Thursday, December 3, 2015
A MESSAGE TO CONGRESS
The House Natural Resources Committee is going to hold a fisheries hearing on Long Island next Monday. It will focus on summer flounder and striped bass, and what it alleges to be recent harvest reductions based on
“the lack of science and inadequate data collection used in the management of these key species as well as other potential regulatory issues in the region that could hinder access to those fisheries and hurt the regional seafood economy.”
Given that the science and data set used for striped bass is arguably the best available for any salt water fish in the nation, and that the science used to manage summer flounder is acknowledged to be better than average, it would seem that the hearing is based on a pretty shaky premise.
But that’s hardly surprising. The Committee majority are the same folks who supported H.R. 1335, Alaska Congressman Don Young’s reincarnation of Doc Hastings’ Empty Oceans Act, and the hearing is reportedly being held at the request of East End Congressman Lee Zeldin, who helped to torpedo New York’s recreational salt water fishing license while still a state legislator, so it’s pretty clear what direction the hearing will take, although minority reps will undoubtedly try to poison the planned atmosphere by injecting measured doses of reality.
Even so, it would be good to have some folks in the room who care about keeping fish in the ocean and would rather not see their grandkids fishing for the last surviving sea robins in Great South Bay.
I might have had a chance to testify, but won’t be able to show, having made a prior commitment that was practically impossible to break. But if I had been available, my testimony would have sounded something like this:
The people who support H.R. 1335, and similar efforts to add “flexibility” to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, have failed to learn the lessons of the past thirty-five years.
If we go out to Montauk today, it’s not hard to notice that all of the fisheries which are healthy—summer flounder, black sea bass and scup—can all thank Magnuson-Stevens for their current abundance.
Summer flounder have a big place on the hearing agenda.
Back in 1989, the population had bottomed out, and biologists had trouble finding fish more than two years old. Even after Magnuson-Stevens had been amended in 1996, to include new provisions that prohibited overfishing and required overfished stocks to be rebuilt—if at all possible—in no more than 10 years, fisheries managers didn’t take the law seriously, and came up with a summer flounder management plan far more likely to fail than succeed.
That’s when conservationists changed the face of fisheries management by bringing the landmark case of Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, which determined that a fishery management plan that did not have at least a 50% chance of success did not meet the demands of the law.
Thanks to the court’s support of Magnuson-Stevens, the summer flounder stock staged a magnificent recovery, and if the most recent science suggests that it was never quite fully restored, it recovered to the point that anglers now frequently catch summer flounder so large that just one fillet—you get four from each fish—is longer and heavier than the entire 14” summer flounder that we tried hard to find twenty-five years ago.
Now, the biologists tell us that summer flounder had unsuccessful spawns in four consecutive years, 2010-2013. Such things happen in nature from time to time; there doesn’t appear to be anything inherently wrong with the stock, but the annual catch limits need to be reduced for a few years, until the spawning stock has a chance to rebuild.
That seems like a reasonable course; there is a four-year-class hole in the spawning stock right now that is very obvious if one looks at recreational landings, which fell far below the annual catch limit this year. The fish spawned between 2010 and 2013 are subject to significant attrition; trawlers and anglers cause the stock to decrease on every day that the season is open. Thus, it makes sense to protect the fish that remain, including those from the near-average 2014 spawn, which will be the first decent-sized cohort produced in five years.
The Committee majority, of course, doesn’t seem to believe that. In the hearing memo, it notes that
“this assessment and the resulting recommended reductions have been met with staunch criticism from the industry—many of whom were taken by surprise by the 2015 assessment.”
As evidence, they quote one “angler” (who was in fact a New Jersey party boat captain), who reportedly said
“We see a lot of flounder. We raised the [size] limit and saved a lot of fish. It looks like it recovered and then the next year they say we have a problem.”
I saw a lot of summer flounder last season, too. The problem was that they were almost all one-year-olds, fish from the nearly-average 2014 year class. Next season, if the annual catch limits are not reduced, those fish will be about 14 inches long, just big enough to be kept by the commercial trawlers that are also complaining about the harvest reductions.
If harvests are not reduced, how many of those fish will survive until 2018, when they’ll finally be about 18 inches long and large enough for anglers to take home? That’s something that the for-hire boats out at Montauk to think about, because with the 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 year classes significantly smaller than average, the 2014s represent the next decent cohort of fish that will be available to their customers.
If efforts to weaken Magnuson-Stevens succeed, and the harvest reductions aren’t put in place, party and charter boats that depend on summer flounder won’t have much to offer their customers until, at best, 2019. That would not be a good thing for business.
The other thing that for-hire boats need, particularly out at Montauk, is striped bass.
One of the issues that the Committee will examine at the hearing is whether striped bass fishing should be allowed in the section of ocean between the East End of Long Island and Block Island. It’s not a big area, but much of it lies in federal waters, where striped bass fishing is prohibited. However, a special provision in the federal rules allows boats to transit that area with striped bass on board, provided that they do not stop to fish along the way.
For years, the Montauk charter boat fleet has been seeking legislation that would allow them to fish for striped bass in that “transit zone.” That request, at first, seems innocuous, as the area is relatively small. However, as Jim Hutchinson, former Managing Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, noted in testimony to Congress a few years ago while opposing such an effort,
“The Block Island Sound transit zone is not the only region within the striped bass management unit where stakeholders have expressed a desire to open portions of the EEZ for directed striped bass harvest. These efforts have been denied by federal agencies due to the potential impacts on the overall stock and the challenges associated with enforcing small exempted areas.”
We can be sure that if the Block Island Sound transit zone were opened to striped bass fishing, pressure would build quickly to do the same thing elsewhere, particularly off Virginia, where a winter fishery targeting concentrations of prime spawning-sized fish in federal waters existed for years, until federal enforcement actions, and resultant severe penalties, made it clear to lawbreaking anglers that the risk of getting caught wasn’t worth the possible gains. If that winter fishery opened up again, its likely impact on striped bass mortality would be substantial.
And that would be a bad thing, as a recent update to the striped bass stock assessment shows that, at the end of 2014, fishing mortality was well over the target, and approaching the overfishing threshold.
Quite simply, it would be foolish for Montauk charter boat captains to do anything that could cause a decline in the stock. I remember the stock collapse of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and have no doubt that some of the older captains remember it, too. A lot of well-known boats went out of business back then, and the ones that survived did so because there were quite a few other things to fish for.
In the late 1970s, Montauk offered a cornucopia of species and a season that had no real end. From “snowshoe” winter flounder in the spring to big summer cod at Coxe’s Ledge, from giant bluefin tuna that sometimes broke 1,000 pounds to hordes of yellowfin in the Butterfish Hole, there was a fish to fit every angler’s dreams. The loss of bass hurt, but there were other options.
Today, the boats have striped bass and summer flounder, along with a seasonal spattering of sharks and—again thanks to Magnuson-Stevens—an abundance of scup and black sea bass. Everything else, from white marlin to winter flounder and weakfish, is either pretty scarce or completely gone.
Thus, if the angling-related businesses are to survive, they need to take care of what they still have, because if they lose it, they’ll end up with nothing at all.