Sunday, June 7, 2015

HOW MUCH CAN ONE PROFIT FROM NOTHING?

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?

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Note that all effort estimates quoted above may be found by querying data available at http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/recreational-fisheries/access-data/run-a-data-query/index 

2 comments:

  1. very well written and thought out

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