Sunday, June 28, 2015


By any conventional measure, the Atlantic Herring stock is in good shape.  Not only is the stock neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing, but fishing mortality is well below the threshold and biomass is more than double the target.

If we looked at the stock from a pure biomass standpoint, it is exceedingly healthy, and even considering all of the factors that go into a single-species model, the herring are doing well.

But the problem, of course, is that we’re using a single-species model, and when you’re dealing with a forage fish such as herring, which is preyed upon by a host of other species, single-species models don’t tell the whole story.

That’s why a lot of people might have been surprised recently, when they read that bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Maine, which feed mostly on herring, are not eating enough to get into prime condition needed for the long migrations south to spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.

That seeming contradiction puzzled scientists, too, when they noticed it some time ago.  They set out to understand why, and in a recent paper, entitled “The paradox of the pelagics:  why bluefin tuna can go hungry in a sea of plenty,” provided their explanation.

It turns out that in order to obtain proper nutrition, bluefin tuna need to feed on older, larger herring; an abundance of small herring don’t provide enough nutrients to allow the fish to build up the fat reserves needed for their southern migration. 

That lack of fat reserves has real implications for the health of the bluefin population.  The paper’s authors note that

“A reduction in [fat] stores can have profound effects on fish life history…Faced with reduced energy, spawning age fish can reduce growth and reallocate more reserves to gonadal investment.  Such a strategy can maintain fecundity in times of reduced condition, but may also contribute to higher rates of post-spawning mortality.  Alternatively, fish may skip spawning in times of reduced condition or change reproductive output (fewer eggs, lower quality) for females.  Given the effect of total [fat] content on egg production, the influence of prey quality on predator life history parameters and the relationship between bluefin tuna weight and fecundity, a reduction in bluefin tuna condition on the foraging grounds could have affected reproductive output…”
That, in turn, may help to resolve one of the big debates in bluefin tuna management—why the harvest restrictions imposed to date have not allowed the stock to rebuild to 1970s levels and, whether environmental conditions are such that the western stock of bluefin is not as productive—that is, cannot produce as many young fish—as it was a half-century or so ago.

Although no firm conclusions can be drawn from the data currently available, the paper notes that

“…total allowable catches have been in line with scientific advice for over 2 decades.  If fishing mortality were the sole factor limiting population recovery, levels of fishing mortality set by management should have allowed this stock to rebuild much faster than currently observed, even for a species with long generation times like bluefin tuna.  A slow recovery may be related to fishing mortality set too high, despite the scientific advice, or could be the results of environmental factors affecting life history (growth, reproduction, migration) or synergistic effects between the two…”
But if the lack of large herring in the population is causing the bluefin tuna stock to be less productive, and thus preventing the stock from rebuilding to historical levels, there is no clear biological path to remedy the problem.

First, the reason why there aren’t enough large herring isn’t at all clear.

As the paper’s authors note,

“Studies…on George’s Bank suggest the shift to a smaller herring community (as indicated in the negative relationship between herring size and abundance) is a direct result of density dependent growth.”
In other words, when herring are abundant, they may grow more slowly and perhaps never grow as large as they would if there were fewer fish.

“Increased fishing pressure can reduce density dependence and potentially lead to more positive weight anomalies for these small pelagics.  However, intense fishing also reduces the abundance of older, larger fish, and management strategies that produce a high abundance of faster growing but smaller individuals would shift the size spectrum towards smaller fish.”
In that case, anything gained by reducing the abundance of herring so that fish might grow larger could be lost by a fishing regimen that harvests most individuals before they could attain such large size.

Second, while bluefin appear to benefit when large herring are available, even if herring abundance is down, other predators need an abundance of smaller individuals to thrive.  

Humpback whales, for example, feed by rising through schools of herring and engulfing many fish at one time.  They get greater benefit from abundance than from the size of the individual fish.

And that, in the end, is what makes managing forage fish so challenging, and so different from managing species at higher trophic levels.  Single-species management, which emphasizes sustainable harvest, does not and cannot adequately account for the needs of all of the various predators that also rely on the targeted resource.

As the authors of “The paradox of the pelagics” note,

“indicators of size structure and body condition should be considered when managing prey species to ensure higher predator fitness.  The challenge will be implementing such a strategy within the context of current assessments and management models and determining the relative importance of prey abundance and size for a range of predators with different foraging strategies and metabolic needs.”
That is true not only for Atlantic herring, but also for such species as menhaden, which serve as forage for a very wide array of predators.

And it illustrates why a very simplistic management approach, which merely looks at abundance and fishing mortality to determine whether there will be enough fish around to catch in the future, is not nearly good enough to manage forage species.

When we talk about managing forage fish, biomass is only one bit of data that’s needed to make decisions on harvest.  How that biomass is structured, and how it is used by a myriad of predators, must also be known before decisions are made.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


Recently, a couple of local, fish-related news items caught my eye.

That sounded good, but the first question I had was just what “Sustainable Seafood Week,” and more generally, “sustainable seafood” actually means.

“Every [sustainable seafood] week invites locals to discover traceable, renewable and trustworthy seafood.  The opening gala is an opportunity to meet culinary celebrities and dine on delicious, responsibly sourced fish.  Future of Fish [an affiliate group of the Sustainable Seafood Week folks] will lead exclusive gatherings called Industry Lab that convene leading scientists, advocates, food service pros, entrepreneurs, distributors and chefs to explore central issues in the seafood industry.”
Again, it sounds good, but it’s a little thin on details.
Couple it with the other recent item, and it provides some real food for thought.

