Thursday, July 31, 2014


Most of our striped bass are spawned in Chesapeake Bay, and most of those come from the waters of Maryland.  For that reason, Maryland’s striped bass young-of-the-year index has generally been the best future predictor of the future health of the stock.

Thus, folks who care about the striper’s future have been rightly concerned by the fact that the index has been coming in below average for most of the years in the past decade, with the 2012 index the lowest in more than fifty years—even lower than anything recorded during the depths of the last stock collapse.

The one bit of good news came in 2011, when a dominant year class was produced.

You would think that the folks who manage bass down in Maryland would be doing whatever they can to help those 2011s live long enough to recruit into the spawning stock, something that should happen in 2017 or so.

But if you thought that, you would have been wrong.  

Maryland has a long history of killing immature bass (back before the collapse, a legal “pan rock” was just 12 inches long), and it doesn’t look like they’re planning to reform any time soon.

Right now, they’ve got the 2011s fixed dead in their sights.

It started last fall when, despite the steady decline if the spawning stock biomass, the state declared its intention to increase the harvest by 14% in 2014.  I suppose that went over well with the folks who make their money off the heads of dead fish, but folks capable of thinking about the long term—which, in this case, is anything past the current season—figured out that beating up on the only solid year class in the last decade was probably a dumb idea.

Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, which seems to represent the most rational and responsible anglers in the state, made a really solid effort to prevent such foolishness from going forward but, in the end, the chance of plucking more dollars from the heads of dead bass proved far too attractive for the state to change course.

“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality rate] (0.200) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015...If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality rate] increases to Fthreshold (0.219), and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point reaches 0.93 by 2015 and declines thereafter…
“…there is a probability of 0.46 that the 2012 female [spawning stock biomass] is below or equal to the [spawning stock biomass] threshold, and a probability of 0.31 that the 2012 fully-recruited fishing mortality is above or equal to the fishing mortality threshold…”
The stock assessment also made it clear that, although the stock was not yet overfished and that overfishing did not occur in the past couple of years, the target fishing mortality levels had been exceeded, and the spawning stock biomass had been below target levels since 2006.

“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality to a rate that is at or below the target within one year.“
That seems pretty clear, but not if you’re Thomas O’Connell, the marine fisheries director for the State of Maryland.  He took a look at Amendment 6, and its mandate to reduce fishing mortality, but wasn’t too impressed. 

Instead of making meaningful changes to the management program in order to reduce fishing mortality to the target level, O’Connell decided that he’d rather make changes to Amendment 6, and allow harvest reductions to be phased in over three full years, instead the one year currently required.

As too often happens at ASMFC, it was a matter of elevating short-term economic gains over the need to conserve and rebuild the stock.  At the May Striped Bass Management Board meeting, O'Connell said

“I think it really comes down to a cost-benefit analysis and trying to weigh the impacts versus the likely benefits of our action today…
“I think, as I mentioned earlier, a 32 to 36 percent reduction is going to have large socio-economic impacts as well as potential ecological impacts.  I think we don’t have a stock situation that is in dire need of protection…”
Not everyone on the Management Board shared that view. Paul Deodati, the state fisheries director from Massachusetts, eloquently opposed O’Connell’s approach, correctly noting that

“We’re actually working off the tenets of Amendment 6, which are pretty clear about what this board is supposed to do.  We’re not supposed to wait until new fall down well below the levels that [Thomas O’Connell is] suggesting.  We’re supposed to take an action now.
“It is always difficult when we have to make a cut, especially when our fisheries aren’t completely falling apart; but with striped bass we took a very deliberate approach to how we were going to react to and address changes in stock condition.  This is the change that we identified many years ago as a point in time when we’ll take a serious action to reduce fishing mortality.  We’ve reached that.  In fact, in my belief we have gone well beyond the time that we allowed ourselves to take this action.
“I think that any further delays is going to hurt the credibility of the commission.  It is going to completely tarnish the integrity of the Striped Bass Management Plan, which I think we’ve worked really hard to maintain as a top-notch managed program.  I don’t think that’s our intent, but I’m afraid that would be the result of delaying action on this…“
Pat Augustine, proxy for New York’s legislative appointee, also raised the issue of ASMFC’s credibility, pointing out that

