Sunday, September 28, 2014
Way back in 1883 an English scientist, Thomas Huxley, opened the first London Fisheries Exhibition with a speech in which he declared that
“I believe that it may be affirmed with confidence that, in relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of the most important sea fisheries, such as the cod fishery, the herring fishery, and the mackerel fishery, are inexhaustible. And I base this conviction on two grounds, first, that the multitude of these fishes is so inconceivably great that the number we catch is relatively insignificant; and, secondly, that the magnitude of the destructive agencies at work upon them is so prodigious, that the destruction effected by the fisherman cannot sensibly increase the death-rate.”
Sad experience has taught us that he was very, very wrong.
But his way of thinking, as wrong as it is, is still very much alive.
That became apparent last week when I, along with another 200 or so anglers, attended the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s hearing on Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan.
The striped bass stock has been steadily declining.
Addendum IV was drafted to impose new catch restrictions that will hopefully stem the decline. We all came out to make sure that it did.
I looked out across the packed theater, and I saw a lot of good folks that I knew, dedicated striped bass fishermen and conservationists who I have worked with, on various issues, for more than twenty years. And then there were the folks who I didn’t know, some gray-haired and sun-dried veterans, others a little younger, all looking for their first big fight in defense of what we all knew was an all-too-fragile resource.
But we were not alone.
Scattered throughout the crowd were other veterans of the striper wars, folks that I knew all too well. They, too, were gray-haired and sun-blasted, their faces familiar from dozens of hearings and meetings spread out over maybe two dozen years.
But unlike the rest of us, they weren’t there for the striper.
Or, more properly, they were there for the bass, for as many of the bass as they could kill, in person or by proxy, for so long as the killing might last.
Most were from Montauk, although other ports were also represented. They were professional captains, who ran “six-pack” charters and party boats; most, if not all, also held commercial licenses and were allowed to sell bass (although not, if regulations are followed, bass caught when they were carrying passengers for hire).
To them, striped bass mean money, and not a lot else; conservation is never high on their agendas.
Like Huxley, they seem to believe that marine resources are inexhaustible, and that, no matter how many bass they kill, more will always take their place.
The Fisherman magazine had reporters at Stony Brook, and interviewed various stakeholders after the meeting. The resultant tape shows the clear split in folks’ opinions.
While anglers and light-tackle guides were unanimous in their support of harvest cuts, the bigger for-hire boats opposed the management plan’s requirement that fishing mortality be reduced within just one year.
Paul Forsberg, owner of the Montauk-based Viking Fleet of party boats, denied that there was any problem at all, saying
“Nobody mentioned that fish have tails. They move around…It’s not like they’re overfished. I don’t believe that at all. The striped bass, there’s plenty of them around.”
Apparently, he disagrees with the conclusion of the recent peer-reviewed stock assessment, which came to a very different conclusion.
One of his colleagues, Joe McBride, representing the Montauk Boatmen’s and Captains’ Association, made an equally fatuous argument, saying that for-hire boats need to kill more fish because they carry people who only fish a few times a year, while surfcasters and private boat anglers can fish every day, and can thus kill fourteen bass every week.
Of course, he never mentioned the very big difference between “can” and “do”; the number of anglers who kill that number of fish can readily be counted on the fingers of a double amputee’s hands. Nor did he acknowledge that there is a very big segment of the striped bass fishing community that doesn’t kill as many bass in a year as one of his customers may legally take in a one trip.
But to be fair, it’s very possible that the Forsbergs and McBrides of this world really can’t wrap their minds around the concept that a person might go striper fishing just for fun, and not to kill bass or make money.
It’s just too far outside their personal frames of reference.
Back in ’95, when the striped bass stock was first declared recovered, most of the bass fishermen on Long Island wanted to keep the size limit at one fish and the bag limit at 36 inches. The general philosophy was that if such rules were good enough to nurse the stock back to health, they were good enough to keep it healthy, too. Anglers weren’t particularly interested in killing more fish.
But the Montauk crowd, along with boats from Captree and Huntington and Sheepshead Bay, insisted that they “needed” to kill more and smaller stripers, saying that their customers wanted to take dead fish home, and wouldn’t go fishing if they couldn’t kill bass.
And the State of New York, not wanting to hurt anyone’s business, rewarded for-hires with two 28-inch fish.
That made them happy—for a while.
And then, about a dozen years later, at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, a representative if the Montauk boats came up with a little different story.
The boys from Montauk wanted relief from the regulation that prohibited them from selling any striped bass caught by their customers.
