Thursday, March 6, 2014
ONE ANGLER'S VISION: PART III GAMEFISH AND GROUNDFISH
When the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership noted, in their report “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” (http://www.trcp.org/assets/pdf/Visioning-Report-fnl-web.pdf), that recreational fishermen “are more focused on abundance and size, structure of the fisheries, and opportunities to get out on the water” than in piling up dead fish on the dock, they acknowledged a basic truth. But it is a truth that must be taken in context.
There are fish such as bonefish and tarpon that are valued solely for sport and not for their meat, and are killed only rarely.
There are fish such as permit that are might be fine eating, but are so valued as gamefish that killing one is something that, as a rule, “is just not done.”
And then there are panfish. The species differ from place to place, but most of them are what they call “groundfish” up in New England—fish species that, when the stock is healthy, swarm in abundance on or near the ocean bottom. They are the bread-and-butter of the party boat fleet, and a lot of the charter boats, too. And while anglers may release most of the gamefish they encounter, when they go out after groundfish, they’re planning to bring something home.
Haddock fishermen just aren’t big on catch and release.
That has implications for management that the “Vision” report chose to ignore.
The report says that
“The NMFS should manage recreational fisheries based on long-term harvest rates, not strictly on poundage-based quotas. This strategy has been successfully used by fishery managers in the Atlantic striped bass fishery, which is the most sought-after recreational fishery in the nation. By managing the recreational sector based on harvest rate as opposed to a poundage-based quota, managers have been able to provide predictability in regulations while also sustaining a healthy population…”
It’s a nice statement, but the essential premise is wrong. The most recent “benchmark” assessment of the striped bass stock (http://nefsc.noaa.gov/publications/crd/crd1316/partb.pdf)—a peer reviewed study that is as close to a “gold standard” as you can get in fisheries management—shows that the population is not healthy. It has been subject to overfishing half a dozen times in the past ten years, has been steadily declining in abundance and is likely to be declared “overfished” in the next year or two. (The only reason that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission can still claim that the stock is healthy today is because ASMFC has not yet incorporated the conclusions of the new stock assessment into its management plan; although it received the benchmark assessment last autumn, it is still using obsolete and since-discredited criteria to gauge the health of the stock, rather than the newest and best available science. That, in itself, is an indictment of striped bass management.)
Anyone with even a casual familiarity with the striped bass fishery knows that managers deserve little credit for maintaining the fishery, whether through “predictability in regulations” or otherwise; instead, all credit should go to the striped bass anglers themselves, who choose to kill far fewer fish than the managers allow. In fact, bass anglers have been begging fisheries managers to reduce striped bass harvest for years. They have been repeatedly rebuffed. Despite steadily decreasing abundance, managers have so far clung to a target fishing mortality rate (F=0.30) that is not only far higher than that recommended in the benchmark assessment (F=0.180), but is also well above the overfishing threshold (F=0.213).
How that sort of management can be considered a good thing, and preferable to kind of sustainable management that restored species such as fluke, scup and black sea bass, is beyond my understanding. Because if striped bass managers don’t get their act together soon, bass could well become another great fishery that we speak of largely in the past tense.
The only thing that’s keeping that fishery off the ropes today are the serious striped bass anglers who respect the bass as a gamefish, and release far more than they kill. If they all treated like a groundfish, the story would not be the same.
How can we know that is true? Consider the winter flounder.
Winter flounder are arguably the definitive groundfish of the northeast coast. When the stocks were healthy, flounder were everywhere. Taking home a bushel basket or a burlap sack filled with fish was not unusual during the height of the season (and the fish averaged less than a pound). They seemed to line the bottom. In my home waters off western Connecticut and the South Shore of Long Island, flounder once provided a year-round fishery that only shut down when the bays were locked in ice.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission never set a hard quota for flounder. It merely established a harvest rate, which could be exceeded with impunity. In time, flounder were overfished, and the inshore stocks collapsed. They have fallen so far that the southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock can muster just 9% of its spawning potential. Even so, early last month ASMFC inexplicably decided to allow recreational fishing pressure to increase significantly, extending the season from two months to ten (see my earlier post at http://oneanglersvoyage.blogspot.com/2014/02/winter-flounder-last-tuesdays-travesty.html for the whole sad story).