“I think at the end of the day if we just decide we’re not going to follow through on what our commitment was last year to be well on our way to recovery and implementation January of 2015 and come up with anything that is going to dilute the direction we’re going, I think we will totally lose the credibility of the public…
There is a lot of emotion out there; and to do anything other than what we committed to do, we’re going to have mud all over our face and we’re going to embarrass ourselves…“
However, Tom Fote, governor’s appointee from New Jersey and long-time opponent of ever reducing the recreational harvest of anything, regardless of the health of the stock, was quick to jump on the O’Connell bandwagon, trying to discredit Augustine with a somewhat unintelligible argument that

“The credibility is that we’re basically trying to accommodate fishermen.  New York has always wanted one fish.  When we opened the fishery when there is plenty of fish, their surf fishermen wanted one fish.  That is not the reality in New York.
“That is the reality of other states, and this is a compact of all the states that we try to accommodate our fishermen whatever they need…
“I have no problem and our credibility always stands as it is…”
Although, in the end, the facts spoke for themselves, and Deodati was clearly correct.  When ASMFC adopted Amendment 6, it made a covenant with the public to take management action when a trigger was tripped.  Should the Striped Bass Management Board ultimately approve a three-year phase-in of the reduction, it will have violated the public trust, and demonstrated that its word is not to be trusted.

Hopefully, that will not happen, but…

There’s no doubt that Maryland is going to work hard to make that happen, and in the end, it's easy to understand why.

The 2011 year class won’t recruit into the coastal fishery until 2017.  Until then—perhaps not coincidentally—Maryland and the other Chesapeake fisheries will have them to themselves.  The females will migrate out of the bay for the summer, but most of the males will stick around, and the Maryland fishermen—commercial and recreational—and the Maryland charter boats will be able to pound on them pretty hard while they’re around.

Given that the 2011s are the first good year class since 2003, that 2012 was the worst ever recorded and that we don’t know when the next good spawn will be (although there’s reason to hope that 2013 might be solid), it’s hard to blame Maryland for trying to take what they can while the taking’s good.

Except…even their own anglers are cautious.  CCA Maryland adopted its “My Limit is One” campaign to try to protect some fish and mitigate the damage that the 14% harvest increase will do.

So why does Maryland want to kill so many striped bass?

As O’Connell said, for “socio-economic” reasons.

Which is the nice way of saying that it’s all about the almighty buck, and someone trying to squeeze a little more blood from the stone before casting it aside.

We always have to remember that responsible anglers such as the folks at CCA Maryland aren’t the only people fishing for bass.  

Maryland’s commercial sector killed 2,524,181 pounds of stripers in 2012 (compared to the 1,445,187 pounds landed by its anglers), and it has a big charter fleet that puts dead bass high on its list of priorities, killing  46% of the entire recreational harvest.  O’Connell is trying to put a little more money in their pockets today, rather than trying to restore the stock—and so putting more money in their pockets tomorrow.

Even Maryland’s United States senators got into the act.  A letter addressed to Robert Beal, ASMFC's Executive Director, co-signed by Senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin says that the proposed reduction in striped bass harvest

“will adversely impact Maryland’s striped bass fisheries—and could affect entire Bay communities and other fishery industries as a whole—without the benefit of achieving the Commission’s desired level of protection to the spawning stock…
“The Commission is considering action due to concerns over a fishing mortality rate that exceeds the target level, and the dacade long decline in the female spawning stock.  Both of these conditions warrant some conservation action, but that action should not be so extreme as to cause undue economic hardship to coastal communities…
"We ask for the Commission’s continued support for inclusion of a multi-year approach to reducing fishing mortality to the target level…”
In other words, the good senators know that there’s a problem with the striped bass stock, and know that something needs to be done, but doesn’t want ASMFC to do anything that might—according to the best available science—be truly effective, because that might affect the short-term health of some constituents’ bank accounts.

