Sunday, July 5, 2015


No matter how healthy a fish stock may be, it is still a limited resource, and harvest must be controlled.  In most cases, such harvest controls include both a overall Annual Catch Limit, and an allocation of that Annual Catch Limit between the commercial and recreational sectors.

As anyone knows, if they’ve ever watched to children fight over who gets the “biggest half” of a cookie, people don’t like to share, which makes allocation one of the most difficult aspects of fisheries management.  

However, because conditions do change, established allocations sometimes must also change if fisheries resources are truly going to provide “the greatest overall benefit to the nation.”

Generally, regional fisheries management councils, as well as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, do their best to ignore reallocation issues, knowing that the resultant fight will be long and bitter and that, when it is over, the original allocation will probably remain undisturbed.

Still, we have seen two notable reallocation decisions in the past couple of years. 

Such change was made in response to a northward shift of the center of summer flounder abundance, which rendered the old allocation, based on 1998 data, obsolete and worked a real hardship on anglers in northeastern states, who were constantly exceeding their state allocations, and as a result were being subject to ever-tightening regulations for no better reason than that there were more fish in their waters than there were before.

Such reallocation wouldn’t have been possible if the summer flounder stock hadn’t been successfully rebuilt under the aegis of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which prevented fishermen from shortstopping the rebuilding program by overfishing once the fish became a little more abundant than they had been before. 

Once the stock was fully rebuilt, there were so many summer flounder available to anglers in the southern half of its range that the southern states were able to provide northern states with some of their unutilized fish, which made the reallocation provision work.

Of course, in any reallocation, some folks are going to get fewer fish, and they won’t be happy.  

In the case of summer flounder, those folks were all in New Jersey.  Under the old state-by-state allocation, New Jersey received more than 39% of the recreational harvest, well over twice the fish given to any other state.  Under the new system, they were compelled to share with New York and Connecticut. 

So even though New York and Connecticut caught far fewer fish than they were expected to in  2014, and their underharvest offset an overharvest in New Jersey, preventing that state from having to impose more restrictive regulations for 2015, Tom Fote, the New Jersey governor’s appointee to ASMFC, complained that

“There might have been a couple of states happy north [sic]; but there was one that was not happy, New Jersey.  I’m going to hear that, well, you’re over, you basically spread it out.  One of the reasons we were over is that because that the southern fish were divided between two other states but not New Jersey.”
Of course, since all three of the states, including New Jersey, were part of the same region, dividing the additional southern fish among two of them but not to the third isn’t possible, but Fote goes on…

“Then there was an allocation of our fish to the other two states that helped put us over.  If we would have had those two allocations, we wouldn’t be over…”
And that pretty well sums up the reason that managers try so hard to avoid reallocation debates.  

The “haves”—the kid with the big half of the cookie—never want to share, and if any more fish become available from other sources, they feel entitled to some or all of them, too.  

They feel that the “have nots” should be happy with crumbs.

That problem became even more evident in the second recent reallocation, that of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

Normally, I’m strongly opposed to balkanizing the recreational sector, and setting aside a fixed allocation for for-hire vessels; anglers are anglers, regardless of the platform that they fish from, and rules should not favor any one group, whether they fish from for-hire vessels, private boats, beaches or piers.

However, the situation down in the Gulf was so egregious that it is just about impossible to argue that, in that special instance, so-called “sector separation” wasn't the right thing to do.

Again, it was a case of the “haves” versus the “have nots,” and the “haves” not wanting to share.

Under the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico, for-hire vessels must have a limited-access permit in order to fish for red snapper in federal waters, and must abide by federal regulations even when fishing within the waters of one of the states.  

Private boat anglers, on the other hand, as well as for-hire vessels that only fish in state waters, need no special permits, and can fish in state waters, in accord with state seasons, even when the federal red snapper season is closed.

That created a serious problem.

Federal fisheries managers must consider the health of the entire red snapper population within the Gulf of Mexico, and include harvest anywhere within the Gulf when it makes its calculations.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act prevents it from countenancing overfishing, and requires it to rebuild the stock within a time certain, which is currently the year 2032.  

State managers, on the other hand, are generally free to allow overfishing, have no obligation to rebuild the stock within a specified time and often make management decisions based on political and short-term economic considerations rather than on hard science.

“The Gulf of Mexico (Gulf) red snapper stock is overfished and currently under a rebuilding plan.  As the stock has recovered, both commercial and recreational quotas have been allowed to increase per the rebuilding plan.  The commercial sector has been managed under an individual fishing quota (IFQ) program since 2007 and landings have stayed below the commercial quota…The recreational sector, which has experienced quota overages and shorter seasons recently, is managed under a quota, bag and size limits, and closed seasons…Even though the recreational quota has increased in recent years, the season length has decreased, in part because the average size of the fish harvested has increased (i.e., it takes fewer fish to fill the quota).  Additionally, inconsistent state regulations have made harvest projections more difficult…
“For 2014, while the season in federal waters was nine days long, Texas waters were open a total of 365 days, Louisiana for 286 days, Florida for 52 days, and Mississippi and Alabama for 21 days.  Charter vessels and headboats with a federal reef fish permit may not allowed to fish in state waters for red snapper when federal waters are closed.”
Thus, while a private boat or state-waters charter in Texas could fish for red snapper every day of the year, a headboat or federally-permitted charter vessel moored at the same marina would only have a nine-day red snapper season.  Yet every fish caught by the private vessels would be, at least in theory, included in the harvest figures produced by federal managers when they set the headboats’ short season.

