Sunday, May 11, 2014


Like most folks who have spent their share of time in boats many miles from shore, I’ve always had a lot of respect for the Coast Guard.  Just knowing that they’re standing by to respond to emergencies at sea is a comfort, and I never forget the fact that, if things ever get truly ugly offshore, they will put their lives on the line to save mine. 

I never questioned their skill and courage.  However, it took me a long time to appreciate how much patience and diplomacy their job required. 

Then came one Labor Day weekend, when I eavesdropped on a radio call that would have tried the patience of Job.

It went more-or-less like this:

“Fire Island Coast Guard, this is the vessel [Anonymous].  We’re in Great South Bay off Good Samaritan Hospital.  Our cabin is filling with water.  Please send us some help.”
“Vessel [Anonymous], this is Fire Island Coast Guard.  Put on your life vests and try to get your boat closer to shore.  We are dispatching a unit that should arrive in 15 or 20 minutes.”
“Fire Island Coast Guard, we have our life vests on, but we don’t want to get much closer to shore; it gets pretty shallow up there.”
The Coast Guard voice on Channel 16 remained cool.

“Vessel [Anonymous], in view of your condition, I repeat, you should try to get closer to shore.”
“Fire Island Coast Guard, please get here as fast as you can.  The water in the cabin keeps getting deeper, but it’s too shallow close to the shore.”
The Coast Guard voice stayed measured and low, but you could begin to hear a touch of frustration creep in.

“Vessel [Anonymous], it sounds like you have a serious problem. You really should get closer to shore.”
“Fire Island Coast Guard, please get here quickly.  Our cabin is filling up, but if we try to get closer to shore, we might hit the bottom.”
And then the Coast Guard asked the core question.

“Vessel [Anonymous], it sounds like you’re going to hit bottom one way or another.  Wouldn’t you rather do it closer to shore?”
Fisheries managers could learn from that exchange.

Everyone hopes that when a fish stock declines, managers can act swiftly to avoid a collapse.  And when a stock is already in bad shape, we hope that managers can take the stress off the fish without putting additional stress on fishermen.

Often, that just can’t be done.

Many fisheries are in such dire condition that the stock can’t be recovered without big cuts in harvest that will cause real hardship to some of the folks involved.  Managers are caught squarely between two opposing forces.  On one hand, there are the people—and, at the federal level, there is the law—demanding that the stock be rebuilt.  On the other hand, there are other people demanding that managers let fisheremen keep fishing, paying their bills and feeding their families.

And that’s where the story about the sinking boat comes in.

Sometimes, no matter what choice you make, something bad is going to happen.  At that point, it’s no longer about avoiding disaster; it’s all about limiting damage and letting folks get on with their lives once that damage is done.

When a fish stock ends up in truly bad shape—Gulf of Maine cod, southern New England winter flounder and South Atlantic red snapper are three current examples—what follows is all too predictable.

Biologists will assess the stock, and recommend the harvest reductions needed to restore it to health.  They might want to shut the entire fishery down for a while.

At that point, anyone who will take a short-term hit as a result of the harvest reductions will bombard regulators, politicians and anyone else who they think might listen with a host of reasons why things should stay as they are. 

If regulators heed the biologists and reduce—or even halt—the landings, many fishermen and fishing-related businesses could be hurt, and a significant number of them might go out of business.

If regulators heed the fishermen and don’t reduce landings, overfished stocks could collapse and collapsed stocks could decline even further, perhaps to the brink of commercial—if not actual—extinction.

One way or another, somebody’s boat is going to sink.  The question is whether managers are going to do their best to see that it sinks close to shore, and limits the risk to all concerned, or whether they let it go down in deep water, and create even greater perils.

In the past—which for these purposes should be defined as before the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and before the court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, decisions nearly always went the way the fishermen wanted them to. 

The fish lost just about every round.  And began to disappear.

After NRDC v. Daley, federal and state fisheries managers took divergent paths.

Federal fisheries managers arelegally obligated to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks, regardless of the economic hardship.  They have not had an easy time, and have not escaped criticism.

But they have successfully rebuilt many stocks.

The best example is probably the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s restoration of summer flounder.  That stock bottomed out in 1989, when spawning stock biomass dropped to a mere 5,500 metric tons; by 2010, it had increased nearly tenfold, to over 53,000 metric tons. 

But that success didn’t come easily.  Mid-Atlantic managers imposed strict caps on annual harvest.  Businesses dependent on the species experienced difficult years, and some had to close their doors.  However, the summer flounder now enjoys a stable population that includes a large percentage of larger, more prolific spawning females, and thus will be able to support robust commercial and recreational fisheries into the foreseeable future.

In other places, federal managers tried to reach compromise solutions which, at least, on their face, complied with the law, but eschewed hard quotas in favor of input controls such as days at sea, in an effort to accommodate fishermen’s concerns.  

Their results were nowhere near as good. They led to the worst of both worlds.

Stocks failed to rebuild.  Some continued to decline, catching fishermen in a perpetual cycle of regulations that did too little, and were imposed too late, to begin to rebuild fish populations, but still caused real economic distress.  Each assessment showed fish stocks still growing smaller, leading to additional, inadequate restrictions that ratcheted the economic harm up another notch while fish stocks continue to wither.

The history of New England groundfish is filled with such stories, and more are being written this day.

Still, the worst that the federal managers can do is probably better than what happens in the states, where federal fisheries laws don't apply, science may be ignored, overfishing tolerated and stocks never rebuilt.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission probably represents the epitome of state-level management.  For the past twenty years, ASMFC has been enjoying much public esteem for rebuilding the coastal migratory striped bass stock, a task that it completed in 1995.

Unfurtunately, it hasn’t restored a single stock since.

Not one.

Yet during those twenty years, a lot of other stocks slipped downhill, and a few collapsed.  Among the losers, we have alewives, American eel, American shad, blueback herring, Gulf of Maine winter flounder, northern shrimp, southern New England lobster, southern New England/Mid-Atlantic winter flounder, tautog and weakfish (I try to list them alphabetically, to avoid forgetting any, although it’s still possible that I missed one or two).

And striped bass, ASMFC’s singular success, hasn’t been doing so well.  Overfishing is likely to occur, if not this year, than in 2015 (and, at best, there’s a 50-50 chance that it will happen in 2016, too); the steadily-declining population is will become overfished, this year or next, as well.

Because at ASMFC, the decisions still favor the fishermen.

At least, they favor the fishermen in the short term.

Long term, things don’t turn out nearly so well.

The boat is still going to sink.  Some people are going to lose a lot of their incomes, and some businesses are going to close.

But the question is where and when that boat will hit bottom.

Folks can do the cautious thing, and make sure that it sinks in the shallows.  They can cut harvests way back—maybe even to zero—for a while, to let fish stocks rebuild.  As abundance increases, harvest resumes, until a fully restored stock provides an abundance of fish for all.

The passengers from that sinking boat are all able to wade ashore.

Or folks can keep on fishing until a stock collapses.  Then they have to stop fishing anyway, lose money and close their businesses, because there’s nothing left to catch.

They took the risk, and went down in deep water. 

And as the Atlantic halibut taught us, they may wait for a rescue that never comes.

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