What is worthy of note—and particularly heartening to those who support doing the right thing for the striper—is that the senators’ letter was the only letter received by ASMFC that supported the three-year phase in of harvest reductions.  

All 36 of the letters included in the original meeting materials (which include a petition signed by 1,428 people), and the remaining 51 letters included in the supplemental materials, supported imposing meaningful harvest restrictions.  None supported a three-year phase in of harvest reductions, and the vast majority specifically opposed such action.

The other comments received from Maryland residents included 14 letters from individuals, who asked the Management Board to “cut the fishery…as much as you can legally” and one from a Solomons-based charter boat captain, who said that

“The people from Md DNR have done nothing about the decline of the striped bass.  I fish about 100 trips a year that the decline is Very Clear [sic] a limited number of rock fish in a small area that will be wiped out sooner than later.”
It doesn’t seem likely that the captain would appreciate the position taken by O'Connell, his state fishery director, nor with that taken by Senators Mikulski and Cardin…

All 17 letters received from anglers in Virginia, which shares Chesapeake Bay—and any special Chesapeake Bay regulations—with Maryland call for taking action in one year, not three.

Maryland’s staunchest allies on the Management Board, Tom Fote of New Jersey and Rick Bellavance of Rhode Island (who said “..from the folks that I speak to in our neck of the woods, we don’t see a problem”), don’t seem to have much constituent support.  There were no comment letters from New Jersey at all, while the only comment letter from Rhode Island stated that

“THERE ARE FEWERE AND LESS [sic] LARGE BASS AND IT’S GETTING WORSE EVERY YEAR.  Traditional areas of past striped bass abundance are shells of what they used to be…Even the commercial fishermen have to travel farther and farther to target dwindling stocks of striped bass“
and supports

“…drastic action…Complete moratorium on commercial and recreational harvesting of striped bass until stocks are at 2006 levels or at a minimum of one fish at 36 inches…“
So it looks as if Maryland officials—both its fisheries director and its U.S. senators—and their allies from other states have taken a position that is not supported by the public at large, by Amendment 6 to the management plan nor by the stock assessment.

I suppose that only the folks who profit from dead striped bass stand behind them.

Yet they continue to oppose needed conservation measures.

Which just shows, once again, that so long as there is money to be made, there will always be someone trying to do the wrong thing at ASMFC.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


It was maybe 40 years ago. 

The bluefish had come in early that spring, and were tearing apart the big schools of menhaden (we called them “bunker”) that bunched up in the harbors.  I had been catching more than my share, and offered to take a local tackle shop owner out for a taste of the action. 

We met at the dock before dawn, surrounded by the charcoal gray murk of a pea soup fog.  I’ve always felt comfortable running in fog, so getting to the fishing grounds wasn’t much of a problem, but once there, finding the fish became a bit of a challenge. 

I usually found the blues by watching for menhaden exploding out of the water; with visibility down to around 30 feet, that became a little tough to do.  Instead, I shut down the engine and listened.

If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that I was approaching a waterfall, or maybe the churning rapids of a whitewater river; someone who had never seen bluefish rip into a bunker school would find it hard to believe that mere fish could be responsible for the continual splashing roar that echoed through the fog. 

In minutes, we were among them, and had maybe an hour and a half of the fastest kind of action with bluefish averaging 12 or 14 pounds, and topping out around 16.  Then we had to quit, so my morning's companion could open his shop, where he had new stories to tell—more or less continuously—for the next week or so.

Such intense feeding frenzies continued for another decade or so, then began to slow down.  There were a lot of reasons why they slowed down, but a lack of menhaden was certainly one of them.

Recently, thanks to anglers and other marine conservationists coming together for a common cause, and thanks to some cooperation at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the health of our menhaden population is beginning to improve. 

I could see graphic testimony of that off Long Island this June, when abundant schools of menhaden tolled in a bunch of big striped bass, which in turn attracted masses of anglers so large that I had difficulty weaving my boat through the fleet in order to make my appointment with bigger critters farther offshore.

The cause and effect is, and always was, pretty clear:  Abundant menhaden attract an abundance of gamefish, which in turn attract an abundance of anglers who, finding themselves catching fish, make more trips and spend more money on boats, fuel and tackle.

