Sunday, March 2, 2014

ONE ANGLER'S VISION: PART II MANAGING FOR ABUNDANCE

Last Thursday, in Part I of this series, I questioned a premise behind a recent report issued by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, entitled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” (http://www.trcp.org/assets/pdf/Visioning-Report-fnl-web.pdf).  I asked whether it is truly possible to create a “unified vision” for both anglers and the recreational fishing industry, and whether any effort to do so would inevitably leave the recreational angler, and particularly the recreational angler who cares about the effective conservation and restoration of fish stocks, as the junior and oft-ignored partner in the enterprise.

However questionable such “unified vision” might be, parts of the report are unquestionably true.  It is difficult to take issue with the statement that

“Recreational and commercial fishing are fundamentally different activities that require different management approaches.  Currently, federal fisheries managers set catch limits for recreational and commercial fishing at or near maximum sustainable yield.  While this may be an ideal management strategy for commercial fishing, where harvesting the maximum biomass is desired, it is not an effective management tool for saltwater recreational fishing.  Recreational anglers are more focused on abundance and size, structure of the fisheries, and opportunities to get out on the water…”
Ricky Gease, Executive Director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, was a member of the commission that produced the final report.  He expanded on the above concepts at a recent Senate hearing, noting that
“Recreational fisheries are based on angler days, and reliant on maximum sustained production, which is getting the most fish into an ecosystem, rather than maximum sustained yield, which looks at value from the fishery.”  (http://peninsulaclarion.com/news/2014-02-27-4)
As an angler, it all strikes me as common sense.  For example, the current striped bass regulations generally allow an angler to keep two 28-inch fish every time they go fishing.  From a “quality fishing” perspective, there is a very big difference between a day when you only catch two bass, even if you keep both of them, and a day on which you land a dozen fish, keep a couple and let the rest go free.  If all you want is a couple of fish for dinner, it is far quicker, easier and—especially—cheaper to pick them up at the store.  Recreational fishing should offer something more.

What seems to make no sense at all is that after correctly identifying the problem, the “Vision” report turns around and makes recommendations that do exactly the wrong thing, perpetuating the sort of management that emphasizes harvest rather than abundance.

Before I explain that comment, we should probably take a brief detour to examine concepts related to “maximum sustainable yield” and their implications for fisheries management.

NOAA Fisheries defines “maximum sustainable yield” as

“the largest long-term catch or yield that can be taken from a stock or stock complex under prevailing ecological and environmental conditions.”
A stock managed for maximum sustainable yield (“MSY”) may seem abundant, but will generally have an attenuated age and size structure.  There will be almost no older, larger fish.  Such a stock reflects the adage that “any fish that dies of old age is wasted;” fish are harvested when still relatively young, and successful spawning depends on having a large number of newly-matured fish in the population, as the high fishing mortality rate allows few older fish to survive. 

Because the data available to biologists and to fisheries managers are, at best, imperfect, trying to manage a stock for maximum sustainable yield is risky.  Any error can cause harvest to exceed sustainable harvest levels. 

Still, MSY provides a useful benchmark for federal fisheries managers.  A stock which is much too small to produce MSY—in most federal management plans, about half the size needed to produce MSY—is deemed to be “overfished”, and the Magnuson Act dictates that it be promptly rebuilt.  

Similarly, a fishing mortality rate that exceeds MSY—that is, the harvest rate that’s too high to be sustainable—constitutes impermissible “overfishing” under Magnuson, which currently emphasizes sustainability.

In practice, federal fisheries managers normally set an “Overfishing Limit” equal to MSY but then, to allow for the inevitable “scientific uncertainty”, set a lower “Allowable Biological Catch” (“ABC”) to cap harvest.  They then set an “Annual Catch Limit” that may be equal to the ABC, but is typically set somewhat lower, to account for “management uncertainty” resulting from any errors in predicting the effect of regulations on landings or in quantifying what such landings (particularly recreational landings) actually were.
Commercial fishermen generally want to see the Allowable Biological Catch set as close as possible to the Overfishing Limit, and the Annual Catch Limit set right at ABC, because doing so will lead to the highest possible landings, and will thus yield the highest economic return.

