Sunday, June 29, 2014


Fisheries conservation can often seem to be a long, frustrating and unrewarding process.

First, you have to get fisheries managers to admit that there’s a problem.  Then the biologists have to figure out how to fix it.  And then, even with a potential solution in hand, you have to convince and rally and cajole policymakers, in an effort to convince them to find the political will to make meaningful change.

And, of course, the fish have to cooperate.  Even though folks do everything that they think that they have to do to recover a stock, nothing guarantees that the fish will respond right away.

The population may have been depleted so badly that it takes a long time before it begins to respond.  Other factors—some biological, some environmental and some in the form of people who ignore needed rules—can also come into play to delay rebuilding.

Whatever the fish, though, one thing is inevitable:  In order to recover a stock, folks are going to have to kill fewer fish.

And that’s where the problems come in.

There are a lot of people out there who don’t like to be told what to do.

Such people come in all shapes and sizes, and from all walks of life.  About the only sort of people who don’t object to imposing more effective rules are fisheries scientists (except for those who are in the employ of someone who wants to kill fish), since they know what needs to be done.  

Collectively, such people can raise a pretty big fuss, and when that happens, politicians tend to take notice.

At that point, fish become “political animals” and restoring fish stocks changes from a biological exercise to a political confrontation.  

The problem largely arises from the fact that politicians treat their constituents like spoiled children, always telling them what they want to hear and giving them what they want to have, whether or not it is good for them in the long term.

But the sad fact is that most politicians will support anything that makes voters happy and docile and likely to support the status quo.

We see that in the fisheries arena all of the time.

We saw that back in 2000, after the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, complying with a federal appellate court’s order, drafted the first really meaningful and effective summer flounder regulations, and there was a sharp backlash from the recreational fishing community.

It was largely driven by party/charter boat operators in the upper mid-Atlantic region, which depended on summer flounder for a lot of their business, along with other members of the recreational fishing industry.  However, many recreational anglers, who had long been used to keeping summer flounder just 14 inches long, also voiced discontent.

The outcry was particularly loud in New Jersey, where various organizations including the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the Jersey Coast Anglers’ Association, the United Boatmen‘s Association and a new startup called the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund (some of which organizations also had a significant portion of their membership in New York and elsewhere) complained loudly about efforts to rebuild the summer flounder stock by, among other things, reducing recreational harvest.

To their credit, those associations did fund research which suggested that the size of the summer flounder population that would be needed to achieve maximum sustainable yield was smaller than previously believed.  However, their other efforts to derail the rebuilding process, which generally took the form of casting aspersions on the scientific data in order to convince managers to adopt less restrictive regulations, fortunately did not succeed.

However, they did gain the attention of various federal legislators, including New Jersey's Congressman Frank Pallone, who at the request of such organizations has perennially offered some variation of a bill to weaken federal managers’ ability to conserve and rebuild marine fish populations. His Flexibility in Rebuilding America’s Fisheries Act of 2007 is just one example of that sort of effort.

Fortunately, all efforts to derail summer flounder management ultimately failed, and the stock has been declared fully restored.  

Because fisheries managers hung tough, and didn’t allow themselves to be cowed by those who somehow believed that you could restore the fishery to health without meaningfully reducing harvest, anglers in the southern mid-Atlantic now actually have more summer flounder than they can use and so, for the past two seasons, have been willing to shift some of their harvest to states farther north, where the species is of critical importance to the local angling community.

For summer flounder anglers in New York and New Jersey, and everywhere else along the coast, life is now pretty good, but that is only the case because managers compelled them to accept quite a bit of pain in previous years.

Today, the effort to restore stocks without imposing--or accepting--such pain has shifted both north and south of the mid-Atlantic.

Up in New England, groundfishermen, particularly in the commercial fishery, still try to question scientific data that requires the cod harvest to be sharply reduced.  

However, John Bullard, regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Greater Atlantic Regional Office, notes that

He voiced a clear directive that

Based on those statements, and assuming that the politicians don’t get in the way (Congressman Doc Hastings’ H.R. 4742, the so-called “Empty Oceans Act,” is of particular concern in that regard), New England groundfish might have the same opportunity for recovery that summer flounder enjoyed.

However, down South, things don’t look quite so good, for in the Gulf of Mexico, politicians are falling all over themselves trying to appease recreational anglers who don’t want to be responsible for their overharvest of red snapper.

