Sunday, August 16, 2015


I recently came across a news article stating that Minnesota just shut down fishing for walleye on Lake Mille Lacs, one of the most popular walleye fisheries in that state.

For freshwater anglers in the upper Midwest, the walleye is probably the leading sport and food fish, which probably plays the same role there that summer flounder does in the Mid-Atlantic.  So the Mille Lacs closure was about the equivalent of a state shutting down its summer flounder fishery around the first week of August.

As is currently the case with summer flounder, no one is entirely sure why the walleye declined, but the decline is a big one.  Until a few years ago, the harvest quota for the lake was 500,000 pounds, split between anglers and net fishermen belonging to the indigenous Ojibwe people, with anglers receiving a little over 70% of the harvest.  But the population fell so far and so fast that the 2015 quota for the lake was a mere 40,000 pounds.

That’s a lot sharper reduction in landings than the 29% cut that the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council recommended for summer flounder next year.

But what I find interesting is the attitudes of the fishermen who are affected.

I was at the August Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council meeting, and listened to fishermen, both recreational and commercial, respond to the proposed summer flounder cuts.  Just about every speaker either challenged the science behind the reductions or, in effect, asked that it be ignored. 

On the recreational side, New Jersey attorney Ray Bogan, representing the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said that the 29% reduction would be

“a true management and human crisis.”
And to be fair, for some in the business, that might be true.

Representatives of the for-hire industry were far blunter than that, with one, Captain Jeff Gutman of the New Jersey-based party boat Voyager, reading a letter from Capt. Ed Yates, the President of the United Boatmen’s Association.  Yates wrote that United Boatmen “strongly reject” any harvest reduction, and went on to write that there was

“no reason for the cuts other than to destroy the for-hire fishing fleet,”
and made the fairly pointed claim that

“I know and you know that the numbers are bogus.”
Other recreational comments were somewhat milder, but the bottom line is that, among those in the crowd, there wasn’t a lot of support for harvest reductions.

The commercial sector was no happier about the pending cuts.  Long-time industry spokesmen, such as Greg DiDimenico of the Garden State Seafood Association and Jerry Schill, who represents commercial interests in North Carolina, spoke about economic hardship and the loss of infrastructure that harvest reductions might cause, and asked that steps be taken to minimize the reductions.

Individual commercial fishermen universally condemned the science used to justify the harvest cuts, sought more “transparency” with respect for how the data was gathered and used and asked that the full 29% reduction not be made.

As was the case with the recreational side, there were some less measured commercial comments, too.  A spokesman for New Jersey’s Belford Seafood Cooperative said that the fishermen couldn’t take any additional cuts.  He addressed the Council, saying

“All you do is steal our lives”
and asked

“When are we going to be left to make a living?”
He finished up by accusing the Council, saying

“You stoled [sic] our licenses, you stoled everything”
and compared the Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service to Bernie Madoff.

That’s very different from what happened in Minnesota.

In Minnesota, it does look like the science is flawed, with a local paper reporting that biologists

“now believe they overestimated by a significant margin how many fish they could take from the lake.”
Yet, although

“area resorts, marinas, and tourism-dependent businesses [stand] to lose millions [of dollars]”
if harvest quotas remain low, there is no evidence that guides, tackle shops, boat dealers and the rest of the angling-dependent businesses are pouring out to fight the harvest reduction.  Instead, they have joined with the state to try to figure out why the walleye population in the lake has collapsed, and to figure out how to restore it, recognizing that there are no easy answers.

And the biggest group of commercial fishermen on the lake, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, have stated that they will voluntarily forego any walleye harvest in 2016.

That’s a very different thing than we see on the coast.

Yet it seems to be a recurring theme.

Whether we’re talking about walleye or whitetails, trout or turkeys, sportsmen in the interior of the nation, as well as the businesses that support them, seem to generally be far less hostile to needed conservation measures than their counterparties on the coast.

Some of the objections that you hear to salt water management measures are extremely difficult to comprehend.

At the August Mid-Atlantic Council meeting, managers also set 2016, 2017 and 2018 harvest limits for scup (usually referred to as “porgies” here in New York). 

Scup management is a success story.  The biomass has risen to more than twice the target level, and neither the recreational nor the commercial fishery has been able to land its full allocation in recent years despite, in the recreational fishery’s case, a steadily declining minimum size and increasing bag limits.

However, everyone understands that today’s bounty won’t continue forever, and the scup population will eventually decrease to more typical levels. 

At least, everyone in fisheries management understands that basic truth.  Thus, Council staff proposed annual catch limits that declined slightly in every year through 2018 to reflect, among other things, decreasing—but still more than healthy—recruitment levels.  Staff noted that, by 2018, the annual catch limits might be reduced to the point that they finally do constrain landings.

Such decrease caused a number of fishermen at the meeting, from both the commercial and recreational sectors, to rise in indignation, asking why a fishery that is now at twice the target level should be subject to future reductions.

Apparently, the difference between “now” and “future” was not something that the fishermen could comprehend…

And perhaps that is the greatest difference in attitude between fresh and salt water anglers. 

For the most part (although there are exceptions, such as last year’s angler demands to reduce striped bass landings), salt water fishermen are primarily concerned with today’s harvest.  Earlier this year, I reported on how a significant portion of New York’s recreational fishing industry wanted to quintuple the length of the flounder season, even though New York’s local stocks are facing a real threat of extirpation.  That’s not an atypical reaction here on the coast.

Yet in the rivers that flow into the bays where New York’s flounder spawn, there are remnants of Long Island’s heritage strain of brook trout.  Although the population in one of those waters, the Carmans River, appears to be holding its own, if at low levels, the remainder are on their last legs, in at least as bad a shape as the flounder.  But when the Department of Environmental Conservation outlawed any taking of Long Island brook trout at all, no one—not the tackle industry, and certainly not the anglers—objected to an action that clearly was the right thing to do.

So why the difference?

It’s hard to say, but it’s possible that inland habitats are small enough that sportsmen can see just what is happening, and can’t avoid the truth of a population’s decline, while in the ocean, it is all to easy to believe—if you choose to—that the fish just went elsewhere or the data is bad.

But the reason is not important, for too many fish populations experience far too much stress in both inland and out in the sea.  And if salt water anglers don’t make an attitude adjustment sometime soon, they might find themselves without much to catch, whatever the regulations might be.

1 comment:

  1. Yep, lakes are closer to being closed systems while the ocean still seems infinite to lots of people.