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.

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