It should be stamped out whenever possible.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
IN PURSUIT OF IGNORANCE
Over the past twenty years, efforts to manage marine fisheries have consistently improved.
Back in 1995, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission first declared striped bass to be “recovered,” the virtual population analysis used to support that decision was something very new. It was probably the first such population model used to assess the health of a major East Coast fish population, and was met with substantial suspicion.
Since then, the striped bass population model has evolved into a much more sophisticated and far more accurate tool for assessing and managing the stock, while the modeling process has been used effectively to rebuild and manage other mid-Atlantic stocks such as summer flounder and scup.
The expansion of the population modeling process, and its resultant role in stock assessment and management, could not have occurred without a similar expansion of knowledge with respect to the natural history of important fish stocks and how such stocks are impacted by fishermen.
Thus, after so much progress has been made, it’s always disconcerting to see a group of fishermen try to limit the amount of information available to fisheries managers, and turn back the clock to the days when even the best fisheries management efforts were beset with real ignorance with respect to the number of fish landed and such landings’ effect on the stocks.
Yet that is exactly what’s happening right now down in North Carolina.
Not long ago, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission, responding to a law passed by the state legislature, proposed a rule that would require the state’s for-hire boats—party boats and charter boats alike—to maintain logbooks recording their catch and their landings.
Although validating the accuracy of such self-reported information can pose a real problem, such a rule would hopefully provide state regulators with a window into for-hire landings, and perhaps provide a bit of a check-and-balance against the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Recreational Information Program, which is currently used to evaluate recreational catch.
However, the Cape Fear Captains’ Association, a group of charter boat captains who operate along the southern North Carolina coast, apparently doesn’t want the state to know what they are landing. That Association has started an on-line petition opposing the proposed logbook rule.
According to the Carteret News-Times, a local newspaper, the Cape Fear Captains’ Association opposes a logbook requirement not because it would provide bad information to regulators, but because they deemed the rule “invasive” and feared that
“the data will be used to create more restrictive regulation.”
In other words, they fear that if regulators knew what they were really catching, new rules put in place to conserve fish stocks might require them to catch a bit less.
One charter boat captain, Britt Shackleford, who serves as president of North Carolina Watermen United, told the News-Times that he objects to a logbook requirement because
“faulty data and faulty fishing models derived from it has led to tightened restrictions on a number of species, including tilefish, sharks, grouper, red drum and spotted seatrout. He said he thinks the [Division of Marine Fisheries] has failed to fulfill their charge of managing fishing resources for all user groups, and sees no reason to ‘help them hurt me.’”
But what Shackleton doesn’t explain is how a logbook with supposedly accurate information recorded by the charter captains themselves could hurt him. After all, if the problem underlying regulations that are supposedly hurting his business comes from “faulty data,” wouldn’t data that he and his fellow captains supply—data that assumedly wouldn’t be “faulty”—improve the data collection process and thus help avoid “faulty fishing models” that lead to “tightened regulations”?
There seems to be a logical disconnect here…
But such disconnect isn’t unique to North Carolina.
A decade before the Cape Fear Captains’ Association initiated a petition against mandatory logbooks, folks in my part of the world were already trying to obscure landings data from federal regulators.
In 2005, the United Boatmen of New York and New Jersey, an organization which primarily represented the party boat industry, joined with the New York Fishing Tackle Trade Association contemplated organizing a boycott, which would deny information to NMFS’ Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey, the forerunner to the current MRIP program.
Capt. Dennis Kanyuk of United Boatmen tried to justify such boycott by saying
“There is a complete failure in the management of recreational fisheries, from the inaccurate catch and effort information provided at the primary level by MRFSS, to the fisheries managers using these estimates as absolute numbers for quota management when they well know MRFSS estimates are not designed to be used in this manner. NMFS has shown a complete lack of interest in putting any serious effort into correcting any of these problems or dealing with the recreational sector in general.”
While Kanyuk, along with the organizations considering the boycott, apparently thought about doing so because they didn’t like MRFSS harvest estimates and the resulting regulations, they also didn’t seem to provide viable sources of alternative data that fishery managers could use to determine what anglers were actually landing.
“In particular, [United Boatmen and NYFTTA] claim the National Marine Fisheries Service…has failed to investigate the feasibility of slot limits in certain fisheries. It [sic] also claims the agency has yet to address the problem of ever-increasing size limits in many recreational fisheries; and has failed to use data generated by the for-hire recreational logbook and trip reports.”
The first two points—the lack of slot limits and the fact that size limits were increasing in some fisheries—pretty well sum up the recreational industry’s justification for boycotting NMFS; like their 2105 counterparts in North Carolina, they didn’t want to cooperate with a data collection system that might result in greater restrictions on their landings, and apparently thought that keeping fisheries managers ignorant of what was actually being caught would result in more favorable rules.
However, unlike the folks in North Carolina, for-hire captains in New York and New Jersey seemed willing to embrace a system of logbooks and trip reports filled out not by impartial observers, but by those very captains themselves.
The problem is, while both MRFSS and MRIP estimates may lack precision, the potential magnitude of the error can generally be calculated. On the other hand, the precision of logbook and trip report data is very difficult to figure out.
However, some recent numbers from the New York striped bass fishery may provide a clue.
New York’s party and charter boats are required to report every striped bass (and every other fish) caught by their passengers. The vessel trip reports filed by such vessels state that they harvested exactly 12,309 striped bass in 2013, and about half of that—6,477 fish—last season.
Which sounds pretty good, until you realize that NMFS estimated that the same boats caught 234,650 striped bass in 2013 and 125,558 bass last year. In both cases, the NMFS estimate was about twenty times higher than what the vessel trip reports show.
One set of estimates has to be wildly wrong. Maybe both are imprecise. The measure of precision in the NMFS estimate, called the “Percent Standard Error,” is 16.8% for 2013, and 39.1% for last season; the latter, in particular, is fairly large, but nowhere near large enough to provide an estimate that is twenty times the actual harvest.
So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that the error came from the logbooks and trip reports, which is what the New York captains wanted NMFS to use.
So we see some differences between the industry folks in New York and New Jersey, and those in North Carolina. The former disliked NMFS harvest estimates, and would have regulators rely on their logbooks. The latter was willing to live with NMFS numbers, but didn’t want logbooks at all.
But those differences pale when compared to the one thing that made all of those folks alike—their desire to deny fisheries managers sources of the information required to properly conserve and manage fish stocks.
But ignorance is nobody’s friend, particularly when that ignorance is used as an excuse to perpetuate the mismanagement of our most important fisheries.