Sunday, January 31, 2016


Beginning even before the release of the benchmark striped bass stock assessment in 2013, a legion of concerned striped bass anglers were engaged in a seemingly endless fight to convince managers to reduce striped bass harvest and rebuild a declining striped bass population.

When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board voted, in late 2014, to reduce harvest by 25%, we won a victory of sorts, although the ultimate reduction was smaller than we had requested.

But as soon as that fight was done, we were forced into another battle at the state level, as fish-hungry businesses and angling organizations began to press fisheries managers, using ASMFC’s concept of “conservation equivalency” to find was to kill more striped bass than the one fish, no less than 28 inches in length, that the Management Board set as the coastwide standard.

Thanks to the leadership of some state fisheries managers, notably most of those in New England and—yes, I’m proud to say it—right here in New York, 1 fish at 28 inches or more became the standard all along the coast, except in New Jersey, where conservation is as alien as a three-headed cow, and Delaware which, in recent years, seems to have been infected by New Jersey’s mismanagement efforts.

Now, with the ink on last year’s regulations barely dry on the page, it appears that New Jersey’s contagion is spreading even farther south, and morphing into a sort of even more malign infection as it hybridizes with native greed in the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions.

For when ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board meets on the morning of Wednesday, February 4, it will be considering three motions which, whether taken together or separately, can only undermine the gains won in late 2014.

Two of those motions are being carried forward from November’s meeting, and will require substantial public input; they won’t affect the fishery any sooner than 2017; the third, however, could be approved and implemented in time for this spring’s striped bass season, with no public input at all.

That change would allow Maryland to adopt the same sort of two-fish bag limit that is currently in effect in New Jersey and Delaware, which would allow anglers fishing in coastal waters (as opposed to Chesapeake Bay) to keep one fish between 28 and 38 inches in length, along with a second fish at least 44 inches long, or to adopt a 2-fish bag limit and a 33-inch minimum size.

The former option, which includes a 6-inch protected “slot,” is probably the lesser of the two evils, as it at least protects the important 2003 year class, fish which, according to information compiled by the State of Delaware and shared on the Delaware Surf Fishing website, should average 40 or 41 inches this year. 

Another proposed change, which affects the so-called spring “trophy” fishery, would simplify the  size limit from last year’s 28-36 inches or 40 inches or more, which was intended to protect some of the medium-sized breeders, to a flat 36-inch minimum that only preserves the smallest adults while targeting the most fecund females (under an alternate proposal, charter boats would be allowed to keep one fish between 28 and 36 inches, with the rest over 36, on each trip).

There is no Maryland data to support the proposed change to its coastal size limit.  Materials prepared for the February ASMFC meeting note that

“the use of Delaware’s conservation equivalency proposal has not been approved for use in Maryland.  Maryland’s coastal anglers have requested that regulations be consistent between the two states but Maryland’s Atlantic Ocean data is too poor to conduct our own conservation equivalency calculations…Examining the raw length data from MRIP, including imputed lengths, 25 ocean fish were measured in Maryland in 2011-2013, not enough to characterize the ocean length frequencyDue to the lack of data and the desire to have consistent regulations between the states, Maryland requests approval to adopt Delaware’s Addendum IV regulations for the 2016 fishing season. [emphasis added]”
It’s easy to criticize Maryland’s effort, based on the lack of state-specific data that provides some confidence that the proposed regulations would actually meet the Addendum IV mandate to reduce harvest by 25%.  However, doing so would miss the bigger point.

Biologists have yet to confirm that Delaware’s—and more importantly, New Jersey’s—allegedly “equivalent” regulations managed to achieve such 25% reduction.

That information is on the way.  At its November 2015 meeting, the Striped Bass Management Board agreed that an update to the stock assessment should be prepared, which would determine the state of the bass population at the close of 2015, and provide some real guidance on the impact of the new regulations.

In the interests of good management, no changes should be made until that update is released.  However, as we’ve seen so many times, that’s not the way things are done at ASMFC.