Apparently, a lot of their customers were tourists who stayed at Montauk hotels, had no way to keep or cook their catch, and really didn’t “need” to kill any fish at all. The old salts apparently wanted to do their fares a favor, and help them avoid the trauma of releasing their catch, by taking the unwanted fish off their hands and putting them up for sale. The Montauk captains would also be willing to sell any bass their fares caught that measured between 24 and 28 inches in length, fish big enough to be legally sold commercially, but smaller than an angler might keep.
The idea of just letting fish go, and conserving the stock, never seems to enter their mind.
That’s something I’ve noticed for quite a long time.
But lately, I’m noticing something else.
These guys are all old.
The young ones are my age.
The old ones are…older. They come up to the microphone slowly these days, and their voices can catch on their words. They say the same things that they’ve been saying for years, but these days, at least for some of them, the old vehemence is gone.
As I sat in my chair at the Stony Brook meeting, I started getting the feeling that they knew they were wrong, but just said the old words out of habit. There was a lack of…call it confidence..in too many voices to think anything else.
Because the winds of eternity never stop blowing, and we all turn to dust in the end.
Could it be that they’re feeling the breezes, and want to leave more than nothing behind?
For when you look behind them, you realize that nobody follows.
There are plenty of younger captains, but they have mostly rejected Huxley’s beliefs. Some came of age in the hard times, and know how bad things can be. The others have heard all of their fathers’ old talkes, and don’t want to see hard times themselves.
The great hope for the future of our fish and our fishermen is that the next generation seems, by and large, determined not to make their elders’ mistakes.
They probably never even heard of Thomas Huxley.
Even so, they know he was wrong.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
If you’re going to get involved in fisheries advocacy, one of the basic truths is that you’re going to read a lot of stuff.
You’re going to read stock assessments and meeting minutes, regulations and statutes and scientific papers. You’re going to read press releases and magazine articles, books and websites and just about anything else that might give you some insight into the process and help you to get the job done.
And along the way, every once in a while, you’re going to read something that’s so incredibly stupid that it’s going to stop you in your tracks, and make you try to figure out whether the author was serious, or just penning bad parody. The sort of thing that makes you want to laugh because it’s so outrageous, and cry at the same time, because people so mind-numbingly clueless are walking around out there, trying to affect policy that will impact us all.
You don’t come across that sort of thing very often, in part because most folks have editors and in part because Darwin was right, but every so often someone beats the odds and then proceeds to beat on our tired intellects with something that gives birth to a sense of wonder that something can be so completely and irredeemably dumb.
I, along with a host of other anglers in the New York/New Jersey/New England region were “treated” to such a phenomenon last night, when an e-mail from The Fishing Line media operation, and it’s owner, Rich Johnson, appeared in our e-mails.
Like so many things that we read these days, it dealt with striped bass.
You remember striped bass.
They’re the fish that were nursed back to health back in ‘95, after a sharp and disastrous collapse, but are starting to slide toward the abyss once again.
They’re the fish that brought a couple hundred of us to Stony Brook University one night last week, in an effort to stop that slide and start the rebuilding. And they’re the fish that brought out anglers in a bunch of other places, in a lot of other states, who have spoken with what one blogger called a “loud and consistent voice” to cut the bag limit from two fish to one and raise the minimum size from 28 to 32 inches.
But Rich Johnson says we are wrong.
According to his e-mail, there’s no problem with the stock; he says that
“…things seem to be in good shape with little exceptions.”
I can imagine Abraham Lincoln’s doctor saying about the same thing, after that night at Ford’s Theatre.
“The President is in good shape for a man of his age, except for that one little wound…”
For “little exceptions” can make a pretty big difference to a person’s—or a fish stock’s—health.
But Johnson says that even if the fish can be a little scarce
“We know and must presume the populations of all species, with bluefish and stripers in particular, were severely affected by [Hurricane Sandy] and NOT by overfishing.”
Maybe Johnson “[knows] and must presume” that, but a lot of the rest of us read the stock assessment, and actually understand what’s going on. We know that a peer review conducted by recognized international experts in fisheries science agreed with the assessment’s conclusion that the fishing mortality rate is too high, abundance has been declining for a decade and the stock will be overfished next year, if it isn’t already.
But why should anyone take the word of professional fisheries scientists when they can listen to Rich Johnson, a self-proclaimed “leader in fisheries management” telling us that all is well? After all, he seems to think that we really don’t matter, and claims to represent “the larger segments of the fishing community” who “are NOT in favor of [changing the regulations]”.
I’m not quite sure who voted, or when, to appoint him their leader, but apparently he
“represents the entire recreational fishing community with a larger segment of every day “fish for the table” minded anglers as well as sportfishermen and surfcasters. [emphasis added]”
Now, I hate to cast aspersions on a man’s credibility, but when Johnson says that he represents “the entire recreational fishing community,” he might be overstepping the truth just a bit.