“create a state-appointed commercial fishing industry advocate position to lobby on behalf of the state’s commercial fishermen and promote economic expansion of the industry…
“Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, a vocal advocate for the commercial fishing industry, said that the move by the state is a long overdue step that could help the industry seek out markets for its underutilized fish stocks.”
The problem is that we need to talk about “sustainable fisheries” because far too many fish stocks were recently either overfished, subject to overfishing, or both.  So the notion of chefs and markets promoting “sustainable seafood” caught from healthy stocks can only be a good idea.

But is it realistic?

When you look at some of the news coming out of Sustainable Seafood Week, you realize that a lot of the emphasis is being put on what Ms. Brady called “underutilized fish stocks,” and if history teaches us anything, it’s that underutilized stocks don’t stay “underutilized” for very long.

Here in New York, the best example may be the oyster toadfish, a muddy-colored denizen of estuaries and bay bottoms that resembles nothing so much as a big, slimy tadpole equipped with a bulldog’s jaws.  

For as long as anyone can remember, they went their way unmolested, crushing shellfish and small crabs—and occasionally anglers’ fingers—between their strong, stubby teeth.  Both ugly and slimy, they were no one’s idea of a food fish, and were always abundant even when stocks of prettier fish declined.  No one—neither angler nor the most desperate commercial fishermen—paid much attention to toadfish.  They were a truly an “underutilized” stock.

Then, from out of nowhere, a demand for toadfish emerged.  

They were being sold, live, in urban ethnic markets that would buy as many toadfish as fishermen could supply. 

It was a boom time for baymen across Long Island, who were suddenly gifted with the perfect fishery, which featured high prices, plenty of fish and no regulations at all.  

All went well for a couple of years, until a crashing toadfish population, notably devoid of the largest and most valuable individuals, forced the Department of Environmental Conservation to clamp down on landings before the last toadfish was gone.

The toadfish fishery went from boom to bust in no more than five years.

Now, some of the chefs and “underutilized species” folks are looking at another of the bay’s ugly ducklings, the sea robin.  But with no information available on its abundance, reproduction or optimum yield, it’s not at all unlikely that an exploited sea robin stock would go the way of the toadfish.

So when we hear about “sustainable seafood” and “underutilized stocks,” it’s time for a reality check.  We must develop good data before exploitation begins.

Still, some stocks really are underutilized, meaning that harvest falls well below what we think is optimum yield.  

On Long Island, the best example of that would be scup, a/k/a “porgies,” which marketers are now beginning to call “Montauk sea bream” in order to give it some upscale cachet. Not long ago, the scup population soared to twice the target level, and though it has started coming back to Earth since then, the population is still big enough that neither the recreational nor commercial sectors have landed their entire quota in years.

But we shouldn’t forget that scup were overfished not too long ago, and realize that if “Montauk sea bream” ever does really catch on, they could become overfished once again.

Some of the other species being promoted as “sustainable” present other problems.  

Many, such as butterfish, Atlantic herring and squid, are forage fish—small fish that larger fish, as well as birds and marine mammals, must feed on in order to survive.  When we begin “fishing down the food chain,” and targeting the more abundant forage species rather than the bigger predators, we are giving the big fish a break in one way—we’re not killing them directly—but we are helping to impoverish marine ecosystems and making it harder for an abundance of big fish to survive.

Consider Atlantic herring.  

They aren’t a popular food fish in the United States, but fishing vessels still landed an average of about 86,000 metric tons each year between 2009 and 2013 for export and for use as bait in domestic fisheries.  The stock is neither overfished nor subject to overfishing.  Even so, fishing pressure is heavy enough to remove many of the older and larger herring from the population; as a result, biologists are finding that the stock is not providing bluefin tuna with sufficient nutrition, as there are too few larger and older herring in the population to allow the bluefin to attain optimum physical condition.

Thus, even though the herring harvest could be increased substantially and still be “sustainable”—that is, the stock would not be overfished—the consequences of such supposedly sustainable harvest on predators throughout the food web would not be good.

Underlying it all is a reality that the “sustainable seafood” folks rarely mention; no matter how “traceable, renewable and trustworthy” the product might be, there just isn’t enough fish in local seas to provide food for the entire nation on a regular basis.  And there aren’t enough “underutilized” fish stocks out there to change that too much.

The United States’ population is about 320 million people, and it’s not likely to start getting smaller any time soon.  At the same time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation imports up to 90 percent of its seafood, and about half of that is farmed.  No one can credibly argue that such imports can be replaced, in any significant way, with wild-caught fish from America’s oceans, or that such wild-caught fish will become a frequent part of Americans’ diets.

In fact, NOAA notes that

“World capture fisheries production reached a plateau in the mid 1980s, and even with improved fisheries management, it is not likely to significantly increase.”
Thus, efforts such as New York’s, to “promote economic expansion” of the state’s commercial fisheries, are not likely to succeed, as they will be inevitably limited by the amount of fresh product available.  Instead, in New York and elsewhere, most wild-caught fish will, as time goes on, transform into the sort of quasi-luxury food that is enjoyed in restaurants or, on special occasions, at home, while everyday seafood meals for most people will feature farmed fish, such as tilapia, salmon or catfish, or aquacultured shrimp, mussels and oysters.

