Thursday, December 18, 2014


If you go to any fisheries management meetings at all, you’ve heard the argument.

When it comes to regulations, states must make sure that their regulations, at least those governing the for-hire fleet, are no more restrictive than those in force elsewhere or. at least, in the general vicinity.

If any state dares to protect its fish stocks, and adopts regulations that are more conservative than those of its neighbors, the for-hires complain, insisting that anglers will flock to the places where bigger kills are allowed.

It sounds plausible, and it drives a lot of states’ policies.

Right now, here in New York, the for-hire fleet is demanding two striped bass, instead of the one 28-inch fish that ASMFC originally decided upon.  They argue  that Rhode Island will be giving its fleet two stripers, and if New York does not follow suit, all of their clients will flow to Rhode Island.

But is that really true?  Or is it merely an urban legend in the fishing community that has led a lot of well-meaning managers to make bad decisions?

It’s entirely possible—in fact, it’s extremely likely—that some anglers will choose to fish where the regulations allow a big kill, and eschew ports closer to home. 

But do such anglers make up a significant proportion of the fishing public, or are they the exception to a very different rule?

This year, we have an opportunity to take a look at that question.

The inquiry isn’t based on striped bass, but summer flounder, a fish that is far more of a “meat” fish than the striper, which is often sought for just the experience. Thus, if regulations do make a difference in where anglers choose to go fishing, we should see it in the fluke fishery.

For much of the recent past, summer flounder were subject to wildly divergent regulations even in adjacent states.  Probably no neighboring states’ regulations differed more than those of New York and New Jersey; in most years, New York had the most stringent regulations on the coast, and New Jersey the most liberal.

Such widely differing regulations, imposed on boats that sometimes fished within sight of one another, caused a lot of anger and bitterness among New York’s anglers, who felt that they were bearing the brunt of a conservation burden that would be better shared by all.  

They caused even more angler and bitterness among New York’s for-hire fleet, which felt that it was at a severe competitive disadvantage, losing a lot of business to boats from New Jersey.

Finally, in 2014, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted a regional management system, that lumped Connecticut, New York and New Jersey into the same region, and required them to have the same size limit, bag limit and season length (New Jersey started and ended its season a week later than the other states, but otherwise had the same regulations).

New York’s for-hire fleet was pleased, feeling that they were, at last, on common ground with their neighbors, and would win back some business as a result.  New Jersey’s fleet, on the other hand, was unhappy, and now made the same argument that New York’s made before—that they’d be losing business to neighboring Delaware, which had a size limit two inches smaller.

So, if the industry’s arguments were right, we’d expect to see some significant effort shift in 2014 fishing effort.  New York anglers would be expected to fish close to home, since there was no longer any advantage in making the drive to New Jersey, while fluke fishermen from southern New Jersey, and probably from Pennsylvania, too, would abandon the Garden State and flock to the south side of Delaware Bay, where they had a better chance of keeping a bucketful.

If that happened, the Marine Recreational Information Program’s effort data should show increased fluke trips in New York and Delaware, while fluke trips out of New Jersey declined.

That just didn’t happen.

Instead, the data showed that summer flounder trips actually increased in all three states; New York, New Jersey and Delaware anglers all made more trips targeting fluke this season than they did in 2013.  And in terms of raw numbers, New Jersey showed the greatest increase of all, a net gain of 301,370 trips (a 20% increase over 2013), as opposed to increases of 109,174 trips (10%) in New York and 39,833 trips (29%) in Delaware.

So far, there’s nothing to indicate that anglers switched their fishing areas to follow the most favorable regulations, but there’s nothing to say that they didn’t, either.  Since there were more directed summer flounder trips made in each of the three states, it’s at least possible that an increase in the number of people fishing masked a movement of anglers from state to state.

So the next thing that I looked at was the change in the percentage of trips in each state that targeted fluke.  If anglers were truly moving to follow the rules, it would be logical to expect that 2014 would see a higher percentage of anglers chasing fluke in the states with the more favorable regulations, and a lower percentage in states losing summer flounder anglers to their neighbors.