I mean, for a start, he sure doesn’t represent me.
Nor does he represent my friends who fish. They think that the man is an ass.
He doesn’t represent the other anglers I know, who largely agree with my friends.
He doesn’t represent the fishing club that I spoke to a few days ago, or the couple of hundred anglers who showed up the Stony Brook meeting, or…
Well, you get the idea.
But Johnson apparently doesn’t, and tries to strike some false distinction between people who like to catch fish and people who like to eat them. Personally, I like to do both, but I figured out years ago that you’re more likely to eat more fish on a regular basis if you make sure that there are plenty in the water to catch.
But rationality and responsibility don’t seem to hold a high place on Johnson’s agenda, as he attacks conservation advocates while wrongly asserting that
“…all user groups have a right to put fish on the dining room table a few times per week no matter what specie [sic] it is.”
That may be because Johnson is as good a lawyer and he is a fisheries manager, and thus doesn’t seem to understand the fact that
“Today, modern [Public Trust Doctrine] reflects the concept that certain natural resources are so essential to the well-being of society that they must be protected by distinctive legal principles. This duty extends not only to maintaining access to such resources, but managing the resources to maintain sufficient quality and quantity that the resources remain useful to the community. Consequently, courts have extended [Public Trust Doctrine] protection to resources to include…recreational fishing…”
In other words, anglers may have the privilege of harvesting a striped bass for dinner, but that privilege is subject to the government’s obligation to maintain a healthy stock. No one has “a right to put fish on the dining room table a few times per week” if the population is not in good shape and such level of harvest would reduce the “quality and quantity” of fish below a level acceptable to the community.
Which is exactly what the striped bass debate is about. The community, represented by all of the anglers coming out to speak at all of the meetings held in every state between Maine and North Carolina, is demanding that harvest be reduced, because too many people have been putting too many bass on too many dining room tables, and the population can’t sustain the pressure.
Johnson’s imagined “right” of some people to kill and eat too many bass must be subordinated to the government’s very real duty to maintain the “quality and quantity” of the striped bass stock.
By now, readers might think that I’ve given up far too much time and space to an ultimately trivial e-mail sent by an insignificant and largely irrelevant author. But there is a larger point to be made.
Those of us who know Rich Johnson probably realize that he wouldn’t draft a whole two-page letter all by himself.
Those of us who were at the Stony Brook meeting should recall the comments of a certain North Shore partyboat owner who hit every note set out in the Johnson missive.
And those of us who get—for whatever reason—The Fishing Line’s e-mails may have noticed that the very same North Shore partyboat owner always appears, as a sponsor, in Johnson’s weekly reports.
In other words, Johnson’s comments didn’t appear out of a vacuum; rather than springing full blown from his mind, they were likely suggested by others. And all of those points—not just the ones that I detailed above, but also the sadly stereotyped claim that the folks turning out at the meetings don’t represent
“The Americans who are black, Hispanic, Indian, Asian and others that were not present and…are the user groups that fish for the table…”
and the assertion that
“This very well may be the exact right time to institute slot limits on bass…with one fish of 24 to 28 inches”
(so we can beat up the 2011 year class before it has to spawn just one time)—represent the thinking of folks in the recreational fishing industry who believe, as Johnson wrote, that
“the ‘trophy’ tag needs to come off the striped bass and keep it a table fish like other fish species.”
We didn’t hear such things at the Stony Brook meeting, but we can be sure that they’re being said on telephone calls and in private meetings, as the party boats and other fishing industry members fight against conservation efforts and try to convert one of the great game fish of the American coast into a panfish on the same path to depletion already taken by blackfish (tautog) and winter flounder.
Thus, it is incumbent upon all of us to get our comments supporting proper management to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission prior to the September 30 deadline, and to convince every responsible angler we know to do the same thing.
For if we fail to do so, and ASMFC gets too many dumb comments, it may do something really stupid in response.
It might manage the fishery the way Johnson wants to…
Sunday, September 21, 2014
September is hardly half-over, but the talk has already started…
Last Tuesday, I got a phone call from an angler at my marina. His father had been out on a Montauk party boat the day before, and had spotted “a square mile” of big striped bass floating dead off the Point.