They have introduced the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act of 2013, which would purport to “conserve” red snapper by taking responsibility of the species away from federal fisheries managers, who have to comply with the conservation and rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson Act, and hand such responsibility over to state managers, who report to political bosses and aren’t legally bound to restore or conserve anything at all.

That way, state managers could assure anglers that they really can restore fish stocks while not cutting recreational harvest to the point that it causes any pain or inconvenience.

That will make the anglers happy, at least so long as the red snapper last (and when they’re gone, there’s little doubt that the anglers will blame their disappearance on commercial harvest, environmental shifts, the removal of oil rigs on one hand, and the damage caused by oil spills on the other—pretty much on any factor that prevents them for accepting any responsibility themselves).

 In other words, they’d behave just like the summer flounder anglers in the mid-Atlantic and the commercial groundfishermen up in New England would have liked to behave—if the federal regulators would have let them.

But, as long-time summer flounder fishermen know and New England groundfishermen hope, despite the pain and inconvenience that is inevitably imposed when a stock is rebuilt, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

It is possible to enjoy the benefits that a fully-restored fishery provides.

But to get to that light, you have to go through the tunnel.  You can’t stay on the other side.

That tunnel is cramped, dark and damp.  Inside, it’s a little bit scary, because you can’t be sure what the next step will bring.

But relief lies only at the other end.

So up in New England, down in the Gulf, and on every other coast where restoring depleted fisheries is going to cause pain, folks really don’t have much of a choice.

They can struggle through the tunnel, and enjoy the restored stocks that lie just beyond its far side end.

Or they can stay where they are, avoiding one transient pain, and take the chance that they will never know anything but the agony imposed by a half-empty ocean, should the tunnel ever close.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


I’m a big fan of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, for no better reason than they get a lot of things right.

The Mid-Atlantic Council completely eliminated overfishing and overfished stocks in the fisheries that it manages.  It recovered popular species such as summer flounder, scup and black sea bass.  It took decisive action to reduce bycatch of important forage fish such as shad and river herring, and when mackerel stocks recently seemed to be sliding, it had no qualms about reducing the kill.

But they say that no one is perfect, and when you look at the Council’s Fishery Management Plan for bluefish, you realize that is true of fishery management bodies as well.

That’s not to say that the bluefish plan is bad.  Overall, it has done what a plan needs to do, keeping fishing mortality in check and maintaining stock abundance somewhere close to the level needed to maintain it over the long haul.

But the bluefish management plan still contains one glaring flaw. 

It puts too much of an emphasis on dead fish, and doesn’t place enough value on live ones.

This is what I mean:

Back in 1998, when Amendment 1 to the Bluefish Fishery Management Plan was being written, it was pretty clear that the stock had declined a long way from its peak abundance back in the ‘80s. 

And in the ‘80s, bluefish were really abundant.  In 1983, there were so many of them that recreational landings—just the fish killed, without counting those released—amounted to nearly 25,000,000 fish, weighing nearly 90,000,000 pounds.  In terms of both the number and the weight of fish landed, bluefish were the most-harvested fish on the Atlantic coast that year.

To put that in context, in 2013 anglers killed fewer than 5,500,000 bluefish, weighing just over 15,000.000 pounds.  In terms of numbers of fish killed last year, bluefish were in third place, behind spot (about 8,200,000) and Atlantic croaker (about 7,500,000); in terms of pounds landed, they trailed only striped bass (over 24,000,000 pounds).

At first, there were no regulations, and when the fish were biting well, they seemed to incite a sort of bloodlust among many anglers, who never considered letting fish go.  

Instead, they filled garbage pails and burlap sacks, and littered the decks of for-hire boats.  Later on, there was a 10-fish bag limit, but it was often ignored and anglers’ mentalities remained much the same.

For as much as anglers enjoyed catching bluefish (and this was during the striped bass collapse, when there was little but bluefish inshore) most didn’t enjoy eating them—particularly after they were kept too long in the sun with far too little, if any, ice to prevent them from rotting—so after the frenzy subsided, there were a lot of blues stinking up dumpsters, or floating, bloated, in the sounds, creeks and bays.  On the party and charter boats, fish were often left behind for the crews to sell for whatever few cents they might bring.

Naturally, the free-for-all couldn’t last forever, and eventually the stock declined.  A ten-fish bag limit was imposed, and at one point, the fish grew scarce enough that some biologists believed that the limit would have to be dropped all the way down to one or two.

