Sunday, April 27, 2014


ASMFC’s Spring Meeting will take place during the week of May 11, down in Alexandria, Virginia.  The Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will meet on the 13th, when it will hopefully put together a draft addendum to the fishery management plan that will determine how bass will be managed for the rest of this decade.

The Management Board was supposed to put out one draft addendum in February.  That one would have incorporated the new fishing mortality reference points—Ftarget=0.180 and Fthreshold=0.219—that were endorsed in the benchmark stock assessment that was presented last October.  That addendum would have been finalized thid May, and a second draft addendum addressing the regulations needed to constrain harvest within those reference points prepared at the May meeting.

However, the Management Board punted in February, purportedly to present both issues at once, so the timeline for getting everything done has gotten a little compressed.  Still, there’s plenty of time to get regulations in place for 2015—provided that no one slows up the process.

Right now, professional managers are sending out word that all will be well.  I have heard them say that efforts to reduce striped bass harvest WILL be in place for the 2015 season.

I know they believe that, and I think that they’re right, but I can’t help worrying about the amateurs on the Management Board who might not go along, and will see any delay as a victory.

Adopting the new, lower reference points should be a slam dunk, if we believe the Commission’s charter.  Section Six, subsection (a)(2), of the Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter states very clearly that “Conservation programs and management measures shall be based on the best scientific information available,“ and if a peer-reviewed stock assessment of striped bass, one of the most data-rich stocks in the country, doesn’t qualify as “the best scientific information,” I’m not sure what does.

But nothing is ever easy at ASMFC, in part because there is no court oversight.  Sure, the Charter says that “the best scientific information“ must be used, but if the Management Board thinks otherwise, who can intervene?  Right now, a Federal Appellate Court decision says “Maybe nobody.”

It’s not even clear to me why the management plan doesn’t provide that the results of any such assessment—clearly “the best scientific information“—will be incorporated automatically, since the matter really shouldn’t be debatable; such debate only makes it harder for ASMFC to do the right thing.  It would be nice if the Management Board put such language in the May draft addendum, but in the real world, that’s not going to happen.  It’s a fight for another day and likely for another lifetime.

The real fireworks are going to start when the management board proposes regulations that would make any harvest cuts real.  Right now—and this isn’t final, because ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee is going to revisit the issue on the 1st of May—it appears that we’re looking at a 31% cut, which could be achieved by either going to one fish at 28 inches or two at 33; there will also be talk about a slot limit, and between the three options, there’s plenty for folks to fight about.

Personally, of the three choices, I’d take one fish at 28 inches.  Given current conditions, it would do the least harm to the stock.  

A 28-inch bass is going to be six or seven years old in 2015, which means that it will come from the 2008 or 2009 year class; both year classes were below average, so there won’t be many barely-legal fish around.  But 2007 was a pretty fair year—the best ever in the Hudson River, and a little above-average in the Chesapeake—so there should be a decent number of 10-12 pound stuff around for the folks who want to take a fish home.  The rest of the mortality could be spread among the older fish.  Most of those older fish would be 2001s and 2003s, but there would be enough big fish from the 1996 and even 1993 year classes to keep things interesting (and we can hope that most of the guys good enough and patient enough to land those big ones will also be wise enough to set them free.)

The tackle shops should be happy to keep the 28-inch limit, and the party boat folks should be as well, since it’s small enough to make their customers believe that they might take a legal fish home. On the other hand, I can hear the charter boats that specialize in catching big fish on bait howling, because they'll no longer be able to hang a dozen big bass for photos at the dock, and their customers won't be able to take all those big fish home to show off to their neighbors, forget in their freezers and feed to their tomatoes the following spring. 

Those boats will want to see two at 33”, which would be a truly bad idea.  Right now, most of the striped bass’ spawning potential is locked up in older year classes. The youngest of those are the 2003s, and they passed the 33-inch mark a couple of years ago.  Let the boats concentrate on the big fish—giving anglers a chance to take two on each trip—and the 2003 year class--as well as every other older year class--is going to get beat up pretty badly.  

Better to limit them to a single fish.

The other possibility that’s floating around out there is a slot limit.  It’s not clear what such a slot would look like, since the Technical Committee hasn’t provided any guidance yet, but some parameters will be available by the time that the Management Board gets together.  If the slot takes its usual form—that is, if it allows fish less than 28 inches to be caught and sets an upper limit somewhere below 30 inches--slot limit proponents may get an unexpected surprise.

Anglers often view slots as a conservation measure, but that's not really true.

If we look at a couple of real-world examples, Maine’s recreational slot and the commercial slot in place in New York, that becomes apparent pretty quickly. 

When Maine adopted its slot—which allows anglers to take either one immature bass in the 22-26 inch range or a prime spawner more than 40 inches long—it was forced to cut its bag limit from two fish to one in order to achieve “conservation equivalency” to two at 28 inches.  And when New York went to a 24-36 inch commercial slot to minimize the concentration of PCBs in the fish sold (PCBs bioaccumulate, and larger fish have higher concentrations), it had to compensate by cutting its commercial landings by more than a quarter.

So if we’re starting with one fish at 28 inches, cutting the bag limit to compensate for harm a slot does to the stock won’t be an option; managers will be forced to impose some sort of season.  And the odds are that such season would take a pretty big bite out of either the spring or the fall fishery.  For that reason alone—most fishermen want to be able to get out on the water as much as they can—a slot seems like a poor option.  But it also presents another problem.

Right now, anglers and fishery managers alike are pinning a lot of hope on the big 2011 year class, the first truly large year class since 2003.  Although a few early-maturing females from the 2011 year class will become a part of the spawning stock in 2016, a majority will not mature until 2018, when the 2003s will be 15 years old and starting to show the effects of 8 years of coastwide harvest (on top of another 4 years of harvest while still juveniles in Chesapeake Bay).  So does it make sense to adopt a slot limit which will take a significant number of the 2011s out of the population before they have a chance to spawn even once? 