On Thursday, as I walked through the door after work, Theresa met me with the comment “You’ve got a bunch of e-mails on trawler bycatch.” I sat down at the computer to find comments from a Montauk charter boat captain, who complained to the powers that be that
“It came to my attention yesterday of dragger discards of dead stripers floating in the vicinity of a spot call Frisbees that is 4-5 miles s/w of Montauk Point. In the two photos are a good many 25-40-pound striped bass that were floating dead on the surface. This is a common occurrence each fall off Montauk when the draggers begin to work the same waters stripers are migrating in. I know the draggers are allowed a 21-fish a day bycatch of striped bass. However, with the declining stock of stripers this wanton disregard for a great game fish must stop.”
Another Montauk captain, who I speak with on a regular basis, had telephoned me with similar complaints, and photos of the dead discards were posted on a popular Internet fishing site. The poster there claimed that the raft of dead bass was three miles long.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation responded to the Montauk captain’s e-mail. It noted that there were a lot of squid in the area, that the squid were attracting a lot of boats from Rhode Island, and that such Rhode Island boasts, which were not licensed to harvest striped bass from New York waters, may have been responsible for dumping the fish.
That’s a plausible answer, but it doesn’t do much for the problem.
Because, while the number of dead bass is startling, it’s really nothing new.
A newspaper article from 2009, entitled “Dead fish litter beach in Montauk, commercial fishermen blamed,” reported that
“The carcasses of hundreds of striped bass washed onto the beach at Napeague Sunday afternoon, and there is speculation that commercial fishermen were to blame.
“The fish began washing up shortly after noon on Sunday, according to several recreational fishermen who were in the area at the time. The dead fish were scattered in the ocean and on the sand along a stretch of beach east of Atlantic Drive, an area referred to as White Sands, for the resort of the same name on the beach there.
“’It ran for a good mile,” said Dan Loos, who was driving along the beach Sunday afternoon. “There were three or four here and there in the surf and on the beach. It had to be a couple hundred at least.’
“,,,the smell of rotting flesh was detectable by the drivers of cars traveling on Montauk Highway, a witness said.
“’We could smell them before we saw them,” said Jane Lahr, who was walking on the beach near Atlantic Drive on Monday morning. The birds were “picking at them.’”
And, of course, it’s not limited to Montauk or even to New York.
When the squid are plentiful off the South Shore of Long Island, the dead bass tend to follow, as this 2001 thread—as I said, this is nothing new—from another Internet site describes a kill in my local waters off Fire Island.
And the big trawler kills off North Carolina, where the great majority of east coast fish spend the winter, are infamous. Or course, down there, the trawlers get to keep 50 of the bass that they kill on every trip until the quota is filled, so a lot of the Carolina kill is not accidental. Videos of the North Carolina discards are pretty disheartening, but what they show is pretty typical of what goes on here in New York and elsewhere along the coast.
What is also disheartening up here in New York is that some of our trawlers, like those in North Carolina, don’t kill bass by accident, but instead by design. The recent bass kills may well have been caused by squid trawlers, but other bass are undoubtedly killed when New York trawlers wrongly target schools of stripers.
And I say “wrongly” in the ethical sense—and the legal one, too—because trawlers may not target striped bass in New York waters. The relevant regulation clearly states that
“Striped bass may be taken for commercial purposes by using any of the following permitted gear types only: hook and line, pound net, trap net, gill net as specified in subdivision 40.5(e) of this Part, or as bycatch in otter trawls. Permit holders may use any of the legal gears to catch their individual allocation of striped bass. Otter trawl bycatch is limited to 21 striped bass per vessel per trip and shall be separately boxed. All other types of gear are prohibited for use in taking striped bass, including but not limited to: haul seines and spears. [emphasis assed]”
Unfortunately, intent is difficult thing to prove in court, and the “bycatch” proviso is routinely ignored.
The issue comes up every now and then at New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council. The last time it arose, the trawlers sought to increase their “bycatch” limit from 21 to 100 fish per trip, but not because they thought that it would decrease dead discards and kill fewer striped bass. Instead,
“…Councilor Paul Farnham [a Montauk commercial fisherman] has stated that trawl fishermen would like to do away with the limit entirely and let trawlers be allowed to catch as many striped bass as they could to use up their commercial tag allocation. Mr. Farnham submitted letters to the Council from by trawl fishermen Vincent Carillo, Jr. of the Tenacious Fishing Corporation and Chuck Weimar of the F/V Rianda, who also endorse this change. In their view, the conservation of striped bass is achieved through issuing a limited number of tags. How the fish are caught really doesn't matter. Mr. Farnham stated that the current by-catch allowance forced a trawl fishermen with a full-share allocation of striped bass tags to make a lot of trips to catch tag allocation. This was economically wasteful and unnecessary. [emphasis added]”
It seems that the trawlers completely disregard the letter and spirit of the regulation, and direct effort on striped bass, even though the regulation clearly states that they may only land bass as bycatch. And they have no problem admitting it in a public forum.
