Thursday, July 16, 2015


Fisheries advocacy can get depressing sometimes. 

Part of that comes from all of the problems that are still unaddressed.  Part comes from the fact that, when you get something fixed, there are folks who seem Hell-bent to break it again.

There’s a temptation to seek dramatic solutions, to find the big answers that get it all done.  But opportunities to do that come seldom, if they come at all, which means that getting things done is a long uphill grind.

But that doesn’t come as news to anyone who’s long been involved with the process.  Years ago, when I took my first steps into the arena, intent on changing the world in a day, a sunburned veteran from Florida took me aside, and asked me one question.

“Do you know how to eat an elephant?”

I looked at him, kind of puzzled and silent, not knowing just why he asked.  He let me stew for a while, then said

“You eat it one bite at a time.”

Which is right.  And with every bite, the elephant gets a bit smaller.

Folks who know me also know that I’m dedicated to preserving and restoring New York’s winter flounder stocks.  

It's just very wrong that a fish that once teemed in our bays, and supported vibrant recreational and commercial fisheries not too long ago, has declined to the point that extirpation is a real possibility.

Restoring the stock--even just halting its decline--is a huge and frighteningly complex job.  It's not made any easier when folks in the recreational and commercial fishing industries, apparently intent on squeezing the last drop of blood out if this particular dry and crumbling stone, continually try to frustrate management efforts.  

About 15 months ago, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, again elevating harvest above either conservation or common sense, approved a proposal that would increase the recreational season for the southern New England/mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder--the stock that populates New York's waters—from 60 days to a full 10 months.

From a purely biological standpoint, it was an inexplicable decision that seemed to serve no purpose other than the destruction of the surviving remnants of the stock.

The states that hosted the stock—all except for New York—fell all over themselves to adopt the longer season.  The New York Department of Environmental Conservation, to its great credit, refused to rush to the flounder’s demise and maintained the 60-day status quo.

That didn’t please the state’s recreational fishing industry, which apparently saw no reason to conserve a disappearing stock at the expense of small profits.  Tackle shop and party boat interests asked New York State to adopt the same over-long season already adopted by neighboring states.

So New York proposed a new regulation that would have allowed anglers to kill winter flounder from March through December, and put it out for public comment.  The state didn’t even try to provide scientific justification for the proposed regulation, merely noting that it would give New York anglers the same season that anglers in other states already had.

Response to the proposal was refreshingly negative.  In what was probably a first anywhere on the coast, a coalition of national conservation groups came together to speak for the humble flounder’s survival.

Finally, last Tuesday night, at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, Jim Gilmore, who runs the DEC's Marine Bureau, announced that the state would not adopt the proposed rule, due to both an “overwhelming” number of comments in opposition and the fact that the condition of the state’s flounder stocks continued to decline.

It was a small victory (and, in the end, not a surprising one, as it was clear that the DEC’s heart wasn’t in the new regulation; rather, it was proposed mainly because industry interests, on and off the Advisory Council, had asked that the change be considered).

It didn’t portend a sea change in the way New York’s fisheries are managed (which is fine, for on the whole, they are already managed pretty well).

Standing alone, it won’t even begin to fix the flounder’s problems.  But it would certainly help to keep those problems from getting any worse.

For the moment, it was enough.

When you’re involved in fisheries battles, you want the big wins.

You don't just want to keep the Magnuson-Stevens Act from being gutted; you want to improve it, so that both forage fish and marine habitats get some better protections.  You want to end longline bycatch and see groundfish return to New England.

But in the real world, the first step is to avoid the big losses, and then seek incremental change.

The first step—that first juicy mouthful of elephant steak—comes when you walk away from a hearing or legislative meeting and can honestly say “We didn’t lose one thing today.”

That's not quite declaring victory.

But with a well-heeled fishing industry arrayed to gut our fisheries laws, and with a host of people working very hard to relax regulations designed to protect our marine resources, holding the line on existing protections is a vital first step.  

Only then can we look to push forward when conditions are right.

That’s certainly true in the case of New York’s flounder.  

The status quo won't rebuild the stock.

But last Tuesday's announcement makes it more likely that there will be a stock to rebuild when the effort is finally made..

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