Thursday, January 1, 2015


Given the way things usually go in the fisheries management world, 2014 wasn’t that bad a year.

Forage fish management took some solid steps forward on both the east and west coast, bluefin tuna got some needed protections down in the Gulf of Mexico and, on the whole, the various regional fishery management councils didn’t do anything foolish to put fish stocks at risk, although many had chances to do so.  

No bad legislation made it through Congress, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission got a few steps closer to managing striped bass stocks the right way.

Of course, some unfortunate things happened, too.  The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas increased the quota for western stock bluefin, and again failed to take meaningful action to protect overfished sharks.  ASMFC seems intent on imposing the death sentence on the southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder, extending the season fivefold on a stock that faces extirpation from many waters where it recently thrived.  And conservation advocates everywhere lost an important friend when Senator Mark Begich failed to win re-election up in Alaska.

But even when we consider the bad, we stand in a better place than we did just one year ago.

But enough of looking backwards.  What matters more than where we came from is where we now have to go.

In this essay, I’ll take a broad-brush look at what’s happening in Congress and at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  Next time, we’ll take a look at the Councils.

In Congress

The biggest fight is going to take place in Congress, as legislators convene to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which currently governs all fishing in the federal waters of the United States.  

Last year, we saw two very different visions for Magnuson, one embodied in H.R. 5742, the so-called “Empty Oceans Bill” sponsored by Representative Doc Hastings (R-Washington), that would have sacrificed the health of fish stocks in the name of short-term economic benefits, and S. 2991, a very solid bill sponsored by Mark Begich (D-Alaska) that would have kept the most critical portions of Magnuson intact and even moved conservation efforts ahead just a bit.

The mid-term elections, including the change of control in the Senate, has shuffled the Congressional deck quite a bit, so it’s very possible that the reauthorization effort is going to start from scratch in both houses. 

The good news is that, in the House of Representatives, Doc Hastings has retired, and it appears that the reauthorization effort will be spearheaded by Don Young (R-Alaska).  Thus, “Empty Oceans” is pretty well dead, because when it comes to fisheries issues, the folks up in Alaska “get it.”  Unlike those New Englanders who are trying very hard to kill the last cod, Alaskans understand that rebuilding and conserving fish stocks is good for business as well as the ecosystem, and  support strong federal fisheries laws.

It is all too easy to envision a compromise in which an otherwise strong law is reauthorized, but with carveouts that exempt Gulf reef fish, and very possibly other stocks, from its provisions.

That risk becomes more apparent when one looks to the Senate, where Marco Rubio (R-Florida) will almost certainly chair the relevant committee.  Coming not only from a red snapper state, but from a state where the fishing and boating industries, as well as a big anglers’ rights group, have deeply penetrated the political system, Sen. Rubio can be expected to produce a bill that elevates short-term harvests and economic gains above the long-term health of fish stocks, at least so far as Florida and greater Gulf of Mexico interests are concerned.  

At the same time, Sen. Rubio had very significant input on Sen. Begich’s bill, which was a good one, so once again the stage is set for a bill that is basically solid, but panders far too much to various local interests.

It is going to be a very difficult to avoid that scenario, particularly when there is no big angling organization out there with the courage to stand up and put the fish first, particularly if red snapper are involved.  But folks are still going to have to try, and maybe, with luck, things won’t turn out too badly.

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted new fishing mortality reference points for striped bass last October, it followed up with a weak management plan—Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass—that is slightly more likely to fail than to succeed in achieving its goal of reducing fishing mortality to the target level by the end of 2015.

Even so, imposing a one-fish bag limit and 28-inch minimum size on anglers fishing everywhere but in Chesapeake Bay represented real progress, and could only help a striped bass population that, according to the Update of the Striped Bass Stock Assessment Using Final 2012 Data, is almost certain to slip below the spawning stock biomass threshold and become overfished this year—if it hasn’t fallen  that far already.

Anglers overwhelmingly supported a one-fish bag and a size limit of no less than 28 inches (many wanted to see it higher).  However, just as we saw in 1995, when the striped bass stock was first declared rebuilt, and in 2003, when Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass was adopted, there is a very clear split between those anglers and many in the recreational fishing industry—today, mainly the party boats and “six-pack” charter operations—who insist on keeping the kill high.

The for-hire fleet dug in and fought like badgers to defeat the single-fish bag.  After appearing to fail at the ASMFC, they turned their hunger on the states, insisting that they take advantage of the “conservation equivalency” provision of Addendum IV and devise regulations which will let the for-hires kill two striped bass rather than one.

To say that it’s an inexact process is kind.  

To prove “conservation equivalency,” states have to look back at past striped bass landings, then, assuming that weather, angler activity and the size and availability of fish doesn’t change from one year to the next, put together a set of regulations—including a 2-fish bag—which still would reduce harvest by at least 25%.  

Then, next week, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee will meet to determine whether such alternate regulations really are “equivalent” to one 28-inch fish.  

Finally, in February, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board will meet to pass final judgment on each state’s proposal.

Needless to say, there’s a certain amount of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” going on.  If Rhode Island wants New Jersey to approve its regulations, it would do well not to vote against New Jersey’s…

Striped bass anglers are pretty upset by the whole process, and are trying to get their states to stick with the one @ 28” program.  But the for-hires have better organization and better political contacts on their side, and are likely to win.  

Yet that won’t necessarily end the debate.

As I mentioned earlier, striped bass stock will almost certainly slip into “overfished” territory this year.  And if that can be captured in an interim stock assessment—or if things don’t improve by the time the next benchmark assessment is done—additional management measures will be triggered, including a requirement to rebuild the biomass to target levels within a decade.  So anglers still have something to fight for.

Will that fight actually happen?

A lot will depend on whether anglers stick around, and don’t just throw up their hands, if the for-hires win on equivalency.
Those are the big, broad-based debates.

Next Sunday, I’ll take a look at some more localized issues that are going to have a big impact on anglers, and may well influence events outside their immediate regions.

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