Thursday, February 26, 2015


You remember Procrustes.

He was the old Greek innkeeper with the marvelous bed guaranteed to fit any guest.  Of course, Procrustes couldn’t adjust that big iron bed, so he had to work with the guest.  If that guest was too tall and hung over the mattress, he’d just lop off their legs at the ankles.  On the other hand, to avoid wasted space, short folks would be stretched ‘til they fit.

It’s an approach that today’s hoteliers have long since abandoned, but with fisheries managers, it’s still in vogue.

Fish differ, fisheries differ and the motives of fishermen differ.  There are “gamefish” and “food fish” and forage fish and fish with multiple roles.  But in today’s fisheries management world, they all are managed for yield.

Yield takes a number of different shapes.  There’s “maximum sustainable yield,” which is the most fish that can be caught on a long-term basis without doing harm to the stock.  Then there’s “optimum yield,” which starts with maximum sustainable yield, but might reduce it a bit to achieve some laudable goal.  And lately we’re hearing about something called “maximum economic yield,” which is pretty much whatever the person using the term happens to want it to be.

Adjectives vary, but the noun remains constant.  Fisheries management is all about yield—putting dead fish on the dock.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s actually the right approach when we’re dealing with fish caught mainly for food, fish such as New England groundfish, southern snapper/grouper, Pacific rockfish and most of the species managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council.  

Such fish support large commercial and recreational fisheries, and while anglers find them fun to catch, they’re valued more as food than for fight.

On the other hand, we have species such as bluefish, which are managed in an all-too-Procrustean fashion.  Bluefish are certainly edible, and some of them—the small ones that enter the bays in the spring, and the big, skinny racers that we run into offshore—taste pretty good, but most anglers agree that the fat, oily, bunker-fed fish that are caught in places such as Long Island Sound are better when caught and released.

In the case of such “gamefish” (a term I use here to denote fish caught primarily for sport rather than food, whether or not a legal commercial fishery also exists) which are frequently released, managing for dead fish on the dock makes little sense, as their primary use is pure recreation.  

In such case, managers should be striving to increase the abundance of fish in the water, in order to maximize angler “encounters” and improve the recreational experience.

Yet when one looks at Amendment 1 to the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Bluefish Fishery Management Plan, one finds that the opposite is true.  Instead of managing the recreational allocation (which constitutes a full 83% of the overall annual catch limit) to reflect the way anglers actually utilize and value the resource—as a largely catch-and-release fishery—the Mid-Atlantic Council evidences a Procrustean determination to get dead bluefish piled up on the dock, and actually penalizes anglers for not killing fish by transferring some of their allocation over to the commercial sector.

Looking at the fishery and the desires of the largest user group, such management makes no sense, but to managers who elevate yield over all other considerations, it makes all the sense in the world.

Of course, it goes the other way, too.

Black sea bass are one of the finest eating fish caught along the upper mid-Atlantic coast.  On the other hand, they don’t get too big or fight all that hard; you catch them to toss in the cooler.

In recent years the stock has been fully restored, a lot more anglers are fishing for them and managers have been struggling to keep landings anywhere close to the target.  

There are enough fish around that anglers often catch them by accident while fishing for something else, but actually going out to target black sea bass takes some time and effort; they’re usually caught on wrecks or hard bottom, which means running anywhere from three to twenty miles offshore, finding a wreck, anchoring properly and finally catching some fish.  The cost of fuel, alone, can be significant.

Thus, it doesn’t make a lot of sense when states such as New Jersey set a 3-fish bag limit for much of the summer, when most recreational fishermen are on the water, making it impractical for anglers to gear up and run offshore on black sea bass trips, and relegating the fish to a “bycatch” species (taking home just three 12 ½-inch sea bass also hardly makes sense as a “food fish” management measure).  

The effect is to shift most of the effort to the spring and fall months, when for-hire boats dominate the fishery. 

That becomes clear when New Jersey’s 2014 landings are compared to those in New York, which had more private boat-friendly regulations (8 fish bag, 13-inch minimum size, July 15-December 31 season); New Jersey’s private boats accounted for a mere 27% of the state’s sea bass landings, while private boats in New York accounted for over 70% of recreational landings.

In terms of yield, it doesn’t make any difference whether the black sea bass are caught by anglers on private boats or on for-hire vessels.  But if the goal is to give the overall fishing public the greatest possible access to the public black sea bass resource—as I believe is proper—it’s the New York regulations that get the job done.  Eight black sea bass is still a smallish bag limit when you run miles offshore, but it puts enough meat in the cooler to make it worthwhile—and when you’re fishing for “food fish” such as sea bass, that’s what it’s about.

And then there’s the fish we don’t usually eat—menhaden, river herring, hickory shad and the like—that are caught for bait and fertilizer and chicken feed, and killed in industrial numbers.  Managing them for sustainable yield might keep stocks intact (and would be a good first step we have not yet achieved where river herring and such are concerned), but completely ignores such species’ role in the ecosystem, where they serve as forage for everything from weakfish to whales.  

A harvest may be small enough to be sustainable may still be far too large to provide sufficient feeding opportunities for the array of marine predators that rely on such species.

To account for that problem, biologists are developing the concept of “ecological-based reference points” that are based not only on old-fashioned notions of yield, but also on still-developing concepts based upon a species’ role in the food web.

Here on the East Coast, environmental reference points have probably been most discussed in connection with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden, although even there, they have not yet been adopted, and have been facing some resistance from participants in the fishery.

Yet every fisherman knows that the adage “If you want to find fish, first find the bait” holds true, and it’s difficult to argue that we are going to need a robust forage base to support fish populations if managers are to succeed in rebuilding and maintaining stocks at healthy levels of abundance.

So even as we try to put old Procrustes and his bed built of yield out to pasture, perhaps it’s time to construct a new paradigm that, applied across species, can better guide efforts to manage our fisheries.

I suggest that we manage for yield’s mirror image; basing management actions not on the number of dead fish we can put on the dock, but on the number of live fish we need in the water to achieve our objectives.

It’s not too different from today’s approach of adopting a biomass target, but instead of basing such target on yield, with Bmsy—biomass at maximum sustainable yield—the objective, we must develop a new value—call it “optimum biomass,” for lack of anything better—that is based on the number of fish that we need in the water, not on sustainable kill.

For “food fish,” it won’t look much different, because when harvest’s the primary goal, managing for optimum yield remains a valid approach.

But for “game fish” biomass would be much higher, as managers would have to keep enough fish in the water to assure that anglers have ample opportunity to both encounter fish on a regular basis, and hook on to a big one every now and again.

And for forage fish, that optimum biomass would be the highest of all, as the “ecosystem services” provided by the relevant species would be elevated above any harvest, which would be restricted to whatever could be safely removed from the population after the ecosystems needs were fully met.

Such an approach, which shifts emphasis to live fish in the water rather than dead fish on the dock, would best serve the overall interests of the nation, providing food, recreation and healthy ecosystems.

Over the long term, it would undoubtedly provide the “maximum economic yield,” however one chose to define it, as well.

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