I don’t think so.

But I do think that we should be looking a little farther into the future.

The 2011 year class was solid, but the 2012 year class was the worst ever recorded; even during the depths of the collapse, more young bass were spawned.  And if the pattern that Maryland scientists have noted is true—that cold winters and cold, wet springs lead to good spawns, and warm winters and dry springs lead to poor ones—the current climate trends don't favor the production of dominant year classes.

Thus, I tend to see the Technical Committee’s recommendation as a starting point.  When the Management Board prepares the draft addendum in May, it shouldn’t consider any harvest reductions that are smaller than that recommended.  However, it probably should consider some larger cuts—one of forty and maybe even one of fifty percent—and give the public the chance to decide whether greater precaution should be employed.

Because when the Management Board drafts an addendum, it often includes a lot of options that folks say they want to see, whether or not such options reflect the majority view.  And sometimes, during the public hearing process, some of those options get a lot more support than anyone expected.  So the key is to try to get as many good ideas into the addendum, and try to keep as many bad ideas out, as you possibly can.  Otherwise, some bad ideas can get legs and some good ones might go ignored.

I plan to submit my comments to the Management Board—the address is on the ASMFC website—by April 30, so that they get into the meeting materials.  I’ll send a copy to my state commissioners, too (they can be found on another part of ASMFC’s site).

You should do the same. 

Consider May 5 your deadline, and get it done.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


The Senate has released an initial “working draft” of its Magnuson Act reauthorization bill.  It’s not a bad piece of legislation.  It’s certainly far better than the dangerous piece of junk that Doc Hastings put together in the House, and clearly shows the influence of its primary sponsor, Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, who lives in a place where the Magnuson Act and its sustainable fisheries practices have brought tangible benefits to the local population.

Having said that, the working draft has some warts (I’m going to discuss the entire bill in more length next Thursday).  You would expect such flaws in any collaboration that brings together legislators from both political parties and all parts of the nation, each of whom brings their own parochial concerns to the table. 

It’s only natural. 

I try to be rational and detached when I analyze fisheries management measures, but in the end I am an active angler up in New York state, so I can’t say that I’m disappointed to see language from Senator Charles Schumer’s “Fluke Fairness Act” make it into the working draft…

But there’s a difference between provisions that address local concerns in a reasonable way (Schumer’s “Fluke Fairness” language merely requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to use the latest and best data to allocate summer flounder landings) and those that undermine the very purpose of the law.

Most folks have a conscience, and know when they’re about to do the wrong thing.  To make themselves feel better, they’ll usually try to clothe essentially selfish actions in a sheer veil of respectability.  If we set the Magnuson Act aside for a moment, and look at marine resource management on a global scale, the best example may be Japanese “scientific whaling.”  Over the years, many hundreds of cetaceans have been killed in the name of “science” and , after a very cursory examination, cut up and sold in retail outlets throughout Japan.

Japan’s “scientific whaling” has been widely condemned.  The activity falls so far short of legitimate research that, earlier this year, the International Court of Justice found that Japan was using “science” as a sham justification for engaging in what would otherwise be a prohibited commercial harvest, and ordered that nation to cease whaling immediately.

Given the calumny that folks in the United States leveled at Japan’s fake “scientific” activities, it is somewhat disconcerting, to see a similar sham research program included in the Senate’s working draft of the Magnuson reauthorization bill.  But in that case, the animals involved aren’t whales in the Antarctic Ocean, but red snapper off our South Atlantic coast.

Today, the recreational catch of South Atlantic red snapper is insignificant.  The species comprised just 0.11%—yes, about one-tenth of one percent—of all fish caught by anglers in the South Atlantic last year. 

What a lot of folks don’t realize is that, historically, South Atlantic red snapper have always been an insignificant part of the recreational catch.  They accounted for 0.19% of the catch in 2003 and 0.17% in 1993.  If you go all the way back to 1983, you’ll see that number jump to 0.33%--a whopping one-third of one percent of all recreationally-caught fish in the South Atlantic!  

Not exactly a big deal, if you look at things objectively.

Of course, not everyone can be objective.  I still don’t understand it, but there’s something about red snapper, whether in the South Atlantic or in the Gulf, that seems to induce a kind of blind irrationality in otherwise sensible anglers.  And after seeing the section titled “South Atlantic Red Snapper Cooperative Research Program” in the working draft, I have to think that the fish can induce irrationality in United States Senators as well.

For what the Senate working draft proposes is a “research program” that would make Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research green with envy. 

The program would begin “no later than 90 days after” the Magnuson reauthorization bill was enacted, and would last for six years.  During that time, “research permits” would be issued to commercial and recreational fishermen, as well as members of the for-hire industry.  Each permit would allow the capture of one red snapper outside of the established season.

For the first two years of the program, the number of permits will be decided by Congress, who need not pay any attention to overfishing or the ultimate health of the stock.  

After that, the South Atlantic Council would determine the number of permits issued “using the best available science,” which seems reasonable on its face until you read another section of the working draft, which would expand the definition of “best available science” to include anecdotal comments made by participants in the fishery, who—one could easily suspect—might have some motivation for overstating the health of the stock.

There’s no apparent limit on the number of permits that might be issued to any one person.  Allocation of the permits between the sectors would be determined by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and the National Marine Fisheries Service would be allowed to charge a nominal fee for each one. 

Permits would be freely transferrable between fishermen who participate in the program.  Supposedly, fishermen may not receive any payment for transferred permits but—well, this is the real world, and let’s see how NMFS manages to enforce that one…

Anyone who obtains a permit would be prohibited from landing red snapper during the regular season.  However, that’s hardly a hardship, given that the current red snapper “mini-season” in the South Atlantic lasts, at best, for just a few days.