In fact, the change to the Maryland regulations are far from the worst proposal that the Striped Bass Management Board will address on February 4.  For one of the carry-over motions that will be considered would

“Move to initiate an Addendum to reconsider management options in the Chesapeake Bay from Addendum IV for 2016 based on the stock assessment update in 2015 and retrospective projections.”
That was bad enough, but the usual suspects in the Mid-Atlantic wished to amend that motion with another, which said

“Move to amend [the previous motion] to remove the words ‘in the Chesapeake Bay.’”
In other words, there are motions on the table to effectively undo all the hard work put into Addendum IV. 

And that is what the Management Board is going to consider on February 4.

Before the ink has had time to dry…

Again, it’s the sort of thing that we’ve come to expect at ASMFC, with Robert T. Brown, President of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, arguing

“However, the benchmark, which was raised in the [sic] 2013, and the board approved Addendum IV in October 2014 in order to reduce F to a level at or below the new targets—coastal states a 25 percent reduction; the Chesapeake Bay a 20.5 percent reduction—this Addendum IV needs to be revisited, restructured or abolished.  We moved too fast. [emphasis added]”
Because, sure, it was a peer-reviewed stock assessment and all—clearly the best available science—but that didn’t mean that ASMFC really had to use it for management…

Hopefully, no one will be surprised to hear that Tom Fote, governor’s appointee from New Jersey, quickly leaped on the kill-more-bass bandwagon, saying

“I’m probably going to get beat up on the internet again because they call me a striped bass hog [author’s note:  If one walks like a hog, and talks like a hog, then…]; but I’m looking at the science and I have to base my decision on the science.  If we had just really looked at the science, we shouldn’t have done this addendum to this plan…”
Fote based his comments on the fact that the Atlantic Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update 2015 estimated a female spawning stock biomass at the close of 2014 at around 63,918 metric tons, above both the “overfished” threshold of 57,626 metric tons and the 58,200 metric tons estimated for the end of 2012 in the Update to the Stock Assessment Using Final 2012 Data, and claimed that known retrospective bias in the assessment justified taking no action to reduce fishing mortality.

Of course, Fote assumed that the 2015 update, which showed a higher female spawning stock biomass, provided the correct estimate of stock size, and that the update using 2012 data was wrong, instead of it being the other way around (the sort of assumption one could be expected to make if one was, well, a bass hog…)  

However, if we actually looked at the science, as Fote claims to have done,  we’d know that in both cases, the numbers in question were merely point estimates, and that the best that the scientists can say, with a 95% certainty of being right, was that the female SSB at the end of 2014 was somewhere between 51,183 and 76,653 metric tons, and somewhere between 43,262 and 73,212 metric tons at the end of 2012, which means that the two updates don’t really contradict each other at all.

Furthermore, even if we assume that the point estimates are right, the 2014 update provides an estimate far below the biomass target of 72,032 metric tons, so there’s a lot of rebuilding to do.  And Fote and the other folks wanting to increase the kill must have somehow missed the statement in the 2015 update that

“If the constant catch of 3,402,641 fish was maintained during 2015-2017, the probability of being below the SSB threshold increases to 0.49 by 2015.”
Or maybe they didn’t, and just figure that a mere 49% chance that the stock became overfished last year gives them all of the confidence they need to say that things are fine and that there’s no reason not to kill a bunch more striped bass.

Back in 2011, anglers’ worries about a declining striped bass stock led the Management Board to consider an addendum that would have paved the way for reducing harvest before the last benchmark assessment was completed.  The Striped Bass Stock Assessment Update 2011 confirmed the anglers’ concerns, indicating a declining stock that might well become overfished in the near future.

Even so, the effort to reduce landings stalled in November 2011, just before a draft amendment went out for public comment.  The Striped Bass Management Board chose to postpone action until the completion of the benchmark stock assessment, because the management triggers included in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass had not yet been tripped, and so no action was required.