It’s pretty certain that when those trawlers set on a school of striped bass, they don’t catch just their 21 fish, all neatly falling within New York’s 24- to 36-inch commercial slot. We can bet that there will be shorts and oversized fish netted and killed, and plenty of over-limit fish, too.
It’s impossible to say how many fish such directed activity kills, but maybe we can get some idea from the law enforcement report that described what happened when one trawler decided to land fish illegally, rather than discard them dead. In that report, we can read that
“…Region 1 Officers…inspected a trawler off-loading at Gosman’s fish dock [in Montauk]. There they observed striped bass thrown onto the dock. The fish covered a large area and most of them were untagged. The fisherman, Dave Aripotch, was only entitled to catch 21 fish as bycatch. The officers had the remaining 93 striped bass tagged with the fisherman’s tags and sold them to a fish market and received $2,037.50 for the 815 pounds of striped bass seized. The fisherman was charged with over-the-limit striped bass and failure to tag striped bass. [emphasis added]”
I don’t know what you took away from that story, but it seems to me that 93 striped bass above the legal bycatch quota is a lot of bass to be killed—whether illegally kept or thrown back dead—in a single trip. But what really strikes me is the casualness with which the “striped bass [had been] thrown onto the dock,” so that they “covered a large area.” There was no effort to land the illegal fish covertly, or hide the fact that they were there.
That sort of open defiance of the law suggests that such landings are routine enough that no one—except the enforcement officers—thought much about displaying the poached striped bass in public, and that there was nothing particularly unusual about doing so—it must happen all of the time.
It also suggests to me that the 21-fish bycatch allowance, although put in place with the laudable intention of preventing the waste of fish, may be doing more harm than good by encouraging trawlers to direct effort on striped bass.
For if we believe what we hear from the trawlers themselves, while some bycatch is unavoidable, most striped bass just don’t have to die. At the same Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting that saw the Montauk boats try to raise the trawl trip limit to 100 fish,
” One audience member said that you at times can’t help but run through a group of striped bass when towing a trawl inshore. It was also pointed out that striped bass are usually found very near shore and can be largely avoided by fishing offshore. Thus, it would be possible to allow trawlers to catch their allocation of tags quickly and then avoid significant further striped bass catches by staying offshore. [emphasis added]”
That was confirmed by a member of the MRAC panel itself when
“Councilor Risi [said] that most fishermen have a sense of what they will be picking up. If they have the ability to catch 21 fish, they will make a swing for it and, unfortunately, sometimes they might pick up 100 striped bass or more; therefore a lot more fish are going to die unnecessarily. He believes that once a trawler reaches their limit, they will be able to fish differently and not target striped bass.”
So if New York state really wants to minimize striped bass bycatch and discard mortality, perhaps the best answer is a seasonal closure of state waters, that would prevent the trawlers from coming too close to the shore and thus threatening the stripers. It might require the boats to burn a little more fuel, but they’ll be able to find plenty of squid—the fishery that causes most of the problems—three miles off the beach, and if striped bass “can largely be avoided by fishing offshore,” substantially reduce dead discards by dragging in deeper water.
Other states have already addressed the issue. Massachusetts may be the friendlier to commercial fishermen than any other state in the northeast, yet
“It is unlawful to offload onto any vessel within waters under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts or to offload or land onto any pier, wharf or other structure within Massachusetts any striped bass or shad which was harvested, caught or taken by any net.”
Yet, so far as I can determine, there is no indication that trawlers are discarding more dead bass off Massachusetts than we’re seeing killed off of New York.
Perhaps that’s because
“All waters under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth shall be closed to night fishing with trawls or shellfish dredges …”
If New York looks to its immediate south, it will find that New Jersey prohibits the use of trawls within two miles of its coast, and doesn’t allow any striped bass to be sold at all.
Once again, there seems to be no serious discard problems.
So viewed in that context, things look pretty clear.
Bycatch is a bad thing, even if the fish being discarded are plentiful. When they are a valued species such as striped bass, which is either already overfished or will be overfished soon, such waste is inexcusable, and managers should be trying to reduce the number of dead discards as close to zero as possible.
The “bycatch” allowances permitted in states such as New York and North Carolina are ineffective, and merely encourage trawlers to destroy more fish when they direct effort on their “bycatch quota.”
More effective measures, such as pushing trawlers farther off the beach, prohibiting trawling at night and preventing trawlers from profiting from their bycatch, have been put in place in some states and seem to be working.
Which means that they should be put in place everywhere else.
For allowing—even promoting—the waste of the striped bass resource is a foolish thing to do at the best of times.
