Sunday, July 13, 2014


The collapse of a fish stock rarely catches us by surprise—at least if we’re paying attention.

It usually starts out with fishing being a little slow in a lot of different places, although it remains quite good in others.  Then, after a few years, the complaints about bad fishing increase, and rumors of good catches are harder to come by.  Finally, after quite a few years of decline—which can be steady and unmistakable, or halting and harder to notice, depending on the stock involved—there can be no question that the stock has collapsed, and everyone shakes their heads in wonders aloud what went wrong.

Yet, although you can see the crash coming, it is rare that anyone ever gets out in front of the problem and successfully intervenes before collapse comes; instead, those who warn of future calamity are, if not ridiculed, then largely ignored, while many of those who admit that the stock is declining adamantly stand in the way of efforts to fix things.

Once things collapse, though, they call for relief.

Cynics would say that “it’s all about money,” and point to those who harvest fish for sale, but such attitudes aren’t limited to the commercial fishing industry.  The recreational fishing industry is rife with them too, and so are the ranks of ordinary anglers, who make no money from the fishery at all.

It’s a puzzling and frustrating thing for those of us involved with fish conservation, because it seems so illogical on its face.  “Why should a party boat captain,” we wonder, “Be willing to overfish a stock to the point of collapse, when a healthier stock would be better for business?”

It’s a classic question, and one that folks have been asking for a long time.  The answer lies in the tendency of people to  “discount the future” or, to be a little less formal, in the old adage that “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Folks tend to live in the “now.”

The concept is well-known to economists; it underlies just about every business decision.  But it affects a lot more than business, and a lot more than fisheries management.  Back in 1995, an economics professor named Timothy J. Brennan wrote an essay entitled “Discounting the Future:  Economics and Ethics” that examined the problem in a environmental context.

It starts with the concept that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, so if you want someone to forego taking a profit today—say, by not killing too many red snapper, striped bass or winter flounder—they have to believe that there is a bigger dollar waiting for them somewhere down the road.

That dollar has to be big enough to make delaying those profits worthwhile.  And even if it is, the fishermen have to believe that they’re actually going to collect it.

So when I sit down at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, and try to convince folks to protect the tattered remnants of the winter flounder stock, I probably shouldn’t be shocked when the folks representing the tackle shops object the the needed regulations.  

They say that even though flounder are scarce, they still bring some folks into the shops in the spring, and given how long it would take to recover the stock, they’re just not willing to pass up what little money they can get now—for a handful of hooks, some sinkers, a few boxes of bloodworms—in the hope of making far more from a recovered stock at some distant point in the uncertain future.

A very small bird in their hands, after all…

And that touches on another point in Brennan’s essay, the question of whether pure economics should govern all decisions, or whether there is an ethical burden placed upon today’s decisionmakers—perhaps on all of today’s society—to assure that those living far in the future, who we shall never know, should enjoy the same quality of life that we know today.

Do the folks sitting around the table at a Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting, for example, have the ethical right to decide that future generations of anglers shall not catch—or perhaps even remember—winter flounder, just because the current generation of tackle shop owners wants to sell a couple more hooks and sinkers—along with some bait, and maybe a rod and a reel or two—today?

I'll let you make up your own mind on that one...

But let’s leave the shops, the party boats and the commercial fishermen alone for a while.  We know that cash is a powerful motivation, and one that’s easy to understand.

So let’s look at the ordinary recreational fisherman, who receives no direct economic benefit from overharvest, and ask why so many of them also seem reluctant to reduce their current kill--say of big female striped bass--in order to achieve more abundance, and much better fishing, at some point down the road.

To some extent, it is again a matter of competing economic values.  Recreationally-harvested fish convey value to anglers, and some anglers may simply believe that the value of harvesting such fish today is greater than any additional value that might be gleaned from recovering the stock and harvesting more abundant fish five, ten or more years in the future.

But there are other factors that also come into play.  Some of those factors were discussed—although not in a fisheries context—in a doctoral dissertation written by Shane Frederick, a student at Carnegie Mellon University.  

He considered a number of other factors that lead to discounting future events, including the probability of the future event not occurring, the quality or duration of the future event, the “utility” or usefulness of the future event, etc.

Those non-economic factors may have a greater impact on angler attitudes than the mere desire to harvest a few fish now rather than waiting to take a few more later on.

For example, if you spend any time listening to anglers object to harvest restrictions, it’s pretty clear that probability—more precisely, their belief that a stock probably won’t be recovered despite tougher rules—is a big reason for their negative attitudes.  

At any major fisheries hearing, you’ll hear a host of reasons why conservation measures are a waste of time, ranging from “If we let the fish go here, they’ll just catch them in New Jersey [or any other state they might choose to name]”, "The commercial guys will just kill them if we don't," “The seals [or the cormorants, or the striped bass, or…] are killing them all” or the favorite claim that  “It’s just ‘The Cycle’ and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Quality and duration arguments usually pop up when stocks are really in bad shape and moratoriums are being considered—folks just don’t want to have to wait for three or four years to catch a fish again.

And as for utility, well, I can sort of understand that one, because the last time the striped bass began to collapse, it took about 20 years to recover the stock, and if the bass crash again and take as long to recover, I’m going to be in my 80s by the time they’re recovered, and my big-fish days might be nearing their end.  I might not get to enjoy such recovery at all.

Maybe that’s why I’m so intent on avoiding calamity…

But the bottom line is that, like it or not, fishery management is driven by politics and politics are driven by people.  And people are likely to discount the future when the future of any fish stock is on the line.

That’s why we need to be proactive, and put laws in place that proscribe managers’ ability to discount the future when stocks are in trouble.

And that is the core beauty of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  It protects the future by requiring managers to do the right thing, even if they don't want to.

And that is why H.R. 4742, Doc Hastings “Empty Oceans Act,” which would enshrine the practice of discounting the future in federal law, must be defeated.

Let’s contact our congressmen and make sure that a bad bill dies.

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