Thursday, January 15, 2015


Not long ago, the New York Times published a op-ed column on codfish.

It was entitled “Where Have All the Cod Gone?” and was a little different from what we ordinarily read, because it doesn’t concentrate on the crisis that had engulfed the cod fishery today.  

Instead, the author, W. Jeffrey Bolster, who is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, looks at the situation from a longer historical perspective.

He comes to the conclusion that today’s problems are the result of trends put in motion more than a century and a half ago.

He provides a brief history of the cod fishery and the species’ decline, then comes to his conclusion.

“If there is any lesson in this story of large-scale, long term environmental degradation, it is not that fishermen were (or are) to blame, or that scientists were (or are) to blame, or that politician were (or are) to blame.  Our system of degrading nature’s resources, with its checks and balances, its desire for prosperity and security, it’s willingness to honor a multiplicity of voices, and its changing sense of “normal” is insufficiently nimble to stop the desecration of commonly held resources on which the long-term good of everyone depends.”
That’s a profound insight, which becomes even more significant when you stop to analyze its implications. 

America’s fishery management process, at the federal, regional and state levels, is built around the ideal of inclusiveness, and incorporates ponderous procedural requirements to insure that every stakeholder, or at least every sort of stakeholder, not only has an opportunity to be heard, but a chance to actually become one of the policymakers.

At the federal level, we have the various regional fishery management councils, in which stakeholders far outnumber professional fishery managers.  They develop the management plans used to rebuild and conserve many important fish stocks.

At the regional level, we have various marine fisheries commissions, the best known and most influential being the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, where representatives of the recreational and commercial fisheries again outnumber professional managers by a ratio of two to one.  And unlike the federal fisheries management councils, ASMFC is not bound by any law that requires them to actually end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks.

At the state level, we have various boards and commissions that operate in disparate ways.  Some actually make the rules.  Others, like the Marine Resources Advisory Council here in New York, only advise the rulemakers, although its decisions are given substantial weight.  But one thing that all of such state boards have in common is that they are dominated by members of the commercial and recreational fishing industries.  Anglers, or representatives of the general public, may hold seats, but rarely if ever have enough to control outcomes.

It’s a strange way to manage wildlife, and is nearly unique to salt water fish.  And maybe that’s why the management of salt water fish lags so far behind the management of fresh water fish, big game and waterfowl.

Just think about this.  Ducks and geese are managed by biologists at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  In making their decisions, they try to accommodate the user groups if the science allows, and there are “flyway councils” where hunters can express preferences for a long season with a smaller bag limit, or a shorter season with a little bigger bag.  But it’s the scientists, and not the sportsmen, who decide how many ducks will die.

If someone ever seriously suggested that bag limits, seasons and such should be set by an “Atlantic States Migratory Waterfowl Commission,” composed largely of hunters, hunting guides and folks owning sporting goods stores, with complete freedom to decide how many birds would be killed and could even allow them to be shot in the spring on their nests, they would be chased out of the room amid hoots of derision.  And duck hunters, who understand the need for good management, would be hooting louder than most.

But the sort of management that we would deem ridiculous, if applied to ducks or to deer, is the norm when salt water fish are involved.  And it’s as dysfunctional as one would suppose.

I was reminded of that earlier this week, when New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council sat down to consider striped bass.  As I took my place at the table, I was one of just three members—out of eleven present (not counting the Chairman)—who didn’t make their living in some way connected to the commercial fishing, recreational fishing or recreational boating industries.

The meeting was held at 2:00 in the afternoon, which means that most folks with typical nine-to-five jobs, no matter how much they cared aboujt the issues, couldn’t make it, while representatives of the fishing industry, and particularly the for-hire fleet, who don’t have too much to do on a windy January afternoon, had no problem filling the room.

The bass didn’t stand a chance.

It didn’t really matter that ASMFC had recommended that states allow anglers to kill just one striped bass at least 28 inches long.  ASMFC had also allowed “conservation equivalency,” so the trick for the folks in the room was to make two bass equal one (although the size would be changed).

It didn’t matter at all that something like 90% of the anglers up and down the coast who submitted comments to ASMFC, and every angler at the biggest hearing of all, here in New York, supported a one-fish bag limit.  One of the “recreational” MRAC members said, right on the record, that the decision shouldn’t be guided by the public’s opinion (although there was no objection when other members talked about polling the tackle shops for guidance, and the for-hires present were not ignored).

No one seemed particularly worried that ASMFC’s Technical Committee had advised, prior to the October Striped Bass Management Board meeting, that the size of any reductions attributable to “slot and trophy” size limits was very difficult to predict; no one cared that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s striped bass biologist echoed those concerns as the MRAC meeting began.

No one worried that calculations based on landings and the age structure of the striped bass stock in 2012 might not be appropriate for 2015, when above-average year classes had grown older and only the weak 2008, 2009 and 2010 year classes had recruited into the fishery.

Nor was anyone concerned that the striped bass stock was almost certainly going to fall below the biomass threshold this year, and become an “overfished” stock in need of recovery.

But there was plenty of concern about New York’s for-hire boats being able to compete with their rivals in neighboring states, even though the New York for-hire fleet so dominates its sector of the bass fishery that, in some years, it lands a higher poundage of fish than New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined, making a significant loss of business unlikely.

And there was lots of concern for the anglers who might want to kill more than one fish, who didn’t show up at the hearings or send in letters or comments, but who “should” be counted when the bass rules are set.

But the health of the striped bass, and its future?  Well, that wasn’t considered at all.

So MRAC agreed that two fish of differing sizes—one “slot” and one “trophy”—were really the equal of one 28-inch bass, and seemed to have no concern that such a limit might accelerate the striped bass stock’s decline.

And then they looked at the spawning stock up on the Hudson River—a spawning ground second only to Chesapeake Bay in importance—and decided that it, too, should die.

There were proposals on the table to limit the kill only to males, and leave the big, fecund females alone. 
When the DEC polled the anglers up in that region, fully two-thirds thought that sparing the females was the right thing to do. 

But there was another third who wanted to kill cows for cash prizes offered by tournaments held on the river.  So once again, MRAC in its wisdom decided that “you can’t take the tournaments away” from those people, and that they were “only” killing a few thousand bass (even if those bass were some of the largest and most important spawners).

So the bass, once again, were ignored.

Thus, when I read Professor Bolster’s op-ed, the words that he wrote rang too true.

A fishery management system that is focused on the users, and tries to make everyone happy, is destined to fail.

To succeed, you have to begin with the fish. 

No fishery, recreational or commercial, can long survive if there are insufficient fish to support it.  And because nothing in nature is constant, if a fish stock is going to survive through good times and bad, it must be maintained at levels high enough to assure that an adequate breeding population will remain after periods of adverse oceanographic conditions, and be able to restore the stock to health as quickly as possible when more favorable conditions return.

The current management system is to blame because, in most places, with respect to most species, it is not meeting that goal, but instead emphasizes short-term, if allegedly “sustainable,” yield over the long-term health of the stocks.

A long time ago, Art Neumann, one of the founders of Trout Unlimited, said

“If you take care of the fish, the fishing will take care of itself.“

That applies not just to trout, but to every fish that swims.

It was true when he said it, and will become ever more significant as we and our fisheries face an increasingly uncertain future.

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