That is not a bad thing; it is merely an inevitable progression, following, by a century or so, the same progression that occurred on land, as wild game and waterfowl were replaced on most tables by farm-raised beef, chicken and pork. 

We can still have wild-caught “sustainable seafood.”  But we can’t have it every day.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in federal waters, is an extremely long and complex statute.  However, no part of the law is more important than the ten so-called “National Standards” which set forth the principles that shall govern its implementation.

Those national standards are brief, and go into no detail as to how they shall be maintained.  For that, fishery managers must rely on court decisions, such as the landmark Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, or on regulatory guidelines adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service which are intended to assist regional fishery management councils when drafting management plans.

Although such regulatory guidelines do not have the force of law, they do have substantial influence in how management plans may be written.  Thus, any changes made to such guidelines attract, and deserve, substantial attention from fishermen and conservation proponents.

Right now, NMFS is in the final week of amending the guidelines for National Standards One, Three and Seven. 
Of the three, National Standard One is by far the most important.  It states that

“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.”
The current advisory guidelines for National Standard One have helped the regional fishery management councils produce management plans that have resulted in the lowest levels of overfishing, and overfished stocks, ever recorded.  They may not be perfect—things seldom are—but to date, they’ve worked pretty well.  However, there is real concern that some of the proposed changes to those guidelines could reduce the effectiveness of management programs.

The proposed changes are extensive, and readers are urged to go to the NMFS website and read all of them—or, at the least, NMFS’ summary of all of the proposed changes--for themselves.  However, everyone should be aware of the changes most likely to harm fisheries conservation efforts.  

On the whole, there is nothing novel about them; instead, they are the same issues that have emerged elsewhere in the fisheries debate, particularly with respect to Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization.

Thus, no one should be surprised to see that the proposed guidelines include measures that would prolong overfishing.  

Currently, overfishing is based on single-year estimates, and action must be taken if overfishing occurs during the course of any one season.  The proposed guidelines would allow councils to define overfishing with reference to a three-year period instead. 

Justifications of the three-year period seem logical at first.  

NMFS notes that requiring action after just one year of overfishing, no matter how minimal such overfishing might have been, could easily lead to unneeded regulatory changes that have no real impact on the long-term health of the stock.  It also notes that the last year of any stock assessment is always the least reliable, and that harvest data gets better over time; thus, basing regulatory changes on just the most recent year’s data could lead to unneeded and potentially disruptive change.

Both those things are true, but yet…

Adopting a three-year timeframe for determining overfishing would permit councils to delay action no matter how severe such overfishing had been.  While NMFS highlights the case where no regulatory changes are needed, it fails to recognize the opposite situation, where a fishery management council would be allowed to forego action even if a stock on the verge of collapse was severely overharvested.

To put the issue in real-world terms, does anyone believe that the New England Fishery Management Council would have cut Gulf of Maine cod landings this year, if it had a legal excuse not to do so?

Even in the case of stocks in better health, there is often little reason to believe that overfishing would end on its own.  

Despite regulations that grew more restrictive each year, anglers still managed to overfish Gulf of Mexico red snapper for seven out of the ten years between 2004 and 2013 (at which point a lawsuit forced a change in the way the recreational fishery is managed), sometimes landing more than 150% of the recreational annual catch limit; we can only guess how much worse such overfishing would have been if regulations were only tightened once every three years.

Here in the northeast, we have a similar situation.  Black sea bass abundance seems to have increased sharply, and as a result, recreational overharvest has been pretty severe since 2012, and regulations have tightened each year in response.  Had such overfishing been allowed to continue, unabated, over the course of three years, it would have been far worse than it was.

On balance, the risk of allowing overfishing to continue for years is far greater than the inconvenience caused by changing, and arguably unneeded, regulation.

In its comments accompanying the proposed rulemaking, NMFS notes that

“NMFS first adopted an annual approach to overfishing in its 1998 revisions to the [National Standards] guidelines…Prior to these revisions, NMFS had deliberately chosen not to ‘mandate a particular form for all specific overfishing definitions,’ leaving it to the discretion of the Councils to decide how to determine if overfishing was occurring…”
It’s impossible not to note that the 1998 revisions to the guidelines were a direct result of the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which was the law that first gave real teeth to Magnuson-Stevens and is responsible for the marked turnaround in the health of America’s fisheries.  Prior to then, things didn’t work very well, so it can easily be argued that permitting overfishing to continue for three years is a return to the discredited—and markedly unsuccessful—approaches used in the past.

Proposed changes to the guidelines for allowable biological catch also raise real red flags. 

Ever since NRDC v. Daley, it has never been questioned that the measures adopted to manage a fishery must have at least a 50% chance of success.  That is reflected in the current guidelines.  Now,

“NMFS is proposing revisions to current guidance on [Allowable Biological Catch] control rules to state that the Council’s risk policy could be based on an acceptable probability (at least 50 percent) that catch equal to the stock’s ABC will not result in overfishing, but other appropriate measures could be used.”

“When determining the risk policy, Councils could consider the economic, social, and ecological trade-offs between being more or less risk-averse,”
it’s not hard to imagine what such “other appropriate measures” could look like.

And things wouldn’t stop there.  Whatever regulations were adopted, the new proposed guidelines would not require them to be adopted immediately and in full, but would rather allow them to be phased in over three years, in order to avoid short-term hardships in the fishery.