And just what sort of “research” are the fishermen supposed to conduct?

Well, at the end of each fishing year, everyone in the program would have to tell NMFS the weight and length of each fish landed, and the date on which the relevant permit was issued.

Nothing more.

Which means that fishermen could fish where red snapper are most likely to be, and report only those fish that they kept—which would likely be some of the oldest and largest fish caught, and thus create a pool of biased data that could then be used to “prove” what the same fishermen had asserted all along—that “there are plenty of big old red snapper out there.”

As “science,” it’s pretty worthless.  As a “research program” designed to let folks evade restrictions on harvest, it’s “scientific fishing” in the best Japanese tradition.

In one aspect, the proposed snapper “research” is probably worse than Japanese “scientific whaling.”  For the Japanese just ignored the sham science and kept killing whales.  The “data” from the red snapper “research” would likely be used to impeach legitimate scientific studies and affect policy in a way that’s detrimental to both the long-term health of the snapper stock and the greater public interest.

It also creates a license to steal.

I’ve spent all my life around the water, mostly in southern New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic, places where phrases such as “Who’s gonna know?” “It’s not illegal until you get caught” and “Ya gotta do what ya gotta do” are a regular part of fishermen’s conversations.  

I doubt that, except for their accents, South Atlantic fishermen speak very differently.  

Which means that, when they have half a dozen “research” permits in their pocket and half a dozen red snapper in the box, they’re not likely to end their fishing for the year.  They’ll just land their fish without fanfare and take the same permits out on their next trip offshore.

After all, who’s gonna know?

We have something called the “Research Set-Aside” program here in the northeast, which lets fishermen buy small lots of fish at auction, which they can then legally land when the regular season is closed.  The money for the auction is used to fund fisheries research, which is a good thing, and there are supposedly safeguards to prevent abuse—fishermen have to call in before making an RSA trip, and detailed reports of each trip must be regularly given to managers.

And yet, some fishermen will always be what they are.  In the past few months, two New York commercial fishermen have been convicted, one for landing 86,000 pounds of illegal RSA fluke, one for a whopping 310,000 pounds.  To believe that fishermen would comply with a program that has no safeguards at all is beyond naive.

But then, the “South Atlantic red snapper cooperative research program” isn’t about research, it’s about killing more red snapper.  So maybe that’s OK…

And even if fishermen choose not to poach—a pretty unlikely prospect, given the way too many fishermen think—it is inevitable that a lot of them will try to manipulate the annual reports by submitting fabricated data meant to convince NMFS that restrictive regulations aren’t really needed.

Because that’s how “scientific whaling”—or “scientific fishing”—is meant to work.

Even so, the proposal could be fixed to yield something very worthwhile.

Instead of issuing “research permits” that allow fishermen to kill red snapper out of season, NMFS might instead issue tags—not very different from the tags issued to folks who hunt deer, black bear or turkey here in New York—that must be immediately attached to snapper iced during the regular season.  Such permits could be issued annually, through a lottery, just as many states issue limited big game hunting permits today, and NMFS could charge a fee covering the cost of the program from each entrant.

That would be a pretty good start at ending the current “derby” fishery and keeping red snapper landings under control while the stock rebuilds.  Cheating could be minimized—it could never be completely eliminated—by requiring boats bringing back fish to call in via cell phone before the fish are landed (and maybe to call in to a recorded line before going out).  

In return for the inconvenience, managers could do away with the season and let tagholders fish whenever they want to throughout the year.

It might actually create a workable process.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t let fishermen kill more red snapper.

For that you need to do “research”.

Just ask the Japanese whalers.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014


There are seasons, of course, in the sea.

Neither calendars nor clocks define them. Instead, like all the true measures of time—the years, the days, the tides—they are scribed by sun and moon across the vault of the sky.  Yet, though seasons follow the sun, no two are the same.  One spring may be precocious, and bring an early quickening to life at the water’s edge.  Another may be timid, permitting frost to rime the salt marsh long after the equinox has passed.

I have spent my life close to the ocean, and know the rhythms of sea and sky.  When a cold March plods at torpid Winter’s pace, April catches me unawares, and is gone almost before I know it has come.  It was so on one late-April Sunday, when I found myself headed toward Robert Moses State Park.  I planned to buy a fishing permit before sales stopped at month’s-end, although I didn’t really need it.  I own a boat, and seldom fish from the beach.  But I buy permits all the same, each one memorializing the start of a new season.

I drove over the bridge spanning Great South Bay, noting that the bay was surprisingly empty.  There were no boats at all to the west.  To the east, where flounder anglers once clogged Dickerson Channel, it was nearly as quiet.  I could make out the silhouette of just one party boat, with one or maybe two private boats in attendance, perhaps two miles away.

Weather didn’t explain the emptiness.  Clouds filled the sky, but they were a bright buoyant blanket that did not threaten rain.  Only a light chop wrinkled the skin of the bay.

Farther along, I crossed the shorter bridge across Fire Island Inlet.  A party boat floated beneath me, while a few small boats clustered around the bridge pilings and drifted over the bar to the west.  Everyone seemed to be seeking a fluke or striped bass, trying to get the jump on seasons that wouldn’t really begin until May.  Not a single boat was anchored near the lighthouse or elsewhere along South Beach, where they once would have waited to intercept hordes of flounder on their annual trip toward the sea.

The Park office, too, was unseasonably quiet.  Its parking lot, usually jammed with anglers hurrying to buy their permits before sales ended, was all but empty.  One person approached me, asking how he might get a permit for himself.  He qualified his question by saying, “Oh, no, I don’t fish.  Just want to hang out.”

With permit in hand, I climbed back into my truck and headed for home.  On a whim, I turned down the road that led down to the party boat docks at Captree State Park.