It seems like a win-win for everyone—even for the menhaden, since their key role as forage fish means that anglers, and others, will go out of their way to help the population recover, and to keep it healthy once it does.

And the menhaden does need protection, for there are folks out there who are always trying to find ways to kill as many fish as they can.  It seems that the menhaden’s increasing abundance doesn’t impress those folks at all…

“The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Peter Baker recently declared the new catch limits on Atlantic menhaden a “success” based on the results of the last year’s menhaden harvest…But such a declaration depends on a very limited definition of “success.”  In the year since these cuts went into effect, issues of transparency, equity and disparities in enforcement persist…
“Viewed from this perspective, the 2013 Atlantic menhaden fishing season is unfortunately not one that can clearly be labeled a “success.”  Along the coast, a number of troubling scenarios highlight inequities in harvest cut enforcement that merit serious consideration by fisheries managers.  To ignore these problems threatens not only the species’ sustainable management, but also the legitimacy of those tasked with upholding these commercial harvest cuts.”
Those two paragraphs marked the beginning and end of Landry’s essay; in between were a collection of—let’s be kind—trivial and somewhat self-serving statements that make a futile attempt to blemish what was really a significant and long awaited conservation victory.

I’ll go back and address what Landry wrote between his opening and ending paragraphs later.

For now, it may be more worthwhile to discuss what happened between the day that I took that shopowner out for bluefish 40 years ago and last month, when the striped bass blitzed the menhaden schools off Fire Island.  It will certainly put Landry’s comments in the proper context.

It’s all about menhaden abundance which, according to ASMFC’s 2012 Menhaden Stock Assessment Update, increased throughout the 1970s and peaked in the early 1980s.   However, according to the “Beaufort Assessment Model” (named after the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Beaufort laboratory, which has done considerable menhaden research), it was all downhill after that, with the biomass of the population bottoming out in 2011.

The long slide didn’t go unnoticed.  Dick Brame, Atlantic States Fisheries Coordinator for the Coastal Conservation Association, once told me that he started getting involved with menhaden management in the early 1990s, when some folks in the South Atlantic states started complaining that they were having trouble getting enough menhaden to use as king mackerel bait.  

However, the effort to try to conserve menhaden didn’t get off the ground until much later, because of a big problem at ASMFC—and that was the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board itself.

Over the years, the structure of fishery management boards at ASMFC evolved, until they finally took the shape they have today—every state that declared an interest in a species has the right to sit on that species’ management board.  Three members from each interested state, including the state’s salt water fisheries director, a governor’s appointee and a legislative appointee, would have seats on the board, with each state casting a single vote representing the majority view of its caucus. 

Back in the ‘90s, every one of ASMFC’s species management boards, except one, was structured that way. 

That sole exception was Atlantic menhaden.

ASMFC completed the inaugural Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden in 1981, and assured that the foxes would have control of the henhouse by creating an Atlantic Menhaden Management Board composed of six state representatives, six representatives of the menhaden fishing industry and one representative from NMFS.  Such management board would be advised by an Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Board, composed of state, industry and NMFS representation, as well as a Atlantic Menhaden Implementation Subcommittee, made up of three state fisheries managers and three industry representatives.

With the menhaden industry having parity with state scientists on every menhaden management body, perhaps it’s not surprising that the introduction of such first menhaden management plan contained the lines

“The Atlantic Menhaden Management Board has given due consideration to the magnitude of the menhaden resources, the useful products derived therefrom, and the current diverse management authorities vested in the several states from Maine to Florida in development of this management plan.”
That first plan also gave lip service to the menhaden’s importance as a forage fish, but given the makeup of the various boards, that clearly was not the managers’ first priority.

