Sunday, March 8, 2015


Salt water fish are a public resource, held in trust by the nation on behalf of all of its citizens.

But as a practical matter, fisheries management has long been the province of a chosen few, with fishermen and representatives of the fishing industry dominating state, regional and national fisheries management bodies.  

Although there have been some notable exceptions, most particularly the recovery of species managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, such a fox-guarding-the-henhouse approach has hindered efforts to rebuild and conserve important fish stocks, as various user groups maneuver to protect their share of the harvest and avoid bearing the brunt of needed conservation measures.

I have held a seat on a federal fisheries management council, currently serve as a recreational adviser to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and also sit on New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, and so watched the dance play out at every level, where members of the fishing industry (recreational and commercial) do their best to avoid short-term economic reverses, even at the long-term health of various fish stocks.

As a result, a number of species, such as Atlantic cod, winter flounder and tautog have been badly depleted, while efforts to recover others have been made more difficult than they needed to be.

Sacrificing the health of a public resource for the short-term benefit of a relative handful of industry members is clearly bad policy, but it has been going on for a very long time.  However, there have been a lot of recent signs that the public is getting tired of the fishing industry stonewalling conservation efforts.

More importantly, both for those doing the stonewalling and for the remainder of the fishing community, who support needed conservation measures, people capable of affecting the process are beginning to move into activist roles.

That’s a good thing, when we see folks such as Ross Squire starting up the 1 @ 32” Pledge to help rebuild the striped bass population, or the hard work being done by more established groups such as Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, which is striving very hard down in the Chesapeake to do the same thing.  Fishermen, working in their own enlightened self-interest, have long been the most dedicated and most effective advocates for conserving our fisheries, and when they step into the arena, they bring with them not only a deep dedication to achieving their goals, but a real understanding of both the fish and the fisheries that they support.

Unfortunately, other fishermen’s opposition to conservation has had a very different effect.  They have created problems so intractable that they are beginning to attract people with little connection to either the fish or the fisheries involved, and led to solutions which may prove effective in the short term, but in the long term could end up severing the connection between the fish stocks and the folks with the greatest interest in keeping them healthy.

Once again it began, as most bad things do, up in New England.

For decades, the New England Fishery Management Council had done its best to maximize harvest and frustrate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, refusing to put hard caps on landings and relying on input controls such as days at sea that had proven ineffective at constraining harvest.  

Not surprisingly, most fish stocks had failed to respond to such cavalier management, and languished at overfished levels.

Finally, the latest reauthorization of the Magnuson Act, approved in the closing hours of Congress’ 2006 session, required that annual catch limits be placed on every species, including those caught in New England.  Not much later, a Groundfish Assessment and Review Meeting, generally referred to as “GARM III,” reported out a comprehensive assessment of northeastern groundfish stocks, finding that of all of the stocks assessed, only one—Gulf of Maine haddock—was neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.

Rebuilding New England groundfish appeared to be an impossible problem; after thirty years, fisheries managers were probably farther from solving it than they had been when they started.  In such an extreme situation, non-traditional solutions proposed by non-traditional stakeholders are often tried.

Such was the case in New England, where a national conservation group, the Environmental Defense Fund, began actively promoting the idea of “catch shares,” which would assign a portion of the harvest of each species to particular boats, which would have to stop fishing—or buy other boats’ shares—once their own quota was caught.

Catch shares can go a long way to assure fishermen’s accountability and help to keep them from exceeding annual catch limits, but in multispecies stocks such as those in New England, where fishermen using various gears, fishing from very different-sized boats, switch in and out of fisheries as the local abundance of various species change, there is also little question that the system can cause at least temporary hardships.

Fishermen fought it, claiming that it would put many of the smaller operators out of business due to insufficient quotas of certain key stocks.  When some sort of catch share program appeared inevitable, they put their own particular, non-conformist New England spin on the system by first dividing up the overall quotas into multiple “sectors” before assigning them to the boats, and allowing fishermen to opt out of catch shares entirely if they’re willing to accept the resultant limits. 

But the bottom line is that catch shares are now the rule in New England.  That probably would not be the case had the New England fishermen, and their representatives on the New England Fishery Management Council, not refused to respond responsibly to the decline in groundfish populations.  

Had they adopted hard quotas a couple of decades ago, set at levels recommended by NMFS’ biologists, there is a very good chance that the stocks would have responded, making it easier for managers to reject new approaches such as catch shares.

So commercial fishermen in New England effectively opened Pandora’s Box when they let groundfish stocks crash, and then stubbornly refused to rebuild them.  It’s not surprising that they didn’t like what flew out; what is surprising is that down in the Gulf of Mexico, recreational red snapper fishermen didn’t learn from what happened up north.

The red snapper situation wasn’t quite analogous; the stock had been badly overfished, but was responding to management and rebuilding nicely.  A catch share program had successfully ended commercial overfishing, but the recreational harvest was still out of control.

As often happens with rebuilding stocks, increasing abundance made it easier for anglers to catch a lot more fish, and led to the counterintuitive situation where regulations grow more restrictive as fish become more abundant, and poundage-based quotas fill more quickly as fish are allowed to live long enough to grow larger, and thus weigh more when caught. 

That’s an old story here in the Mid-Atlantic; we went through a decade of struggle with summer flounder before finally reaching a sort of equilibrium perhaps two years ago, and we’re in the middle of the same sort of conundrum with black sea bass right now.  

But here, despite the inevitable howls of complaint from both fishermen and fishing-related businesses, fisheries managers have managed, and are still managing, to work through the issues and find reasonable solutions.