Add that three years to the proposed three-year periods to determine overfishing, and it’s not hard to see problems being perpetuated for quite a long time…

There are plenty of other things wrong with the proposed guidelines, including increased “flexibility” (yes, that word again) in rebuilding stocks, excluding certain regularly-harvested fish from management plans, halting the rebuilding of stocks partway through the process, trying to distinguish “depleted” from “overfished” stocks and a number of others.

The bottom line is that, taken as a whole, the new guidelines are in many ways a reflection of the same attitudes that gave birth to H.R. 1335, the House of Representatives meritless effort to reauthorize Magnuson-Stevens.  Short-term economic impacts are elevated above the health of fish stocks.

Thus, anglers and others concerned with maintaining the current, demonstrably successful approach to managing America’s salt water fisheries are urged to go to!submitComment;D=NOAA-NMFS-2012-0059-0085 and speak out against unneeded and potentially harmful changes to the National Standard One guidelines.

The comment period closes on June 30, so there is little time for delay.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


On the surface, it doesn’t make sense.  

B.A.S.S. tournaments are all about catching freshwater bass, and even then, white bass and stripers need not apply.  B.A.S.S. fishermen are, well, bass fishermen; many don’t wander too far from freshwater lakes and don’t fish for the fish that swim in the sea.

So just why would an organization focused on tournament fishing for freshwater critters create Bass Anglers for Saltwater Conservation?

When you read between the lines, the cause becomes clear, and conservation has little to do with it.

Go to the web page, and you find B.A.S.S. members being urged

Tweet Congress to support our right to fish!
“Join with Dean Rojas and countless other pro anglers in the fight to defend our right to fish.  By sending this prewritten tweet to your Congressmen, you’re sending a message to Washington D.C. that anglers will not be ignored.  Join the fight today!”
A similar message goes on to tell all the B.A.S.S. members that Mike Iaconelli, another tournament pro, wants them to contact their Senators.

I’m not a B.A.S.S., member, and can’t access the preprinted message, but it’s not hard to guess what it says, particularly after reading the article in Trade Only Today, which is dominated by the Center for Coastal Conservation’s President, Jeff Angers, gushing over the new B.A.S.S. effort, saying things such as

“There are 13 million saltwater anglers, 31 million freshwater anglers.  We are much stronger together.
“Whether you fish in salt water or fresh water, I encourage you to visit today and speak out about the sport we love.”
And then Angers gets to the kicker.

“With Congress considering the Magnuson-Stevens Act—the primary legislation affecting recreational fishing in federal waters—and with Washington imposing unrealistic restrictions on fishing from the Carolinas to Biscayne Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s time that we as anglers make our voices heard.”
I have to admit, it’s a masterful ploy.  By invoking bass fishing celebrities such as Dean Rojas and Mike Iaconelli, Angers—and the folks at B.A.S.S.—have a very good chance of getting a bunch of star-struck anglers to take a stance on marine resources issues that they know nothing about, just as a Lady Gaga or similar celeb can work up junior high co-eds over some social cause.

On the other hand, it’s pretty strange, because B.A.S.S. traditionally paid no attention to other species at all.  Ray Scott was the entrepreneur and visionary who gave birth to the organization, and his biography, published on the website of Ray Scott Outdoors, notes that

“’[B.A.S.S. is] an exclusive club, dedicated to the black bass only.  ‘If you mess with musky or piddle with perch, you don’t belong in B.A.S.S.’ was Scott’s message.”
So we can’t help but wonder was B.A.S.S. is suddenly getting interested in salt water fish politics.

In addition, Scott himself quickly came to understand the value of conservation.  Although the very first B.A.S.S. tournaments weighted in dead fish, that quickly changed for the better.  As his biography explains,

“Attending a Federation of Fly Fisherman’s conclave in Colorado, Scott watched a fly-rodder catch a small 12-inch trout.  Then later he experienced an awakening as he watched the catch-and-release ceremony the angler and his fishing companions observed in releasing the trout.
“It was then that Scott’s idea for ‘Don’t Kill Your Catch’ bass fishing tournaments was born.  Among Ray Scott’s many contributions his concept of catch-and-release may well be the most lasting legacy.  Today more than 98 percent of bass weighed-in during national B.A.S.S. tournaments return alive to the waters and the release percentage is equally high among other fishing groups, bass clubs and individual anglers.”
Given those facts, which are unquestionably true, it’s difficult to comprehend why B.A.S.S. would take a national stand to weaken federal fisheries laws so that irresponsibly high numbers of fish of all sorts might be killed in the sea.

I know bass guides who regularly participate in bass tournaments, and my wife and I once had the privilege of fishing, in upstate New York, with a young guide who had national B.A.S.S. pro ambitions. Spending time with such folks, it doesn’t take long to get a real feel for their connection to the resource.  They would have scant tolerance for anyone who suggested that laws should be eased so that people could kill more freshwater bass than the science suggested, and put the health of even one lake’s bass stock at risk.

For the catch-and-release culture is well-ingrained, not only among B.A.S.S. folks, but among freshwater anglers as a whole, who gladly fish under the sort of rational, science-based rules that the Center for Coastal Conservation has always deplored.

So why is an organization with a heritage of conservation in their home waters trying to oppose conservation at sea?

We can’t know for certain, because that’s something that will never be told on its website.

Perhaps they just don’t understand what they’re promoting.  They might have been sold a bill of goods by the Center folks, who painted their greed in red, white and blue and framed it with photos of families and kids who were allegedly denied access to the sea’s bounty.

