Sunday, March 29, 2015


I was paging through the news feeds that I receive every day, which provide information on everything from Gulf of Maine Cod to Gulf of Mexico snapper, when a piece on black sea bass hit a sensitive nerve.

“The black sea bass fishery—yes, the one that is completely rebuilt, and not overfished—is having its recreational quota cut by one-third.  I’ve opined on numerous occasions…on the gross mismanagement of this species, led by a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that has been curiously hell-bent on regulating the recreational sea bass fishing out of existence...
“With sea bass, the insanity of modern management schemes raises its ugly head.  The fishery is doing so well that anglers exceed their quota, and then face additional regulations that will cause them to exceed it again the following year.  The actual size of the stock, the fact that it is healthy and thriving, and the common-sense reasoning behind why quotas are being exceeded are (I would argue, purposely) disregarded to provide excuses for some in the federal agency to justify regulating recreational sea bass fishing out of existence.”
What struck me about the article, outside of the obvious errors—for example, the recreational black sea bass “quota” is not being “cut by one-third,” but remains the same as it was in 2014—is the belligerent and accusatory tone that is clearly intended to rile up anglers and make them feel aggrieved, rather than helping them to understand why regulators took the actions that they did, and why black sea bass are such a difficult species to manage.

The plain truth is that there are a lot of black sea bass in the ocean right now.  Warming ocean waters are allowing the fish to move into more northerly regions, in greater numbers than were previously the norm, and to colonize some northern New England areas where they were seldom if ever seen before.

That increased abundance at the northern end of the species’ range is leading to much higher landings, particulary in the area between New Jersey and Massachusetts.

However, it is also true that, while managers suspect that the black sea bass population is healthy, nobody knows that for sure.  There is no black sea bass stock assessment that has been deemed adequate for managing the species; the last stockassessment failed to pass peer review about three years ago.  

Instead, black sea bass abundance is estimated with a very rough proxy, the three-year rolling average of fish caught in the National Marine Fisheries Service’s annual trawl survey, a figure that is affected not only by the number of fish actually available, but also by the fact that black sea bass, which tend to hold close to rocks and other structure, are not too amenable to trawl sampling methods, a fact that affects the accuracy of the proxy figure.

In addition, a fairly recent tagging study conducted by theNortheast Fisheries Science Center suggests that there is not one unified black sea bass stock, but rather three substocks that remain effectively isolated during the summer, but mix, to greater or lesser degrees, during the winter.  There is no data to suggest whether all three substocks are equally healthy and experience equivalent levels of natural and fishing mortality, or whether both health and removal rates differ substantially from stock to stock.

Thus, to say that the black sea bass population is “healthy and thriving” isn’t really correct; managers think that it’s in pretty good shape, but no one knows for sure.  

In fisheries-speak, that’s called “scientific uncertainty.” Managers are required to consider the sources and extent of scientific uncertainty when annual catch limits are set, with greater uncertainty leading to greater precaution. 

If the Shorebeat author had even half-tried, he could have easily explained such facts to his readers, rather than repeating—twice in just two short paragraphs—the unproven and logically unlikely accusation that a federal agency was intent—“hell-bent,” in his words—on “regulating recreational sea bass fishing out of existence.”

But it’s pretty clear that rational exposition was never the author’s intent.  Like far too many writers—local writers, for the most part, but influential nonetheless—the Shorebeat columnist seems more intent on overthrowing the federal fisheries management system, and the rational and successful management that it has brought to every coast in the nation, and replacing it with either the kind of ponderous and generally ineffective management we have seen imposed by the states, working either on their own or through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, or perhaps the sort of freewheeling anarchy that we knew prior to 1996, when the Sustainable Fisheries Act imposed some meaningful discipline on the federal management system.

It’s too bad, because a lot of anglers trust what they read in the papers and magazines, and writers who pander to those anglers’ emotions, and to the short-term interests of their fishing industry friends, do a great disservice to the fish, to the public and to the anglers themselves.

Yet such writing is dismayingly common.

Fisheries management is, in the end, a science, no matter how much politics interferes, and in order to become effective advocates within the fisheries management system, anglers need to receive complete and accurate information.  

Many trust the angling press to provide it.

Writers who omit and distort data, and engage in rabble-rousing rhetoric in order to promote their individual goals, do their readers and followers a great disservice, and show great disrespect. 

It is nothing less than a complete betrayal of trust.

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