I hadn’t gone that way for a while.  Years ago, I frequently walked Captree in winter.  Then, throughout the cold months, unless the bay was locked solid with ice, half a dozen boats would take anglers fishing for cod.  It was a very modest fishery.  For every day that provided good fishing, there were a few when little was caught.  However, it provided some business for the boats and some income for the crews, until the government’s failure to end overfishing made fishing so bad that the anglers all stayed home.

For a while after the codfishing failed, Captree remained active in winter.  Some trapped the red crabs that came in with the cold.  Some fished for herring.  On warm February afternoons, a handful of anglers might come out on a quixotic quest for flounder.  When weather allowed, party boat crews would start getting vessels ready for spring, waiting for days warm enough to paint a hand-worn rail or weathered deckhouse.  Many of the boats bore signs announcing that flounder fishing would start on the first weekend of March or, more often, on St. Patrick’s Day, long the unofficial start of the season.

But flounder grew scarce, and efforts to stem the decline failed, in part because the boats’ owners successfully fought needed regulations.  They admitted that the fish were disappearing, but argued that limits must remain high; anglers needed the “perception” that they could kill lots of fish, even if reality dictated otherwise.  In time, nearly all of the flounder were gone and that closed the March season in fact well before that season was closed by law

With April almost over, I had no problem finding a parking spot close to the dock.

Even a decade ago, the lot would have been filled with anglers' cars.  Now, motorcycles sat in the spaces, and packs of leather-clad men with helmets beneath their arms replaced the anglers who used to stop to talk on their way to and from the dock. 

Sixty-year-old teenagers with unshorn hair the color of winter rain huddled beneath the hoods of cars built when a gallon of high-test gas cost 29 cents.  “442” and other such numbers shone from the side of each car, proclaiming their engines’ power; those engines rumbled and roared as if their noise alone could reverse the flow of time, erase things such as OPEC, foreign imports and Mideast wars, and take us all back to the world that used to be.

I left my truck then and walked to the dock, past a row of idle boats and onto the fishing pier, where I was welcomed by the piping “dee-dee-dee” of an oystercatcher flying above the marsh to the north.  A song sparrow flew out from under the pier and into the phragmites lining the shore.  Otherwise, I was alone.

A chill ran through me then, that had nothing to do with the cool water or the freshening breeze.  Spring winds and April waters have been my companions for the past half-century and more.  They are welcome old friends, and remind me of the joy that I’ve found just being alive near the shore.  What I felt was a frisson of sadness, or maybe of fear, as I realized that a life I had loved may be dying.

Those who once would have lined the pier—singles, couples and entire families—were nowhere to be seen.  A small huddle of people, hunkered out of the wind at the pier’s very end, playing some sort of card game, was the only human presence.  Their four fishing rods stood ignored at the rail, lines trailing into the bay. 

I felt a second’s guilt. 

I have spent much of my life trying to promote conservation, speaking as a private citizen, representing various groups and sitting, for a time, on a federal fisheries management council.  Members of the fishing industry have often accused me of backing laws and regulations that put their lives’ work at risk.  

Is it possible, I wondered, that I could be partly to blame for the desolation on the pier?  But, no. 

To have fishermen, one must first have fish.  The fishing industry successfully fought regulations needed to help the flounder and the cod.  Anglers perceive that the fish are gone, so the anglers, too, have moved on.

I walked farther out onto the pier, to see whether the channel beyond had shifted over the winter. 

To the east, a row of low islands—Sexton, then after a miles-long expanse of flats, West and East Fire Islands—stood dark against the haze-blurred horizon.  They mark a place where Captree’s island once stood.  But time moved on, Fire Island Inlet moved west and the island followed, with only a few sandy humps to mark where it once had been.

Twenty years ago, the island extended past the pier’s end, and ramps ran down from the pier to the shore.  Today, ramps hang above open water, as more and more of the island’s sand washes into the bay.  In two decades, the island has retreated a long way; perhaps a dozen yards from its current shore, a barrier of low, man-made dunes guards the edge of the parking lot.  It is likely that, perhaps as early as this autumn, the northeast gales will blow, and the best efforts to hold back the tide won’t prevent the lot from being reshaped by the sea.

I started walking back down the pier.  Over the bay, a flock of double-crested cormorants, flying northeast, drew a stark, black “M” against the cloudy-bright sky.

Back on the dock, I walked west past the boat slips.  Many were empty.  Judging by the signs, some of the missing boats were still seeking the bay’s scattered flounder.  From the reports I had heard, they found very few.

In a reprise of a scene played out too often in too many ports, other boats were already seeking fluke and striped bass, the collapse of one species shifting effort onto other, healthier stocks.  Whether those stocks can weather the added attention is anyone’s guess.

Whether the boats can survive is also an open question.  A number of them sat empty in their slips, their owners having made the painful decision not to sail until later in the year, recognizing that there were too few fish—and thus too few anglers—to support all of the vessels in port.  Instead of fishing, they attended to repairs.  Mixed among the sound of hammers and saws, I heard the voices and songs of the Eagles and Bob Seeger, the same music that played on the stereo in my truck.

We are of an age, those owners and I.  I used to have my boat in the water by the last week of March, and my wife and I celebrated the coming of spring with a meal of asparagus fresh from our garden matched with flounder fresh from the bay.  We replanted the asparagus bed when harvests grew sparse, but could not help the flounder, so now my boat stays on shore until the weakfish show up in May. 

Most of the owners had bought their boats when the island was longer, fuel was cheaper and there were plenty of fish in the sea.  Now, too many fish stocks are down.  Regulations designed to restore their abundance, and to guard other stocks from decline, hold promise for the future, but the owners fear that the price of waiting for that future to come will be far too high.

Life has changed for us all.

Over a century ago, Native Americans faced life-altering change.  Many turned to the shamans who told them that, if they joined in the Ghost Dance, bullets would not harm them; the white man would be defeated and buffalo would return to the plains.  Thus, it is not surprising that many of the owner have turned to latter-day prophets who promise that, if they all join together and speak the right words to the powers that be, regulations will not vex them, anglers will return to the port and, somehow, they will still, somehow, be plenty of fish for us all.