Or perhaps—and this is my guess—we can look to the sponsors, the boatbuilders and tackle folks who support the  B.A.S.S. tournaments and TV shows, who also belong to the trade groups that make up the Center.  It’s not hard to imagine them using their access to B.A.S.S. personnel and convincing them to help weaken the federal law for the industry’s gain.

Whatever the reason, it is very unfortunate, for up until now, B.A..S.S. and its founder have created a legacy of doing good things, creating an economic powerhouse based on conservation and catch-and-release, not on coolers and stringers filled with dead fish.

Bass Anglers for Saltwater Conservation isn’t about bass, isn’t about B.A.S.S., and most certainly isn’t about conservation.  It is merely a cynical effort that takes advantage of B.A.S.S.’ good name and the good will of B.A.S.S. members, and enlists them in a cause that is, at its heart, contrary to the organization’s past efforts and, if those efforts can be any guide, its core standards as well.

We can only hope that both B.A.S.S. and its members take another look at the program, and realize just how wrong it is.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Nearly three months ago, the Obama administration’s National Ocean Council issued its first Report on the Implementation of the National Ocean Policy.  The report depicted a clearly beneficial program, intended to be

“a comprehensive and collaborative framework for assuring the long-term health, resilience, safety, and productivity of our coastal and marine ecosystems and communities, as well as the global mobility of our Armed Forces and the maintenance of international peace and security.”
Programs being implemented pursuant to the policy include the creation of a task force to fight illegal fishing on an international scale, coordinating a “rigs to reefs” policy in which old oil platforms may be used to create artificial fish-holding structure, developing the means to rapidly detect dangerous algae blooms and a host of similar worthwhile projects.

Listed under the heading of “Local Choices” is a marine spatial planning proposal, which would create

“one approach for regions to identify [the] needs [of multiple communities] and to use science-based decision making to address overlaps and potential conflicts in a proactive manner.”
The report suggests that would be done by

“the establishment of regional partnerships among the Federal government, States, and Tribes, with substantial public engagement…Through this shared process, Federal agencies are committed to better supporting regional priorities to enhance regional economic, environmental, social, and cultural well-being.”
The organized recreational fishing community didn’t have much of a reaction to the report’s release, perhaps because they were dedicating all of their efforts and resources toward tearing the heart out of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and could not afford any distractions.

However, when the National Ocean Policy was first announced a few years ago, it met with some very strong opposition from the same folks who are now trying to weaken federal fisheries law.  It’s not hard to imagine that once the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization is settled, for good or for ill, the National Ocean Policy will once again be firmly in their sights.

Opposition to the policy took two forms.  One was the sort of general hostility to the President’s executive action that we can see in an op-ed by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, published in The Hill, which said

“Enacting laws through Executive order sets a dangerous precedence [sic], particularly when it threatens to minimize or even supersede the role of existing law, which in this case is federal fisheries law enacted in 1976 (Magnuson-Stevens Act).  The [National Ocean Policy] itself provides excessive influence to the [White House Council on Environmental Quality] and works to further exclude much of the decision-making process at the regional fisheries management level, thereby creating a bias towards a handful of appointed, potentially connected industry and conservation groups from the Washington DC area who are removed from the day-to-day needs and concerns of coastal constituents…”
“The argument in favor of protecting fish populations from habitat destruction and water pollution is truly admirable.  However, when advocates for a cause willingly accept and promote the circumvention of the legislative process to achieve their goals, then it’s not just our oceans which are jeopardized but the very ‘health and benefit’ of all America.”
Such rhetoric seems well-intentioned, if a bit misguided.  However, other comments made by the RFA make it pretty clear that their opposition to the National Ocean Policy stemmed not from any high-minded desire to protect the Constitution, but rather from something more prosaic—an overblown fear that conservation imperatives might shut them out of current fishing grounds.

“The RFA has made it very clear the National Ocean Council threatens to override all of our current federal fisheries management processes, threatens the integrity of our recreational fishing councils and creates an overarching bureaucracy, which could summarily dismiss all input from stakeholders.  It has the very real possibility of arbitrarily banning sportfishing activities throughout U.S. coastal waters and we are absolutely opposed to this presidential decree.”
The stance of the seven organizations which now comprise the Center for Coastal Conservation was more nuanced, but ultimately raised the same concern.  In a joint letter to the co-chairs of the National Ocean Council, they noted

“the National Objective 2 of [Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning], to ‘[r]educe cumulative impacts on environmentally sensitive resources and habitats in ocean, coastal and Great Lakes waters,’ can be interpreted to mean identifying areas in which certain ocean uses, such as recreational fishing, will ultimately be restricted.  The recreational fishing community is not opposed to limiting fishing activities to conserve vulnerable habitats or to stop overfishing when other management options have been ineffective, so long as these decisions are scientifically sound…
"The final implementation plan and upcoming CMSP Handbook should clearly state that the authority to manage fishing activities will remain solely with these existing fisheries management bodies, which have decades of experience in fisheries management and through which our community is adequately represented.”
As we move toward implementation of the National Ocean Policy, it’s probably time to ask whether those concerns have real-world validity, or whether they are an overreaction to the mere possibility that some small but ecologically critical areas of ocean may be closed to angling.

Decades of land-use management throughout the United States provides plenty of guidance.  The land, even more than the ocean, presents a Gordian knot of conflicting uses.  Heavy industrial plants are not built alongside places of worship or elementary schools; suburban residential tracts are kept free slaughterhouses and pig farms.