Today, two of those management triggers have been tripped, fishing mortality targets have been exceeded in multiple years and the stock is well below target biomass, with nearly a coin-toss chance that it became overfished last year. 

A new benchmark stock assessment will be undertaken next year. 

Yet, because a stock assessment update, which was never subject to peer review, suggested that the biomass was slightly larger than previously believed, people are now falling all over each other to increase the kill, not only before the next benchmark assessment occurs, but before management measures imposed to comply with the last benchmark assessment can even be evaluated.

It always seems that the ASMFC folks are quicker to kill fish than they are to conserve them.

At the November 2015 Management Board meeting, Robert O’Reilly, who represents the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC), seemed appalled at maintaining a steady course until the next benchmark assessment is released in 2018, saying

“I don’t recall being told that a benchmark assessment would take us to the next management regime…Management can certainly take place without a benchmark.
“I really don’t understand where the benchmark is coming from.  I would like to be able to speak for some of the coastal states as to what they think about the situation of waiting until 2018…I know within the Chesapeake Bay we were to a point where we all thought—I did not think one year.  I thought we adopted a plan for a two-year approach to be re-evaluated and go from there…”
I was at the October 2014 meeting, and listened pretty closely, and I don't recall hearing anyone say that the Addendum IV measures would only last for two years.  

In fact, given the break awarded to Chesapeake Bay—a 20.5% reduction in harvest, instead of the  25% cut imposed on the rest of us—it probably would take Chesapeake fishermen two years just to get their fishing mortality down to target levels.  

That, I remember hearing…

Patrick Keliher, the fisheries director from Maine, got it right.

“The ink has [not] even dried on this plan yet.  We don’t even have the results of the regulatory actions that were taken last year by all the [states] in place.  I think this is very premature…
“…Mr. O’Reilly talked about a trickle of fish coming to the coast.  It is going to take a lot more than a trickle to positively impact the State of Maine…”

It’s going to take more than a trickle to positively impact the rest of the coastal states, too.  

However, if Maryland, the PRFC, New Jersey and Delaware get their way—and given ASMFC’s track record, that could very well happen—a trickle may be all that we get, unless we speak long and loud against any addendum that might emerge from the Management Board this February.

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Any way you look at it, 2016’s black sea bass regulations are going to be a lot tougher than last year’s.  

That won’t be true everywhere; states between Delaware and North Carolina, which account for a very small proportion of the catch, probably will not see any change, but at the northern part of the species’ range, the cuts will be pretty severe.

That’s because we caught a lot of black sea bass last year.

Sure, there seemed to be a lot around, particularly from eastern Long Island up into New England, where a lot of natural hard bottom held plenty of fish right through the fall.  On the South Shore of Long Island, where I spend most of my time, there were plenty of sea bass available when the season opened on July 15, but they got hit pretty hard; with legal fluke hard to come by, a lot of effort shifted over to the reefs and wrecks.  It didn’t take long before the most popular pieces got picked over pretty badly, and decent fish became much harder to come by.

People don’t like to hear that, and keep trying to claim that the National Marine Fisheries Services’ estimates of recreational landings are wrong.  To an extent, I think that they’re right, but they should be happy that NMFS doesn’t agree; the estimates of party boat landings seem to grossly undercount the actual landings.  As an example of that, I point to the last season’s Wave 4 (July-August) party boat estimate for New York.  NMFS says that all of the party boats in the state landed fewer than 10,000 black sea bass during that period, yet the web page of just two party boats operating out of Captree State Park claim landings of 12,580 during the same period.

I fish the same waters that those party boats do, and from what I’ve seen, their numbers are probably right.

If NMFS had more accurate numbers, the cutbacks would probably be a lot worse.