Having nowhere left to go, I climbed back into my truck.  As I started to turn the key, a metallic-blue Dodge convertible, driven by what might well have been its original owner, peeled out of the lot and onto the ramp to the parkway.

Its engine growled defiance to the wind.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Last Christmas my niece gave me a copy of Jeff Nichols’ book, Caught:  One Man's Maniacal Pursuit of a Sixty Pound Striped Bass and His Experiences with the Black Market Fishing Industry.  For those unfamiliar with the volume, it’s the story of how a recreational striped bass fisherman allowed his desire to fish for stripers morph into a poaching lifestyle out in Montauk, in which he would illegally sell his catch to restaurants both on Long Island and in Manhattan, and use the proceeds to finance additional angling activities.

When the book came out, it caused a bit of a stir, because it gave readers—most of whom were probably pretty dedicated striped bass fishermen themselves—a look at something that they’d rather not see, the huge black market for striped bass that exists on Long Island and elsewhere along the coast.  A lot of folks who I know—including some who have tangled with the poachers personally—found the book a revelation.  Maybe I’ve just lived around the water too long, and have become jaded, because after I read the book, I just thought “I’ve known a lot of guys like that.”

Sadly, that’s true.

During our time as anglers, we get to know some folks who seem truly gifted.  They catch a lot of fish, they catch a lot of big fish and they seem to be on the water night after night throughout the season.   

They become celebrities along their section of coast.  They give seminars at the local tackle shops, and are sought-after speakers at clubs and regional shows.  Folks look up to them in a sort of awe because of their success with the stripers.

In their admiration, everyone tends to ignore the fact that, as a group, they also sell a lot of bass.  Some have commercial licenses.  A lot of them, particularly in limited-entry states such as New York, don’t bother with such formalities.  But they sell fish all the same.

Because when you’re out on the water night after night, burning gas, churning through whatever eels or lures or whatever else you use to tempt the stripers to bite, you run up some pretty big bills.  Most of the folks doing that weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths; most aren’t investment bankers or doctors.  They usually don’t have high-paying jobs—if they did, they wouldn’t have time to fish every night. 

So they do what comes naturally—they sell striped bass in order to be able to catch more striped bass.

It’s easy to tell who they are.  They’re the ones bringing back their limits—the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, the 50-plus fish—day after day.  I mean, you can only eat so much bass, and you only have so many friends to take it, so when you come back with limits—or more—of big fish on a regular basis, you have to get rid of it somewhere.  And there is always someone willing to buy at below-market price.

I grew up in Connecticut, a “gamefish” state since the 1950s.  It was the sort of place where “commercial fisherman” was used as an insult, but where the best striped bass fishermen around—just about all of them—had restaurants and country clubs and similar places where they sold their bass.  Call them “commercial fishermen” and they’d get annoyed, although given the fact that they were really just poachers, the commercial guys were the ones who should have taken offence.

It’s no different today.  When the striped bass start to follow the menhaden schools along the South Shore of Long Island, you’ll see some of the same boats out there day after day, and when you see them come back to the dock, they’ll have plenty of fish on board.  And the next day, they’ll go out again…

The same thing happens when the bass bunch up on sand eels in the fall.  Boats congregate over the bass, and then the fishermen congregate at the back doors of diners and sushi houses, joining the black market throng.

Officers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation do what they can, but there are just too many poachers and too many places to unload their illegal fish.  For every poacher that the authorities catch, far more slip cleanly away.  We can only guess how many have gotten away with far too much for far too many years.

The numbers are certainly higher than we ever want to believe.  And it is no one’s fault but our own.

We’re quick to blame the commercial fleet, for real and imagined offences.  We like to complain about gillnets and trawlers, and blame them when fish stocks decline.

And sometimes we’re right to do so.

But we’re strangely silent when we know that the guy with the boat in the slip next to ours is out poaching stripers.  Or tuna.  Or anything else.

And we look the other way when he carts his fish to the restaurant’s door.

As the Bible (Matthew 7:3) notes, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

That’s a pretty good question.  Before we worry about what the commercials are doing, let’s clean up our own house.

Edmund Burke may have said it best two and a half centuries ago:  “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

So let’s stop doing nothing.  As the new season dawns, let’s stop turning a blind eye to what goes on all around us.  Let’s start giving the enforcement folks the help that they need to keep poachers—those who steal fish for money and those who just steal fish for fun—under some sort of control.

For here on Long Island, those poachers have a saying, “It’s not illegal until you get caught.”

It’s time for them to learn what “illegal” really means.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Last Thursday, I spent some time discussing one aspect of the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit.  I’m not going to spend too much time dwelling on the event, but it probably is worth investigating one concept that popped up a couple of times, the concept of managing fish for “maximum economic yield.”

It’s an interesting phrase for a number of reasons.  Not the least of which is that no one really knows what it means.

It’s like the blind men describing an elephant, based only on the parts they could touch.  Everyone’s description is colored by their own particular perspective.

The speakers who used it were tied to the sportfishing industry, and what I think they were trying to say was that managing fish for the benefit of recreational fishermen rather than the commercial industry would provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation.

For a lot of species, that’s unquestionably true.  The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences did an economic study of the striped bass fishery a few years ago (  VIMS had originally intended to use economic analysis to find the optimum recreational/commercial allocation of the resource, but quickly determined that

“It was the intent of the study to…determine an optimum mix of the allocation (i.e. a certain non-zero percent allocation to each user group).  Early analysis of the economic impacts and societal benefits, however, revealed the optimum allocation should be 100 percent to the recreational sector.  That is, maximum social benefits and potential sales, income, and employment were associated with a 100% allocation of the 1998 total allowable catch to the recreational sector.  As a consequence, there was no need to further examine an optimal allocation.”
A study commissioned by Stripers Forever, conducted by Southwick Associates (, has pretty much come to the same conclusion, but is vulnerable to challenge simply because it was sponsored by an agenda-driven organization.  Still, that doesn’t mean that the report’s conclusions were wrong.