In the Gulf, angling interests who once positioned themselves as champions of conservation looked just like groundfishermen up in New England, working at the Council level to remove any semblance of precaution from fishery management plans in order to maximize the recreational kill.  The upshot was a court decision in a lawsuit brought by commercial fishing interests which required NMFS to require effective accountability measures for recreational red snapper fishermen.   

Unfortunately, recreational anglers didn’t take the court decision as a signal to support more conservative management.  Instead, they somehow translated their overfishing of their recreational allocation (which constituted 49% of all red snapper landings, and was effectively at parity with the commercial allocation) as evidence that they were being picked on, with Bill Bird, then Vice Chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association’s Government Relations Committee, complaining that the decision demonstrated that

“Recreational angling is simply not on equal footing in federal fisheries.  The focus of management there has developed into private ownership for profit, and counting every fish.  It’s a no-win situation for us.  As a country, we must consider if keeping the recreational fishing public off the water is the desired outcome for our federal fisheries policy because, honestly, that is exactly what this is leading to.”
Although, honestly, it was not leading to that at all.  There were, and still are, plenty of other fish in the Gulf for anglers to pursue; no one was chasing anglers off the water.  Those anglers could even still pursue red snapper in state waters, where federal rules did not apply.

And, of course, anglers did pursue red snapper in state waters.  In Texas, they could fish for snapper all year, and kill more and smaller fish than the feds allowed.  In other states, anglers successfully lobbied their fisheries managers to extend their seasons and go out of compliance with federal rules.

That was all well and good as far as the anglers went, but those fish killed in state waters were counted against the overall quota, and led to ever more restrictive federal regulations.  That hit for-hire vessels disproportionately hard, because they held federal fishing permits and had to abide by the federal rules, even within state waters.  As a result, when the feds imposed a 9-day season last year, the for-hires were badly hurt.

Once again, we had an extreme situation that led to extreme solutions.

Just like the New England trawlers, the Gulf red snapper anglers wouldn’t voluntarily clean up their act.  So again, in stepped EDF, which supported “sector separation”—creating separate subquotas for private boat anglers and the for-hire fleet—that would better assure accountability for at least part of the recreational community.

And predictably, the private boat anglers rebelled, but they couldn’t—or perhaps more correctly, wouldn’t—come up with ideas that would constrain their harvest without splitting the recreational quota.  They were still intent on killing more fish. 

So in the end, the Gulf Council came up with what is generally referred to as “Amendment 40.”

Amendment 40 would split the total recreational allocation, giving private boats nearly 58% of the landings and reserving the rest for the for-hires, which could then fish under their own regulations and not be hindered by overfishing in the private boat sector. 

Predictably, the private boat folks railed against the amendment, but given their unwillingness to support meaningful measures to constrain their harvest, what choice did managers have?

Once again, they forced Pandora to open her box, with the predictable results.

More and more, we are seeing such things happening all along the coast.

In previous posts, I have written about New York’s proposed regulation to extend its winter flounder season fivefold, even though that could well extirpate some local populations.  It appears that I was not the only person concerned with the flounder’s fate; since I wrote that post, a coalition composed of a number of national conservation groups have expressed its concern to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and have gone so far as to file a Freedom of Information request seeking a rational basis for such proposed regulation.

It’s not hard to imagine that the same people might choose to file a lawsuit if the proposed regulation is adopted; if that occurs, it could completely change the paradigm of how fish are managed in New York waters.

Once again, the box will be opened, and folks might not be pleased with what flies out.

And last week, there were two events that should have caught everyone’s notice.

It appears that in rejecting the 200 metric ton quota recommended by biologists, and instead setting the 2015 quota at 386 metric tons, the highest quota that the law might possibly allow, the New England Fisheries Management Council attracted unexpected attention, and caused Pandora’s Box to open again.

Failure to comply with the petition could easily result in a lawsuit, and no one knows where that might lead. 

However, the action that should really get fishermen worried is NMFS’ issuance, just last Tuesday, of a “90-day finding” that a petition to list the common thresher shark under the Endangered Species Act is entitled to additional consideration.

A 90-day finding doesn’t mean that the shark would be listed, but it does mean that further research leading to a formal decision on whether or not to list the shark is appropriate.  If, by chance, the thresher is listed, the impact on both commercial longline fisheries and recreational shark fisheries could be substantial, perhaps crippling.

Even so, it’s not the proposed listing that should have fishermen worried, but who filed it.  Because it wasn’t filed by one of the mainstream conservation groups that have worked in the fisheries arena for years, groups that know the fish, the fisheries and the fishermen themselves.  It wasn’t one of the smaller conservation groups that pops up from time to time.

Instead, it was filed by the Friends of Animals, an out-there-on-the-fringe “animal rights” outift that opposes hunting, fishing and trapping—and even your local butcher shop—and has declared that

“We at Friends of Animals oppose the use of animals for human consumption.  Campaigns to make the public believe that the grisly business of turning fish, birds, and mammals into food can be done in a “humane” fashion send the wrong message…”
These are certainly not the people who we want engaged, in any way, in the fisheries management process…

Yet when we fishermen—recreational or commercial—fail to fulfill our responsibility to rebuild, conserve and properly manage our living marine resources, we open the door to the outsiders, including the crazies who truly would push us all off the water if they could.

So in the end, whether we like it or not, we have a choice.  

We can  work with each other, with fisheries managers and with responsible conservation organizations to manage our fish for abundance, and to keep our ecosystems intact and healthy.

Or we can keep going the way that we’re heading in many places, and throw wide the lid on Pandora’s Box, letting who knows what troubles out into our world.

Maybe you’re willing to take that chance because you recall that the first time that box opened, Hope remained inside.  

But if you could speak with Pandora I think she’d tell you that, overall, opening the box at all was a pretty bad idea.

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