In the end, that didn’t prove necessary, but Amendment 1 still ushered a 9-year rebuilding plan that included some pretty severe harvest cuts. 

It set the sector allocation at 83% recreational, 17% commercial.  Because the harvest reductions would drive commercial landings down pretty low, and have a real impact on  fishermen’s incomes, the Mid-Atlantic Council added a pretty important exception—if, for any fishing year, the Council believed that anglers would not kill their quota, some of the “unused” recreational allocation could be shifted over to the commercial side.

That’s where the Mid-Atlantic Council went wrong.

And that’s where the folks who say that recreational and commercial fisheries need to be managed differently get it right.

Because commercial fishing is all about dead fish, about “product” that someone will buy.

But recreational fishing is all about live fish, and having an abundance of fish in the water that anglers can catch—hopefully more than once.  Sure, some fish are killed and eaten but, depending on the species, a lot of fish—often the majority of fish—landed by anglers are returned to the water alive.

That’s particularly true of fish such as bluefish, that fight really well but aren’t particularly prized as food.  Although I think that a lot of anglers are off base about that—if handled and prepared properly, bluefish can be pretty good, a fact noted by my friend Capt. John McMurray one of his recent blogs—the fact remains that they are primarily valued for their fight.

So when the Mid-Atlantic Council talks about unutilized quota, they’re missing the point.

Anglers are using their full allocation. 

They’re just not killing it all.

That’s an important distinction.

For angling is more fun when there’s fish in the water; the more abundant the fish, the more enjoyable the fishing will be.  So when anglers release the bluefish they catch, rather than killing them, they’re helping to assure that fishing will not become less enjoyable in the future.

The fact that they choose not to kill their entire quota doesn’t mean that they’re don’t want to use it.  They just choose to utilize most of the fish for fun, not for food.
The Mid-Atlantic Council didn’t seem to get that point, and thus we have a management plan that effectively says not “use it or lose it,” but rather “kill it or lose it.”

That’s wrong.

When the Mid-Atlantic Council decided to allocate 83% of the annual catch to anglers, it should also have allowed the anglers to decide how that allocation was to be used.  If they wanted to land it ten—now fifteen—fish at a time, and burn through the entire 83%, they could do that.  But if they chose to harvest the resource with a lighter hand, and return fish to water so that they could be caught another day, they should not be penalized for doing so.

Yet that is exactly what the Mid-Atlantic Council has done.  It has effectively told anglers that catch-and-release angling, despite its clear conservation benefits, is a less worthy use of the resource than killing it would be. 

If anglers still killed all their bluefish and tossed them in dumpsters, as was too often done in the past, and used up all their quota that way, such wasteful practice would be rewarded with a full 83% of annual landings.  But because anglers choose to release—and conserve—a lot of their fish, their allocation is reduced and part of it transferred over the commercials, so they can kill what the anglers would preserve.

That sends a bad message.

It tells anglers that releasing fish is a futile gesture, for the fish that they try to conserve will merely be killed by someone else—with NMFS’ blessing.  It tells them that conservation is frowned on.

Such a result cannot even be supported by law.  The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act expressly states that one of the law’s purposes is

“the promotion of catch-and-release programs in recreational fisheries.”
It’s definition of “optimum” yield states that it is the yield that will provide

“the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities.”
The law lists “recreational opportunities” right next to “food production” in the same sentence, with no ranking between them.  Thus, it is difficult to argue that shifting a portion of the recreational allocation to the commercial sector, and thus reducing the “recreational opportunities” available to anglers, is justified by increased “food production,” since the law treats both values equally.

It is time for the Mid-Atlantic Council, and the National Marine Fisheries Service itself, to recognize that live fish are at least as valuable as dead ones, and that “recreational opportunities” are maximized by keeping more live fish in the water, even if that means that the entire annual catch limit will not be harvested.

For an annual harvest limit is not a target to be achieved, but rather a cap that must not be exceeded.

Killing fewer fish is completely OK, particularly if they are being utilized on other, less lethal ways. 

It is time for both the Council and NMFS to accept that, in the case of sport fish such as bluefish, an abundance of live fish in the water is more important to anglers than is a pile of dead fish on land.

It is time for them to start managing fish with the understanding that live fish are valuable, too.