As I write this post, New Jersey is thinking about lengthening its winter flounder season to the full ten months allowed by ASMFC. The collapse of the stock and low local abundance is not a part of the debate. Instead, as Tom Fote, New Jersey’s governor’s appointee to ASMFC notes
“I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t support opening up the whole the season mainly because there is no quota to go over” (http://www.app.com/article/20140303/NJSPORTS06/303030096/Winter-flounder-decision-due-Thursday?nclick_check=1)
In too many anglers’ minds, groundfish exist to be eaten.
Without a quota, such anglers will show no restraint.
That fact needs to be remembered when setting management measures. Groundfish are good food, so many species support big commercial fisheries, attract a lot of anglers and are the darlings of the party boat fleet.
Some people fly thousands of miles in search of tarpon and bonefish, knowing that they’ll end up releasing them all.
Others spend countless hours in the wet, the cold and the dark, trying to catch striped bass. When they finally land one, they often let it go.
But when people take a ride out on the bay on a summer afternoon, and try to catch some fluke, they’re planning to bring home meat. Folks can talk all they want about the joys of spending time with friends on the water, but a fluke fisherman with an empty cooler is an unhappy soul.
And that’s why groundfish, rather than gamefish, seem to always be at the center of the hottest fisheries debates. Florida maintains a 1-fish limit on redfish, and a narrow “slot” size limit, and is praised for its prudent management. Its snook rules are even tougher, but not many anglers complain, because when you’re chasing gamefish, that’s often how it goes.
After a severe cold snap killed many snook down in Florida, Coastal Conservation Association Florida argued that the fishery on the west coast of the state should remain closed, even though biologists believed that it could be safely opened. CCA Florida noted that
“snook was already predominantly a catch and release fishery before the big freeze kill…recreational anglers release more than 90% of the snook they catch, and since 2005 release more than 95%.” (http://www.ccaflorida.org/index.php?start=57)
In other words, snook are a gamefish, and anglers can enjoy them without having to kill them.
But in a sort of Jekyll and Hyde transformation, that same CCA Florida took a very different position when it came to managing grouper, one of the iconic southern groundfish. After the best available data indicated that the recreational fishery should be closed for just a few months to best protect the resource, CCA Florida attacked NMFS decision to do so, noting that
"Red grouper is almost exclusively a Florida fishery and the Florida commission has been consistently rejected. What needs to be done is our congressional delegation needs to change the federal law so in situations like this, where you have a state that has a huge interest in a fishery, they need to have a greater role." (http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2005-11-20/sports/0511190580_1_red-grouper-cca-florida-gag-grouper)
In other words, if the federal law requires fisheries managers to employ the best available science and protect the grouper from overfishing, then federal law needs to be changed.
Because grouper aren’t gamefish, they’re food. Different rules apply.
If you think otherwise, just contrast the cries of anglers who demand to kill more red snapper (http://www.joincca.org/articles/143) (or fluke, or black sea bass or…) with the equally passionate cries of anglers who demand that fewer striped bass be allowed to die. Listen for just a little while, and you’ll have no more questions about the gamefish/groundfish divide.
So we come to the effort to replace “poundage-based quotas” with “long-term harvest rates”, which may be less a fight over methodology and more of an effort to continue overharvesting groundfish.
As the theoretical level, the distinction between quotas and harvest rates is really no distinction at all. Any harvest rate—or, more correctly, any “instantaneous fishing mortality rate”—can be converted into the percentage of fish that can be removed from the population annually. Multiply that percentage by the estimated size of the stock (in pounds or in metric tons, it doesn’t matter) and you get a “poundage-based quota.” Reverse the calculation, and you can convert a quota—or, in practice, actual landings—into the fishing mortality rate.