However, as the “Vision” report noted, anglers want something else.  They don’t want to kill as many fish as they can, they want to catch as many fish as they can—even if most of those fish are let go.   And they want a reasonable chance to catch a “big one” once in a while. 

Managing at MSY won’t produce that kind of fishery.  Instead, managers must grow the population beyond what is needed to produce maximum sustainable yield, and keep harvests well below MSY, if they want anglers to “encounter” plenty of fish, including a few “big ones” that don’t get away. 

Such a management approach, which sets landings well below MSY, is also prudent from a conservation perspective, as it provides a buffer that protects against years of poor recruitment, normal environmental variability and the errors that inevitably plague managers’ calculations from time to time.

Thus, there are a lot of reasons to maintain harvest well below the limits permitted by federal law.  Anglers will encounter more fish.  Anglers will catch bigger fish.  And the fish themselves will have a “cushion” against hard times.

Yet the TRCP’s “Vision” report doesn’t propose such reductions in landings.  Instead, the report recommends changing the Magnuson Act to let folks kill even more fish than the law allows now.  And it recommends handing the management of some species over to the states, where they would have no federal protection at all.

The management approach described in the report would lead to anglers encountering fewer fish.  The fish they catch would be smaller.  And the overfishing would slow or halt stock rebuilding; it could even cause stocks to decline.  But it would allow anglers to kill more fish in the short term, and maybe that’s what it’s really about.

Of course, the “Vision” report can’t come out and say that.  So it uses certain “code words” that don’t raise red flags—and in fact, might sound downright reasonable—when most folks read them, but are fraught with meaning to those engaged in the fisheries management debate.

Of all those kind of words, none is as filled with meaning as “flexibility”.  It might sound like “reasonable accommodation”.  But in this context, it means something closer to “continued overfishing” and ‘indeterminate rebuilding times”.

The “Vision” report notes that

“The Magnuson-Stevens Act currently states that the timeline for ending overfishing and rebuilding fisheries ‘be as short as possible’ and ‘not exceed 10 years” with a few limited exceptions to allow for longer timeframes.  While some stocks can be rebuilt in 10 years or less, others require longer generation times, or factors unrelated to fishing pressure may prohibit rebuilding in 10 years or less.”
Of course, it never completely closes the circle, and discloses that those “limited exceptions to allow for longer timeframes” that are already a part of the law include “cases where the biology of the stock of fish, [or] other environmental conditions…dictate otherwise,” which would cover both "longer generation times" and "factors unrelated to fishing pressure."  That’s something that should have been caught by the proofreader, because it could make someone unfamiliar with the law believe there’s a problem, when no problem really exists.  Sloppy drafting, at best…

“Echoing the concerns raised by stakeholders and many of the regional fishery management councils, a report by the prestigious and nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences concluded that the 10-year rebuilding provision should be revised to provide greater flexibility than is currently allowed under the law.  Instead of having a fixed deadline for stocks to be rebuilt, the NAS recommended that the regional councils and fisheries managers set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”  [emphasis added]
Note that the concerns about flexibility were raised by “stakeholders,” and not by “anglers.”  That sheds real light on the motivation for weakening Magnuson, and it’s the same motivation that rendered the law essentially toothless prior to its amendment by the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996.

It looks a lot like the same motivation that has motivated fishing industry interests—on both the recreational and commercial side—to try to weaken the law ever since Sustainable Fisheries was signed into law:  “socioeconomic impacts.” 

It’s not about abundance, and it’s not about big fish.  It’s certainly not about conservation.

The report, in recommending “flexibility,” echoes the position of the Gloucester groundfish fleet (http://www.gloucestertimes.com/opinion/x86521185/Editorial-Science-report-shows-need-for-Magnuson-changes), a group not renowned for their conservation ethic.  It echoes the position of a lot of other commercial groups as well.

For conserving marine resources may be a noble endeavor, and the Magnuson Act may be the best and most effective fisheries law in the world, but in the end, there are costs associated with the effort.

Conservation isn’t compatible with short-term profits, and if you’re in the industry, that matters.