The August Mid-Atlantic Council meeting, which will address bluefish specifications for 2015, would be a good place for them to start.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Congress is once again debating how to manage our fish in federal waters.

It has done that every ten years or so since the late 1970s, and it seems that every time, somebody pops up with an impassioned plea that we all repeat the mistakes of the past or engage in some expensive effort to reinvent the wheel.

Maybe in the ‘70s, when marine fisheries management was new, there was a reason to engage in such efforts.  Today, that’s not the case.

We already know how to get management right, and we have enough mistakes to learn from when it comes to getting it wrong.

As regular readers have probably figured out by now, I live on the South Shore of Long Island, and although I’ve fished on every coast in this country, most of the time you’ll find me within 100 miles of Fire Island Inlet, New York.  You might also have picked up on the fact that I’m an old-time New England groundfisherman, having cut my codfishing teeth at the age of six up in Provincetown, Mass., and taken my first cod, haddock, pollock and cusk (not to mention flounder, windowpane, ocean pout and various hakes)  well before I got out of high school.  I still fish for them today, when given a chance.

On any given day, anglers on my part of the coast—which we can generously define as anyone fishing between central New Jersey and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Islands, may encounter fish managed by two different federal fisheries management councils—New England and the Mid-Atlantic—and also by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

And if they have fished in those waters for any significant amount of time, they have a pretty good idea about how successful those three bodies have been at conserving healthy stocks, addressing overfishing and nursing depleted stocks back to health.

There three management bodies had strikingly different success rates.  They also managed fisheries in strikingly different ways.

Policymakers, particularly the Senators and Representatives who will reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs fishing in federal waters, would do well to look long and hard at those bodies’ successes and styles, figure out what worked, and then keep it a part of federal law—while making it harder to follow unproductive paths in the future.

The actions of federal fisheries management councils are strictly controlled.  The law requires them to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks within a time certain.  Management plans must have at least a 50-50 chance of achieving their goals, and all plans must be based on the best available science.  Management plans are subject to review by the federal courts, and there are many cases in which those courts, upon reviewing a plan, have told the National marine Fisheries Service to go back to the councils and come up with something that better complies with the law.

ASMFC, on the other hand, is an interstate compact comprised of every coastal state between Maine and Florida (including Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.), plus the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.  Its fisheries management plans do not have to meet any legal standard; ASMFC need not—and often does not—end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks.  It may ignore its scientific advisors with impunity, and, just a few years ago, a federal appellate court determined that its management plans are not subject to judicial review pursuant to the federal Administrative Procedures Act.

Despite that, prior to the year 2000, ASMFC probably had the most successful management record of the three.  It had one big success—recovering the collapsed Atlantic striped bass stock—which was one more than either the New England or the Mid-Atlantic Council could claim, although a few other species, such as tautog, American shad and river herring, were looking a little shaky. 

Up in New England, groundfish were as big a disaster as they ever had been, with even formerly abundant species such as winter flounder beginning to go into sharp decline.  In the Mid-Atlantic, summer flounder were showing some sign of recovery after bottoming out in ’89, but still had a long way to go, and other important recreational species, such as scup and black sea bass, weren’t looking all that good.

But there were changes in the air that were about to turn that around.

At ASMFC, fisheries management decisions, including those that led to the striped bass recovery, had historically been made mostly by fisheries professionals from the member states, with non-professionals—in the form of the governors’ appointees and legislative appointees—representing only a minority of the vote on any species management board.  However, shortly after striped bass were declared “recovered,” a change to ASMFC’s governing documents ushered in “caucus voting,” in which the votes belonged not to the individual commissioners, but rather to each state, which would first hold a “caucus” among its three representatives—its fisheries professional and the non-professional governor’s and legislative appointees—and then vote in the manner that the majority of such caucus desired.

Such change gave the non-professionals representing each state, who generally have some connection with the commercial or recreational fishing industries and thus often have a direct financial interest the outcome of a vote, the ability to override the state’s fisheries professional.  Although it is impossible to conclude that there was a direct cause-and-effect relationship, after the voting rules changed, ASMFC never restored another overfished stock, relatively healthy stocks slid into decline and some stocks slipped over the brink of collapse.  Even striped bass, ASMFC’s singular success story, will probably become overfished within the next year.

At the federal level, two things occurred a few years apart that changed the face of federal fisheries management.