With the stock in decline, it is the sort of self-indulgence that none of us can afford.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Do you recall the “Sagebrush Rebellion”?
It arose forty years ago, when ranchers, loggers and miners, who had happily overgrazed, clear-cut and strip-mined public lands for years, suddenly became indignant when the federal government finally woke up, realized that taxpayers expected them to take care of their lands, and began imposing basic conservation measures on what had been a privileged few.
The Sagebrush Rebels demanded that the federal government turn its lands over to the states, who were supposedly more familiar with the situation on the ground, and “knew” how to manage land the right way—using the tried-and-true tools of overgrazing, clear-cutting and strip mines...
Legal efforts to end federal ownership of western lands went nowhere, and the “rebellion” drifted off the front page for a while.
Tensions, however, stayed high.
Then, six months ago, the news was filled with stories of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who insisted on his “right” to run cattle on federal lands off-limits to livestock, and seemed ready to force a confrontation with federal officials planning to round up his herd. Implied threats of violence from Bundy’s supporters, a number of whom were armed, eventually caused the feds to halt the roundup and seek a resolution in court. It also catapulted Bundy to the top of the “rebellion’s” list of heroes.
In the meantime, the State of Utah had passed legislation ordering the federal government to turn all of its Utah lands (other than military bases, Indian reservations and national parks) over to the state by the end of this year. Utah’s attorney general is threatening legal action if the feds don’t comply, but has yet to figure out how to win such a suit.
Once again, the theory behind the anti-fed feelings is that the states are closer to local issues, and know how to deal with them better than the federal government does.
It happens that my wife and I were out in Utah a few weeks ago. As we drove from Green River to Jensen, and from Jensen to Salt Lake City, we heard regular “public service” advertisements on our car’s radio, that urged residents to protect the “Western way of life.”
One urged citizens to attend public hearings, and oppose new federal rules to regulate coal (and, by extension, Utah’s open-pit mines).
Another was deeply critical of efforts to protect the dwindling sage grouse population, claiming that the energy companies drilling and digging in the area, and not the Fish & Wildlife Service, were the true champions of conservation…
So what does all this have to do with fisheries?
Well, it appears that the spirit of the sagebrush has now infused the fishery management debate.
There are a lot of powerful folks out there—both politicians and big angling industry and angling rights groups—who are seeking legislation that would turn management authority for various fish species, currently managed by federal managers, over to the states.
Like the ranchers and the loggers and the strip-miners, they argue that the feds are out of touch with local realities, and that state managers, who are more familiar with key issues, are better able to care for the resource.
And like the ranchers and the loggers and the strip-miners, the folks arguing for state management of such fisheries know that if they can escape federal regulators and their troublesome rules, they can wring a lot more money out of the resource—for as long as the resource lasts.
The first shot of this new conflict—I’ll call it the “Seaweed Rebellion”—was probably fired by the State of Louisiana when it unilaterally, and contrary to the Supreme Court decision in a 1960 case, United States v. Louisiana, declared its jurisdiction over all waters extending out 10.357 miles from its shore (the court found that Louisiana state waters only extended out three miles).
After that, the Seaweed Rebellion quickly began to spawn its own Cliven Bundys (but without the threat of violence), folks who are willing to support Louisiana’s actions by fishing in the disputed waters, paying federal fines and then going back into those same federally-closed waters again.
It has also been producing the same kind of rhetoric.
“There are many examples where a shift to state-based management of a given fishery resource has been called for, producing better results.”
Jeff Crane, President of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, alleged that
“…federal management of the Gulf of Mexico recreational red snapper fishery is fundamentally flawed, and it is negatively impacting anglers and the coastal economies that depend on access to that fishery. State-based fishery management has proven to be far more effective…”
Chester Brewer, while serving as Chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association’s national Government Relations Committee, echoed those sentiments, and also provided a little insight into how “effective” management is defined by the Seaweed Rebels, saying
“Red snapper has been under federal management for decades and our season this year is 28 days…State-based fishery management has proven to be far more effective, and has engineered some of the greatest marine conservation victories in the country. We have faith in the states to be philosophically capable of not only conserving and managing robust fisheries, but also providing greater access to those resources for their citizens. [emphasis added]”
Brewer’s statement makes things pretty clear.
While federal managers are legally bound to use the best available science, and must limit harvest in order to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, state managers know no such constraints. So they are free to “[provide] better access”—that is, allow anglers to kill more fish.
Which is what the Seaweed Rebellion is all about—the desire to escape federal conservation measures and harvest more fish than either the science or prudence would allow.
