Sunday, December 14, 2014
A DANGEROUS TREND
There has been a trend slowly building in fisheries management that largely flies under the radar.
I came across it again just before the December meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, as I read the Summer Flounder Amendment Scoping Comments Summary, and came across the notes of a meeting held up in Rhode Island, which read, in part,
“Recreational for-hire attendees were generally in strong agreement that the for-hire sector should be managed separately from the private angler recreational sector, and most agreed that any for-hire quota would be taken out of the existing recreational quota…”
Capt. Rick Bellavance, a charter boat owner/operator who is also spokesman for the Rhode Island Party & Charter Boat Association (yes, the same Capt. Bellavance and the same Association that is trying hard to scuttle the coastwide striped bass limit of 1 fish at 28 inches, and replace it with a two fish bag for folks who fish with him and his fellow for-hire captains) reportedly said on the record that it was “extremely important” to separate the for-hire sector from the rest of the angling community, although he apparently didn’t provide much of a reason.
Capt. Denny Dillon, another charter boat operator, was apparently a little more forthcoming. The Comments Summary provided the gist of his position.
“The party/charter fishery should form their own identity and go their own way as an organization. Party/charter operations are both commercial and recreational. The difference is that party/charter boats take their market to the product, while the commercial fishery takes their product to the market. Party/charter operations are not entirely recreational; they are their own entity. The party/charter sector should have its own allocation in all fisheries. Restrictions have been put on them for multiple species, often leaving them for little to fish for.
“Speaking to the issue of where the separate party/charter quota would come from, their proposal is that it would not come off the commercial quota. The for-hire sector is lumped under the recreational sector now, so it should come from the recreational quota…”
So let’s make this completely clear. The party/charter fishery is at least partly commercial. Like the commercial fishery, it connects “market” with “product.” But all of the quota for a proposed for-hire sector would come out of the fish allocated to recreational anglers, who aren’t selling “product” at all…
It would appear that the for-hire’s goal is to shift the burden of maintaining a steady supply of “product”—that is, the burden of conserving fish stocks—to the backs of private-boat anglers, while the for-hires get only the benefits.
The for-hires get their “own allocation in all fisheries,” while everyone else is still gets stuck with “[r]estrictions…[that] leave them little to fish for”.
If I thought that I could get that deal, I’d probably want it, too…
Unfortunately, the for-hires have had a lot of encouragement, particularly in the northeast, where various states have created special rules favoring the for-hire industry.
Here in New York, we began giving the for-hires special privileges back in 1995. That happened after surf and private-boat anglers overwhelmingly supported conservative management of a newly-recovered striped bass population, while for-hire vessels wanted to exploit the stock to the greatest possible degree (if you’re thinking that nothing much has changed in the last twenty years…). The resulting debate was long and acrimonious, and finally quieted down (but never ended) after the state gave for-hires the two 28-inch bass that they wanted, but only allowed other anglers a single 28-inch fish.
Surf and private-boat anglers were eventually allowed to take one “slot” fish between 28 and 40 inches, along with a second over-40-inch bass, but the for-hire fishermen kept their 2 @ 28 inches, perpetuating a privileged position for the for-hires that they still refuse to surrender.
That feeling of privilege was clearly enunciated just this fall, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was accepting public comments on proposed new striped bass management measures. Capt. Robert W. Busby, representing the North Fork Captains Association, had no problem putting it in clear black and white when he wrote
“Of course we would like to continue to see charter/party boat regulations be improved over normal recreational regulations, thereby giving people another reason to sail with us. [emphasis added]”
Once again, the private boat and surf angler is expected to take a back seat to the for-hires’ profits.
We see the same thing in other northeastern fisheries, including scup and black sea bass.
The problem arises because the for-hire owners have successfully convinced managers that they—as business owners—are somehow more entitled to a share of the resource than the rank and file of ordinary citizens to whom such resources actually belong.
That is a flawed analysis.
Anglers, not vessels, are the units being managed.
We should be regulating angling catch as a whole, whether individual anglers choose to fish from shore, from a bridge or pier, or from a private, rental or for-hire vessel. The idea is to create a level playing field, so that all anglers, regardless of the platform that they fish from, are treated the same.
Of course, when anglers themselves break that bargain, and try to push the for-hire fleet into second-class status, problems rightly arise, and when anglers get too selfish, they may find themselves sitting in the loser’s chair.
Back in late March, I wrote an installment of this blog entitled “Red Snapper Anglers Embarrass Us All”. In that essay, I noted that
“If the thoughtless, self-serving demands of Gulf-states fishermen only affected red snapper, I would have discussed something else today. But the antics surrounding that one southern groundfish can—and very possibly will—hurt anglers on every shore of the United States.
Commercial fishermen will probably use the decision in Guindon v. Pritzker to punish anglers when the opportunity arises. I can easily see them trying to penalize us in the Mid-Atlantic, should we overfish black sea bass or fluke. Recreational fishermen, everywhere on the coast, risk being tarred with the same brush as the red snapper anglers, even for inadvertent overages rather than the kind of chronic and predictable overfishing that takes place in the Gulf.”
I almost got it right.
It wasn’t the commercial fishermen who used developments in the Gulf red snapper fight to threaten anglers elsewhere on the coast. It was the for-hires.
Because of the piggishness of red snapper anglers down in the Gulf, and their refusal to accept the science-based limits required under federal law, a great disparity arose. Federal rules called for a brief 9-day season, a 2-fish bag limit and a 16-inch minimum size, while regulations in state waters could be as liberal as Texas’ year-long season, 4-fish bag and 15-inch size limit.
That meant that when the federal season closed, private-boat anglers could retreat to state waters and kill quite a few snapper, but the for-hire boats, which had to hold federal snapper permits to fish outside state waters, were limited to the far more restrictive federal rules.
Worse, the snapper killed by the private boats fishing in state waters when the federal season was closed were counted against the overall recreational quota, meaning that the for-hires’ season was shortened as a result of the private boats killing too many state-waters snapper.
In an attempt to balance the scales, the for-hires convinced the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to give them a separate quota unaffected by the private boats’ excesses and by state fishing regulations that were not in compliance with federal rules.
They called it “sector separation” and in the Gulf it made sense, because the private boat anglers knowingly and intentionally slanted the playing field in their favor, and the for-hires needed to get things back on an even keel.
Unfortunately, the northeastern for hires are now jumping all over sector separation, trying to use events down in the Gulf as precedent for creating their own special quotas in northern waters where, for now, we already have a level playing field, and no such separation is justified.
The northern boats are trying to use sector separation to obtain special privileges that no one else has, not to restore a balance that someone else took away.
Fortunately, last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council refused to include sector separation as an option in the proposed new amendment to the Fishery Management Plan for Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass.
That is a very good thing.
But if anglers suspect that our local for hires are done trying to steal a disproportionate share of our fish, I believe they are sadly mistaken.
Remember that just last August, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council also defeated an effort to create a special January/February season for black sea bass, which would have only been open to the for-hire fleet and would have taken away fish from the regular season that we all can enjoy.
And those who were at the November meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting will recall the Captree party boat owner who said that such boats as his should have their own, special regulations.
So it is up to the anglers to assure that public fisheries resources remain in the public domain, and that all anglers are allowed equal access, regardless of the platform they fish from.
For if we fail in our vigilance, and let this new threat gain ground, we may wake up one day to find that the only ones denied reasonable access to public resources are us.