There is a price to be paid for such orderly land use.  Small sacrifices must sometimes be made.  A homeowner might not be able to pave over a two-acre lot, or subdivide his or her land into condos.  While that might entail some personal inconvenience or economic hardship, on the whole, the neighborhood, and the region, is better off when such incompatible uses are not allowed.

Things are no different beyond the shore.  LNG plants shouldn’t be built on fish-holding bottom, and beds of deep-water corals need protection from trawls.

Fishing groups protest National Ocean Policy and speak against special planning, yet right now, down in Delaware, are celebrating a decision to remove commercial fish pots from artificial reefs.  And in Rhode Island, a new offshore wind farm is being built away from important fish habitat, while the cables taking the power to shore avoid beds of eelgrass and important hard bottom.

Here in New York, a decade ago, fishermen were exultant when a proposed LNG plant was never built at the mouth of Long Island Sound, and still fight to prevent another such plant that is proposed for the ocean off Long Beach.

They don’t connect their celebrations and struggles with spatial planning, yet it is nothing less.  Saying that “This place is wrong for a gas plant,” and “Don’t build a wind farm where we like to fish” is nothing less than endorsing the same marine planning in practice that they reject in concept.

I was a part of the planning process off Long Island, assisting the New York Department of State to identify places of value to anglers; birders and divers and commercial fishermen played their role, too.  As a result, our wrecks and our reefs and hard bottom were noted, and put largely off-limits to developers’ plans.  Right now, the same process that protected our ocean is unfolding in Long Island Sound.
It is not something to fear.  It is something to welcome, that will benefit us all in the end.

As I sit near my window and write this, the warm summer breeze blowing into the room, I can say in all honesty that I don’t want to live next to a pig farm, and can rely on my town’s special planning to keep swine away.

In just the same way, anglers on every coast should be able to rely on marine spatial planning to prevent the inappropriate use of waters important to anglers, and to keep critical fish habitat intact. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015


The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the law of the land, which governs the harvest of fish in federal waters off every coast of the United States, from the cold, green waters of the Gulf of Maine to the warm, clear seas off Guam and Samoa.

It governs fish caught by everyone, whether they’re casual weekend anglers, veteran charter boat crews or those who chose to make a career of commercial fishing.  Whether fishermen seek marlin, haddock or mackerel, for sale, for food or to just let them go, the Magnuson-Stevens Act governs their actions.

Thus, it is only natural that any reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act should consider the needs of all of the nation, with respect to both geography and sector. 

But that’s not what we’re seeing this year.

Whether we talk about the radically conservation-hostile H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act that passed the House on the first of this month, or the more moderate Florida Fisheries Improvement Act that has been introduced in the Senate, this round of Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization has taken on a particularly parochial slant, with recreational anglers and their industry allies from the southeastern states claiming center stage.

Sure, there’s input from elsewhere.  The New England trawlers are “flexibility” fans, because they know it means business as usual, the “flexibility” to keep overfishing badly overfished stocks, to make money while the making is good and then, when the last drop of blood is squeezed from the stone, to move on to other species and do it again .

Robert Vanesse, Executive Director of Saving Seafood, an organization that advocates for some members of the northeast’s commercial fishing industry, tried to justify support of H.R. 1335's "flexibility" by saying

“I don’t know why some people want to require a scientific principle wedded to a non-scientific that every species can be rebuilt in 10 years except that creates a club that’s useful to hold over the industry.”

“We support the ability to adjust a management action that would avoid economic hardship while still being able to achieve the rebuilding and recovery of a species.  The fish stock would reach the same desirable level but those in the fishery would not be devastated economically.
“We support prudent reform that is science based and considers the impacts of management actions on all fishermen, the fishing communities and the fish.”
However, not all members of the commercial fishing community believes that H.R. 1335 represents either prudent, science-based management or a means to achieve the rebuilding and recovery of fish stocks.  

“creates additional flexibility on rebuilding timelines for depleted fish stocks.  So if other factors are impacting (stocks) such as seals, climate change, it allows loopholes that don’t require the rebuilding of stocks.  It’s important that we acknowledge  other things that are impacting our fish stocks but we can’t use that as an excuse to not rebuild.  A fisherman deserves healthy stocks and a profitable fishery and in order to have these we need to rebuild.”

“If there were a ton of cod around and things looked better I might feel differently.  To loosen that up and go down that road [of flexibility] is just a disaster.  You’re never seeing codfish come back.”
In a way, such commercial support of the law is hardly surprising, as the current Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization is being driven primarily by a militant recreational fishing community that is focused on increasing harvests in the name of greater economic benefits for its members.  Thus, like the trawlers trying to kill off the last Gulf of Maine cod, the radical wing of the angling, fishing tackle and boatbuilding communities are seeking the “flexibility” to evade science-based catch limits, to avoid rebuilding stocks and to allow overfishing for short-term economic gain.

However, unlike the groundfish trawlers up in New England, the recreational fishing industry isn’t merely trying to increase its own allocation beyond biologically prudent bounds; it is actively seeking to encroach on allocations given to the commercial, and in at least one case, the for-hire sector as well.  Thus it is seeking a change in the law that would require regional fisheries management councils to reconsider allocations between the commercial and recreational (and sometimes for-hire) sectors on a regularly scheduled basis.

That, in itself, is not a bad thing, and could even be beneficial.  

Allocations tend to be based on historical data, which may now be decades old, and biological, environmental and demographic changes since many were made might very well justify a review.

However, here’s where things get a little strange.  