Still, the proposed 23% reduction in harvest will hit pretty hard.  For example, in 2015, New York had a 14-inch minimum size, 8 fish bag limit (10 in November-December) and a season that ran from July 15 through the end of the year.  2016 regulations haven’t yet been adopted, but some of the preliminary possibilities include the same 14-inch size limit, but either a) a 4-fish bag limit and a season that runs from July 15-October 21, b) a 5-fish bag limit and a season that runs from July 30 through December 31 or c) a 5-fish bag limit and a season that runs from July 15 through September 21, closes for a month, then runs from October 22 through the end of the year.

The odds are pretty good that the final regulations will look somewhat different from any of those, and if the unusually clement weather in November and December resulted in anglers landing too many fish, it’s possible that the cutbacks will be even greater than 23%.  

But you get the idea…

It’s only human to be unhappy when regulations become more restrictive, but the rhetoric surrounding black sea bass regulation has become so overblown that rational discussion is becoming increasingly difficult.

For example, a January 15 article in the Asbury Park Press is entitled

and begins

“Harvest reductions proposed for sea bass based on what recreational fishing industry members said is questionable science to back it up have some calling for a mutiny of regulatory measures.”
That’s not an opening that promises the reader a balanced account of the issues plaguing black sea bass managers, and the rest of the article continues in the same vein.  It is rich with quotes from people criticizing the management system and disputing the need for reductions.  However, comments from biologists explaining just why the reductions are needed, or why black sea bass present management problems, are notably absent.

Instead of presenting solid scientific facts, it only offers inane comments from fishing club representatives who say things such as

“there are more sea bass on the coast than what science has found.”
And that’s one of the less outrageous statements.

Down in New Jersey, members of the angling industry are openly calling for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to go out of compliance with the federally-mandated catch reduction.  The Fisherman magazine says

“In response, [some of those] in attendance at the January 7th hearing in Manahawkin have encouraged New Jersey decision-makers to defy the National Marine Fisheries Service cutback options by going out of compliance.
“’Anglers have to decide if it’s time to take a stand and say that they’re not taking it anymore.’ [Adam] Nowalsky [a charter boat captain] added, saying that he’s not sure how other states plan to react but feels that biologically speaking, the defiant approach won’t hurt the health of the fishery.  ‘It’s a paper exercise at this point, I don’t think anything we’re talking about with sea bass right now is a danger to the stock itself.”
It should probably be pointed out that Nowalsky is a charter boat captain, not a biologist, and thus might not be the best person to be making biological assessments of the health of the stock. 

He also doesn’t seem to be a student of practical fisheries management, as he is apparently unaware of the problems that states going out of compliance with federal rules have created in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery.  There, in order to compensate for excess harvest in state waters, the federal red snapper season has been carved down to almost nothing; thus, going out of compliance with federal rules would probably be a foolish route for New Jersey to take, given that most of their prime black sea bass grounds, including most of the state’s artificial reefs, lie in federal waters.

As the time when states must draft their black sea bass regulations draws closer, it’s time to tone down the overblown rhetoric and admit some basic facts.

“the 2011 year class of black sea bass is much larger than any other recent year class, and is contributing significantly to high availability in the northern states.  There has been no indication of high recruitment after 2011, and the Committee expects the 2011 year class to be fully recruited to the fishery at this time.  The Committee noted that this year class is currently being fished down quickly, with no indication of similarly large year classes coming in behind it.”
Which means that we shouldn’t expect black sea bass to always be as abundant as they are today; leaving a few more in the water is probably a prudent option.  

“Sea Bass are now considered by many to be the new nuisance fish,”
“The sea bass population is increasing so fast and their range has been expanding so far that our ‘best science’ cannot keep up with it,”
and that

“Sea Bass are now causing problems in southern New England where they are eating the baby lobsters and may be contributing to their decline”
are unsupported by data and thus clearly out of line.  All that they do is drive wedges of suspicion between anglers and the fisheries scientists who, in the end, we must look to as the guardians of America’s marine resources.

A new stock assessment will be completed late this year, which hopefully will survive the peer review process and give regulators a better idea of how to manage the fishery.