The first was the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 which, for the first time, required federal managers to end overfishing, recover overfished stocks within a time certain and conform their management actions to the best available science.  Such measures, which seem so obviously necessary today, were controversial and, at least among council members, widely resented at the time that the law was passed.  In fact, councils didn’t even take the law’s mandates seriously, and continued to turn out fisheries management plans that had little chance of successfully rebuilding and conserving fish stocks.

That’s when the other shoe dropped, in the form of a federal appellate court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley.  In that decision, the court found—to fishermen’s and fisheries managers’ great surprise—that Congress actually intended to rebuild America’s fish stocks.  Thus, any fisheries management plan created pursuant to the law had to actually have a realistic chance of success, which the court defined as at least 50-50.  Plans more likely to fail than succeed were no longer legally acceptable.

NRDC v. Daley was inspired by a summer flounder management plan put together by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which had only a 17% chance of actually working.  Maybe that council’s members were embarrassed by the court’s decision, or maybe they just took their responsibilities as fisheries managers seriously, but at any rate, once that decision was handed down, the folks at the Mid-Atlantic got to work.  Although fishermen, the broader fishing industry (recreational and commercial) and various fishing organizations and fishing publications were extremely critical of its efforts, engaging in hyperbole that often reached out beyond the realm of either civility or reason, the Mid-Atlantic Council established strict annual catch limits, based on the poundage of fish killed, for the stocks that it managed, and was not afraid to shut down fisheries when it appeared that harvest would exceed the limits that it established.

Up in New England, things are a little different.

Although bound by the same federal law to end overfishing and rebuild stocks, the New England Fishery Management Council did not follow the same course that the Mid-Atlantic did.  Until the law changed in 2007, it never adopted fisheries management plans that included hard poundage quotas.  Instead, it attempted to constrain harvest by means of so-called “input controls,” such as a limitation on the number of days at sea that a permitted boat could fish, that reduced effort, but not necessarily the amount of fish that enterprising fishermen could land.

And since New England’s commercial fishermen are nothing if not enterprising and creative when it comes to their fishing, it’s probably predictable that such input controls failed to reduce harvest enough to successfully rebuild stocks and, in fact, saw some stocks such as Georges Bank cod continue to decline.

The 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson Act finally forced the New England Council to adopt hard quotas for every species that it manages, but by that point, many stocks were very badly depressed and rebuilding will be a much greater challenge.  As of the end of last year, out of the 32 species managed by the New England Council, 8 are still subject to overfishing, and 10 remain overfished. 

Thus, southern New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic, along with ASMFC, provide a living, fisheries management laboratory for Congress and other policymakers. 

They can see and evaluate the relative success of a fishery management council that is required to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, and has imposed firm annual catch limits on every species that it manages to do so.  They can compare that to a second federal management council that is under the same rebuilding and conservation requirements, but chose to pursue such goals—until the law changed in 2007, at least—not through the use of hard poundage quotas, but by more “flexible,” alternate means such as days at sea limitations, and avoided mid-season closures.

And they can examine the success—or the lack thereof—of an interstate compact that enjoys the ultimate management “flexibility,” and is not legally required to end overfishing or rebuild stocks, appears immune to judicial review and can choose to elevate social and economic concerns above scientific recommendations and the health of fish stocks.

The results pretty much speak for themselves, with only the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, with its mandatory rebuilding deadlines, its commitment to science and its imposition of hard poundage quotas managing to eliminate overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks on a consistent basis.

That’s not a result that should be taken lightly, and should tell lawmakers all they need to know about what the Magnuson Act should look like when the current reauthorization is done.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


We’ve all heard about peer-reviewed stock assessments.  That’s what you get when a team of biologists assesses the health of one stock of fish, and another panel of expert scientists, unrelated to the first, reviews that team’s work and determines whether it is good enough to use for fisheries management purposes.

If it is, it represents a sort of “gold standard” for fisheries managers, who can then establish regulations based on the assessment, and be reasonably certain that they’re doing the right thing.

However, if you go down to the docks, pick up a press release put out by one of the anglers’ rights groups or read some of the comments on Internet chat boards, you’ll find that a lot of people don’t give the peer-reviewed assessments, or the scientists who provide them, much weight. 

In those venues, the folks with the most authority—which generally equates to the guy with the loudest voice in the bar, the underemployed guy who spends his whole day on chat boards and the guy who publishes the local outdoor magazine—prefer a somewhat different analysis of a stock’s health, which might be called a “beer-reviewed stock assessment,” given where such contrary assessments, once issued, are often discussed.

