any species' demise, their emphasis was always on minimizing disruptions to fishermen's livelihoods, rather than minimizing take of listed species.

      While I can appreciate their concerns, and don't believe that fishermen should be burdened any more than is necessary to adequately protect a listed species, there is often a significant disconnect between what a fisherman believes "is necessary to adequately protect a listed species" and what a biologist, unburdened by concerns over impacts of regulatory measures on his or his colleagues' livelihood, would consider adequate measures.

      When we realize that listed species are those which are not only depleted, but depleted to the point that such species' survival is in doubt, it is probably best to err on the side of caution when crafting regulatory measures, and such precautionary measures are, in my view, best crafted by those who aren't influenced by concerns that such regulations might have a significant negative impact on their incomes.

  2. Charlie...
    I think you would be surprised at the changes over the last ten years. I currently sit on the MAFMC Protected Species AP.
    I sit on the Take Reduction Teams for Large Whales, small cetacean, Harbor porpoise and bottlenose dolphins.
    In my opinion the Mid Atlantic TRT members, including fishermen, have provided gear modifications and time and space closures that have been meaningful and supported by the science and results we have done this while maintaining profitable fisheries.
    We have done some outreach and education to keep awareness of these issues fresh in the minds of industry and compliance high.
    A good mixture of input from all sides can often be the most productive way forward where mutually important goals are attained.
    I am pretty sure that of the many protected species in our region none are currently designated strategic, perhaps one . While an incident with a marine mammal is unfortunate it is often an accident.
    We will continue to do our best.
    Thank you
    Greg DiDomenico

    1. Greg--

      Sounds as if progress is being made. I think that what you describe actually supports the current system. Fishermen's input is being given honest consideration, and is being incorporated into the regulatory process, but the actual rules are being formulated by management professionals.

      One has to ask whether the system would work as well if industry didn't have to come up with proposals that are acceptable to professional resource managers, and only needed to come up with proposals that were acceptable to themselves.

  3. TRT style process is involved in ESA. Which is why we are asking for the Council process to take place.
    I agree it should not be left only to industry but the same goes for the current process.
    Any new rules should not just be in the hands of the folks who manage ESA.
    Greg D

    1. "Any new rules should not just be in the hands of the folks who manage ESA."

      I suppose that is our basic philosophical disagreement. Absent a law such as Magnuson, which sets sideboards around a council's ability to act and requires it to meet clear national standards as interpreted by the court, I don't believe that any user group--including, as an aside, recreational fishermen--are capable of governing themselves. I think that everyone should have input, and that such input should be given a respectful hearing, but that in the end decisions should be made by people with no direct financial interest in the outcome. Otherwise, based simply on human nature, the outcome may not be too good.

  4. Charlie...
    As it stands today RPA's and RPM's are not required to be developed via MSA or regional council process.
    This is all we ask.

  5. This is very informative. Thanks for sharing your insights guys. Even i love scuba Diving in Indonesia I can't help my self to be interested on this topic.

    1. Glad that you enjoy the blog. Fisheries issues don't know boundaries; many of the same problems face folks everywhere. So we must seek some common solutions.

  6. Mr. Witek,
    I have read just about every post you have made, and I am thrilled that you are making an effort to put this information out there. I am a surfcaster who primarily fishes the Jersey Shore. I fish a lot, and my experience echoes what I've been reading elsewhere: the Striped Bass is in big trouble. Sadly, I'm cynical that anything will be done until we've gone over the precipice. The typical reaction on the fishing message boards is "nobody's gonna tell me I can't keep the occasional bass" or "it's the boat guys, not the beach fishermen…" But just my own anecdotal evidence tells me there are far more guys on the beach- parking lots at Sandy Hook that you might have seen 2 cars in on a weeknight are often full now. And bait shops continue to post photos of dead bass during the spring spawn….ugh.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.

      And yes, bass are definitely looking at trouble. We can still turn things around if we act quickly, but ASMFC just seems to lack the will--or the desire--to do what's needed to protect the resource so long as one business complains that conservation will cost it some income. That's why it's so important to keep the conservation provisions of Magnuson intact--and maybe, at some point in the future, to impose similar conservation requirements on ASMFC.