Thursday, March 13, 2014
ONE ANGLER'S VISION: PART V THE "COOPERATION" CON
Although this is only the fifth of the six planned “One Angler’s Vision” essays, it is the last post that analyzes the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” (http://www.trcp.org/assets/pdf/Visioning-Report-fnl-web.pdf). The sixth and final essay in this series will present an alternative vision that, I believe, would better benefit anglers, and might help and encourage anglers who might want to present their own vision to federal decisionmakers.
But the issue that this essay addresses, the innocuous-sounding recommendation that the Magnuson Act be revised to promote more “cooperative management” between state and federal managers, is the most insidious recommendation of them all. For, although cast in the guise of “cooperation,” what the “contributors” to the “Vision” report are trying to do is take away the federal authority to manage some species, and turn that management over to the states, in order to get out from under the burden of federal conservation and rebuilding requirements.
They’re seeking to have bodies similar to (and including) the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission have the responsibility for managing fish. That way, Magnuson’s mandates for rebuilding deadlines, ending overfishing and even following the dictates of the best available science just won’t apply. Everything can be managed as badly as ASMFC has managed stocks of winter flounder, tautog and American shad; industry-controlled management boards trying to squeeze the last drop of profit out of a resource would be able to drive fish stocks beyond the brink of collapse, just as ASMFC allowed the collapse of northern shrimp (http://oneanglersvoyage.blogspot.com/2014/01/of-stock-collapse-shrimp-and-asmfc.html), and no court will be able to intervene.
TRCP’s “Vision” report tries to justify its position by claiming that
“Striped bass, red drum, black drum, summer flounder, sheepshead, snook, spotted seatrout and tarpon are examples of successfully managed state fisheries that sufficiently meet the needs of recreational anglers while providing extensive economic benefits to their state and the national economies.”
The entire statement runs for two full paragraphs, but there are enough problems with in that one sentence to serve the purposes of this essay.
For one thing, parts of it are just plain wrong.
Take summer flounder, which is hardly an example of a “successfully managed state [fishery].” In fact, summer flounder is not only a tribute to the success of federal fisheries management pursuant to the Magnuson Act, it is the fishery that, as the focus of the court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley (http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/E36DAC79549F797D85256F180065A726/$file/99-5308a.txt), established the minimum legal requirements for federal fishery management plans. All the state managers at ASMFC do is parcel out the recreational summer flounder quota among the various states, and they mishandled even that simple process so badly that, fifteen years after the fact, the states are still squabbling among themselves and federal legislators are getting involved in an effort to straighten it out (http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/news/press/atlantic/lawmakers-question-new-fluke-rules/article_5c5065c8-ef06-5689-bd28-cfa12a6bf945.html).
That’s not exactly “successful” state management.
And serious striped bass fishermen would have to ask why the “Vision” report places striped bass in the “successful” category. As mentioned in earlier posts, the stock has been in a steady downhill slide. ASMFC received a peer-reviewed benchmark stock assessment last October that came to the conclusion that the stock had been subject to overfishing for six out of the last ten years, is likely to become overfished in the near future, and that the target harvest level needs to be substantially reduced (http://nefsc.noaa.gov/publications/crd/crd1316/partb.pdf).
Despite that, ASMFC still claims that the stock is “not overfished” and that “overfishing is not occurring” because, five months after receiving the new stock assessment, it has not yet incorporated it into the management plan, but instead still clings to outdated and discredited information;
MAYBE the conclusions of the new assessment will be adopted by August, fully 10 months after the fact.
And maybe they won’t be. Because ASMFC, and the majority of the states, may ignore the best available science with impunity.
Responsible fisheries managers, after reading the benchmark assessment, tried to reduce harvest in time for the 2014 season but, as an opinion piece in the Boston Globe (http://www.bostonglobe.com/2014/03/11/podium-bass/ieYsaf8jNzfQhIX9Wz1HnO/story.html) explains
“…all appeals to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for conservation have run straight into a political wall.
