Thursday, January 22, 2015


I recently perused an editorial in The Seafood News, that discussed the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs the harvest of fish in federal waters.

The article, written for a commercial fishing audience, warned readers that they might lose ground to recreational fishing interests in the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson Act.

But perhaps because it was written for a commercial fishing audience, the editorial took a very one-dimensional view of fisheries management and the fisheries themselves.  And that sort of approach, looking out through a tunnel that doesn’t open up enough to permit you to view anyone’s thoughts and concerns but your own is a very dangerous and self-deceptive thing to do, particularly when dealing with a publicly owned resource.

For example, the editorial noted that

“For many years, the precepts…were fixed.  Fisheries must be managed on the basis of the best available science to create the optimum yield in national benefits, defined as both commercial and recreational opportunities.  Yet since most fisheries in the 200 mile federal waters were commercial, and producing seafood for public consumption was deemed a national interest, the most visible work of the councils has been in managing the commercial fishery…
“But as some catches were ratcheted down and quotas reduced, suddenly the recreational fishery which had been less visible reacted to being caught by these limits…
“For the Magnuson reauthorization that is currently on the table, the recreational groups want to explicitly change the allocation formulas based on historical share of the catch, and instead go to a formula based on expanding the share going to the recreational industry i.e. those making the outboards, guides, charter businesses and others who support lobbying to gain additional economic advantage…”
Those statements are unquestionably true.  In fact, the “recreational industry”, as represented by the organizations that contributed to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, A Vision for Managing America’s Salt Water Recreational Fisheries, clearly state, in only slightly different words, that “the most visible work of the councils has been in managing the commercial fishery,” and that’s why they’re looking for change.

I don't belittle the editorial’s concerns with respect to shifting allocations from commercial to recreational users.  No one wants to give up anything that they already have, and it’s only human to want a little more.  Allocation of resources is a zero-sum game, and when someone else is given a little more, that means that someone else is going to be getting a little less than they’re used to.

Reallocation shouldn’t be done casually, or used to cover up some other, perhaps deeper flaw in the fishery management system.

And yet…things change over time.

The editorial laments that “the recreational groups want to explicitly change the allocation formulas based on historical share of the catch” in favor of a newer approach.  But that can only lead to the question, “Why should the fish caught today, in the second decade of the 21st Century, be distributed in the same manner that they were in the closing decades of a century already gone?”

The number of fishermen—both recreational and commercial—have changed, the number of fish available to those fishermen have changed and the laws governing how those fish may be harvested has changed.  The temperature of the ocean itself has changed, along with the makeup of the biotic communities that dwell there.  So why should allocation remain the only unchangeable constant?

A few years ago, at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, managers were discussing the possible reallocation of scup, a small marine panfish.  Managers had been wildly successful in restoring the stock, and the commercial fleet was unable to land its entire quota; if it ever did so, it would have pushed prices for scup straight through the floor.  Yet recreational regulations were still quite restrictive (they have since been substantially relaxed).  The commercial boats received nearly 80% of the allocation, and a good argument could be made for moving some of the unused commercial fish over to the recreational side.  Yet the very idea met with strong commercial opposition, with one of the arguments being that, if the commercials could ever expand their market for scup, they’d need the currently unused fish to fill new demand.

That’s just pigheaded, in more ways than one…

On the other hand, if you look at the red snapper fishery down in the Gulf of Mexico, you see the recreational community attempting to use reallocation as a way to compensate for the consequences of their own chronic overfishing and their support of state regulations which allow them to harvest far more snapper than federal rules—or the accepted science—would allow. 

Which just proves that anglers can be pigheaded, too.

In fact, anglers will fight about allocation even among themselves.  At the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, there was a long and acrimonious battle about allocating the recreational summer flounder quota among the various states.  For many years, ASMFC used an allocation scheme based on harvest in 1998, when the stock was still rebuilding.  That resulted in New Jersey getting the lion’s share of the harvest—nearly 40 percent of all recreational landings—at the expense of every other state.  As the stock became fully recovered, summer flounder, including some of the largest individuals in the population, began recolonizing waters at the northern end of their range; at that point, “allocations based on historic share of the catch” no longer reflected the reality on the water.  Even so, it took managers nearly a decade to shake off their fascination with the past and come up with new and creative approaches to allocation that were appropriate to the conditions that exist today, and not at the end of the last century. 

But fisheries management should not be about pleasing everyone, or maintaining the status quo.  It should be about doing what is in the best interests of the public as a whole.  

To that end, a couple of years ago the National Marine Fisheries Service commissioned a report on allocation that looks at the issue from multiple perspectives and makes a lot of sense, and helps to explain why “allocations based on historic share of the catch” may—or may not—need to be changed.

But allocation wasn't the editorial's only concern.  It opined that

“NOAA sometimes shows very poor and biased understanding of recreational vs. commercial interests.
“For example, in a MAFAC white paper on recreational interests they state
“The recreational sector is fundamentally different from the commercial sector in several ways, including their motivations for participating in the fishery.  Commercial fishermen prosecute the fishery primarily for personal economic gain.  They want to catch as many fish as possible, as efficiently as possible, in order to maximize profit.  Conversely, recreational fishermen fish for enjoyment, to provide fish for their families, for the challenge of catching specific species, and for spending quality time with family and friends.
“The description is a total myth.  First, the ‘recreational sector’ is as business oriented as any in our society, and the money and lobbying from these organizations comes from the businesses – from boat and motor manufacturers to guides and lodge operators – who are as profit oriented as anyone else.
Once again, we see the author of the editorial viewing the world through a tunnel constructed out of his personal biases, the greatest of which appears to be an inability to distinguish between recreational fishermen and the recreational fishing industry, which are really two very different beasts.