A lot of other species would also demonstrate the benefits of giving recreational fishermen a bigger slice of the pie.  

But note that the same study that found that grouper had their greatest economic value if fished recreationally shows that, in the case of one species—red grouper—the commercial fishery had the greater economic impact.  Economic value and economic impact are calculated differently; economic value, rather than economic impact, is generally thought to be the better measure.   Still, anglers probably have reason to question whether they they would come out on top even if economic value analyses were done for some species, such as cod, haddock or swordfish—or even bluefin tuna

So this sort of “maximum economic value” is likely a two-edged sword.

Then there’s the old-fashioned New England kind of “maximum economic value,” the way that phrase was perceived back before the Sustainable Fisheries Act was passed.  That was when “optimum” yield was defined as “the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as modified by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor” and MSY was always “modified” upward, resulting in severe overfishing, maximized short-term income and the long-term collapse of the stocks.  It’s the way the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has managed northern shrimp and the southern stock of winter flounder, ignoring scientific advice in order to squeeze the last drop of economic blood from a sere and crumbling stone. 

So, no, this sort of “maximum economic yield” doesn’t seem like a very good idea, either.

Yet recreational fishing supports a lot of business, and it’s good if businesses thrive.

So what provides “maximum economic yield in the real world?

Let’s start with the stipulation that in order to “maximize” economic yield, the benefit must continue over an extended time.  Large, but unsustainable, short-term gains don’t qualify.  If you have any doubts, consider the crumbling ghost towns of the American west, towns that boomed until the mines played out, and then just disappeared.  Or, to push the envelope a bit, just consider Detroit…

If we go back thirty years, to 1983, National Marine Fisheries Service data show that three species—summer flounder, winter flounder and bluefish—accounted for 77% of recreational fishing trips here in New York (I’m using New York as an example, just because I’m familiar with its fisheries; I suspect that any other state would have a similar story to tell).  Striped bass, which were suffering through the depths of a stock collapse, accounted for just 1%.

Twenty years ago, in 1993, the dynamic was beginning to change.  The same three species dominated New York anglers’ agenda, but accounted for just 67% of all trips made—down 10% from a decade before.  Almost all of the difference could be attributed to the recovering striped bass stocks, which began to attract more angler attention, and the decline in winter flounder abundance.

By 2003, the trends that had just begun to manifest themselves ten years earlier had changed the face of the fishery.  Just two species—summer flounder and the newly abundant striped bass—accounted for 57% of all fishing trips made in New York.  Bluefish was still among the three most popular species, accounting for about 11% of the trips; the top three species still accounted for a little over two-thirds of all trips made.  But winter flounder were fading fast; as the stock collapsed, so did angler interest.  Winter flounder only accounted for about 6.7% of all New York trips, down from about 26.6% of all trips made two decades earlier.

Last year saw the same trends continue.  54% of all New York trips targeted summer flounder or striped bass, with bluefish holding on to third place.  The winter flounder stock, now fully collapsed, accounted for less than one percent of all trips made, and just 0.02% of all fish caught.

So what does this all tell us about maximizing the “economic yield” of fisheries?

Mostly what I suggested last Sunday, in the post “If You Want a Fishing Industry, It Helps to Have Fish”.  Healthy and fully rebuilt fish stocks will yield the greatest economic return.

Nothing illustrates that better than the contrasting stories of striped bass and winter flounder. 

Thirty years ago, the striped bass population had collapsed, and none but the most dedicated striped bass anglers bothered to fish for them.  As the stock recovered, it drew more and more attention.  Last year, targeted striped bass trips comprised 25% of all New York trips—and each one of those trips generated some sort of economic yield.

On the other hand, thirty years ago winter flounder were abundant, and accounted for 26.6% of all New York angling trips in New York.  As the population began to decline, winter flounder also declined as a viable recreational target.  By 1993, despite the recreational fishing industry’s efforts to keep bag limits unreasonably high in order to create the “perception” that anglers could still take home a load of fish, fewer fishermen were targeting winter flounder; they accounted for just 17.3% of all trips.  Ten years later, the stock collapse was well underway and anglers “perceived” that the fish were disappearing; flounder were targeted in just 6.7% of trips.  Finally, last year, anglers “perceived” that the fish are gone; winter flounder trips constituted less than 1% of the total, and you had to go out two decimal places, to 0.02%, before flounder’s contribution to the overall catch rose above zero.

So it looks as if the road to “maximum economic yield” flows past maximum sustainable yield and into  the realm of maximizing abundance.  Anglers just won’t fish for fish that aren’t there.  The tackle shops and the party boats can fight regulation all that they want, and try to con anglers with efforts to create a “perception,” but the fishing public just isn’t that dumb. Sure, they’ll go out a few times chasing flounder, and leave a few bucks in the shops.  But after they spend a few hours on the water, with nothing in the pail and 11 ½ bloodworms still crawling around in the box, they’ll understand the difference between “perception” and reality, and disappear, taking their economic benefits along with them. 

Which, it appears, is just what they’ve done.

In 1983, New York anglers made about 5.1 million trips, with about 1.4 million of them targeting flounder.

In 2013, they made about 3.7 million trips, with just 0.02 million of them targeting flounder.

It’s hard to miss the fact that if you add the 1.4 million winter flounder trips from 1983—which anglers didn’t take last year—to the 3.7 million trips that they did take in 2003, you end up with 5.1 million, which suggests just how much economic value was lost when we lost winter flounder.