“Last year, in the face of a dire outlook for the future of striped bass, a coastwide reduction in catch limits was proposed by Massachusetts’ own director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, yet the two political appointees with whom he serves [on ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board]—both of whom have ties to the commercial fishing industry—opposed their own director, forcing him to vote against his own measure.”
That same Boston Globe piece describes how state striped bass management really works:
“Similarly, a petition signed by more than 1,000 citizens proposing a 50 percent reduction in the recreational and commercial striped bass harvest was presented to the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Council. The nine-member council—eight of whom have direct ties to the commercial fishing industry—denied the petition.”
I sit on the New York Marine Resources Advisory Council, a body with duties similar to those of the Advisiory Council up in Massachusetts, and I have no doubt that if such a petition was presented in New York, the result would have been the same. Although the New York council is equally divided between commercial and recreational representatives, the recreational side is dominated by folks with industry ties, and getting them to approve conservation measures is a very, very difficult thing to do. In the short term, people make more money by killing more fish; in the long term, well, that’s just too far away…
Maybe I should cut the TRCP “Vision” a break when it says think that striped bass managers are doing a good job, because that “Vision” was shaped by “contributors” based on the Gulf of Mexico, and the only thing they know about striped bass is what they can learn from the flabby hatchery fish dumped into southern reservoirs. They know nothing about our wild bass, that fight rips, waves and tides in their fight to survive, and migrate hundreds of miles each season; they know nothing about how badly those bass have been mismanaged by the states and ASMFC for the past few years.
But as southerners, they certainly know about tarpon, and the fact that they are hardly prized as a food fish. And that makes management easy, because as I explained in an earlier part to this series, “Gamefish and Groundfish” (http://oneanglersvoyage.blogspot.com/2014/03/one-anglers-vision-part-iii-gamefish.html), it is the fish that everyone wants to take home and eat that present the management challenges.
At this point, it might be time to stop talking about specific species, and look at the very language of the sentence in question, particularly the part that praises state managers who “sufficiently meet the needs of recreational anglers” but provide “extensive economic benefits” to industry. As an angler, that sort of language sets off some pretty loud alarms, as it seems to suggest that fish should be managed in a way that’s just good enough—“sufficient”—to keep anglers more-or-less happy while providing “extensive” benefit to business. That’s just the sort of language one might expect from a report being pushed by a trade association such as the Center for Coastal Conservation and its affiliate organizations.
But we’ve seen that kind of thinking before, and it didn’t work.
We saw it here in New York, when the striped bass fishermen wanted to keep the bag limit at one fish and the size limit at 36 inches, while the recreational industry wanted two twenty-eight inch fish. The state split the baby, giving the for-hires what they wanted, but limiting all other anglers to one at 28 (later increased to one 28-40 inch fish and one over 40 inches). Now, as a result of excessive harvest, the bass, and the bass anglers, are feeling the effects of coastwide overharvest. When state managers heeded angling industry entreaties to phase in regulations for winter flounder and tautog back in the 1990s, so that anglers patronizing the for-hire boats could retain the “perception” that they might still have a “big day”—read “big kill”—they adopted a too-little, too-late approach to regulations that sent both species into a downward spiral from which they have never recovered.
We see it at just about every meeting at ASMFC, when one commissioner or another rises to oppose science-based restrictions on harvest in order to protect some segment of the fishing industry. We saw it when the weakfish stock collapsed, and ASMFC still insisted on killing more fish than the scientists advised. We saw it last February, when ASMFC voted to increase exploitation of the collapsed winter flounder stock, and made no progress toward incorporating the best available science into the striped bass management plan. We saw them take 15 full years to accept the reduced fishing harvest rate first recommended by their Tautog Technical Committee in 1996. And when you read the minutes of all the meetings, the same reason always arises. They want to do what’s good for business, even though it hurts the fish—and so, eventually, we anglers.