In both H.R. 1335 and the Florida Fisheries Improvement Act, the reallocation mandate is not applied coastwide.  

Instead, mandatory reexamination of allocations would only be required in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. 

That’s fine, perhaps, if you fish for red snapper or amberjack, but doesn’t help very much if you’re an angler in the mid-Atlantic who seeks summer flounder, a New Englander who likes to catch scup or, perhaps most relevant of all, a recreational fishermen who pursues Pacific halibut, where allocation issues are pressing and real.

Magnuson-Stevens is a nation-wide law.  The “big three” organizations trying to change it—the American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association and National Marine Manufacturers Association—purport to be national organizations.  But the current efforts to amend Magnuson-Stevens make it pretty clear that if you don’t live and fish in a handful of southeastern states—or if you fish for a living instead of for fun—you’re treated like an orphan, and given no consideration at all.

And that’s very wrong, for as noted earlier, Magnuson-Stevens is a national law, and should be addressing big-picture national issues, and not petty parochial concerns.

In fact, such national issues are few.  Magnuson-Stevens is working well, reducing overfishing and the number of overfished stocks to the lowest levels ever recorded.  Along most stretches of coast, there is little clamor for change.

Thus, the militant dissidents in the southeast, who would rather see landings governed by their appetite for fish rather than science, and don’t mind overfishing at all—at least, when they’re the ones doing it—have become a dominant voice in the reauthorization process. 

Instead of seeing changes to the law that would provide forage fish greater protection wherever they swim, or keep ecosystems intact, we see amendments to change allocations in the southeast, or to extend state waters out to nine miles, instead of the usual three—but, once again, only in the Gulf of Mexico.

Driven not by a desire to improve the law, but merely by a yearning to kill more fish than biology and prudence allow, and covetous of fish—particularly red snapper—brought to port on any boats but their own, they have demonstrated themselves willing to sacrifice the health of America’s fisheries in order to get their own way.

Because they are as bright as they are selfish, politically sophisticated and very well-heeled, there’s a fair chance that they will succeed.

And if that happens, we’ll find to our sorrow that the fish will be the most ill-treated orphans of all.

Sunday, June 7, 2015


This Congress’ debate over the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act has largely been driven by the recreational fishing industry.  

When the House passed H.R. 1335 last week, which threatens to seriously undermine the stock rebuilding and conservation requirements of current law, no one cheered louder than Jeff Angers, President of the Center for Coastal Conservation, who took pains to point out that

“The House action recognizes the increasing popularity of saltwater recreational fishing, which contributes $70 billion annually to the nation’s economy and supports 454,000 jobs in every type of business from marinas, tackle shops and boat dealerships to restaurants, motels and clothing stores.  While H.R. 1335 isn’t perfect, it goes a long way toward addressing the priorities of the recreational fishing community.“
It’s hard to understand what he’s cheering about because, as I noted a year or so ago, if you want a fishing industry—recreational or commercial, it doesn’t matter—it helps quite a bit to have fish.  

If your particular interest is maintaining a robust recreational industry, it helps to have those fish in abundance, because most anglers are more hopeful than skilled, and if there aren’t so many fish around that even unskilled anglers can catch a few pretty easily, those folks are likely to put their rods up in the attic and spend their money on something more entertaining than fruitlessly casting into a largely empty sea.

As I’ve noted more often than once, fishing without fish isn’t very much fun.

America’s salt water fisheries might contribute $70 billion to the economy today.  But, if the fishing industry wants folks to keep spending money on boats, bait and tackle tomorrow, and maybe even see that $70 billion grow, it would do well to rethink its position on Magnuson-Stevens, and keep more fish in the ocean.

I’m from the Northeast, where we have our problems.  I’ve seen plenty of fisheries wither and die.

It’s possible that southerners, with their great biodiversity, don’t know what it’s like when treasured species disappear and leave anglers with nothing to fish for, perhaps for months at a time.

And since those southerners are driving the Magnuson-Stevens debate, perhaps they need some examples.

To start, I’ll talk about a fish that I’ve mentioned before—winter flounder—because it’s a perfect example of how much availability impacts fishing activity, and how much economic harm is done when a population collapses. 

Thirty years ago, flounder were still pretty abundant.  In 1984, just here in the State of New York, anglers made nearly 1,750,000 trips targeting that species.  Local stocks have since collapsed, and in 2014, only about 24,500 trips targeting winter flounder were made.

As early as the mid-1960s, state biologists were already seeing signs of a population decline, but when they tried to put meaningful size and bag limits in place in the mid-1980s, they met substantial opposition from the party boat industry, which said that bag limits, in particular, had to stay high, so that customers would have the “perception” that they could still take home a pailful of fish if they had a “big day.”  

Like the H.R. 1335 supporters today, those party boat owners, and to a lesser extent, the tackle shops, focused only on short term profits, and not the long-term health of fish stocks.

And maybe, for a few years, it seemed to be worth it.  But it’s probably safe to say that, with the number of trips New York anglers made for winter flounder down by more than 98.5% since 1984, in the long term, their opposition to conservation hurt their bank accounts nearly as badly as it hurt winter flounder.

Or, perhaps, folks should consider the cod.  Prior to the mid- 1980s, there was a robust summer cod fishery that took place on Cox’s Ledge, off the Rhode Island coast.  I made my first trip to Cox’s in ’68, when party boats sailed from ports in Rhode Island, Connecticut and eastern Long Island, all converging on the same place.  

Everyone caught cod.  