Of course, such an analysis would be far too simple.  It wouldn’t account for the impacts of Superstorm Sandy, which kept a lot of boats out of the water in 2013.  It wouldn’t account for effort shift from winter flounder to more abundant species.  It wouldn’t account for a drop in the number of fishermen over the last thirty years.

But still, flounder fishing is best, and most actively prosecuted, at times when there aren’t many other things around to fish for.  So it's obvious that the loss of winter flounder was a serious economic loss to New York.  Whether losing winter flounder cost New York the economic benefits from 1.4 million trips, 700,000 trips or maybe just 100,000 trips isn't really the point.  It was still a serious economic loss for angler-dependent businesses.

So if we want to manage for “maximum economic yield”, we should manage for healthy, fully-recovered fish stocks.

Once again, “flexibility” won’t get us there.  Overfishing and underregulation map the way a very bad place.  

We need to accept the fact that prosperity follows abundance.  If we manage our fish stocks for long-term abundance, everyone wins.  Stocks will be healthy, fishermen will be happy and they'll spend plenty of cash in support of angling-dependent business.

Striped bass are a prime example.

But if we manage for short-term economic yield, fish stocks will decline in the long term, anglers will desert the fishery, and there will be no cash in the till.

You disagree?  

Then I have two words for you:

Winter flounder.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


A little over a week ago, I attended the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit.

It was an interesting experience.

As always, there was a heavy industry presence, represented by both the manufacturers themselves and big trade organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association, National Marine Manufacturers’ Association and the Center for Coastal Conservation, and by individual retailers and members of the for-hire industry.  Their presence overlapped with that of various anglers’ rights groups, including the Coastal Conservation Association and Jersey Coast Anglers Association.  There was some press, a big government presence—largely federal fishery managers of various sorts—and, probably the smallest component, a few folks like myself who are just plain anglers, unaffiliated with anyone.

The meeting was intended to bring anglers together with federal fisheries managers, so that NMFS can get some kind of feel for the issues that concern us.  Such meetings have some serious implications for federal policy, and always have some kind of theme running through them.  At the last such “summit,” held four years ago, that theme was the lack of effective communication between NMFS and the recreational fishing community. 

This year, many things were discussed, but whatever the topic, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” ( always ran in the background.  The folks who orchestrated the report were very active throughout the meeting, making sure that folks who could capably articulate their positions were present and actively shaping each relevant discussion.

They argued for a “national recreational fishing policy,” which probably couldn’t hurt (and NMFS has agreed to implement), and periodic reviews of how fish are allocated between the commercial and recreational sectors, which sounds like a good idea in theory, but could be a two-edged sword when put into practice.  

They talked about managing stocks with fishing mortality rates instead of hard quotas, which makes sense if you have a restored stock and plenty of data, and of implementing more “flexible” (meaning stretched-out and delayed) rebuilding deadlines, which only makes sense if you’re planning to move to Kansas in ten or so years and don’t plan to fish in the (by then largely empty) ocean again.

Different speakers spoke about different things.  But what I found particularly striking was that, whatever the topic, a single point was made again and again, in various forms and in various ways:  Conservation is critically important to both recreational fishermen and the industries that they support.

Folks didn’t often phrase it that way, and some tried to say things that weren’t quite compatible with that idea, but no one even tried to deny that undeniable truth.

It was usually expressed in terms of “managing for abundance,” rather than for maximum sustainable yield.  That is something that managers should certainly do.  But, as I mentioned in last Sunday’s post, the only way to have “abundance,” which translates to having more and bigger fish available to anglers, is to go beyond the current “sustainability” mandates of the Magnuson Act.  

To achieve true abundance, managers have to keep fishing mortality,  and thus keep more fish in the water to grow, breed and hopefully be caught.  The current effort to enact “Magnuson reform”—a euphemism for extending rebuilding deadlines and perpetuating overfishing—isn’t going to get us there.  In fact, it will do the opposite, creating relatively small stocks made up of almost entirely of small fish—and it will force some of those stocks into precipitous decline.

I’ve written at length criticizing the TRCP “Vision”, and its emphasis on maximizing economic gain, particularly in the short term, at the expense of the resource and the greater public interest.  Yet, when one of the chairmen of the commission which authored that “Vision” spoke from the floor early on the first day, his comments shaded into very different territory.  I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with much that he said; he was certainly right on target when he noted that when the data is poor and uncertain, managers have to proceed with greater caution than they would if managing data-rich stocks.

That runs contrary to a lot of the rhetoric emanating from the various anglers’ rights outlets that gave shape to the “Vision,” which rail against “unnecessary” restrictions based on “bad” or “outdated” science, etc.  Such folks often suggest that anglers should be able to (over)fish unless and until clear and convincing evidence demonstrates that harvest cuts are required.

Why the disconnect?

It’s not hard to explain.  If you let a stock of fish get really low—I’m talking about a New England winter flounder/South Atlantic red snapper kind of low—conservation measures can be pretty painful in the short term.  The kind of regulations that lead to fewer people fishing until they’re relaxed (that might not be true if we’re dealing with “gamefish” such as striped bass—even during the moratorium years back in the ‘80s, a lot of us fished in a strictly catch-and-release fishery—but when you’re dealing with a “meat” fish such as snapper or flounder, people want to bring home some fillets). Those fishermen who quit won’t be happy.

And when fewer fishermen fish, fishing-related businesses are stressed, and a some will go out of business.  (But then, if there aren’t any fish, folks go out of business, too…)

So the folks who are offended, for whatever reason, by the new rules have a knee-jerk reaction to call for “flexibility” or other measures that will keep harvest high until the fish disappear.

At the same time, most people in the angling industry are anglers themselves.  So even while some of them call for “flexibility,” they know from bitter experience how overfishing fishing has damaged our stocks.  They have seen the many collapses and the fewer recoveries; they have seen the benefits gained from strict conservation measures and have enjoyed those benefits first-hand.