When I hear the Seaweed Rebels talk about giving state managers control of the fish in federal waters, I hear echoes of those radio ads in Utah, telling me that the future of the sage grouse is far more secure in the hands of the energy companies…
For the fishermen of the Seaweed Rebellion sing their tune in harmony with the clearcutters and the open-pit miners, although the song seems far more dissonant when it comes from the lips of those who would call themselves sportsmen:
“More for us, more for us, and the science, and the resource, be damned.”
Fortunately for the nation, the Sagebrush Rebellion hasn’t gained very much ground. The Sagebrush Rebels have been soundly defeated both in courts of law and, ever more often, in the court of public opinion. Even in states where legislatures have demanded that that the U.S. surrender its lands, no one in authority is trying very hard to force the issue.
Unfortunately, for the nation and its marine resources, the Seaweed Rebels still have a lot of energy.
They haven’t won any fights yet, but their Congressional allies are still fighting hard. Earlier this summer they, along with others more interested in ideology than in getting things done, helped to kill the Bipartisan Sportsman’s Act of 2014 by attaching numerous riders to the bill, including one that would have taken authority to manage red snapper away from federal managers and hand it over to the states.
But there are already reasons for hope.
The website www.govtrack.us which, among other things, predicts the fate of federal legislation, gives the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act (a typically misnamed bill that does nothing to conserve red snapper, but would merely allow states to manage the fishery) only a 5% chance of making it out of committee, and a 1% chance of being signed into law.
Hopefully, the Seaweed Rebellion’s other bills will meet similar fates.
For America’s living marine resources—whether we’re talking about New England cod, South Atlantic grouper, Gulf of Mexico snapper, Pacific rockfish or Alaska halibut—belong to all of America’s citizens, not just to the folks who happen to live and fish along one stretch of coast.
They are a national heritage, to be passed down, intact, to generations yet unborn.
They must be managed and conserved.
And saved from the Seaweed Rebels.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
I caught my first striped bass back in the early ‘60s, and before that decade ended, I fished for them whenever I got the chance. My father and I would go out on weekend mornings, and sometimes in the evenings after work, and troll sandworms, rigged behind a Cape Cod spinner, along the rocky Connecticut shore.
By the time that I was in my mid-teens, I began taking the boat out during the week, trolling sandworms at first, and then taking my first uncertain steps into the world of artificial lures. Before I was graduated from high school, I was a hard-core striped bass fishermen, and rarely chased anything else when bass were around.
Somehow, the striper can do that to people.
They’re the biggest fish that northeastern anglers are likely to encounter in inshore waters, and within their range, they can be just about anywhere—high up in big rivers (New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has gotten complaints that they’re eating too many trout way up in the Delaware River), in protected bays and sounds and along high-energy coasts where waves shatter against jagged boulders and send shards of spray a dozen yards inshore.
That size, and that access, certainly makes them attractive.
And they eat lures, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes with a wild and unrestrained fury that makes them blow up on a pencil popper and knock the plug six feet or more into the air.
That, too, partially explains their appeal.
But neither factor explains the extraordinary passion of striped bass anglers not only to pursue the fish, but to protect it.
That really became clear for me last Friday, when I was rushing to make my comments on the National Marine Fisheries Services’ proposed Salt Water Recreational Fishing Policy. Friday was the last day for comments, so after I provided my thoughts, I perused other anglers’ comments that were posted on the site.
NMFS was looking for comments on how to manage recreational fisheries generally; it was not looking for comments on any specific fish or any specific fishery. Yet when I started reading what other anglers wrote, it was clear that many of the comments—probably a majority, but perhaps a few less than that—were solely about striped bass.
Which was pretty remarkable, when you consider that NMFS doesn’t manage stripers at all, except to maintain a prohibition on fishing in federal waters.
But what was even more remarkable was what the comments said.
Many anglers from outside the striper coast complained about not being permitted to kill enough fish. They said things such as
“It is a concern of mine that the fishing regulators are way too heavy handed on recreational fishing. There are folks like me who have limited access, limited time to go fishing offshore. Time must be spent in planning and organizing a trip with a private guide. Now you're telling me that Red Grouper is closed, and you may close Gag grouper?”
and made self-serving—if scientifically unsupportable—comments such as
“…In Texas, our red snapper population has expanded to the point of overpopulation in most areas. Anywhere where there is structure you can catch red snapper. Many times red snapper will be the only species present because their voracious appetites have decimated many other species of reef fish, particularly triggerfish and spade fish. We have also lost several age classes of red snapper because of cannibalism. …”
Others didn’t even try to make a rational argument, but merely threw out petulant statements such as
“I feel like you don't consider the facts,and it does not matter. No wait I think I'll change my mind. I don't trust your judgement [sic] or your numbers. I should find another coast to fish on.”