But that didn’t happen either.

Instead, once again, we see the percentage of trips made for summer flounder (obtained by dividing the number of trips targeting summer flounder by total number of trips made in each state from May through October) going up in all three states.  Summer flounder trips increased in New York by 3.4%, in New Jersey by 2.0% and in Delaware by 3.6%.  (It should be noted that such increases should not be taken as absolute numbers, as the Percent Standard Error in the estimate is large enough—ranging from 9.8% to 11.6%--that the most you can say is that, statistically, 2014 may have seen no change at all.)

So far, no signs of change in that calculation, either.

But maybe, we’re looking at the wrong numbers.  I keep my boat on the South Shore of New York, and am not likely to move it elsewhere just to kill a couple more fish.

Maybe we should really be looking at the for-hire anglers, who aren’t anchored to one boat or marina, but are free to take their business to whatever boat and port they happen to like at the time.

If we look at those numbers, we find—about the same thing, although the PSEs are higher (ranging from 15.9% to 30.6%), which means that the actual figures might vary by quite a bit. 

Looking only at party and charter boat trips targeting summer flounder in those three states, we see a big increase in New York, a smaller increase in New Jersey and a small decrease in Delaware.  So it’s pretty clear that, based on the numbers, the boats down in south Jersey, who want to split the state in half, so that they can fish under regulations similar to Delaware’s, don’t have a leg to stand on. 

Any argument that the south Jersey anglers might have made is further undercut by the fact that the percentage of Delaware for-hire trips targeting summer flounder seems to have dropped significantly, from 30% to less than 23%, just the opposite of what should happen if there were an influx of flujke anglers who used to fish in New Jersey waters (but remember the big PSEs; it’s possible that, when error is considered, the Delaware figures did not change at all—in which case, there would still be no sign of New Jersey anglers shifting ports).

Making the case for or against New York anglers “coming home”—or not—is quite a bit harder than arguing that New Jersey anglers never did go to Delaware.  The number of for-hire fluke trips estimated to have been taken in New York in 2014 allegedly tripled over the number taken the year before, although the overall number of for-hire trips remained, statistically, flat.  The percentage of all for-hire trips targeting fluke supposedly jumped from 20% to 55% of all trips made between May and October.

At the same time, the number of for-hire summer flounder trips down in New Jersey increased by about 67%, which is solid, but nowhere near as high as New York’s increase.  

The percentage of for-hire trips targeting summer flounder 
increased by about one-third, from 33% to 44%, while the overall number of for-hire trips also appear to have increased a bit.

So the question is whether New Jersey could have lost New York fluke anglers, who returned to home waters once the two states adopted the same bag and size limits, and still see increases in both the number of for-hire fluke trips and the percentage of for-hire trips targeting summer flounder. 

Or was the big jump in the New York directed effort figure merely an artifact of big PSEs?

I suppose that if I was crunching these numbers for the Discovery Channel’s show Mythbusters, I’d have to say this:

The argument that New York anglers never shifted effort to New Jersey to take advantage of that states liberal fluke rules, or else did go to Jersey and didn’t come back last year when both atates’ rules were the same is “PLAUSIBLE.”
And the argument that New Jersey lost for-hire anglers to Delaware because of the difference in size limits is pretty clearly “BUSTED.”
But here in the fisheries management world, we know that things are never so easy.

You can’t take just a few bits of data and draw broad conclusions, although folks try to do so all of the time.

However, the back-of-the envelope numbers that I set forth above certainly open up an important topic for further inquiry, that deserves some real statistical analysis by qualified experts, to find out what, in fact, may be true.

Of course, that means that the for-hires’ claims that states must engage in a race to the bottom, in which every state ends up letting folks to kill too many fish just to level the competitive playing field, should also be rejected unless statistics prove that it’s right.

Certainly, such claims shouldn’t form a basis for policy, no matter how loud their supporters might be.  For policy should be founded on facts, and not urban legends.

That’s true with summer flounder down in southern New Jersey.

And it’s true with striped bass here in New York as well, despite anything that Rhode Island and New Jersey might do.

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