Sunday, October 11, 2015
OF SHIFTING BASELINES AND BASELESS TALES
I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for winter flounder. They were the fish that my parents and I caught when I was young, the fish that made me an angler even before I entered grade school.
They were the fish that I caught with my friends when we walked down to the docks on days off from school, and then later, when we grew just a little older, from the first boats that we ran by ourselves.
They were the fish that I caught with my wife, before and after we married, and that we used to celebrate the coming of spring over the course of many years.
They were the fish that was always around if you knew where to catch them, that could always be counted on to provide a meal.
We caught them to excess back in the day, when bringing home a pail full of flounder was considered the norm, and a bulging burlap feed sack or a bushel basket loaded right to the rim was nothing abnormal when fishing was good.
Far too many flounder were wasted in those days gone by, fed to tomato plants rather than people when cleaning the fish grew overly onerous, or just tossed in the garbage at some point in time after freezer burn set in.
And as too often happens when folks waste what they have, the population crashed, doomed by overharvest and the fishing industry’s incessant fight against rules that might let it rebuild.
Thus, just a few days ago, I was interested to read an article from Sport Fishing magazine announcing that flounder were back up in Boston.
The piece was written in the same rosy tones that are typical for articles of its kind. It announced that
“Winter flounder, aka blackbacks, have made an amazing comeback in the waters of Boston Harbor, marking a return to the type of fishing that drew busloads of anglers from as far away as New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. Overfishing and pollution once decimated the fishery, but tighter regulation on inshore gill-netting and improvements to Boston’s sewage management system have spawned a return to the glory days of flounder fishing…”
It all sounds pretty wonderful. And it would be, if it only were true.
Let me start out by saying that the winter flounder angling around Boston Harbor is probably the best flounder fishing to be found anywhere on the coast.
But let me finish up by saying that, compared to the sort of fishing that we saw back in the 1970s, it’s still not very good.
Yes, I know that statement contradicts a quote in the Sport Fishing article, in which Barry Gibson, a charter boat captain and former magazine editor who grew up in the region, insists that
“flounder fishing today is every bit as productive as it was 35 years ago.”
But I was alive and fishing back in the ‘70s, too. Grew up in New England, graduated from a Massachusetts college in ’76 and worked in a tackle shop through the summer of ’78, and anyone who says that the fishing today matches Quincy (where you rented a boat to fish Boston Harbor) back in those years probably should get a checkup for Alzheimer’s disease.
Right now, the bag limit for Gulf of Maine winter flounder in Massachusetts is 8 fish, with a 12-inch minimum size. Back in the ‘70s, there was no bag or size limit for winter flounder in New York or New Jersey, and catching just 8 would be a very bad day.
In fact, ten years ago, when I quit fishing for winter flounder here on Long Island because the stock was showing signs of collapse, I averaged 10 fish—myself—per trip, so bringing home a mere 8 fish wouldn’t even be close to a good day by traditional New York standards.
For Quincy, back then, it would be pretty awful.
Folks didn't ride buses for four hours, each way, just to bring home 8 flounders for dinner.
Sport Fishing Magazine may say that winter flounder fishing has returned to its former quality up around Boston, but the folks who live there know better. About two years ago, the Telegram, a local newspaper, addressed the situation, and what it reported is a lot closer to the truth.
“Boston Harbor’s winter flounder are decreasing in number and size…
“As [Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, Paul] Diodati’s data clearly reveals, the peak of recreational and commercial fishing harvests was back in 1982. Since then, state water harvests have precipitously declined, in part because of combined overfishing from both commercial and recreational fishermen.
“In fact, recreational fishermen took more flounder than commercial fishermen during two years of the 1980s decline. Surprisingly, the overwhelmingly beneficial cleanup of Boston Harbor, as well as other environmental changes, may have been even more significant factors in the area’s diminishing flounder fishing.
“The lessening of sewage discharge and cessation of sludge dumping in Boston Harbor began in 1991…The result of these anti-pollution measures was a greater than 90 percent decrease in organic material in the harbor’s bottom sediments. That drop in pollution counterintuitively coincided with a precipitous drop in winter flounder populations.
“With less organic matter to feed on, tiny organisms like amphipods and polychaetes—species that constitute a critical amount of flounder food—declined significantly. Sewage, it turns out, is good for benthic infauna, the basis for much inshore fish production and growth.
“Diodati notes that ‘While Boston Harbor appears to be a healthier system for winter flounder to reside in, as evidenced by a greatly decreased prevalence of skin ulcers and liver disease, their prey has been lowered significantly. This likely means that Boston Harbor can no longer support the level of winter flounder abundance seen from 1960-1990.’ [emphasis added]”
We can argue about the beneficial aspects of sewage in harbor waters, and reasonable people may very well find other reasons for the Boston Harbor flounders’ decline.
However, what local folks, and local fishery managers, seem to agree on is that the decline is fact, and that Boston Harbor’s flounder abundance has “precipitously declined.”
We shouldn’t be arguing about that.
So while there’s nothing wrong with going up to Boston Harbor and taking home a few flounder, while enjoying the best winter flounder fishing that remains anywhere along the coast, there is something wrong—very wrong—about a magazine heralding what is historically pretty slow fishing as “a return to the glory days.”
It’s wrong because it encourages the “shifting baseline syndrome.” That was first described, with respect to fisheries, by biologist Daniel Pauley in “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries,” where he wrote
“this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.”
What is true of fisheries scientists is true of fishermen as well; anglers who didn’t know Quincy in the ‘70s and ‘80s may well think that today’s fishing is, in fact, good.
And that is what makes articles such as the one in Sport Fishing so insidiously dangerous.
While writers may feel that they need to strike a rah-rah, the-good-times-are-back sort of pose to make readers want to go fishing (and buy their advertisers’ goods), by doing so they create the false impression that today’s fishing is as good as it gets, and that there is no reason to try to make things any better.
By encouraging anglers to let their baselines shift, and believe that poor-to-mediocre fishing is in fact very good, writers and publishers merely help to assure that angling in the future will be far less rewarding, and so less enjoyable, than it was in the past, and help pave the way for the sport’s decline and perhaps its demise.
Instead, publications would do their readers--and in the long run, themselves--a far better service if, while encouraging them to make the most of what they have today, they also remind them of what they have lost, and encourage them to work to recover depleted stocks so that they may enjoy a far more abundant tomorrow.