“I don't know how to help you do your job. But I do know you are responsible for putting a lot of people out of business,”
which were almost certainly related to NMFS efforts to restore and conserve various fish stocks.
Fortunately, a few were more enlightened. One charter boat captain said that
“As a federally permitted charter fishing guide operating in the northern Gulf of Mexico, and who depends on having a lot of fish for my customers to target, I want the NOAA to manage our fisheries to abundance. Secondly, I want NOAA to manage our stocks for a better age and size structure, which means, I want to have more big fish for my customers to catch. I want to see conservative, science based management with real accountability measures in place that will ensure that all recreational anglers don’t exceed our quotas each year. I want yours, mine and our kids, grandkids and great grandkids to have fish to catch. I want to see fishery management and policy go beyond just having our fish stocks "rebuilt." From a conservative approach, I believe we all would benefit from having fish stocks that are much bigger than Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), because they will ultimately lead to having larger fish and the recreational anglers will have a greater chance to actually hook, fight and hopefully land a trophy fish,”
while another person noted that
“The limit on mutton snappers in Florida is just too high. The current limit of ten fish per person and no max limit per boat is ridiculous. There are non-commercial boats going out as we speak and slaughtering the spawning grounds at night. Boats are going out with five people and catching 40 to 50 muttons each and every night. No one needs that many fish and the fishery cannot be sustained with this type of reckless fishing. Ask any responsible captain in the Florida Keys and they will tell you that two to three Muttons per person is more than plenty. We have already seen the incredible decline of groupers, please don't let Mutton snappers be the next on the list.”
However, nothing matched the number of striped bass fishermen that commented on the proposed policy, nor did any other group show such unanimous support for conservation efforts. Just a very small sampling of the comments from the striper coast turned up such responses as
“Regarding Striped Bass regulations, clearly there are declining stocks of these fish. I feel this is both a commercial as well as recreational issue. It has become quite easy here in NJ as well as other places along the coast to catch multiple large bass, primarily from boat but occasionally from shore with the resurgence of Bunker. Snag and drop is causing prolonged stress on the breeding stock. I know there are large fish outside the 3 mile limit but these fish are not accessible to fisherman. I feel a limit to the size and number of fish needs to be implemented, not just for those large fish but also for the 8-15 pound fish that are caught from shore in the fall. One fish of this size is more than enough per day, actually per week. I'm tired of reading the weigh ins from tackle shops with the same individual keeping two fish per day every day of the week. Fish from 34 inches and bigger need to be completely protected, catch and release single hook tackle…”
“I believe striped bass populations are declining. I support cutting commercial harvesting by 50% and making recreational fishing for stripers catch and release only to see if we can get these populations back to harvestable levels once again. This fish needs to be protected,”
“You can not achieve the goal outlined above as long as you put recreational fishing first in your priorities. Or commercial fishing which is oddly missing from your statement. THE FISH NEED TO BE OUR FIRST PRIORITY. The data does not support any taking of striped bass by any constituency. What the data supports is, "leave the fish alone and let them stabilize." How painful can 5 years off be? You can not take ANY chances at this critical juncture that your policies may decimate and already problematic population. That was your policy the last time the stock was resuscitated. Do it again, now, before it is too late - and too late could be just around the corner. Why chance it?”
Now, that last comment is probably a little extreme—we’re not at the moratorium stage yet, and hopefully the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will do the right thing in October and assure that we’re never going to have to go there—but given all of the political maneuvering over the last half-year or so about a “Vision” for salt water recreational fishing that would delay rebuilding stocks and give greater weight to “socioeconomic impacts,” it’s still refreshing to read comments by people of character who are still willing to say that the needs of the fish are more important than those of recreational fishermen.
But serious striped bass anglers are like that.
I can’t say exactly why, but I can feel it in my gut, because I was already an active striped bass angler when the stocks began to collapse in the 1970s. After I first spoke to the late Bob Pond, creator of the Atom line of striped bass plugs, and he made his case for the coming calamity, I felt compelled to take my first hesitant and stumbling steps into the frustrating world of fisheries conservation.
Bass just affect you that way.
So I feel a sense of déjà vu, and a deep sense of pride, in these days of striped bass decline, when I see a new generation of anglers—some belonging to established organizations, others organizing themselves as they gird for the fight—taking up the old cause and speaking with the same passion that others felt four decades ago.
And when ASMFC holds its hearing in New York next Tuesday, you can be sure that I will be in the audience, ready to do my part.
For the worthiest passions never die.
And that is good, because the most important fights never really end.