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.  

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