In the meantime, it is wise to err on the side of caution, to better assure that the healthy stock that we enjoy today will remain healthy, so that we may continue to enjoy it well into the future.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Anyone who follows fisheries issues down in the Gulf of Mexico knows that the red snapper debate went off the rails a long time ago. 

The important issues, such as how to best restore the stock to real abundance and how to prevent overfishing, have been more-or-less set aside.  Instead, a recalcitrant faction of the recreational fishing community, fanatically intent on seeing their own desires placed above the needs of the red snapper stock, has been fighting a dogged retrograde action, trying to block every Council move to improve the management process.

They recently tried to block a Council effort to split the recreational harvest limit into separate allocations to private vessels and to federally-licensed charter and party boats, but were shot down in flames by a federal district court in Louisiana.

The target of their latest blockade is, of all things, an advisory panel made up of recreational, private-boat red snapper fishermen.  The sort of people that, one might believe, are the very souls that such recreational angling groups represent.

But if you believe that, you haven’t been paying attention.  You missed the rhetorical battle that has been raging down there for the past half-decade or more.  And you missed the distant thump of the rotors that whirl in the distance, as black helicopters approach to whisk the red snapper away.
Because, if you believe some of these folks, there is a vast conspiracy

“by those who favor privatization policies that place ownership of public resources in the hands of a select few businesses…The alliance includes commercial fishermen, seafood processors, a select handful of charter/party boat operators, portions of the restaurant industry—basically anyone making a buck selling a publicly owned, wild fish in some way.  That alliance has been painstakingly and crafted by environmental groups with enormous resources…
“Everyone in the alliance gets something—the environmental groups get closer to their vision of the oceans as ordered aquariums.  The selected for-profit operators get a personal windfall they have no right to own.  The federal management system, which has historically been commercially biased anyway, gets to claim it is doing its job…”
If all of those folks—essentially, everyone other than the militant anglers—really do constitute some sort of conspiracy, it’s hard not to label it the “Conspiracy of the Responsible.”

For it’s composed partly of commercial fishermen who, beginning in 2007, haven’t exceeded their annual catch limit once and who, along with the seafood processors, actually sued the National Marine Fisheries Service a couple of years ago—and won—for the Service’s failure to keep the recreational sector from chronically overfishing their annual allocations. 

It is partly composed of federally-permitted charter and party boat owners who asked for their own, dedicated catch limit, so they wouldn’t be adversely affected by a steadily increasing private boat harvest that threatened to cut the for-hires’ season in federal waters—the only place that they’re allowed to fish—to nothing, while the private boats could continue to kill red snapper inside state waters once federal waters was closed.

 It is composed partly of environmental organizations, which want nothing more than healthy, sustainably-managed fish stocks, free of overfishing, and of federal fisheries managers who are legally required to end overfishing and manage fish stocks in just the way that the environmental groups—and any responsible users, as well—would prefer.

What the conspiracy theorists really don’t want anyone to know, is that the “conspiracy” also includes a lot of responsible anglers who recognize the value of federal management, don’t want red snapper stocks overfished and believe that anglers should be held to scientifically-justifiable catch limits.

Those are just the kind of anglers that groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association surely don’t want on a recreational anglers’ advisory board.  That sort of responsible angler is too likely to approve of the way NMFS is rebuilding red snapper, and too unlikely to put that rebuilding at risk just to increase the recreational kill.

And that is where the hypocrisy comes in.

Because CCA and ASA don’t really seem to oppose recreational advisory panels, so long as they can control them.  And CCA, at least, isn’t really against folks paying to harvest red snapper, either, so long as the "right" folks control the market.

