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.

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