Sunday, January 4, 2015


On Thursday, I took a look at what 2015's hottest fisheries issues were likely to be in Congress and at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  Today, I’m going to get a little more local, and take a look at issues that will be confounding managers in the areas covered by the regional fishery management councils.
I’m using the council regions for convenience more than for anything else.  While, in most cases, the big problems will be discussed at the council table, there are a few that fall outside the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service.  The road to the possible resolution of those matters runs through the several states, various federal bureaucracies, the courts and, perhaps, even other nations.

But to keep things simple at the start, I’ll begin up in New England.

New England Fishery Management Council

Up in New England, in 2015, it’s all going to be about cod.

With the Gulf of Maine stock down to three or four percent of sustainable levels, managers don’t have a lot of room to maneuver.  They need to cut harvest, and keep harvest low, until stocks rebuild for a while.

Interim measures, in place until next spring, have already slashed commercial landings and closed the recreational fishery.  

In 2015, fishermen will be allowed to catch just 386 metric tons of fish, down from a 1,500 metric ton quota in 2014 and much higher quotas in previous years.  Still, the 2015 quota is nearly double the 200 mt recommended by the National Marine Fisheries Service, meaning that there’s a very good chance that it is still too large to stop the decline.

Even so, fishermen are clamoring for access to waters currently closed to protect spawning areas, and are asking to be able to fish for species other than cod in areas closed to cod fishing—meaning that they would merely kill the codfish and dump them at sea, rather than including them in their landings.  

The New England Council would probably be receptive to such notions, and regional office of NMFS just might let them stand.

There are not going to be any happy endings here.  

The New England folks have abused the cod resource for too many years, and if it can be rebuilt at all, that rebuilding will take some time.  Even under the best imaginable scenario, some fishermen are going to lose their businesses, their boats and their homes.

The only question is whether, like the red snapper anglers down in the Gulf, they will seek a legislative solution to the harvest restrictions, and have their Congressional representatives put language in a reauthorized Magnuson Act that exempts the New England fishery from some provisions of federal law.

If that happens, fishermen are still going to lose their businesses, their boats and their homes, but the public is also going to lose the Gulf of Maine cod stock.

Maybe, we'll lose it forever.

Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is everything that New England isn’t.

Unlike New England, the Mid-Atlantic was an early adopter of hard harvest quotas, and currently has no stocks that are overfished or subject to overfishing.

Thus, it’s probably not surprising that the issue that will be ruffling most of the feathers in the Mid-Atlantic region arises out of abundance rather than scarcity.

There is absolutely no one in the Mid-Atlantic fishing or management community who believes that black sea bass are in trouble.  The population has rebuilt nicely, particularly in the states between New Jersey and Massachusetts, where every rockpile, wreck, reef and, most likely, every discarded beer can on the bottom of the ocean holds its share of fish.

There is also no one with any practical experience in the northeastern fishery who doesn’t realize that anglers are catching a lot of black sea bass, and taking a lot of them home.   

And there comes a time when, if enough people remove enough fish—even by taking just two or three or four at a time—from a stock, they cross the line and begin overfishing. 

Add in the fact that so little is known about the black sea bass that biologists can’t produce a stock assessment that can pass peer review, and you have the stage set for a very different kind of disaster.

Right now, unless the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Science and Statistics Committee decides to change course, anglers in the northeast will be facing the strictest black sea bass regulations in history—perhaps something like three fish at least 14 inches long, and a 60-day late-summer season—at a time when the black sea bass stock is fully restored and the fish are being caught everywhere.

It’s not going to go over well, and we can be pretty sure that the various boatmen’s associations and other industry groups that want to tear down the federal fishery management system are going to be pointing to black sea bass as another reason why things must change.

The fact that anglers are overfishing the stock won’t come out in the conversation; instead, we’ll see the usual attacks on the science and the data that we’ve come to expect from these folks, who love to scream that “The numbers are bad!” but never seem able to pull out a calculator and spreadsheets to show you what the “real” numbers are

That attack on the data will quickly morph into an attack on the same federal fishery management laws that rebuilt the stock in the first place.  

I can already picture one long-time leader of the bomb-throwing contingent getting so excited that he spits through his teeth as he tries to convince the crowd that “overfishing” is just a definition, and that if we pnly change the definition, we can even increase the kill, but won’t be “overfishing” anymore.

Actual consequences, to such folks, don't matter.

So, yes, this is a local issue, but it could, and probably will, have Magnuson impacts, too.

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

In the South Atlantic, there probably won’t be a single big issue that grabs everyone’s attention.  Instead, the snapper/grouper fishery will continue to produce a host of irritants which will keep both chat boards and editorial boards busy as someone, somewhere, will always be unhappy with something that’s going on.

The red snapper debate has cooled off quite a bit in the South Atlantic, but could flare up again.

The issue of how to manage unassessed stocks will continue to simmer, with one amendment based on recorded landings levels already sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service for final review and probable implementation.  Another, which would take the management of four uassessed snapper species out of the Council’s hands and hand it over to the State of Florida, is currently being considered.

But, pending something unexpected, the South Atlantic should not see too much controversy this year.

Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council

For a long time, the Gulf of Mexico seemed to be a pretty placid place--at least, once the "Redfish Wars" were done.

It was only on the rigs and reefs where problems and discontent stirred, and that primarily focused around red snapper.

That discontent has flared into an all-out war against the fishery management process.  These days, recreational red snapper fishermen may have actually outdone New England’s trawler fleet in terms of contempt for the law, disregard for the resource, anti-management rhetoric and efforts to cripple the federal management system.

Those efforts will certainly continue throughout 2015, as red snapper anglers do their best to cut the heart out of federal fisheries laws, at least as they apply to Gulf reef fish.

In the first part of this series, I already mentioned Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama), who is Hell-bent upon removing such reef fish from NMFS’ jurisdiction.  If he succeeds—and, given this Congress, he easily could—he may not only bring population levels of popular reef fish down to those of Gulf of Maine cod, but he might also become one of the first conservative Republican representatives to have real success reaching across the aisle to liberal northeast-coast Democrats, who will want to work closely with him to replicate his efforts up here.

There will also be efforts by Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana to extend their state jurisdiction out to nine nautical miles, just like Florida and Texas, so just in case Rep. Byrne fails, they’ll be able to overfish their reef fish anyway, without the feds butting in.

And probably more important than any of the above details, the very well-organized angling rights and angling industry organizations based on the Gulf coast will be doing their best to weaken the Magnuson Act in the upcoming reauthorization, so that fish everywhere along America’s shores can be as unprotected and as badly managed as those Gulf folks would like the red snapper to be.

It’s a real threat, and it’s coming this year.

Pacific Fishery Management Council

I don’t write about the Pacific much, but in a roundup such as this one, it would be wrong to leave them out.

I will be leaving out the Pacific Council, though, because this problem is out of its hands.

On the Pacific Coast, it's all about current climate conditions, which have caused a crippling drought that has impacted spawning salmon and led to conflicts between the interests of the salmon, which simply cannot survive without clean, cold-running streams, and the interests of various groups of people, including farmers and ranchers who draw irrigation water from the rivers, power companies who use the rivers to generate power and those of various desert communities, who have long used the rivers for drinking water.

Those issues all collided in a recent federal lawsuit decided by the Ninth Circuit of the Court of Appeals, in which a number of organizations representing water users in California’s naturally arid Central Valley sued the Department of Commerce over a NMFS decision that such users must modify their water use in order to provide adequate flows for endangered runs of salmon.

In this case, NMFS and the salmon won, with the court memorably stating that

“People need water, but so do fish.”
However, given climate trends, such problems are going to repeat themselves again and again, involving other rivers, other salmon and other groups of litigants.  It will only be a matter of time until Congressmen representing the irrigators and other users will attempt to legislate “fixes” that will subordinate the fate of the salmon to next year’s crop of almonds  or some homeowners’ “right” to water their lawns.

It may or may not come next year, but when it comes, the fish will be in serious trouble.

And even if the salmon escape with some of their rivers intact, overall warming trends in the ocean may ultimately condemn the southern runs to annihilation.  

Research suggests that those in California and Oregon may already be doomed, although they could hold out for a few more decades.

North Pacific Fishery Management Council

The North Pacific Council is one of the most successful fishery management councils in the country, with a strong commitment to conservation and a history of successfully managing its stocks.  In a lesson  that New England should learn, it has shown that strong conservation measures are the backbone of a profitable and sustainable commercial fishing industry.

That being the case, it isn’t surprising that the biggest problems in the North Pacific do not originate at the Council level.  Instead, as is the case farther south, they originate in the salmon rivers.

But in Alaska, there is plenty of water.  The problems are not caused by irrigators, or hydropower, or too many people living in places where water is too scarce to support major cities.  Instead, the salmon in Alaska are threatened by uses of the land, particularly mining, that threaten to pollute pristine streams.

The proposed project would be huge, and would produce an equally huge amount of tailings and other waste that easily could—and, over a long course of years, probably would—flow into and pollute rivers feeding Bristol Bay, which hosts what may be the largest wild salmon fishery in North America, and perhaps the world.

Recent executive action would protect Bristol Bay from development, but would not stop the Pebble Mine.  It appears that the Environmental Protection Agency is prepared to halt the project on Clean Water Act grounds, but given the makeup of the incoming Congress, there is no guarantee that it will not pass legislation overturning any EPA decision for purely ideological reasons.

For the moment, Bristol Bay's salmon remain at risk.

And the Pebble Mine is only one proposed project that threatens Alaskan salmon.  A number of others exist, particularly on southern Alaska rivers.  

It is not at all clear that anything will be done to prevent mine-caused damage before it occurs.

In contrast, our East Coast problems may be simpler to fix.

It is just a matter of finding the will to do so, and of not giving up merely because we lose the first round, or because the forces arrayed against usu appear overwhelmingly strong.

In the end, the truth has a way of getting out and even prevailing, if there are a few strong folks on hand, willing to tell its story and defend it from lies.

Let’s hope that such folks show up in 2015, because it's shaping up as a year to challenge us all.

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