Sunday, July 19, 2015


Last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council released a staff memo suggesting that summer flounder landings in 2016 may be cut by 43%.

That’s not good news.

Ever since the court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley set the standard for federal fisheries management back in 2000, summer flounder have been a sort of bellwether for the federal management system.  The tribulations experienced by managers and fishermen while summer flounder were rebuilding foreshadowed the difficulties that would be experienced in other places by other people involved with other species.  And the period of stability that was finally achieved over the last couple of years provided a fine example of the improved angling opportunities and improved economic benefits that can be enjoyed from a recovered stock.

Now, the debate set off by the Mid-Atlantic Council’s staff memo presages the sort of conversations we’re going to have once stocks are rebuilt.  For rebuilding does not last forever, and even a rebuilt and well-managed stock needs to be managed if is to thrive.

The first thing to recognize is that the current decline in the summer flounder population, and the apparent need to reduce harvest, is not due to overfishing, although the commercial fishery exceeded its 2014 allocation by about 8%, and anglers were also about 6% over. 

However, summer flounder abundance was already sliding down from its 2010 peak, largely due to four consecutive years of sub-par recruitment that occurred from 2010 through 2013.  In 2014, recruitment had returned to something close to an average level.

That’s sort of thing is only natural.  Populations never hold truly steady; they rise and fall in accord with conditions, and hit natural periods of peaks and lows.

Fishery managers have decided that they can maintain a healthy summer flounder population by allowing fishermen (recreational and commercial) to remove a fixed percentage of the adult population each year.  So when that population drops, as it has, anglers aren’t allowed to kill as many fish as they can when the population is larger. 

It’s not rocket science.  The current biomass—the aggregate weight of all of the fish in the stock—is estimated to be around 89 million pounds.  A given percentage of that results in a smaller allowable harvest than the same percentage of a fully restored biomass.

Hunters have learned to deal with this sort of thing years ago.  When deer populations drop below optimum levels, managers cut back on the number of doe permits that they issue.  Out on the bay, brant numbers are down, so the bag limit is cut and seasons are shortened.

It’s a rational system that has been proven to work over the past hundred years or so—at least when it’s applied to deer, waterfowl and upland game.  Out in the salt water, it still causes much angst, largely because on the coast, among too many fishermen, rationality has yet to set in.

And so we’re already hearing predictions of doom.

Tom Fote, the New Jersey governor’s appointee to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, can usually be counted on for an over-the-top quote, and he didn’t disappoint when this issue surfaced.

“This is another nail in the coffin of the recreational fishing industry.  Nobody’s going to want to give up fish.”
Unknowingly commenting more on the ethics of many New Jersey anglers rather than on the management system, he said that

“We’re turning people into pirates.  This will turn a lot of them [into poachers].”
It that is true, then down in New Jersey, anglers must only follow the laws that they like.

Toni Kearns, who runs ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Mangement Program, puts everything in a more rational perspective when she says

“This is a very early stage.  I’m not saying things are likely to change.  It depends a lot on what the scientists see.”

“Whenever you get a 43 percent reduction, it gets your attention…

“I don’t think anyone is saying that the status of the stock is in jeopardy.  There are variables that the {Science and Statistics Committee] can work with and I would be hopeful that the SSC will take a lot of information into consideration and not take any draconian measures.”
But rationality isn’t in high demand right now.  It seemingly never is, when summer flounder are the subject.  Fote is already talking about buses filled with anglers going to the next Mid-Atlantic Council meeting, although since recruitment and stock size are purely scientific questions, and few if any of those anglers are likely to be fisheries scientists, it’s not too clear what they might add to the discussion.

“No one has any faith in the fishery numbers any more.  The science is so bad.”

Given such a learned observation, should buses arrive from New Jersey, we can guess how the meeting will go…

We can also guess that both before and after the meeting, folks hoping to gut the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s rebuilding and conservation provisions will try to spin the summer flounder issue to their advantage, even though it isn’t really a Magnuson issue at all.

That wasn’t too hard to do.  The summer flounder stock is not overfished, so the law’s rebuilding requirements and 10-year timeline was never an issue.  Nor does the 2014 overharvest trip the law’s mandate against overfishing.    Combined recreational and commercial harvest exceeded both sectors’ Annual Catch Limit by a bit, but never came close to reaching the Overfishing Limit, which was far higher.

That’s because managers recognized that there was some scientific uncertainty involved in the summer flounder stock assessment, so they set the Allowable Biological Catch at 21.94 million pounds, well below the26.76 million pound Overfishing Limit, to allow for it.

However, what managers didn’t do was allow for management uncertainty, which was a mistake. 

Everyone recognizes that recreational catch estimates are just that—an approximation, and not a precise figure—and that it is impossible to accurately predict angler behavior, and thus harvest, from year to year.

And while commercial harvest figures are much more accurate, they too are not perfect.  There is always some late reporting, and illegal harvest—perhaps best exemplified by theResearch Set-Aside abuses here in New York—is an unfortunate part of the equation.

Thus, managers should have established a buffer for such uncertainty, and set the Annual Catch Limits for both sectors below the Allowable Biological Catch.  However, members of federal fishery management councils, most particularly those members belonging to the commercial or recreational fishing sectors, hate to establish buffers that reduce their sectors’ catch.  Thus, they try to avoid doing so, and we end up with the sort of situation summer flounder is now undergoing.

The answer is to establish such buffers, and that’s just what Council staff recommends that managers do.  Instead of a 43% reduction in harvest, the staff recommends that buffers be phased in over three years, in order to avoid disrupting the fishery.  In the first year, the buffer would be just 6%--slightly less than the actual overage—and the entire buffer would not be put in place until 2018, by which point the abundance of adult fish should have expanded enough to make such buffer far less painful.

Thus, the Mid-Atlantic Council has demonstrated that the Magnuson-Stevens Act has enough real flexibility to address real problems in the fishery, and that those who try to use “flexibility” as an excuse to gut conservation and rebuilding provisions either don’t understand what can be done under current law—or understand all too well, and just misrepresent the true situation.

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