Sunday, May 31, 2015


Unless something unexpected happens, the week of June 1 should see the House of Representatives debate H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fishery Management Act

It’s a bad bill that, if passed, would alter the current disciplined, science-based approach to restoring and managing America’s fisheries, and replace it with a much less structured system that would give fisheries managers the “flexibility” to subordinate biological realities and the long-term health of fish stocks to transient economic considerations, and remove all urgency from the process of ending overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks.

He goes on to assure his constituents that even if H.R. 1335 is passed,

“H.R. 1335…will not change the way that the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] manages our fisheries.  Alaska fishermen and the communities they support will continue to reap the benefits of our well-managed fishery resources and the NPFMC will continue to use sound scientific data in their management decisions.  Regardless of the changes proposed to the [Magnuson-Stevens Act], the NPFMC will continue to use innovative practices to be leaders in fisheries management…  [emphasis added]”
When a bill’s primary sponsor has to reassure his constituents that his bill won’t hurt them, regardless of how it might impact anyone else, and that their fisheries managers “will continue to use sound scientific data in their management decisions” even if, because of his bill, others stop doing so, it’s a pretty good indication that the guy promoting the bill understands that it has some really big problems.

But the fact remains that there are folks out there who actually believe that H.R. 1335 is a good thing, and that’s a little bit scary.  

But then, when you read a little bit more, you realize that their support is built on pretty shaky factual grounds.  That point was driven home a few days ago when I read an op-ed piece in the Asbury Park Press written by Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

Donofrio, and the RFA as a whole, has supported “flexibility” for years, beginning shortly after a court decision interpreting provisions of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 made it clear that New Jersey head boats, along with the rest of us, would no longer be able to kill every summer flounder unfortunate enough to finds itself impaled on a hook.

But after reading the Asbury Park Press piece, it seems that much of that opposition is based on fallacies.

Summer flounder offers a good place to start.  As one of his arguments for “flexibility,” Donofrio complains that

“Summer flounder is a rebuilt fishery…yet two years ago the state was forced into a more restrictive ‘regional’ approach with New York, leading to an increase in state size limit now decimating South Jersey businesses forced to compete with Delaware.”
“At the same time, the federal government will not allow New Jersey to open the fluke season before May 17, thanks to the federal law and and ‘fatally flawed’ data collection.”
It’s difficult where to start here, because about the only true statement in those two sentences is that “summer flounder is a rebuilt fishery,” and even that one should be amended to add “thanks to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”

After that, though, accuracy becomes hard to find.  Yes, fisheries managers did adopt a regional management plan summer flounder, but such plan was not a adopted pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.  While the National Marine Fisheries Service set the annual catch limit, the regional management approach was adopted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate compact that does not fall under the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s jurisdiction.

ASMFC already practices “flexible” management.  If H.R. 1335 was signed into law, it wouldn’t affect ASMFC’s management methods at all.

It was also ASMFC, and not “the federal government” that determined that New Jersey’s (and New York’s, and Connecticut’s) summer flounder season could not begin before May 17.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act did not demand such an outcome.

It’s probably also worthwhile to note that the onset of regional management did not result in New Jersey anglers being allocated fewer summer flounder.  Instead, southern states enjoyed such an abundance of fish, thanks to Magnuson-Stevens’ success in rebuilding the stock, that they could not catch their full allocations.  Thus, they were willing to transfer “unused” summer flounder to the New Jersey/New York/Connecticut region, giving that region, in the aggregate, more fish than they would have received under the old state-by-state system. 

That’s something that Donofrio, and all New Jersey anglers, should be thankful for, since New Jersey overfished its single-state allocation by 27% in 2014.  Only underharvest by its regional partners allowed it to avoid more restrictive regulations this year.

If Donofrio had ultimately grasped all of those facts, he might have understood that the current system treated summer flounder anglers, and particularly New Jersey’s summer flounder anglers, quite well…

Donofrio reflects similar misunderstanding with respect to black sea bass.  He argues that “black sea bass is a recovered fishery,” but then complains that New Jersey’s season doesn’t begin until May 26, and that the bag limit is a mere 2 fish for part of the time.  What he fails to mention is that such measures were not mandated by the federal government at all, but rather by ASMFC and, yes, New Jersey’s own fisheries managers.

ASMFC placed New Jersey in a region that includes all states between it and Massachusetts, which account for about 98% of the black sea bass caught north of Cape Hatteras.  Because those states overfished their recreational allocation in 2014, regulations in each of them had to be adjusted.

There are three ways to change regulations in order to lower harvest, bag limits, size limits and seasons, which may be used either alone or in combination.  Here in New York, for example, we only needed to increase our size limit by one inch, and keep size and bag limits the same, to fulfill ASMFC’s mandate.  New York’s current size limit is now 14 inches, a limit that it shares with Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, while its bag limit is 8 fish, increasing to 10 in November and December when few boats remain on the water.

New Jersey, on the other hand, decided to maintain a 12 ½-inch minimum size, by far the smallest in the region, and has a 15-fish bag limit for about 4 ½ months of the season, which is nearly twice as high as that of any other regional state (except for New York’s 10-fish bag in November/December).  As a tradeoff for those very liberal rules, it had no option but to keep the season closed for much of the year, and impose a very restrictive bag during July, when a lot of folks are actively fishing. 

New Jersey’s black sea bass regulations, then, are clearly a result of ASMFC and the state’s own “flexible” management decisions, and were not mandated by Magnuson-Stevens.  

Once again, if Donofrio had comprehended all of the facts, he might have understood that was, in fact, the case.

But then, it seems that Donofrio’s misunderstanding goes farther than that, given his nearly incomprehensible statement that

“the federal fisheries law (Magnuson Stevens) rebuilds fish stocks by stopping allowable fishing.”
Just what does “stopping allowable fishing” mean?

Is “allowable fishing” the sort of overfishing folks used to engage in, which drove down the abundance of everything, and pushed some populations beyond the brink of collapse?  If that is the case, then stopping at least some “allowable fishing” must be a good thing, because unless it is done, the size of fish stocks, and the quality of fishing, can only keep going downhill.

That’s where “flexibility” takes us, so it may be what Donofrio had meant to say.

Or is “allowable fishing” a fantasy spun by the folks who say that all of the science is wrong, the sort of fishing that we might have, for just a few years, if we ignored the biologists’ recommendations, and based regulations strictly on imagined abundance?

Donofrio has denied his share of science, so he might have meant that sort of thing, too.  And in the end it doesn't matter, for both sorts of "allowable fishing" could only be bad for fish stocks

But Donofrio’s greatest fallacy comes to light when he criticizes opponents of H.R. 1335, saying

“they fail to address the impacts of lost angling opportunity.”
Because that is not true at all.

We just realize that the worst loss of angling opportunity of all occurs not when size limits are high or a season is closed, but when there's nothing to measure when the season is open, simply because the fish are all gone.

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