Thursday, March 27, 2014


“Flexibility” is one of those words that just sounds good.  It’s a friendly, mushy, go-along-to-get-along kind of word.  It’s opposite, “rigidity,” is something that makes you think of Prussians and carbon steel, not the sort of associations that leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.  “Flexibility” is for nice guys; “rigidity” and “stiffness” is, well, for stiffs…

And it’s probably that warm and fuzzy connotation that makes “flexibility” one of the favorite words of people who want to gut federal fisheries laws and weaken the current management system.

It’s pretty safe to say that, in most homes (if not in mine), fisheries management isn’t a typical topic of dinner-table conversation.  Very few people—and far too few anglers—think much about it, and far fewer delve into the details.  But it’s also probably safe to say that at some gut level, quite a few people, and most anglers, would say that overfishing is wrong, and would instinctively prefer a healthy stock to one in serious decline.

Thus, people aren’t likely to heed anyone who comes right out and says “Federal fishery law shouldn’t bar growth overfishing” (growth overfishing is a relatively low level of overfishing which doesn’t, by itself, cause a stock to decline, but removes most or all of the larger, older fish and so makes such stock less resilient and more vulnerable to adverse environmental or other events). 

But if someone says “Fisheries laws should be more flexible” or “Managers should have more flexibility in rebuilding stocks,” most folks would nod and smile and likely feel that being “flexible” sounds like a reasonable thing.

Even if growth overfishing—or worse—would result.

For as someone observed a long time ago, it’s not what you say, but how you say it, that matters.

I served on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council a decade ago, when the summer flounder stock was still a long way from being rebuilt.  There were more and bigger fish around every year, and fishermen were catching more of them all the time, but we were still far from achieving recovery, so regulations remained pretty tight.  You heard a lot of “flexibility” talk back then, mixed in with comments about there being “more fluke around than there’s been for forty years.”

Most of that talk came from the owners and operators of party boats, and those who wanted to “protect marine, boat and tackle industry jobs,” along with the writers who carried such folks water in the angling press.  We kept hearing pleas about “flexibility” at each August Council meeting, when we set the annual harvest limits for the following year, and those calls for “flexibility” were repeated in December, when the recreational rules for the coming season were set.

Yes, they kept saying that what they wanted was “flexibility”.  
But what those for-hire and industry folk really meant was “There are enough fluke around to keep people happy; let’s cut the recovery short so we can rake in some cash.”

Fortunately, federal law didn’t let that happen, and today we have the sort of quality fishing we could have only imagined ten years ago.

But the recreational industry weren’t the only "flexibility" fans.  

Up in New England, you hear members of the groundfish fleet complaining that rules intended to rebuild Gulf of Maine cod and other collapsed stocks are too strict, and should offer more “flexibility.”  (  But what they mean is, “We always overfished these stocks, and we don’t want to stop now.”

A few years ago, all of the fans of “flexibility” came together to urge Congress to pass the “Flexibility in Rebuilding America’s Fisheries Act.”  The bill, which would have institutionalized “flexibility” as a euphemism for “overfishing,” was supported by angling industry groups such as the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which noted that

“We need deadline flexibility, we need to get rid of the accountability measures based on flawed science, and we have to address the problems with annual catch limits in the recreational sector where rebuilt fish stocks are concerned.  Some say it’s a lot to ask, but we’re going to need it all if we want to save coastal jobs and keep our members fishing in the 21st Century.”  (    
Once again, economic considerations would trump the health of fish stocks.

However, another recreational organization, the Coastal Conservation Association, quickly debunked that argument, cutting through the smoke and mirrors to note

“For most important recreational species, rebuilding has either been completed or is well underway, and little is gained by stretching out the last few years of recovery periods that are already well underway.  The exceptions are those complexes of slow-growing, generally deep-water species which support a mixed commercial/recreational fishery:  New England groundfish, southern snapper-grouper and Pacific rockfish.
“Claims that the current rebuilding deadlines don’t take biological or ecological conditions into account are false.  The current law permits the 10-year deadline to be exceeded when the biology of the fish requires it, in which case the rebuilding period is generally one mean generation (the time it takes a fish of the affected species to mature) plus 10 years.
“The extension of the rebuilding deadlines in the Flexibility Act are simply designed to drag out recovery in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue.”  (
The effort to enshrine “flexibility” in federal fisheries law faded in the face of such undeniable truth. 

For a while.

But now some time as passed, and the friendly façade of “flexibility” is again being used to cover an ugly effort to overfish and delay the recovery of battered stocks.  But this time, the attack on federal rebuilding and conservation initiatives is coming from an unexpected source—formerly rational representatives of recreational fishermen who once were among “flexibility’s” staunchest foes.

This time, the call for “flexibility” has emerged in the much-hyped and blatantly hypocritical report issued by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” ( which states

“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.
“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 provisions 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.”
That statement is unremarkable in some respects—boiled down, it’s just another case of folks talking about “flexibility” when they are really saying “allow overfishing and delay rebuilding so folks can pocket some short-term cash”—and it clearly stands in opposition to the Coastal Conservation Association’s characterization of “flexibility” that was quoted a few paragraphs before.  

But what is remarkable here is that the Coastal Conservation Association was a major contributor to TRCP’s “Vision” report, and that such report is being heavily promoted by members of the Center for Coastal Conservation, a trade association founded, in large part, by CCA.  Roughly recalling some words of a recent presidential campaign that highlighted one candidate’s alleged flip-flops on the issues, “CCA was against ‘flexibility’—until it was for it.”

And that’s too bad, because CCA was right the first time.  ““The extension of the rebuilding deadlines in the Flexibility Act,” and, I might add, any “flexibility” legislation that arises out of the TRCP report, “are simply designed to drag out recovery in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue.”

For that is the truth, and truth is immutable, even if people and organizations end up changing their views.

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