Thursday, May 8, 2014


A little over a year ago, I found myself down in Houston, sitting at a hotel bar and talking about fish.

I was on maybe my third Sam Adams, guzzling beer as I tried to get the bad taste of the day’s meetings out of my mouth.  But as the conversation went on, the sour burn in the back of my throat just kept getting worse.

Like most bad conversations down in the Gulf country these days, this one started out as someone’s lament about the state of red snapper management, but then it took a darker and more ominous road.

“We have to manage for the most economic value,” one of the folks was saying.  “And if that means that we end up overfishing something like jolthead porgies, that’s too bad.”

Jolthead porgies, if you’re curious, are a minor member of the southern reef fish complex.  They live on hard structure with the grunts and the snappers, and feed mostly on things such as crabs.  Anglers catch them accidentally while fishing for more popular snappers and groupers, but don’t target them intentionally.  According to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Recreational Fisheries Statistics Query database, less than 100,000 pounds were caught last year, so any effort to control jolthead porgy mortality would require managers to curtail the fishery for more popular species. 

Even so, it didn’t seem right to consign a fish to oblivion just because it didn’t generate the same angler dollars as one of the various snappers or groupers.  But when I said so, and noted that my companions’ indifference to the porgy’s fate reminded me of the way some New England trawlers felt about lesser members of their groundfish complex, they told me flat out that the trawlers were right.

“You just can’t forego that much yield,” I was told.  “You can’t leave that many fish in the water just to protect one minor species.”

At that point, the acid in my throat really began to burn.

I suppose that I let my idealism show, and started talking about ecosystems.  About how every fish—every animal and plant—evolved over years to fill a particular niche, and how removing a seemingly minor element—even the jolthead porgy—from such an integrated system would leave a hole that might be filled in some unpredictable and maybe undesirable way. 

I suggested that playing God and trying to re-engineer a complex ecosystem that had evolved over millennia—effectively, trying to turn the natural reef into something like an open-water fish ranch—probably wasn’t a good idea.

But one of the guys cut off that line of thinking with one wave of his hand, and a dismissive “There’s no such thing as a natural ecosystem out there.  We’ve f***ed everything up so badly over the years, we might as well manage it for the best returns.”

At that point, the only thing I could do was walk away.

Because little things can, and often do, make a pretty big difference.

Around the time that I turned twelve, I decided that it was time to learn how to clean and lube my own reels.  The taking-apart phase went pretty well, but then I learned that disassembling a reel was a lot like cleaning a fish; it was really easy to get the insides out, but getting all the parts back inside and working the way they did before was just about impossible…

Eventually, with the help of a little book that came with the reel, I managed to get all of the parts back where they belonged, with the exception of one tiny spring that just didn’t seem to fit anywhere.  With a twelve-year-old’s logic, I figured out that something that small couldn’t be too important, so I turned every screw tight, only to learn that without that one little spring, the reel’s handle spun backward and it’s drag couldn’t work, making the whole device far less useful.

As a twelve-year-old, I was expected to do something dumb.  But when an adult—and one who claimed to be a fisheries expert—just blunders forward and assumes that a jolthead porgy, or any other fish on the reef, isn’t important enough to worry about, he isn’t just being stupid.  He is being irresponsibly reckless, and could easily put public resources at risk.

Just last week, scientists at Brown University, in  Providence, Rhode Island, released a paper that explains why our northeastern salt marshes are shrinking and, in some places, disappearing altogether.

Those salt marshes are critically important to many the of fish that we anglers pursue.  Species as diverse as bluefish and the menhaden that they feed on spawn in deep water over the continental shelf, and let currents carry their larvae to inshore waters, where they settle in the marsh and try to live out the first summer of their lives.

Bigger fish—fish such as striped bass and weakfish—hunt the marsh as adults.  That’s a good thing, because we catch them there; without the marshes, inshore fishing would be far less productive.

So whether you care about fish or about fishermen, the loss of a marsh is a big deal, and scientists have spent a lot of time and money trying to figure out why a lot of marshes are shrinking in size.

It turns out that a crab, belonging to the genus Sesarma, lives in the marsh.  That crab normally eats marsh plants with no adverse effects on the habitat.  But a predator or predators that previously kept the crab population in check has apparently disappeared; as a result, crab numbers have exploded.  The once benign animals are overwhelming the marsh, destroying the root infrastructure that held the marsh banks together in  the process.

Now here’s the kicker—although the scientists have determined that the loss of an important crab predator has caused the problem, they haven’t yet identified the predator in question.

It could be something as seemingly small and insignificant as the jolthead porgy (although not that particular species, which lives farther south).

Which means that folks—and we have a lot of such folks up here—who want to kill off seals, cormorants, spiny dogfish or anything else that might eat the same fish that they do are on the wrong track; killing predators might well result in degraded habitat that supports fewer fish.

And it means that my former companions down in Houston were way off base when they talked about managing a reef ecosystem to favor certain components while disadvantaging others.

Ecosystems just don’t work that way.  Like the reel I took apart as a kid, they function far better with all of their parts intact.

So anglers who depend on such ecosystems for the fish that they catch ought to be very aware of some bad provisions in both the House and Senate Magnuson Act reauthorization bills.

As in everything else, the House draft is the worse of the two.  It relieves managers from developing annual catch limits for “ecosystem component species”, which pretty well leaves fish such as the jolthead porgy (and plenty of others) out to dry.  

They could be overfished with impunity; the draft offers no relief.

But that is just one bad provision in a bill that is as malignant as cancer.  The only way to “fix” the House bill is to excise it from the Congressional calendar.  It has no saving grace.

On the other hand, the current Senate draft is a basically good bill that contains a few unfortunate provisions, which include the new definitions for “target fish”, which would include reef fish such as red snapper, and ‘non-target fish”, which would cover ecosystem components such as jolthead porgies. 

Under provisions of the Senate draft, “non-target fish” get lesser protections, and are not subject to accountability measures in the event of overfishing. 

That’s a little better than the House bill, as annual catch limits could still be set.  But limits without some sort of enforced accountability don’t help to much.  Fortunately, there is an easy fix:  Remove all of the references to “target fish” and “non-target fish”, and the problem goes away.

As it should.

For neither you nor I—nor anyone else—is wise enough to discern the natural role of every fish that swims.  Even when, with our limited vision, such role seems surpassingly small.

For small things can matter—in  a reel, in a salt marsh and—with absolute certainty—in an ecosystem somewhere near you.


  1. Charlie...
    Below is a link to a study regarding this topic.
    Greg DiDomenico
    Garden State Seafood Association

    1. Thanks. Although I think that, if they've identified the right predators, they're overreaching just a bit by saying that recreational fishing is causing the harm. Striped bass support both sectors up in Massachusetts (although anglers admittedly take the larger share). Blue crabs are also a shared resource, and neither sector particularly wants smooth dogfish. But fishing certainly seems to have created the problem.