Most of the fish weighed between 5 and 15 pounds, with some 20s among them, but throughout the years that I fished there, the biggest fish on the boat was never less than 35 pounds, and sometimes went over 50.

The Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey only began in 1981, but even that tells a story.  For in ’81, when cod stocks were already headed sharply downhill, anglers departing from Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York ports made nearly 33,000 cod trips during July and August.  In 2014, with the stock in dire straits, that number had dropped to a mere 840, all made from Rhode Island.

So today, party boats that once sailed, loaded with passengers, seeking Cox’s Ledge cod must now rely on other alternatives, placing far more pressure on black sea bass, striped bass and summer flounder, and creating a business model that is far too dependent on far too few stocks.

Then there’s the cod’s little cousin, the silver hake, which most folks called “whiting.”  Up through the ‘70s and even the early ‘80s, they abounded off Long Island and northern New Jersey during the winter.  The party boat fleet caught them day and night, while shorebound anglers took them from under the lights of beachfront piers.  In a pinch, a hungry man could glean his Christmas Eve dinner at night from the strandline, picking up “frostfish” that had beached themselves while chasing bait and were frozen stiffly in place.

And then, they were gone.

We don’t have very good estimates of how many whiting trips were ever made, because a lot of the fishing took place in January and February, when no surveys take place.  Even so, in 1981, an estimated 58,750 trips were recorded in the Mid-Atlantic region, all of them out of New Jersey (which shows that a lot of the trips went unrecorded, as Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn was a whiting mecca, and at least one boat used to come through the East River and into the ocean from up in Long Island Sound).   

The last directed whiting trips were recorded in 2003, although few took place after 1984.  The fishery was probably killed off by the same small-mesh squid trawlers that drove down scup abundance during the ‘80s, although some still debate that.  What no one debates is that party boats in New York and New Jersey would love to have another 60,000 or so passengers fishing with them over the winter, when the boats now have little to offer, and spend far too much time tied up to the dock.

Cod, flounder and whiting have one thing in common besides scarcity—all were, and still are, managed by the New England Fishery Management Council, a council which placed short-term economic benefit far above the long term health of fish stocks, and which always opted for “alternative” management measures rather than hard-poundage catch limits which might have effectively restricted the amount of fish that boats brought back to shore.

The folks at the Center for Coastal Conservation should think about that closely, for that is just the sort of approach embraced by H.R. 1335.

On the other hand, when managers get things right, there have been big successes, even here in the northeast.  Black sea bass are just one example. 

In 1981, sea bass weren’t very abundant, and anglers north of Cape Hatteras only made about 47,000 directed trips.  By 2014, after the Magnuson-Stevens Act compelled managers to rebuild the stock, over 400,000 directed black sea bass trips were made in the region. 

For anglers value abundance, and don’t spend too much time fishing when the fish are not there.

The greatest example of all is the striped bass.  In 1981, as the stock was collapsing, anglers made about 650,000 trips chasing what has always been viewed as the premier inshore game fish of the northeast coast.  Effort fell to a little over 300,000 trips in 1986, as the population continued to crash.

Then the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which imposed strict limits on harvest; no more than 5% of the population could be removed in any year. 

And the population began to rebuild.

Not everyone liked the strict measures.  In Montauk, a group of charterboat captains staged a striped bass protest, intentionally landing fish contrary to law (New York shut down its entire striped bass fishery for a brief period, supposedly for health rather than conservation reasons) in order to publicize their financial complaints.  The protest did no good, but the harvest restrictions did, and both striped bass abundance and the number of fishing trips began to increase.

In 1995, the year the stock was declared fully recovered, anglers made over 5,000,000 striped bass trips. Striped bass managers relaxed regulations, but thanks to some dominant year classes, abundance continued to increase for a while, and effort followed, reaching over 10,500,000 directed trips—twice the 1995 number—in 2007.

But by then, the stock was again declining.  Conservation-minded anglers asked that regulations be tightened, but their request was resisted, often by ASMFC Striped Bass Management Board members such as Tom Fote, Governor’s Appointee from New Jersey, who argued not biology, but short-term economic impact, saying

“This is a real change in how we manage striped bass recreationally along the whole coast.  This is not a minor change.  It affects a lot of people’s livelihoods; it affects a lot of people the way they do business.  It is going to have a huge impact on the recreational fishing industry up and down the coast…”
That’s the same sort of argument that’s being made by the recreational industry in support of H.R. 1335—that the economics of the fishery matter more than the biology of the fish themselves—so Angers should take a look at how things are working out for striped bass.  The stock continues to decline.  And in 2014, the number of trips made by anglers fell to about 6,100,000 million, about 40% below the 2007 figure and a good indication of how anglers react as abundance declines.

There is hope that, with new management measures imposed earlier this year, and with a dominant year class poised to recruit into the spawning stock next season, the decline in striped bass abundance—and angler trips—will begin to turn around.

But on a larger scale, particularly if the folks at the Center get their way, the picture is far less rosy.

So maybe it’s time for Angers and his cronies to start asking a couple of questions.

Sure, America’s recreational fisheries, built up and supported by a strong Magnuson-Stevens Act, are worth $70 billion now.  But if they succeed in weakening that very good law, so that fish can be managed like they were in New England, without hard catch quotas and with economics in mind, how long will it be until many more species go the way of cod, winter flounder and whiting?

And when they do, just how much can one profit from nothing?


Note that all effort estimates quoted above may be found by querying data available at