To argue that recreational fishermen are not “fundamentally different” from commercial fishermen is nothing less than inane.  

By the simple virtue of their occupation, commercial fishermen intend to come away from any trip on the water with more money in their pockets than they had before.  The faster that they can catch their annual quota (market conditions permitting), and in doing so minimize their expenses for fuel, ice and other expenses, the more money that they will have.  Recreational fishermen, on the other hand, must spend money to go out on the water, and often engage in catch and release to extend the time that it takes to harvest their catch limit, thus intentionally increasing the cost of any fish that they bring home. 

That is a pretty big difference, and makes it pretty clear that recreational fishermen are not “profit oriented” at all.

On the other hand, members of the recreational fishing industry, just like members of the commercial fishing industry, are in it for the money.  And because of that, they often find themselves in conflict with recreational, as well as commercial, fishermen.

That’s certainly true in the case of striped bass management today where, in many of the states (including here in New York), the primary conflict isn’t between recreational and commercial fishermen, but between recreational fishermen, who are seeking to conserve striped bass and advocate conservative size and bag limits, and the recreational fishing industry—primarily in the form of headboats and “six-pack” charters—who believe that they can make more money if the regulations allow them to kill more striped bass, regardless of the impact of that on the stock.

And still, the editorial goes on.

“Secondly, most fishermen are not simply there for a paycheck.  They could earn more money elsewhere.  Instead, they are devoted to a way of life that is satisfying, independent, and deeply connected to the ocean.  There is no difference between an individual recreational and commercial fisherman’s love for the outdoors.”
Maybe there’s no difference between some “individual recreational and commercial fisherman’s love for the outdoors,” but there can be a real difference between the way recreational and commercial fishermen look at the resources that live there.  

To most commercial fishermen—here on the East Coast, at least—fish are “product” to be caught, processed and turned into money.  They tend to lack any sense of precaution, and instead seek to harvest right up to—and sometimes (particularly in New England) beyond—prudent limits, without providing any sort of buffer for scientific or management uncertainty.  That is a trait that they share with members of the recreational industry, who are also trying to monetize public resources and generally support the highest possible kill.

Recreational fishermen, on the other hand, tend to place more value on living marine resources and, depending on the species involved, may release far more than they kill.  

Individual fish are more valued—sometimes even romanticized just a bit—and shown more respect.  That’s not true of every recreational fisherman; we have, regrettably our fish hogs and our slobs.  However, anglers typically show more reverence for their quarry than those that put a price on its head.

That’s why, in most cases, it is the anglers and not the commercial fishermen (or the recreational fishing industry) who are at the forefront of conservation efforts.

On the other hand, some fish can be eaten, too.  The editorial gets that part right, but seems somewhat confused about the details when it says

“Third, the public benefit of the United States seafood resources is in providing an import [sic] and unique source of food to the American people, and even though commercial operations have to be profitable to exist, they use a public resource for a larger public purpose:  providing fish and seafood to eat.
“It is this aspect of the commercial recreational divide that is so often overlooked.  Why should a few hundred thousand people lock up access to striped bass along the Atlantic coast and prevent the 100 million Americans living near the coast from eating that fish at restaurants.  A national resource should be available to most Americans.“

Although I believe that the editorial meant to say that seafood is an “important and unique” source of food for Americans, perhaps the author made an unconscious slip when he stated that seafood eaten in this country was “import and unique” because, in fact, about 90% of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported.  

In the overall scheme of things, the amount of fish eaten by Americans that it actually caught by American commercial fishermen isn’t really all that important at all—although it’s pretty important to American commercial fishermen that somebody buys and hopefully eats what they catch.

And the editorial seems to completely ignore the fact that fish harvested by recreational anglers are used for food, too.

Not to mention the fact that the comment about “a few hundred thousand people [locking] up access to striped bass along the Atlantic coast and [preventing] the 100 million Americans living near the coast from eating that fish” is a complete non sequitur.

Although there are people and organizations who seek to end the commercial striped bass fishery on the entire Atlantic coast, to date, they have not succeeded.  

In 2013, 6,042,022 pounds of wild striped bass were landed by fishermen on the Atlantic coast.  That’s not an inconsiderable number of fish, and while it (as well as recreational landings) are going to be reduced a bit going forward, it’s about as much, when combined with recreational landings, that can be safely killed without endangering the long-term health of the stock.

That means that each of those “100 million Americans” would be able to eat about 0.06 pounds—a little under one ounce—of striped bass every year, if the fish was evenly distributed, which pretty well explains why everyone can’t go out and buy some wild striped bass for themselves—even if they all wanted to do so.

Sometimes, managing a scarce resource for those who choose to harvest it for their own use just makes sense, from both and economic and a management perspective.  Although in the case of striped bass, the commercial folks get to sell some fish too.

All that I've written above is just a long way of saying that when we look at fisheries issues, we must always try to take an inclusive view.  No matter whether we’re commercial fishermen, anglers, fisheries managers or conservation advocates—or some combination of such folks—it’s always a mistake to think that our interests are the only ones that matter, and our viewpoints the only ones that hold any validity.

Fish are a public resource, and should be managed for the overall public good.

Which usually means that we should start by doing what’s right for the fish themselves.

For healthy stocks benefit all of us.

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