A proper beer-reviewed assessment begins with complete contempt for everything that’s required to pass peer review.  

Beer-reviewed assessments lack any sort of numbers, objective data or population models, which make them pretty easy to put together, and just as easy to understand.

Even though they're usually wrong.

“the stock is overfished and overfishing is occurring,”
and found that

“the stock does not rebuild by the current rebuilding date of 2014.”
The same assessment determined that while it was safe to harvest a little under 20% of the cod population each year, fishermen were actually taking more—perhaps much more—than 55% of the population annually.  As a result, a population that should comprise about 61,000 metric tons had been reduced to somewhere between 9,500 and 16,500 metric tons, and thus was badly overfished.

In response to that assessment, the National Marine Fisheries Service cut harvest by 77% in an attempt to rebuild the stock and prevent its collapse.  And that’s when the beer-review began, with reviewers claiming that the harvest cuts were “based on flawed science.”

Because, as any beer-reviewer knows, the science is always “flawed” (or "bad") when it doesn’t let you kill enough fish. 

It doesn’t matter what species is involved, what state you’re in or whether the guy who’s talking runs a charter boat or a commercial trawler.  They’ll explain that [fill in the precise words and the type of fish as needed…]

Yes, they’ll tell you that.  No numbers or population models or analysis needed.  Just take their word for it, there’s plenty of cod…

And, of course, cod aren’t the only species subject to beer-reviewed assessments.  You can mention just about any stock of fish out there, and if NMFS wants to conserve or rebuild it, the beer-review panel will tell us that the peer-review panel was wrong.

The spawning stock is just about half of the target level, and far below where it was as recently as 1970 or so—far, far below where it was before commercial exploitation began in the late 1800s.  However, the beer-reviewed assessments said otherwise, saying


In the South Atlantic, where stock assessments indicate that the species is far more depleted than it is in the Gulf, they said the same thing about red snapper a few years ago, noting

That’s similar to this complaint about South Atlantic black sea bass, where

Does anybody notice a pattern here?

The essence of science—including peer-reviews—is that it is objective, data-driven and subject to verification; that is, other folks can take the same data and come up with the same results or, at the worst, confirm that the data doesn’t include any calculation or sampling errors, and so is statistically valid.  Any biases that might be included (in fisheries management, they show up as “retrospective changes” in the population model when new data is added) is recognized and accounted for.

The essence of the beer review is that it is subjective, not based on data and cannot be verified by independent, objective observers.  Sampling is biased—that is, fishermen who issue beer-reviewed assessments don’t make random samples or try to verify the “null hypothesis” that the peer-reviewed assessment was right—but rather go to places where they are most likely to catch fish with the express intent of showing why the peer-reviewed assessment is wrong.  And since the beer-reviewers will probably increase their incomes—or at least their catch, if purely recreational—by discrediting the science, their motive to do so is strong and the likelihood of bias, which they never admit to, is even greater.

The other problem with beer-reviewed assessments is that they take the very localized experiences of individuals, who may have relatively little historical knowledge of a fishery, and trying to extrapolate that limited experience to the entire stock. 

Even when a stock is badly depleted, a chance combination of circumstances can lead to pockets of local abundance, and some folks will still be putting plenty of fish on the dock when everyone else is suffering through a real drought.  That can be particularly true in commercial fisheries, where the skill of the fishermen, coupled with their willingness to switch ports in order to follow what’s left of the resource, can keep catches high and convince them that there’s still plenty of fish left to catch, even when the overall population is down.

However, it can also occur in recreational fisheries.  Perhaps the best example occurred decades ago; the Atlantic striped bass stock was beginning to collapse, and fishermen from Maine to North Carolina were beginning to notice the decline.  But on Cape Cod, at the core of the striper’s summer range, a lot of big fish were still available, and many fishermen denied the truth of stock assessments showing that the bass were in rapid decline, merely because their limited experience didn’t support it.

Something similar can occur when a badly depleted stock—particularly one that’s been down for a very long time—begins to recover.  Fishermen start encountering a lot more fish than they had before, and begin to declare that the stock’s health is good based on their own subjective experiences, when the objective truth is very different.  Roy Crabtree, Director of NMFS Southeast Regional Office, noted this phenomenon with respect to South Atlantic red snapper.

