Sunday, May 18, 2014
"AT LEAST THEY'LL HAVE, YOU KNOW, ONE FISH TO TAKE HOME"
It’s weakfish time on Long Island.
They’re supposed to bite when the lilacs bloom. I think that’s probably true, and if it’s not, it should be, for the same light purple hues that color the lilac are washed bright on the weakfish’s scales, which glow with an ethereal tone that no simple flower can match.
The striped bass gets most of the glory, and the fluke the attention of crowds, but weakfish are truly the iconic fish of Long Island’s South Shore.
They’re the stars of the stories from times long ago, when salt water angling was new. Fluke and striped bass were bit players then; bluefish barely part of the scene. But weakfish—yellowfin, tiderunner, squeteague—were the darlings of sportsmen who came to our bays from New York City and beyond, to trickle grass shrimp into the running tide and await a pull on their lines.
Yet, in more recent years, weakfish have seen hard times.
I never even saw one until I was about fifteen. I had heard of weakfish, or course. My father had caught them when he came back from the war, but they disappeared a few years later—supposedly because of an eelgrass blight—and stayed away for a very long time.
Since then, their population has hit highs and lows. If you looked hard enough a few were always around. At least that was true until ’05 or ’06, when the population went into freefall. There were a handful of very large weaks around—remnants of a big year class we had been catching since the mid-1990s—and some young-of-the-years that showed up when the kids fished for snappers, but other than that, they seemed gone.
Down at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the biologists knew there was trouble. A peer-reviewed stock assessment, prepared in 2009, found that, by 2007, the spawning potential of the stock had dropped to a mere 3% (an unfished stock has a spawning potential of 100%); it had never been found to be lower.
ASMFC’s Weakfish Management Board met in August 2009 to decide how to react to the stock assessment. Dr. David Pierce, a professional fishery manager employed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, summed up the available information, saying
“I see, however, that with a moratorium we double the current biomass with this projection by 2015, so we doubled the biomass with a natural mortality rate of 0.65 assumed over that course of time.
“If we have a moratorium we double the biomass and we get approximately, well, a little over halfway towards our target spawning stock biomass. If natural mortality decreases for any good reason, then obviously we will be rebuilding faster than the projections indicate…
“We have nothing before us except uncertainty. We have speculations, but we have a projection that came out of the workshop and that has been accepted by the technical committee. I believe they participated in developing it. This is what we have to use. I look forward to continuing discussions by this board regarding the merits of a moratorium to get ourselves back on track.
“Otherwise, with the projection we see before us, we stay crashed through 2020, and that certainly is not an acceptable outcome.”
Those were the words of a professional fisheries manager.
But when ASMFC’s Weakfish Management Board met in November 2009, to finally determine how the collapsed stock should be managed, the non-professionals on the Management Board had a very different view. In fact, if you read the published transcript of that Management Board meeting, you probably want to shake your head and wonder at the positions the amateurs took, and the comments that were made.
We can’t put the blame on the general public, who seemed to understand the gravity of the situation and, by more than a two-to-one ratio, asked to have a complete moratorium imposed on both the commercial and the recreational fisheries.
Over all the years that I’ve been involved in fisheries issues, it seems that most of the fishing public—if they get a fair briefing on the issues and don’t have to rely on information shaped and filtered by the various angling rights and industry organizations—will want to do the right thing. We saw that with striped bass—both after the last collapse and now, as we hope to avert the next one—and we saw it with weakfish, too.
But the amateur managers at ASMFC, who often have strong pro-industry sympathies, if not direct ties, see things a little differently. In his opposition to a moratorium, Pat Augustine, then governor’s appointee from New York, made the inadvertently telling comment that
“It’s interesting that with this action that we may take we will again affect the fishermen and will only play a small role, in my mind, in continuing to lead us toward a full demise of this specie [sic] of fish. [emphasis added]
“Similar as to winter flounder, where we almost put a moratorium on winter flounder, we would have been one of two states that would have done that, which would have put a further hit on both recreational, commercial and bait and tackle people and marines and so for those supplies.”
Apparently, in at least one manager’s mind, it’s OK to “only play a small role…in continuing to lead us toward a full demise of” the weakfish, if by doing so you don’t hurt the incomes of the industry folks.
Personally, I think that the “full demise” of any species should be avoided, by any means necessary, and that even “[playing] a small role” in such demise is a bad thing, but that’s just me, and may help to explain why I’m not an ASMFC commissioner…
Again, remembering Dr. Pierce’s recap of the technical data, a moratorium was the most likely way to start rebuilding the weakfish stock. Even so, Tom Fote, another amateur who serves as governor’s appointee from New Jersey, vehemently opposed the measure, saying
“So, again, I’m looking at a solution that doesn’t basically shut down a complete fishery and basically allow the person, if he catches the weakfish of a lifetime or something like that or the kid on a beach actually catches a weakfish on that rare occasion, they can go home with one weakfish.
“It’s bad enough they can’t go home with a sea bass, and it looks like next year in New Jersey they can’t go home with a summer flounder. At least they’ll have, you know, one fish to take home, maybe one winter flounder and one weakfish. That’s about your whole catch nowadays. How do you keep an industry going?”
How do you keep an industry going? Maybe by managing fish a little more cautiously, so that there are enough around that people will want to spend some time on the water catching them, rather mismanaging them so badly that catching one becomes, to use Tom Fote's words, a "rare occasion."
Because if Pat Augustine’s statement, which seemed to indicate that it was alright to “only play a small role…toward the full demise” of the weakfish, so long as the industry doesn’t take a hit, is disconcerting, Tom Fote’s comment is…well…just wrong.
He apparently believes that folks should be able to catching and keep weakfish and winter flounder when, at 3% and 8%, of their respective spawning potentials, they were arguably the two most depleted species swimming in New Jersey’s waters.
Then he tries to justify that belief by saying that folks should keep them because “they can’t go home with a sea bass,” when over 580,000 sea bass were taken home in New Jersey that year, or because “next year in New Jersey they can’t go home with a summer flounder,” although more than 550,000 New Jersey summer flounder were eventually taken home.
That kind of statement crosses the line between mere rhetorical puffery and something far more dire.
It is a clear demonstration of the fact that, whatever the species involved and however badly it is in need of protection, some managers at ASMFC place little emphasis on conserving and rebuilding depleted stocks. To them, it is more important to kill and take home whatever remains of such stocks today, rather than to refrain and rebuild the stocks into something robust and productive tomorrow.
That kind of thinking isn’t just limited to weakfish, and it isn’t just limited to 2009.
It continues to this day, as demonstrated by ASMFC’s irrational winter flounder decision last February.
And it looms in the background every time ASMFC fails to take needed action on striped bass, and that still-viable stock moves ever closer to being overfished for the first time in more than twenty years.
With weakfish, we may have gotten just a little lucky. A solid year class—the kind that can pop up now and then, even from badly depleted stocks, and fisheries managers have used for years to absolve themselves after making bad decisions—emerged a few years ago, and is creating some good fishing right now.
But it is only one year class, and whether managers will be able to keep that year class alive and spawning until additional good year classes can enter the population is still an unanswered question.
But the bigger question is whether ASMFC will ever get its act together, and adequately protect not just the odd year class or two, but the long-term health of our fisheries--or whether it will forever be more interested in assuring that, no matter how depleted a stock may be, the folks who catch fish will always be able to kill them and take them home, with no thought for the future at all.