They have seen how good management has benefited their businesses in the long run.

Someone far wiser than you or I once noted that “No man can serve two masters,” yet that’s just what some try to do. 
And, in the end, they fail, betrayed by what they know deep inside to be true:

We don’t need “flexibility,” delayed recoveries or overfished stocks.

Without strong laws that conserve and rebuild our fisheries, eventually they will die, and our sport and the businesses that we support will die with them.

That is an inescapable truth. 

And it should be embraced.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


When the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 was signed into law, it was big news.

Over all, our salt water fisheries were in pretty bad shape.  New England groundfish, in particular, had been hit very hard; the great shoals of cod and haddock that had fed the western world for nearly half a millenium had slid past the brink of collapse.

Fisheries law had supported what, in the jargon folks are use today, might be called “maximum economic yield”; “optimum yield”, required by statute, was maximum sustainable yield “modified” by, among other things, economic factors.  And those economic factors always resulted in MSY being “modified” upwards.

Overfishing was sanctioned by law.  Widespread stock collapses were only a matter of time.

So the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which mandated that overfishing immediately cease and that stocks be promptly rebuilt, was radical stuff for its time.

Which gives a pretty good idea about how far we’d fallen by then. 

The idea of not fishing stocks into oblivion, and making them more productive in the long term, transcends the realm of conservation, and enters the realm of plain common sense.  Yet the Sustainable Fisheries Act was controversial when it was written, and if anything, it is more controversial today.

Which gives a pretty good idea about how far we still need to go.

For the Sustainable Fisheries Act’s core tenet—that fish stocks be rebuilt and harvests be reduced so that the greatest long-term yield may be achieved from each population—isn’t an end, but a beginning.

It defines maximum sustainable yield.

Last week, I attended the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit.  One of the speakers was Dan Wolford of California, a recreational fisherman and a three-term member of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.  One of the slides that he presented to the audience began with a simple statement:


That just about says it all.

Because if we manage for maximum sustainable yield, our fish stocks won’t get any smaller and, once they’re technically “recovered,” they won’t get any bigger, either.  The notion underlying maximum sustainable yield is to harvest every single fish that isn’t needed to produce the next just-big-enough generation.

What you end up with is a smallish population—usually around 30% of the size of an unfished stock, give or take a bit, depending on a species’ biology--that includes a lot of fish barely old enough to reproduce.  It’s a good stock structure for commercial fishermen, as it lets them land a lot of fish year after year without hurting the population, and it gives them a catch made up of the sort of smaller, younger fish that the market usually prefers.

But that’s not the kind of stock structure that anglers and scientists really want to see.

There are a lot of recreational fishermen, scattered along the entire coast.  They usually fish close to home, often for just a few hours at a time.  They use inefficient gear and, as some will admit in private, often don’t use it too well.

For anglers to catch enough fish to keep things interesting, those fish must be abundant, not just in one place, but along long stretches of shoreline.  There needs to be enough of them that folks who can’t travel long distances, or put in long days, can still have a realistic chance of catching something they might want to take home, even if they’re not expert fishermen.

And more experienced—or just more hopeful—anglers will want the chance to encounter a large fish from time to time.  “The big one that got away”—or the big one that didn’t—has always been a part of angling lore and the chance of running into such fish lends spice to the fishing experience.

But managing for maximum sustainable yield won’t provide either the abundance or the size that anglers desire.

Nor will it provide the kind of healthy, productive stock that biologists like to see.

A few years ago, fisheries scientists often spoke of the need for “BOFFs,” an acronym that meant the kind of “Big, Old, Fat Fish” that are the sign of a healthy population.  Although some species prove an exception, such large individuals generally produce more eggs, and more eggs per pound, than smaller fish, and often also produce larger fry that are more likely to survive.  They also add stability to a stock, in the event something unexpected occurs.

If you manage a stock for MSY, you are always on the cusp of “growth overfishing,” a situation where the abundance of fish—and overall biomass—remains relatively high, but almost all of the fish are caught before they have a chance to grow large.  In such a population, all of the spawning is done by relatively few year classes.  Should some event—say, a change in  water temperature or other environmental condition—cause a few years of consecutive spawning failure, the stock can quickly get into trouble, as the mature fish are harvested and too few young fish are recruited into the stock to replace them.  

Think of the striped bass collapse in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and you’ll realize how fast a theoretically healthy population can get into bad trouble.

On the other hand, a stock that is managed more conservatively—not for maximum sustainable yield, but for “optimum yield”, by considering “social and ecological factors” and reducing landings accordingly—is far more resilient.  Instead of containing just a few adult year classes, it will have a spawning stock that includes both some large, old individuals and a lot of smaller, barely mature fish.  Should some event lead to serial spawning failures, a lot of year classes may be missing, but the larger individuals—fewer, but more fecund—will take up much of the slack and keep the stock viable until recruitment improves. 

That is more or less where striped bass are today.  Although not as abundant as they were a few years ago, there are still enough older spawners around to keep the stock going until the big 2011 year class matures.  That’s way we need to cut harvest now—to keep more big fish alive, and assure that the stock will really rebuild.

And that’s why anglers must pay no heed to the seductive calls for adding more “flexibility” to the rebuilding mandates of the Magnuson Act.  They will only delay rebuilding and leave fish stocks much more vulnerable than they are today.  

“Flexibility” sounds nice, but it increases the odds that something—perhaps warming waters, perhaps overfishing, perhaps something still unforeseen—will interrupt the recovery process and lead to big problems at some point down the road.

Flexibility won’t give us what we need.

And sustainability is not good enough.

Anglers want—and the fish need—abundance, and enough of big fish to breed healthy stocks.  That means annual catch limits that are low enough to produce large, well-structured populations, and not just maximum sustainable yield.

There’s no reason to settle for less.