Yet to fisherman who never saw so many fish before, all is well.

Such misconceptions can do real harm to fisheries management efforts, because fishermen often question solid, peer-reviewed stock assessments and accept beer-reviewed versions that lead to more palatable conclusions.

A lot of that results from a natural tendency to cherry-pick information that supports what you want to believe.

I think that there are very few fishermen who want to go out and intentionally fish a stock into collapse; after all, that would destroy either their business or their avocation.

However, there is little question that fishermen want to go out and catch fish, and faced with government regulators, who insist that fish stocks are bad, and fishermen (and fishermen’s organizations) who use their reputations and experience on the water to add credibility to claims that the stocks are OK, they tend to credit the folks who they know—and who say what they want to hear--over the remote and sometimes standoffish “experts” from some lab in another state.

And then, of course, there are also the people, businesses and organizations who elevate their own short-term concerns over the long-term health of the stocks, and thus profit from sowing distrust and even contempt for professional fisheries managers. 

So the question is, what are fisheries managers, conservation advocates and well-intentioned fishermen to do about beer-reviewed assessments that turn public opinion against science and threaten the health of fish stocks?

For fishermen, the best approach is to take up the scientists’ strongest weapon—simple skepticism.  Don’t take anyone’s word for anything; make them show you the data.  When somebody tells you that “there are more red snapper than there’s been for 100 years,” as the irate employee of an advocacy outfit wrote to  me just a few days ago, the response should be “show me the numbers” which, of course, indicate just the opposite.  Anglers may not be able to confirm the results of a stock assessment from the data provided—I know that I lack the math skills to do it—but they can take comfort from the fact that it has passed a rigorous and detailed peer review.

Conservation groups that engage in fisheries issues are the natural allies of fishermen; both want healthy and abundant stocks.  But, sorry to say, the trust isn’t there.  Some of that is due to a few fishing industry groups, mostly based in the north, who have spent the last couple of decades trying to poison the waters and foster angler distrust of conservation efforts.  Some of it is due to the conservation groups themselves, who have occasionally embarked on campaigns that made anglers feel threatened (marine protected areas, anyone?), fail to engage in sufficient consultation and collaboration, and so lend credence to claims that they were “anti-fishing” and intended to force folks off the water.  A reconciliation, involving real and sincere outreach, is badly needed here.

The problem with fisheries managers is much the same.  Although some managers are better than others when it comes to user-group outreach (the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council deserves particular plaudits here), too many times agencies don’t make enough of an effort to explain—in simple terms and in the right forums—why unpopular but necessary decisions are made.  Such standoffishness serves to make fishermen hostile, and more willing to believe the demagogues’ claims that the fisheries management system, which has already rebuilt many stocks and is poised to rebuild even more, is “broken” and needs to be scrapped.

For scrapping the system would be a bad thing.  If that happens, the beer-reviewed assessments will give us a hangover that we may not cure in our lifetimes.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


I lost my father in early July, seven years ago.

He’d lived a good life, able to get around on his own.  

Although he was slowing down after 88 years, he could still make his way to the boat club and shoot pool all day with his friends. 

It seemed like he beat the cancer, or so the oncologist said, but 88 years took a toll on his heart, which shut down on that hot July day.

I always knew that death could be coming.  It hit me hard all the same, yet death came the way that he wanted, all at once, fierce and clean.

I was tasked to write his eulogy, which can be a hard thing to do.  It wasn’t the first time I’ve done such a thing, and I’ve learned that the right way to do it is to chase all the thoughts from your mind—it’s OK if your eyes still hold tears—try to picture the person you lost as others might see him, and then just let the words flow.

My father, I learned then, was a teacher.

Although he never earned a college degree, and made his living, six days a week, building and rebuilding furniture in the basement of the business that my grandfather started, he was a teacher of the finest kind.

He taught lots of things to others.  He taught me to fish and to run a boat, to split wood and to shoot a rifle, and if it was only those sort of things that he taught me, I would have been a fortunate son.

But somewhere along the way, he taught me to know myself, to embrace duty and to live honestly, in any surroundings. 

Mostly, I learned such things near the water, where he and I spent much of our time.

Looking back, it was almost a tribal childhood, with not only my father, but my friends’ fathers and my fathers’ friends all pitching in to teach me and the other kids the things that we needed to know.