And, most importantly, we saw it at the federal level prior to passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, when economic arguments were regularly used to justify overharvest, and led to the decline of stocks important to recreational fishermen everywhere along the United States’ coast. By the early ‘90s, fish were scarce and small; that’s what the Sustainable Fisheries Act was passed to correct. Not even twenty years ago, people had already learned that emphasizing “extensive economic benefit” in the short term, without enough thought for the future of the resource, was a bad idea.
Now, folks want to repeat the mistakes of the past.
As with most bad ideas in fisheries management over the past few years, this one emerged in the Gulf of Mexico, and was driven by red snapper.
I’ve touched on red snapper in earlier posts, and don’t want to belabor the point again. To summarize for the first-time reader, red snapper were badly overfished, and the National Marine Fisheries Service instituted a rebuilding plan, which put real restrictions on recreational and commercial snapper fishermen. The stock slowly began to recover, and as it did, anglers began catching more and bigger fish than managers expected, and quickly overfished their quota. The result was a descending spiral of serial overfishing by the recreational sector, followed by ever-tightening federal regulations.
Several states refused to follow the federal lead, and permitted anglers to land more fish over a significantly longer season in state waters. That led to higher overall recreational landings, which in turn caused NMFS to tighten up the rules even more in order to keep the recovery on track.
The federal season became astonishingly short. Anglers wanted to kill more fish than the accepted science allowed, and the angling industry wanted a longer, more lucrative season. So they looked at the states, and the fact that they were bound neither by science nor federal law, and decided that it would be nice to let the states manage snapper everywhere (http://www.joincca.org/articles/628). No longer bound by the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act, anglers would be able to take more fish home.
At least while they lasted.
And no, that’s not speculation, because I know a lot of the people involved. I sat in on the meetings, and I listened—ad infinitum—to the plans and debates, at least until I got so disgusted by their self-entitled attitudes and their blatant disregard for the health of the resource that I washed my hands of the whole thing and walked away from the table.
Anglers like to knock the commercial guys, and they often have justification. But after listening to the conversation for years, and particularly for the past three or four, I can say with all honesty that when it comes to red snapper, at least, every accusation that anglers have leveled at commercial fishermen apply equally to the recreational side. Those folks talk a good conservation game, and they're pretty good at conserving other people’s fish, but they squeal like slaughterhouse pigs when someone suggests that they take a real cut in their own kill.
So we’re left with the TRCP’s “Vision” report, and the incredibly bad idea of sidestepping federal conservation and rebuilding requirements—if there are any left when these folks are done—and hand management over to states that are free to act without regard to the science or the health of our publicly-owned fisheries.
Proponents of such measures try to seduce anglers with pretty words. But when those words must give the states false credit for the successful recovery of summer flounder and must misrepresent the health of the striped bass stock in order to be convincing, and when, even with careful editing, they reveal the intent to manage fisheries in a way just good enough—“sufficiently”—for anglers, so that industry may enjoy “extensive” benefits, those words don’t looks so pretty any more.
In fact, they look pretty damned ugly.
When we read the TRCP’s “Vision” report, we read the same tired arguments that we read before the Sustainable Fisheries Act was passed, the same ones that have been made by commercial fishermen in every year since. Today, they’re just written by a different hand.
For the most part, the commercial and recreational fishing industries seem to want the same things. They only really disagree about who ought to profit from the overfishing that their policies would ensure.
But in the end, a fish doesn’t care who kills it, and overfishing by recreational fishermen is neither better nor worse than overfishing by the commercial side.
So when the “Vision” report hails the virtues of conservation and managing for abundance on the one hand, and on the other talks about evading federal conservation mandates by letting states manage the stocks for “extensive economic benefits,” it is engaging in a monumental con, hoping that you'll watch the hand that holds noble ideals while ignoring the hand working to tear the heart out of federal fisheries laws.
Anyone who falls for their ploy might also think about buying the Brooklyn Bridge.
And anyone who would market such ploy might do well in the bridge-selling business…