That was made pretty clear by the management plan’s “Long-Term Objective,” which was to

“Achieve the greatest continuing yield from each area by determining the age at which menhaden should be harvested and eliminating other restrictions which do not contribute to the management goal [emphasis added].”
However, states have a responsibility to their citizens, and not merely to the menhaden industry.  As a result, a number of jurisdictions began placing restrictions on the commercial menhaden fishery, which included substantial closed areas in a number of states.  That didn’t make the industry happy, so in 1986, ASMFC issued a supplement to its Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan which contained the admonition

“Laws and regulations existing in 1981-82 are still in place and ‘new’ ones have been enacted which conflict with the long-term objective…and do not contribute to the ASMFC coastwide management plan for Atlantic menhaden.
“The major state actions which go beyond the 1981 FMP…are area closures in New York, New Jersey, Delaware and North Carolina.  These closures, in conjunction with national and international economic factors, have seriously affected the viability of the Atlantic menhaden fishery in spite of improved stock conditions.  Since 1981, plants have closed permanently in New Jersey and North Carolina.  Another North Carolina plant did not fish during Fall, 1985.  One of the two Virginia companies has stated that it may not participate in the Atlantic fishery in 1986…
“We strongly recommend that participating states take the steps necessary to assure that their regulations or laws are consistent with the management plan.  We ask that the fishery directors…provide the [Atlantic Menhaden Management Board] with a listing of the existing regulations and laws pertaining to Atlantic menhaden…along with a statement of the rationale for each action…Also, we recommend that each state director refer any pending or future regulation or statute (bill) which bears upon the Atlantic menhaden fishery to the [Atlantic Menhaden management board] for comment.  This procedure would…try to reduce or eliminate those existing regulations and statutes which are not consistent with the plan [to achieve the greatest continuing yield from each area][emphasis added].”
Just in case somebody didn’t get the point, the Supplement also included a request for proposals to study “the socio-economic aspects of the Atlantic menhaden fishery, and analysis of the socio-economic impacts of selected public and private-sector management decisions and alternatives.”

Yes, the foxes get pretty testy when someone tries to take their nice, fat chickens away…

However, in 2001, folks decided that it was time to give those chickens a break.  At that time, I was a volunteer with the Coastal Conservation Association, had the privilege of working with Dick Brame and a number of others who decided to bring the foxes under control, and had the pleasure of watching the process unroll.

Folks had figured out that an Atlantic menhaden management board made up of five state fisheries directors, five menhaden fishing industry representatives, a representative from NMFS and a representative of the National Fish Meal and Oil Association—even if augmented by one legislative and one governor’s appointee, along with two “public representatives”—probably wasn’t going to put the health of the menhaden resource and its importance as a forage fish at the top of its list.

Folks had also figured out that the Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee, which contained a hefty percentage of menhaden fishing industry representatives, might not be completely unbiased when it came to deciding on the health of the stock and the quantity of fish that such menhaden fishing industry would be able to harvest in any given year.

So they prevailed upon ASMFC to adopt Amendment 1 to the Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan, which changed the management structure so that menhaden are now managed like any other fish.

Getting from there to the point that upset Mr. Landry was, as they say, just a matter of history, although history doesn’t quite record all of the time and effort put in by a lot of unsung heroes to get to where we are today.

The fact that it took eleven years to produce Amendment 2 to the Atlantic Menhaden Management Plan, the first menhaden plan with rigorous, science-based reference points governing harvest, gives a hint of how much work it took to get there.

But only a hint.

Amendment 2 required the coastwide menhaden harvest to be reduced by 20%, and divvied up the harvest among the several states.  Virginia, where Omega Protein—Mr. Landry’s employer—has its plant, was allocated 85.32% of a 170,800 metric ton harvest. 

That’s 320,598,432 pounds.

So it’s pretty clear why Mr. Landry was complaining about “inequities in harvest cut enforcement” that “threatens not only the species’ sustainable management, but also the legitimacy of those tasked with upholding these commercial harvest cuts” after New York allowed its menhaden fishermen to go about one million pounds over quota (which they really didn’t do, as New York was given unused quota by Massachusetts and North Carolina to account for the difference).  

I mean, that’s one million pounds, nearly 0.35%--that’s thirty-five hundredths of one percent—of the amount of menhaden caught by Omega—or, to put it another way, maybe less than the amount that probably leaks out of their nets and gets lost in the transfer process over the course of a season
The Maryland situation involves a few more fish—who knows, maybe a whole one percent of what Omega Protein kills every year.