But at the practical level, the distinction is real.
Poundage-based quotas are easy to apply, and can be enforced proactively. Managers can determine a reasonable fishing mortality rate, convert that into a quota, and then set appropriate seasons, size limits and bag limits to avoid overfishing.
That system isn’t perfect; there is always “management uncertainty” at play. Angler effort can be greater than expected, weather can affect harvest, or the fish can be more or less “catchable” than expected; as a result, harvest may be significantly higher or lower than predicted. In addition, because it is impossible to physically count every angler’s landings, such landings must be estimated through the use of a survey. Under perfect circumstances, such estimates lag harvest times by about six weeks; in reality, overfishing may go undetected for two months or more.
Thus, quotas are often exceeded before managers can prevent it, and some anglers object when the next year’s quota is reduced as a result (“We don’t want to kill fewer fish…”) On the other hand, high harvest levels early in the season can cause managers to shut down fishing earlier than planned, even though they later discover that the closure hadn’t been needed, and that causes other complaints (“We could have killed more fish…”).
But as a rule, hard quotas provide a lot of management flexibility, often allowing seasons to be closed early to avoid overfishing, and almost always allowing regulations to be adjusted in time to avoid overfishing in the following year.
Managing by harvest rate, as ASMFC manages striped bass, is trickier, in part because the mortality rate is determined retroactively. Managers have no idea of whether their regulatory approach worked until well after the season is over, when it is already too late to change regulations for the following year.
That’s because managing by harvest rate requires managers to reassess the stock every season, which is an expensive and time-consuming process. Because of the cost in financial and human resources, it is only practical to manage a handful of species that way (and, for most species, managers lack the data needed to calculate fishing mortality rates accurately).
When a stock is managed by harvest rate, it is impossible for managers to react quickly to changes in the fishery. The mortality rate for any given year won’t be finally determined until about halfway through the following season (even the preliminary annual harvest estimates needed to begin the task aren’t available until mid-February). Thus, if the fishing mortality rate in any year was too high, and overfishing occurred, it is likely to occur in the following year as well. “Predictability in regulations” is not always a good thing…
Managing by harvest rate is a viable strategy for fully-recovered stocks such as striped bass, particularly when a large proportion of the anglers in the fishery practice catch-and-release and so keep the harvest rate well below the fishing mortality target. In such a circumstance, overfishing in any one year (assuming that the fishing mortality target selected is the right one, which is not currently the case in the striped bass fishery) will have little lasting effect, and any impact that it does have will be quickly lost among the normal fluctuations that occur in the size of any healthy population.
On the other hand, the inherent delay in responding to overfishing events, and the likelihood of consecutive years of overfishing, makes such a strategy inappropriate for stocks that are still rebuilding, particularly those such as southern New England/Mid-Atlantic winter flounder or South Atlantic red snapper, which remain badly overfished. In such cases, serial overfishing can slow, halt or even reverse the rebuilding process (it should be noted that, while recreational striped bass harvest may be governed by harvest rate today, back in the 1980s the collapsed stock was rebuilt by what amounted to a very strict quota—regulations had to assure that no more than 5% of any year class, beginning with that spawned in 1982, would be harvested in any given year), and more readily adjusted hard quotas become the more appropriate management tool.
In the end, there is no silver bullet, and one size does not fit all.
While management based on harvest rates may work for some stocks of gamefish, everything else needs hard quotas, either because the stocks are still recovering—and maybe even still overfished—or because angler demand is so high that there is some danger of overfishing just about every season. Consistently high harvest levels militate against the “long-term harvest rate” approach recommended in the TRCP “Vision” report. For what, precisely, does “long-term” mean, and when must managers finally be compelled to take action?
Would two consecutive years of overfishing require remedial measures? Three out of five? Six out of ten? Or does the TRCP report envision overfishing going on indefinitely, with no mandatory tripwire at all?
That certainly seems to be the way New Jersey is headed with winter flounder.
Because when “there is no quota to go over,” too many fishermen will see no reason to exercise restraint.