Thursday, February 5, 2015
"GAMEFISH": CONSERVATION OR CON
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board met today, and to no one’s surprise, approved “conservation equivalency” measures that are likely to frustrate the goals of the management plan and assure that the stock becomes overfished at some time this year—if it isn’t already.
Members of the Management Board recognized the flaws in conservation equivalency throughout the discussion, but approved the measures anyway. That included smug representatives of the State of New Jersey, a so-called “gamefish” state that outlawed its commercial fishery but kept its commercial quota, and could use it to increase the “commercial” portion of New Jersey’s striped bass harvest by over 200,000 pounds this year—when we’re supposed to cut back.
To hear the “gamefish” advocates tell it, outlawing commercial harvest and sale is a sound conservation measure, that would assure the health of the resource well into the future.
But when commercial fishermen tell the same tale, they condemn “gamefish” status as nothing more than a “fish grab,” a naked effort to reallocate all of the striped bass resource to the recreational sector, garbed in a cloak of tattered virtue that anglers call “conservation.”
So who is right?
As an angler, I’m inclined to favor the former argument, but as someone who spends a lot of time working for effective fisheries management—and who tries to tell the truth in these columns I write—I have to admit that both sides go a little too far.
Start with just two basic truths.
ONE: The easiest way to rebuild an overfished stock is to kill fewer fish.
TWO: A fish doesn’t care who kills it; a striped bass (or anything else) is just as dead when killed by an angler as it is when killed by a commercial fisherman.
So shutting down commercial fisheries could lead to fewer fish being killed. So could shutting down recreational fisheries—or letting both recreational and commercial fisheries continue, while placing greater constraints on both of their harvests.
“Gamefish” has proven effective offshore, by ending the commercial harvest of Atlantic-coast sailfish and marlin, and it’s difficult to argue that it didn’t play a big role in the recovery of the Gulf of Mexico’s red drum population.
On the other hand, when it comes to striped bass, “gamefish” has a notably checkered record.
In some states, such as Maine and New Hampshire, it works. When those states closed their commercial striped bass fisheries, they didn’t reallocate their commercial quota to anglers, but instead allowed the fish “saved” from harvest to remain a part of the spawning stock biomass. That truly promotes conservation.
On the other hand, in Connecticut and New Jersey, “gamefish” doesn’t look like conservation at all.
New Jersey started the ball rolling many years ago when it initiated it’s “bonus fish” program shortly after ending the state’s commercial fishery. That program reallocated the state’s commercial quota to the recreational sector, provided that anglers participating in the program buy the requisite “bonus tag.”
The supposed logic behind the program was the sort of warped thinking that you often hear coming out of the Garden State’s fisheries managers—they had to create a mechanism that allowed local anglers to kill “New Jersey’s” striped bass—which represent the state’s commercial bass quota—from being transferred to and killed by commercial fishermen in other jurisdictions.
For those old enough to remember the Vietnam War, it was akin to the argument that “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
And the Jersey boys will tell you that it’s good conservation.
Of course, they won’t tell you that ASMFC’s striped bass management plan assigns each state a commercial quota based on its historical landings, and does not permit the transfer of quota between states. That would ruin the narrative, and anyway, scare tactics work better...
If they stuck just to the facts, folks might believe that the real motivation behind New Jersey’s “gamefish” law wasn’t conservation at all, and that it was merely a ploy to let New Jersey anglers kill some more stripers. And that wouldn’t look good in the papers at all…
Connecticut, on the other hand, eased into its misuse of “gamefish” far more slowly.
I think that it may have been the first “gamefish” state on the coast, adopting the measure back in the ‘50s. I know that I grew up in that state, and never recall at time when selling striped bass was legal.
Of course, that didn’t stop the “regulars” from selling their fish. There was a big seafood restaurant in the middle of Cos Cob where they showed up each morning, lining up at the kitchen door to sell the night’s catch before heading off to their day jobs; the place was notorious for buying poached fish, but in all of the time that I lived there, the law never once came around.
And there were plenty of country clubs, markets and such would gladly fence your illegal bass. There was at least one marina in Stamford that, for a few dollars, would actually ship your illegal bass to the Fulton Fish Market for you. Fulton was a “family” business back then, that paid folks in cash and didn’t keep perfect records, which pleased everyone at the time.
In those days, there was a 16-inch size limit and no bag limit at all, so an awful lot of “gamefish” were sold. By comparison, Connecticut’s current rules, which convert the state’s commercial quota into a “voucher” program that let anglers keep a total of 3,018 bass, with a size limit of just 22 inches, probably look pretty benign.
But at least in years past, the state tried to conserve a few fish. Today, its regulations encourage anglers to kill the entire commercial quota, making Connecticut’s “gamefish” law a sham effort at conservation.
“Gamefish” for billfish works because regulations governing anglers catch are actually far more restrictive today than they were when the sale of Atlantic-coast sailfish and marlin was outlawed.
“Gamefish” for Gulf red drum is also effective, because no one—including recreational fishermen—can kill the big spawners when they school up in the EEZ, where they spend most of their time.
But when we talk about “gamefish” being the striped bass’ salvation, we must keep Connecticut and New Jersey in mind. There’s not much salvation to be found in their waters…
Close to a decade ago, Pat Murray, then the Vice President (and currently the President) of the Coastal Conservation Association summed it all up in an elegant and eloquent little essay that he called “The Last Fish,” where he wrote
“It has often been said that commercial fishermen want to catch the last fish. But are we recreational fishermen trying to stop them simply because we want to catch the last fish?”
That really gets to the heart of the “gamefish” debate.
Ending the commercial harvest of striped bass would help the stock, IF—and only IF—the fish saved from commercial exploitation are “reinvested” into the stock, to reduce fishing mortality and allow more older and larger—and more fecund—striped bass to remain a part of the spawning stock biomass.
If we merely turn the bass “saved” from commercial harvest into “trophy fish,” “bonus fish,” “voucher” fish or anything else that can be legally killed, then “gamefish” status has no conservation value at all, and becomes just a con used to justify snatching fish from the commercials and giving them to the anglers to kill.
So let’s try to be honest.
There might be economic and policy arguments that justify reallocating the kill.
But if the kill’s only reallocated, and not materially reduced, it’s not, in any way, conservation.