Every night from May through September, we’d go down to the dock after dinner, where the men would talk and we boys would stand at the edge of their circle, listening to stories of fish, and of boats, and of places and times that we hadn’t yet seen.

As the sun fell beneath the rim of a summer sky and the dock lights came on, we could lean on the rail (the middle one, at first, for the top was too high at our age), stare down into the water and learn about the obligations that, in the end, define every man.

My father’s generation was defined by the Great Depression and the Second World War, and each man bore his own set of scars from those times.  None of them were wealthy; they all worked with their hands, and money did not come easily.  Yet, for the most part, they were all filled with a survivors’ joy in just being alive, and the stories that they told were by turn tales of hardship, of happiness and of jobs yet to do. 

Many could have been written by Aesop, although the characters, and the language, were on the more colorful side.

My father was the sort of person who respected, and could sit down and talk with, just about everyone—but not all.

Sometimes, he’d nod towards someone down on the dock and say “He’s a rummy; stay away from him,” or “He’s a loudmouth, and starts fights,” and walk away himself. 

Though I didn’t really know what a “rummy” was, I understood that it was a bad thing, which was all I needed to know a few years later when temptation, knowledge and opportunity showed up hand-in-hand.

Sometimes, a fisherman would come struggling up the ramp, dragging a trash pail filled with bluefish or a couple of big striped bass.   After the guy tossed the fish in his truck and drove away, my father would shake his head sadly and mutter “He sells those fish.  Doesn’t need to.  He’s got a good job.” 

And a couple of the others folks on the dock would nod, maybe spit into the water, or mutter “Just greedy,” and I’d understand that there was a difference between merely catching fish and being a sportsman. 

And that such difference mattered

To this day, when I hear of some doctor or lawyer or real estate hotshot with his million-dollar boat, custom-built rods and shiny gold reels killing and selling some tuna “to pay for the trip,” I wish that more folks had the same kind of teacher that I did.

And I, in my turn, say “Just greedy,” too…

One summer, after a spate of thefts, the local boat club offered a $100 reward to anyone providing information leading to the arrest of the crook.

Somebody did, and he was given the money, but from then on, was pretty much shunned by the men on the dock.  I didn’t understand why, at first, because he always appeared to be a decent guy, and seemed to have earned his reward. 

But folks said that no one should take payment just for doing what’s right. 

And 50 years later I now know that’s true.

Back then, the community defined the angler.  Today, they are largely defined by the media, in all of its various forms.

There are the TV shows and the magazines, that emphasize (their advertisers’) gear and big fish, and don’t talk at all about an angler’s obligation of respect and responsibility for his quarry.

There are tournaments, that are all about money, and treat fish nothing more than pieces in a game.  Some toss sharks, sailfish and marlin into dumpsters; another, down in Florida, rewards folks for foul-hooking tarpon.

And then there are the photos, on Internet chat boards and tackle shop walls, that encourage anglers to claim their fifteen minutes of fame by killing big fish for pictures and praise, without thinking about whatever harm that may do…

I thank my father for helping me realize that such things are wrong.

Pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold once said

“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”
My father taught me the same lesson back in the spring of ’69, although he used different words. 

I was 14 years old, and just becoming a “real” striped bass fishermen.

Back then, we caught bass in a few different ways, just as anglers do now, but mostly we caught them by trolling a couple of sandworms behind a big “Cape Cod” spinner.  My father had always held his own as an angler, but the previous summer, we finally broke through and caught a lot of fish on those worms.

According to the practice of the time, every “keeper” was kept, cleaned and put in the freezer.  Now, as a new season dawned, he found half a dozen packs of freezer-burned bass lying on the shelves, good for nothing but lobster bait.

“This is wrong,” he told me.  “It was a waste.  We’re not doing that again.”
We never did.

And so, for the first time, he taught conservation, although he never uttered the word.  As Leopold might have said, he taught that killing too much wasn’t right, even though it was legal.

And in teaching that lesson, he gave birth to a conscience that has troubled me ever since, for it not only tells me what not to do, but also what should be done.

So if this blog offends you, if you don’t like being told that you have obligations as well as rights, if you resent reminders of debts to folks yet unborn, I suppose that you can blame my upbringing.

For my father bequeathed me a conscience, and a sense of obligation that doesn’t let me walk away even when it would be far less expensive—in money and time and personal ties—to do so.

You can blame him if you want to.

But me, I can’t thank him enough.