If that small amount “threatens…the species’ sustainable management,” then what does the 286 million pounds killed by Omega do?

And if those small complaints are the worst thing that Mr. Landry can say about menhaden management, then it’s time that he admits the truth of what the rest of us have been saying for a very long time.

Amendment 2 to the management plan was a big step forward.

In fact, Peter Baker was right.

It was a “success.”

Thursday, July 24, 2014


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is, without question, the most comprehensive and most successful fishery management law in the world.

Under its aegis, at least since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 became law, overfishing has been sharply reduced and many overfished stocks have been restored to health.

However, like anything crafted by man, Magnuson isn’t perfect.  Its biggest flaw may be that it manages dead fish, rather than live ones.

This is what I mean.

Under Magnuson, management parameters are ultimately defined in terms of yield. Overfishing is

a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis,”
while National Standard One says that stocks should be managed for “optimum” yield, which is
“the amount of fish which—
(A) will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems;
(B) is prescribed as such on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor; and
(C) in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield in such fishery.”
It’s all about “yield”—how many fish may be safely killed, rather than how many fish ought to be kept alive.

Yes, I know that an overfished stock is generally defined in terms of biomass—live fish in the water—but even there, an overfished stock is one that is too small to produce maximum sustainable yield.

Despite the references to “marine ecosystems” and “ecological factor” in the definition of “optimum” yield, when you get right down to it, the effectiveness of management actions is measured in terms of dead fish, not live ones.

Think what management would look like if we took the other tack, and managed for life instead.

I’m writing as an angler, so let’s consider a popular angling species—it might be bluefish, king mackerel or perhaps Pacific rockfish—and think about what the populations should look like.

First, as I and others have written before, anglers want fish in abundance.  That means keeping enough fish in the water that anglers, throughout the species’ range, have a good chance of encountering some at any time during the season.  What constitutes “some” fish will differ from species to species—you would expect to catch a lot more Spanish mackerel than, say, cobia—but whatever the species, the chances of an encounter would be pretty high.

But mere abundance is just not enough.  We’d also want to give some of those fish a chance to live long enough to get big. 

That’s inefficient from a commercial perspective, where any fish that dies of old age is deemed wasted and a population that quickly produces big numbers of little fish may be more profitable than one in which harvest is delayed to produce larger individuals.  However, anglers have always been intrigued by big fish, and the sort of management that produces big fish is also the kind of management that leads to the healthiest stocks. 

That’s because a population that includes a good number of larger individuals, the sort that fisheries scientists sometimes affectionately refer to as “BOFFs”—Big, Old, Fat Fish—usually has a spawning stock made up of fish of many different sizes belonging to many different year classes.  Such a stock, which is not dependent on just one or two year classes for its spawning success, is inherently more resilient and better able to shrug off transient environmental conditions that lead to a few years of poor recruitment.

Thus, rather than managing for “optimum yield,” which pegs harvest at or near the highest sustainable levels without regard for the structure of the stock, managers should instead be seeking “optimum” abundance and an “optimum” stock structure, by setting a “permissible harvest level” which assures that such an optimized stock can be created and maintained.

And no, that is not some sort of radical dream.  It’s more or less how whitetail deer are managed today, with tools such as doe permits to manage abundance and recruitment, minimum antler requirements to allow some bucks to grow old, etc. 

“Quality deer management” has been around for a long time, and maybe it’s past time for “quality fish management” to make its appearance.

Once we accept the fact that fish are wildlife, it all makes perfect sense.

A different approach is needed for creatures near the base of the food web, which provide the food that other fish, as well as birds and marine mammals, need to survive.  They’re lumped together in the broad category of “forage fish,” although some are not fish—squid and many crustaceans come to mind—and some are not simply forage.  Atlantic mackerel feed people as well as bluefin tuna, while Pacific pollock are critically important to both commercial fishermen and Steller sea lions.

In such cases, managers first need to ensure that there are enough fish around to fulfill their role in the marine food web.  Then, there needs to be enough left over to provide a sustainable and well-structured breeding population.  After that, once again, the “permissible harvest level” kicks in.

