Thursday, August 28, 2014


It’s a cliché, but nonetheless true:  There’s little new under the sun.

Fisheries managers, and folks who play in the managers’ arena, might try to dispute that.  They’ll describe their field as a pretty new science, with new population models being developed and new approaches to managing stocks being proposed every day.

But in the end, they’re all just variations on a very old theme, for fish are merely wildlife, and the tenets of wildlife management were devised long ago.  

You need good habitat that produces enough forage to support the stock.  

You need enough new individuals recruiting into the stock to replace the older ones removed by nature and by man.  

You can either manage for quantity, and a big kill of mostly young animals, or you can manage for “quality” by leaving the young ones alone and letting them grow big, but there is no magic formula that lets you do both at the same time.

Anyone who hunts ducks or elk or whitetail deer already knows that is true, so fisheries managers should know it as well.  Yet it seems that the fisheries folks keep trying to reinvent the wheel, making the same mistakes and reaching the same “new” conclusions that terrestrial wildlife managers did close to a century ago.

So maybe it’s time to look back, and view fisheries management through the lens of a terrestrial wildlife manager.  I’ll pick Aldo Leopold, because his name and his work are familiar to many, and because his book, A Sand County Almanac, first published in 1949, still stands as one of the best-known musings on the proper relationship between man and the rest of the world.

Today, we can know Leopold only through his writings.  So my intent is to take some of his better-known quotes, and apply them to the fisheries issues that we deal with today.

Figuring out the right thing to do in each case is likely a good place to start.

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.  A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
That quote certainly answers the question I posed last May, when I asked “Do Jolthead Porgies Really Matter?”

Because, of course, they do.  As does every other animal and plant that has evolved over millennia to fill a niche in the various marine ecosystems.  For an ecosystem is nothing more or less than a complex web of life that gains its strength from every interconnected strand.  Weaken too many of those strands, and the entire construct is prone to collapse.

That’s why managing complexes of fish stocks—New England groundfish, or reef fish in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, is so difficult.  Some folks, their eyes fixed solely on the handful of species deemed recreationally or economically valuable, argue that such complexes are too, well—complex.

They offer superficial solutions to management problems, arguing that less popular or less economically valuable species should be dropped from management plans.  They claim that managing—or, at least, attempting to manage—less common or less economically important species creates a risk that, if any such stock is deemed overfished, fishermen might be denied the ability to fish for, and profit from, healthy stocks in the same complex.  

Some make theoretical arguments that we can’t risk shutting down an economically important snapper/grouper fishery just because tomtate grow scarce.  Others, on the water today, don’t want to stop trawling for haddock because too many yellowtail flounder are killed.

It’s a quintessentially selfish position, which would allow fishermen to carelessly diminish the wonderful diversity that dwells off our coasts, merely to put a few more dead fish on the docks.  

They would deny future generations the opportunity to know the beauty and abundance of healthy marine  communities.  

As a fisheries management approach, it is aesthetically and ethically bankrupt.

For the reefs and the rocks and the kelp beds that lie off our shores have evolved over millennia, filling every niche with life.  Dismantling such wonderfully-wrought structures merely to bring a small bit of profit to a small number of men who will be dead and dust before half a whale’s lifetime is done  would certainly be a great wrong.  

Pioneer ocean explorer William Beebe understood this, saying “when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.“

I suspect that Leopold would have agreed…

But it’s not just a matter of aesthetics and ethics.  There is a practical side.

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’  If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.  If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?  To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
A few years ago, my friend Mike Mucha and I were fishing the patch reefs off Islamorada.  We had been picking some snapper, but as the sun rose and warmed the air, the action began to cool off.  So we let our baits settle down through the chum cloud, hoping to draw a strike.  Mike hooked up right away, to something that acted differently from anything that we had hooked before.

It wasn’t long before a bright blue parrotfish emerged from the water.  When the mate grabbed it, I figured he’d unhook the fish and toss it back into the sea.  Instead, he flipped the nearly iridescent animal into the far corner of the fish box, answering our unspoken question with the reply “See that beak?  They eat the coral.  They’re bad for the reef.”  

Apparently, he was intent on “saving” the reef by killing whatever parrotfish he could.

Of course, research has shown that parrotfish are critically important to the continued health of the reef, as they eat algae that can cover and smother the corals and cause them to die.  By failing to understand the parrotfish’s ecological role, the mate ended up harming the very reef he was trying to save.

Such uniformed action might be excused in a party boat mate; ignorance is far less excusable in a professional fisheries manager.  Yet when I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, I heard a former state manager argue against restricting the harvest of spiny dogfish, claiming that the species had little value, and that fewer dogfish meant less competition for “more valuable” species.