It’s easy to see how such an arrangement could offend some folks’ sense of fairness—I’ll admit that it offends my own—and led to the adoption of a separate Annual Catch limit for federally-permitted for hires.  Now, headboats and federally-permitted charters can fish for about a month and a half in the Gulf—still far less than private boats in Texas and Louisiana, and about in parity with private vessels elsewhere.

Yet the “haves”—the private boat anglers—somehow find this unfair.

The Coastal Conservation Association has gone so far as to file suit to halt sector separation, with Bill Bird, Chair of CCA’s Government Relations Committee, complaining in a press release that

“[Sector separation] embodies everything that is wrong with federal management of our marine resources.  It is completely out of step with the nation’s heritage of wildlife resource management…”   

The release goes on to whine (sorry to use that word, but I can’t lose the image of the selfish child who believes that his “bigger half” of the cookie is still far too small) that

“With passage of [the sector separation] amendment, the way is cleared for up to 70 percent of the entire Gulf red snapper fishery to be privately held, while recreational anglers who fish on their own boats will find their access to federal waters severely limited.”
Because that’s the way that the “haves” think.  

It was OK when the for-hire boats only had nine days each year to fish for red snapper, even though private boat catch made a substantial contribution to that shortened season.
But when the for-hire boats get to fish for forty or forty-five days out of the year, even though the private boat season isn’t shortened by one single day as a result, and the state red snapper seasons stay open for private boats only, it was suddenly just so patently unfair that the private boat folks start a lawsuit…

You can just picture that kid with the not-big-enough half of the cookie kicking his feet and breaking out into big, self-pitying tears…

Yet, instead of acknowledging their role in the overfishing that gave rise to the problem, the “have” private-boat anglers feel so self-entitled that they are seeking a reallocation of the resource from the commercial sector to theirs, and have put language in two federal bills, H.R. 1335 and S. 1403, that would require federal managers to re-examine allocations in the Gulf and South Atlantic.

Given the kind of irrationality that breaks out in allocation fights, it’s pretty likely that the last thing that professional fishery managers want to do is get bogged down in allocation debates; it wastes a lot of time that could be better spent rebuilding and conserving still troubled stocks.

However, as an angler, I have to admit that I believe that reallocation is often the right thing to do.  As the summer flounder situation illustrates, sometimes there are real changes in circumstances that militate against the old status quo.  

Allocations between sectors are often based on old landings data, from years before the 1996 amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act caused stocks to rebuild and again become accessible to everyday anglers.  When fish are hard to come by, professional fishermen, whether commercial or for-hire, are likely to rely on their more extensive knowledge and greater mobility to harvest the lion’s share.

There are certainly fisheries out there—perhaps scup, perhaps summer flounder, perhaps Pacific halibut, or some of the snappers and groupers—where reallocation between the sectors is justified, and would produce the greater overall benefit to the nation that the law requires we seek.

However, as anglers, we shouldn’t believe that we hold all the cards, and let hubris guide our decisions.  Mandatory reallocation requirements scare me.

There’s little doubt that, in a general reallocation effort, that we’d come out on top with some of the species.  A summer flounder allocation analysis prepared for the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that

“Even with uncertainty on [willingness to pay] estimates across all sectors, the allocation of summer flounder should move toward the recreational sector.  Using the upper bound recreational estimate plus the upper bound estimate of [willingness to pay] for just the for-hire business…of $9.73/pound at the current allocation suggest a move to 100% recreational allocation.  Adding the values for these two recreational sectors together results in a recreational [willingness to pay] estimate of $13.21/pound.  This conclusion would hold for every shape of a recreational [willingness to pay] function except a sharply downward sloping [willingness to pay] function.  That is, the sum of for-hire and private recreational [willingness to pay] would have to fall below $2.45 at a 100 percent allocation…”
Other studies, for fish such as striped bass, have come to similar conclusions.

But there are other species out there where we might not come out so well.

Consider the bluefish.

The current bluefish management plan allocates 83 percent of the harvest to the recreational sector, and 17 percent to commercial fishermen, although it allows some of the unused recreational quota to be transferred to the commercial sector each year.  However, over the past 20 years, anglers have only landed 70% of the overall harvest.  It’s not hard to imagine, given such figures, that if federal law required a mandatory review of bluefish allocation, anglers might not retain our current share.

Pelagic species provide even greater cause for concern. 

Although swordfish are the ultimate prize for offshore anglers, they are generally taken incidentally by anglers targeting tuna in the offshore canyons.  In fact, a query of NMFS’ database of angler effort in 2014 indicates that the only directed recreational swordfish trips were made in Florida; in other states, they occurred at such low levels that they weren’t even a statistical blip.  

Given that, using the same economic analysis used for summer flounder, how likely is it that something close to a 100% allocation to the commercial fishery would be recommended?

So, absent reasons at least as compelling as those that forced changes to the summer flounder and red snapper allocations, should anglers blindly support rules that require managers to revisit reallocation of every species?

While in some cases it would certainly be beneficial, in others, we might regret that we got what we asked for.  We could lose as much as we gain.

It's not something to be approached casually or blindly--if we decide to approach it at all.

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