It’s trendy to call such approach “ecosystem management,” but that’s probably a misnomer.  Ocean ecosystems are vast, complex systems that encompass everything from viruses to blue whales, and no one is capable of managing all of that.

And calling for “ecosystem management” always brings out the clowns who pretend to go along, then follow up by claiming that the red snapper—or the cod, or striped bass or red drum—are getting too numerous, and throwing the ecosystem out of whack, and that in the name of “ecosystem management” they should be allowed to go out and kill a bunch to bring things back into balance, forgetting that fish got along just fine, without that kind of “help,” for something like 450 million years.

No, I think it’s better to just refer to it as “live fish management,” or maybe more simply, “managing for life.”

Because life, in all its diversity and its abundance, is the ultimate good.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


New York’s black sea bass season opened last Tuesday, and I was eager to get out and put some fish in the box.  

Yesterday, with the work week behind me, I finally ran out to one of my favorite wrecks, where the sea bass were fat and abundant.

It was great fishing.  I had my 8-fish limit in about 40 minutes; probably less time than it took me to get to the wreck.  The fish had some shoulders, too.  The biggest one weighed over four pounds.  I probably could have stayed out a bit longer and been a bit pickier, and come in with nothing much under three; however, I wanted to keep a few smaller ones to steam Chinese-style, with black beans, ginger and soy.

There were clouds of sea bass on the depthfinder, and that was a good thing to see, because once the season opens, anglers hit the fish pretty hard; by fall, the clouds will be gone and the average size will be quite a bit smaller.  

Exuberant abundance at the start of the season means that there will still be some fish around at its end.

The size and number of the black sea bass available to anglers today is testimony to the effectiveness of the conservation provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and their ability to restore real abundance to a fishery that had fallen on hard times not so many years ago.

One might think that everyone in the angling community would be pushing to restore all of our fish stocks to similar levels of abundance, but I learned earlier this week that’s just not the case, when someone pointed me to the blog of an organization that didn’t mince words, and but came right out and deemed current calls for of managing for abundance “crap.”

The blog appears under the aegis of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, and seems dedicated to the principal that if you can’t say something bad about someone or something, it’s best to say nothing at all (the link that I provided above leads to the single post being discussed here, but you can click on this link if you feel the need for a second helping of vituperation).

It’s made up of the same kind of black helicopter stuff about environmental organizations trying to impair recreational fishing that folks have been trying to sell to anglers for years. 

It confuses the concept of “managing for abundance,” which is intended to provide more and larger fish for anglers to catch (although it also creates a more stable age and size structure in fish populations), with a report entitled Oceans of Abundance that was crafted by a group of environmental organizations that support catch shares as a management strategy. 

Assuming that readers will be gullible enough to go along, the blog then makes the next jump of illogic to warn

“That means fish tags, auction houses, and state-run access lotteries as our future of recreational fishing, all in the name of abundance!”
Let’s be serious here.  Can you imagine using fish tags on a porgy boat?  And scup are already one of the most successful examples of “managing for abundance” that we have…

After some additional blather that attempts to link managing for abundance with catch shares and label it all an environmentalists’ plot, the blog goes on to identify those supporting abundance as “well-spoken, hip conservationists,” and members of some “angling elite” who “[rip] a page from the 21st century progressive’s handbook” in order to seduce folks into believing that having a lot of fish in the water is a good idea, and wraps up the entire process by saying

“In other words, asking for abundance is another way of saying ‘please, take away my right to fish.’”
One could respond by saying that “opposing abundance is another way of saying ‘please, don’t let me catch many fish,’” but that’s probably too obvious for words…

At any rate, the blog’s assertions would probably come as a pretty big shock to the nation’s largest angling organizations, as well as to the primary trade associations representing the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries because, as it turns out, they want folks to manage for abundance, too.

If the Recreational Fishing Alliance had attended the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit that NOAA fisheries hosted back on April 1st and 2nd (I believe that I saw RFA members and at least one of their regional spokesmen there, but the national leadership was noticeably absent), perhaps it would have been aware that “managing for abundance” was anything but a sinister plot to chase anglers off the water; it was one of the central talking points at the Summit, clearly supported by the leaders of the fishing tackle and boatbuilding communities, as well as by spokesmen for the anglers themselves.

