Thursday, July 23, 2015


Recently, Representative Garrett Graves, Republican ofLouisiana, introduced legislation that would change the way red snapper aremanaged.  He calls the bill the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act.  If passed, it would take authority to manage red snapper away from the National Marine Fisheries Service and hand it over to the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

Graves makes a number of claims in defense of his actions, including the claim that

“State-based management of federal fisheries has been successfully implemented on the East Coast as well as in Alaska over the past decades.”
I can’t speak for Alaska, having spent little time there, but I live on the East Coast, and when it comes to our local fisheries, it’s pretty clear that Graves has overstated his case.

There are three different tiers in East Coast fisheries management.  There are the federal fishery management councils, which operate regionally in federal waters, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate compact that imposes more-or-less uniform management measures on fishermen operating in state waters (and in federal waters if the councils do not elect to manage a particular species) and state managers who may impose state-specific rules in their particular jurisdictions.

Under that system, a given stock or species might be managed only federally, by federal managers and by ASMFC, by federal managers and individual states, by ASMFC alone, by individual states or by no one.  It is an intricate web of management authority, and each layer has demonstrated a different degree of success.

When folks along the Gulf of Mexico refer to the "success" of East Coast management, they’re generally thinking about ASMFC, so in order to see whether Rep. Graves’ statement is true, it’s probably best to take a look at ASMFC’s management successes and failures.

That’s pretty easy to do, because ASMFC provides a StockStatus Overview that summarizes the health of all of its managed stocks in just three pages.  

The Overview breaks ASMFC’s ’s 29 managed stocks into five categories:  Rebuilt/Sustainable, Rebuilding, Stable/Unchanged [at an unspecified level], Depleted and Unknown. 

Currently, ASMFC lists 12 managed stocks—about 40% of the total—as “Rebuilt/Sustainable”, none as “Rebuilding”, 2 as “Stable/Unchanged”, 8 as “Depleted” and 7 as “Unknown”.  So less than half of the stocks managed by ASMFC are either “Rebuilt/Sustainable” or “Rebuilding,” although those categories, combined, encompass more stocks than any other.

Yet that doesn’t tell the whole story.

ASMFC deems the Atlantic striped bass stock to be “Rebuilt/Sustainable”, despite the fact that the most recent benchmark stockassessment, completed in late 2013, noted that

“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality] (F=0.200) is retained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015…”
Since a stock is deemed to be “overfished” when spawning stock biomass falls beneath the reference point, there is at least an 86% probability that the striped bass stock will be overfished this year.  Even so, ASMFC still classifies that stock as “Rebuilt/Sustainable”, which makes you wonder how bad things have to get before ASMFC finally admits that a stock is “Depleted”.

Nevertheless, out of the 12 stocks that ASMFC designates as “Rebuilt/Sustainable”, seven (Atlantic herring, black sea bass, bluefish, scup, Spanish mackerel, spiny dogfish and summer flounder) are jointly managed with the National Marine Fisheries Service pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  The five “Rebuilt/Sustainable” stocks that are managed solely by ASMFC include two stocks of American lobster, Atlantic menhaden, black drum and the dubiously-designated Atlantic striped bass.

On the other hand, of the eight “Depleted” species, seven (American eel, one stock of American lobster, American shad, northern shrimp, river herring, tautog and weakfish) are managed solely by ASMFC, while only one, the southern New England/mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder is also managed by NMFS, and that species falls under the jurisdiction of the New England Fishery Management Council, which usually gets management wrong.

And once again, folks must remember that not one single stock managed by ASMFC is thought to be “Rebuilding”.  That’s in accordance with ASMFC’s judgment, and not just my own.

Taking a look at those numbers casts a lot of doubt on Rep. Graves’ premise that “[s]tate-based management of federal fisheries has been successfully implemented on the East Coast.” 

In fact, when one realizes that the majority of ASMFC’s “Rebuilt/Sustainable” stocks are federally managed in conformity with Magnuson-Stevens, and that nearly 90% of the “Depleted” stocks are managed by ASMFC alone—and no ASMFC-managed stock is “Rebuilding”—it's clear that just the opposite is true.  Federally managed stocks are doing pretty well, while stocks that are solely state managed are, in large part, doing pretty badly and not getting much better.

Probing a little deeper discloses more holes in Rep. Graves' understanding of East Coast fisheries management, and in the premise underlying his snapper bill.  

For on the East Coast, and particularly with respect to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which is responsible for most of the jointly managed species, federal and state managers work together.

In the Gulf red snapper fishery, there is little or no cooperation between state and federal fisheries managers, despite the fact that the fisheries managers of all five Gulf states hold permanent seats on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.  

In the Gulf, instead of trying to harmonize state and federal management plans, state and federal managers work at cross-purposes; in the most extreme example, the State of Texas has adopted a year-round red snapper season, along with a smaller minimum size and a bag limit twice that adopted by federal managers. 

Such non-cooperation on the part of the states assures that, in the Gulf, federal management plans will create problems for one or more user groups.  Unfortunately, legislators such as Rep. Graves, urged on by constituents seeking to further their own agendas, blame federal managers for every perceived shortcoming, and seek to perpetuate the real problem by giving even more power to the uncooperative states.

The successful rebuilding and long-term sustainability of some East Coast stocks can be attributed to state managers taking a completely different approach that promotes cooperation.  

In the mid-Atlantic, for example, the federal fishery management council and representatives of ASMFC meet in joint session.  Identical management measures are considered by both state and federal managers, and if either the Council or ASMFC fails to approve any such measure, protocol requires that deliberations continue until measures agreeable to everyone are adopted.

Since the Council’s doesn’t have the ability to approve measures that aren’t in accord with Magnuson-Stevens, that means that the more conservative federal measures, which are intended to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks within a relatively short period of time, are the ones put in place.

That, and not the mere fact of state regulation, is why some of the most important East Coast sport and food fish stocks have been rebuilt.

Thus, Rep. Graves has learned exactly the wrong lessons from East Coast fisheries managers.  

He has “learned” that when East Coast managers have been successful, it is because the states have managed the stocks involved.

But that is not true.

East Coast fisheries managers have been successful when the federal fisheries management councils take the lead, applying the Magnuson-Stevens Act mandates to promptly end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks.  They have been successful becasuse the states cooperate with federal managers, remaining in compliance with the federal management plans and working together with NMFS to rebuild fish stocks.

In short, East Coast fisheries managers have been successful because they don’t do what Rep. Graves wants to do with red snapper.

And that’s a lesson that Rep. Graves needs to learn quickly, before he does some real harm.


  1. After some research concerning historic accounts of the menhaden fishery in the NE , I believe ASMFC has left about 1% of the unfished menhaden biomass in the water annually. ASMFC sets the level where it is now and has been for over a decade. There is no attempt to " rebuild" this stock to sane levels along our continental shelf. The stock is being managed for MSY , maximum sustainable yield to Omega Proteins reduction kettles and bait boats. Your assessment of the failures of ASMFS is too kind. This group should be dissolved and NMFS should step in .

  2. Can't say that I disagree, although a less extreme measure would require ASMFC to abide by the conservation and rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which would accomplish about the same goal while keeping management at the regional level,.

  3. Can't say that I disagree, although a less extreme measure would require ASMFC to abide by the conservation and rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which would accomplish about the same goal while keeping management at the regional level,.