That is nothing new.  Conservation writer Ted Williams, who is also a hardcore angler, pretty well said it all back in 2010 (http://www.flyrodreel.com/node/14680).  He started by explaining that, prior to ‘96

“Quotas could be modified by short-term, short-sighted ‘economic considerations,’ and such considerations always ‘justified’ overfishing. Whenever scientists cautioned against overfishing, the ‘stake holders’ would overrule them, regulating in flexibility. ‘There’s no such rush to rebuild,’ was the mantra. Rebuilding while continuing to overfish is, of course, impossible.  Overfishing means you kill fish faster than they reproduce, that you’re in a hole and digging.
When we see “flexibility” recommended in the “Vision” report, we see the same kind of pre-1996 thinking starting to reemerge.  Given how badly things turned out the last time, we also have to wonder why.

We also have to wonder why anyone who claims to want to manage for “abundance” thinks that it is OK to manage fish that way.  Again, Ted William might supply an answer, while showing that the “Vision” report is little more than history repeating itself.

“Enter Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), who in 2008…introduced the ‘Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act.’ Pallone’s bill…would supposedly do the impossible—that is, permit overfishing while restoring stocks. What it would really restore is the pre-1996 system of manipulating scientifically determined quotas with short-term, shortsighted economic considerations.
“Of course, the proponents of Pallone’s bill don’t call what they’re trying to do ‘overfishing,’ arguing instead that the rebuilding timeline of 10 years is ‘arbitrary,’ that there’s no such rush. For instance, timelines are not ‘a moral issue’ to Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act co-sponsor Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who accuses the National Marine Fisheries Service of harboring ‘an anti-fishing bias.’ [BLOGGER’S NOTE:  Frank’s comment re NMFS ‘anti-fishing bias’ almost seems a distorted echo of the ‘Vision’ report’s comment that ‘the federal system to control commercial fisheries exploitation is largely inappropriate to managing recreational fishing.’  Could it be that ‘bias’ or an “inappropriate’ system isn’t the issue, but rather the fact that no business really wants to be regulated for the good of the general public?]  What attracts Frank and his allies to the bill is that it would allow continued procrastination while shielding managers from both lawsuits and the obligation to rebuild fish populations.
“Give the councils 50 years, and they will still opt for the largest short-term harvest,” one enlightened council member told me. “In year 47 we’ll be right where we are today, with the industry people weeping about their hard lot and demanding flexibility.’”
“The Oz figure behind this attempted gutting of Magnuson is the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), which reports that Pallone’s bill has the backing of 100 fishing groups and industry members. The board and staff of the RFA is dominated by fishing-boat builders, fishing-gear manufacturers, advertisers fronting as fishing writers, party-boat owners and charter-boat owners…
“There’s scarcely anyone involved who doesn’t make money killing fish—not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the RFA would get more respect if it was honest and called itself a trade association.”
The RFA had nothing to do with the “Vision” report, but there’s another group which did, and is arguably as much a “trade association” as RFA.  That group, the Center for Coastal Conservation, is listed as a “contributor” to the “Vision”, and was formed by several other such “contributors”—including the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association—specifically to lobby for their vision for fisheries management (http://www.coastalconservation.us/index.php).  If you take a look at who sits on the Center's board of directors (http://www.coastalconservation.us/board_members.php), calling them a “trade association” doesn’t seem like a stretch at all.
People who have the same interests tend to have the same goals.
And when you realize that, and when you note that of the seven organizations—not including TRCP—that “contributed” to the “Vision” report, four were either the Center for Coastal Conservation or it’s “Partners”, one, the Berkley Conservation Institute, states on its website that it “is working closely with American Sportfishing Assn., Coastal Conservation Assn., the Center for Coastal Conservation” on various fisheries, and that the President of the Center for Coastal Conservation sits on the Board of Directors of yet another contributor, the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation, you might start to believe that the effort to weaken Magnuson is being driven by a single “trade association” this time, too.
Which may explain why they talk about abundance, but act to weaken Magnuson, just like another trade association tried to weaken Magnuson before.
Magnuson isn’t perfect.  But if you really want to manage for what recreational anglers want—for abundance and for more big fish—you change the law to make it even harder to overfish.  You change it to make the prompt rebuilding of diminished stocks easier and more certain.

You don’t try to impose “flexibility”.

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