In February, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership issued a detailed report entitled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries”.  A number of important recreational fishing and boatbuilding organizations, including the Center for Coastal Conservation, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association (the trade association for the fishing tackle industry) and the National Marine Manufacturers Association were contributors.  That report explicitly endorses managing for abundance, saying

“What recreational anglers want and need is wide-ranging, dependable access to healthy and abundant fish stocks…
Recreational anglers are more focused on abundance and size, structures of the fisheries, and opportunities to get out on the water [emphasis added].“
It doesn’t, however, endorse catch shares, because the folks who wrote the “Vision” report actually understand the difference between the two.

No, “managing for abundance” isn’t just for environmentalists anymore.  In fact, it never was.

Speaking at a previous recreational fishing summit, held a number of years ago, Bob Hayes, General Counsel to the Coastal Conservation Association, offered what was probably the best working description of the “managing for abundance” concept, saying that

“Anglers want to be able to catch a lot of fish, with some big ones.”
That’s what I found on my sea bass wreck yesterday, and I thought that it was pretty good.

For who could say that kind of fishing is bad? 

That is, who other than the RFA?

But then, RFA always seems to forge its own path.

Hastings named it the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act”, but the bill is so bad that the conservation community is calling it the “Empty Oceans Act”.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership says that the bill

while the Center for Coastal Conservation—which represents both the American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, among other groups—issued a press release declaring “Recreational Fishing and Boating Community Underwhelmed By House Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization Bill.”

But, contrary to the comments emanating from most of the recreational community, RFA calls H.R. 4742

Yes, RFA forges its own path.  But that path seems to be getting pretty lonely these days.

There is a unique service on the Internet that can be found at  Anyone can go onto that site and, once registered (registration is simple and free) find Form 990s—the tax return filed by tax-exempt organizations, including 501(c)(4) advocacy groups such as RFA—for any not-for-profit corporation with significant income.  When those returns are filed, the signer states, under penalties of perjury, that they are “true, correct and complete”.

So we can pretty much assume that anything that a Form 990 says is true.

When one takes a look at RFA’s Form 990, a couple of things jump out pretty quickly.  The first one is that the Recreational Fishing Alliance has quite a bit more money going out than coming in.  The 2012 tax return, which is the last one available on the Guidestar site, shows a loss of $109,824 for that year (expenses of $693,286 on revenues of just $583,462); the 2010 and 2011 Form 990s show losses of $52,613 and $111,197, respectively.

Over the long term, RFA’s 2012 tax return shows an accumulated loss of $359,027; RFA apparently hasn’t shown a profit since sometime before 2008, when it experienced yet another loss of $135,676.

So whatever the organization is selling on its blog and elsewhere, it doesn’t appear that a lot of folks are buying…

That’s probably a difficult thing to accept for RFA, which bills itself as a

yet, according to Schedule C of its 2012 Form 990, spent just $4,700 on lobbying in 2012, for “various election campaign donations” (by contrast, the Coastal Conservation Association, which as a 501(c)(3) organization cannot spend unlimited funds on lobbying, still managed to devote $497,829 to that purpose in the same year).

But it appears that RFA has not given up trying to sell its message and grow its membership base.  In 2012, for example, its Form 990 shows that it spent $130,664—twenty-seven times as much as it spent on lobbying, and 22% of all revenues received that year—on “Advertising and Promotion” and another $93,647 on “Dues Processing”.

Who knows how successful those efforts will be for an organization that calls managing for abundance “crap” and believes that the “Empty Oceans Act” is “a bill worth supporting.”

Maybe they’ll convince anglers that their cause is the right one, and become profitable once again.

Or maybe they will stand on the shore as a modern-day analogue of old King Canute, and try to halt a rising tide of support for “managing for abundance” with declarations that such notions of management are “crap”—and share that ancient sovereign’s lack of success.

Time will tell which turns out to be true.

But if I were a betting man, I know which outcome I’d put my money on.