And then there are the other creatures…

Once or twice each year, at meetings of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, someone opposed to restrictions on harvest will get up to “inform” us that fishermen aren’t causing problems; instead, the stock (whichever stock is being discussed at the time) is really being decimated by cormorants, and that the solution for all fishery problems is to kill off those hungry black birds.

But up on Cape Cod, something interesting is happening.  

Grey seals, which were killed off on the Cape half a century ago, have returned with a vengeance.  Commercial fishermen claim that they eat all of the herring and cod, and serve as a host for “cod worms” (which, to be fair, appears to be true), while anglers complain that the seals steal just about every fish from their lines.

But, to use Leopold’s analogy, the seals appear to be a lost cog that, having been found, have helped get the local ecosystem up and running again.  

Behind the seals came some of the great predators of the sea—big, adult white sharks, along with some truly huge makos weighing over 1,000 pounds—that that returned to Cape waters to hunt their traditional pinniped prey.

The seals and the sharks have reminded us all that what is ethically and aesthetically right can be profitable, too.  They have spawned new businesses, as thousands of folks take sealwatching tours, and Cape tourist shops sell anything “shark”—coffee mugs, t-shirts, plush toys and more—to visitors enchanted by the wildness that cruises just a few yards offshore.

Even so, income isn’t the sole measure of good management.

“Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays.”
This is a hot issue in fisheries management right now, as the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act awaits reauthorization.

Washington Congressman Doc Hastings’ is using short-term economic benefits to justify a bill so bad that it has been dubbed the “Empty Oceans Act”, claiming “This debate today isn’t just about the use of a natural resource – it is about providing a sustainable source of protein as well as providing economic vitality to coastal communities.“.

And various anglers rights groups have teamed up with the recreational fishing industry to work for a weakened law that would permit overfishing and slower rebuilding of overfished stocks in the name of  “diminishing socioeconomic impacts“.

Here on the east coast, as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission debates measures to stem the decline of the striped bass stock, a professional fisheries manager, Thomas O’Connell of Maryland, is trying to water down ASMFC’s striped bass management plan, to delay need harvest reductions.  Once again, “socioeconomic impacts” serve as an excuse.                                       “.

If we fall back into Leopold’s realm, the lands of America’s interior, it’s hard to conceive of professional managers allowing overharvest of mule deer or bighorn in order to provide greater “socioeconomic benefits” for a handful of guides and sporting goods stores.  But here in New York, where winter flounder are so scarce that they’re threatened by inbreeding, salt water fisheries managers keep the season open to mollify a handful of tackle shops and for-hire boats.

But I shouldn’t put all of the blame on their managers.  Too many anglers also find it hard to do the right thing.

“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching, even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”
You hear it all the time on the waterfront.

Fish hogs often try to justify their excessive kills by telling critics that the law “entitles” them to a full limit of fish, and that it is their “right” to kill them.  And many fishing websites have adopted the same position, prohibiting criticism of posters who kill within the limits of the law.

The fact that the law is wrong, and needs changing, never enters the picture.

We saw a variation of that maybe here in New York maybe fifteen years ago, after striped bass fishermen failed to convince the state to leave conservative regulations in place.  Over the course of a couple of years, anglers who once argued passionately that keeping the minimum size at 36 inches was the “right” thing to do suddenly felt no shame in killing 28-inch “keepers”; today, as bass populations again decline, the same anglers are discovering that they were closer to right the first time, and are once more asking managers to impose tougher rules.

Because, in the end, they know that a problem exists.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.
Leopold was a formally trained biologist and wildlife manager; most anglers, and most readers of this blog (not to mention its author) are not.  We are the “laymen” that Leopold speaks of.

And yet we are not.

For while we have no formal ecological training, there is no better place to learn of the interrelationships that govern all life than out in the world itself.  After spending half a century and more on the coast, living through collapse and recovery, abundance and loss, anyone with the sense to keep their mind open and their mouth shut for a while will figure out how it all works.

You can’t help but see the hurts, the gaping wound in our bays that the flounder once filled, the slow bleeding along the beach as the great runs of striped bass grow less every year. 

We each face a choice, then.  We can join in the rush to kill what is left before it is gone.  We can turn away and tell ourselves that death is inevitable.  Or we can be bearers of unwanted news, unwelcome wherever we go, trying to convince those who we meet that life can prevail, and health restored, if only we act wisely, and in time.

If Aldo Leopold had been a fisheries manager, I think I know what his choice would have been.

It would have been ethical.

It would have been difficult.

And it would have been "right."

No comments:

Post a Comment