In place of the recreational advisory panel proposed at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, both CCA and ASA support a so-called “Gulf Angler Focus Group” organized under their aegis, composed of anglers and for-hire operators that they allow to sit at the table.  A spokesman for ASA claims that such focus group

“presents a more unified recreational fishing community that will result in clear management recommendations to ensure healthy red snapper and reef fish stocks while providing equitable and reasonable public access.”
Or, to remove the double-talk, such “Gulf Angler Focus Group,” assures that only the CCA/ASA positions are formally presented to the Council; contrary positions that might have come out of an independent recreational advisory panel can be effectively squelched.

That kind of recreational advisory panel would suit CCA and ASA very well…

The same can be said when it comes to paying for “shares” to fish for red snapper.

“Proponents of catch shares argue that the system presents the best way to manage marine resources.  Left unsaid is that anyone who wants to enjoy that resource will have to buy it from a shareholder who paid nothing to own it in the first place…
“Plans under consideration by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council would expand catch shares to charter/for-hire operators, meaning they, too, would be given shares of the red snapper resource for free.  Assuredly, those operators will then take that windfall and charge the angling public whatever they want to access ‘their’ fish.”
“What kind of fishery are we creating with this system for our grandkids, for our kids or even for us?  The federal government is creating a situation in which the public is paying to give away our marine resources, and then forcing us to pay again and again to access those resources in the future…”
But just half a dozen years ago, CCA was singing a very different tune, and would probably still be singing it today if it wasn’t for the sharp rebukes that it received in the angling press.  On April 10, 2009, CCA presented a paper to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (drafted, curiously enough, in collaboration with some of the same "environmental" folks, including the Environmental Defense Fund, who CCA now stridently condemns) entitled “Is there a better way to manage U.S. shared commercial and recreational fisheries?

In that paper, CCA suggests doing away with the traditional open-access recreational red snapper fishery, and limiting access solely to those people willing and able to place the high bid on lots of red snapper tags.  Anglers of lesser means who were unable to afford the high bid on a lot of tags would be locked out of the fishery.

As the paper noted

“Let anyone who so desires to place their best bid and distribute to highest bidders—bidders could be individuals, states or organizations…”
“Those who buy tags can use them any way they desire—take the fish home and eat it, give them as Christmas presents, sell them, take their fish to a market and sell them…
So the “regular Joe” who might go snapper fishing a couple times every year would have to compete against well-heeled sportsmen, offshore fishing clubs, fish processing houses, commercial fishing fleets and even the same “charter/for-hire operators” that CCA complains about today in order to get his lot of 10—or perhaps as many as 100—tags, a situation which wouldn’t have given poor “Joe” a very good chance of success. 

In the end, it would likely be wealthier anglers, along with organizations that represent them, which would have ended up with the lion’s share of the snapper, a situation which obviously would not have upset CCA at all. 

The proposed auction process would have applied to all red snapper landings, and done away with the distinction between recreational and commercial harvest.  Thus, the commercial red snapper fishing industry, which has to consider the price it can pay and still operate profitably, would likely have been badly squeezed, if it could have survived at all.

That wouldn’t have caused the CCA folks many sleepless nights, either. 

Party and charter boat businesses who wanted to take clients out for red snapper would also have faced additional burdens.

But CCA defended the approach, saying that

“It is simple and arguably the most fair and equitable approach.  Every one—anglers, commercial harvesters, seafood processors, investors, and conservationists would have the same opportunity to access the resource,”
and predicted that

“Once the auction program has had a chance to establish a ‘free market’ price for tags, they could simply be sold at that price—state agencies, fishing clubs, tackle shops, fishing organizations and seafood dealers could sell them.”
That sounds a lot like what goes on today, with folks buying the right to harvest red snapper from someone.  However, CCA would have created a market structure that favored its view of the world, by allowing anglers or “organizations” [might that term ninclude CCA?] to purchase commercial shares.  Nevertheless, it still would “[force] us to pay again and again to access those resources in the future.”

Not too much different about the end result.

To be fair, CCA raised the possibility of using funds from the tag auctions to finance fisheries management programs, which the current catch share programs do not do.  However, that benefit is probably more theoretical than real, as even CCA noted that

“Currently, law probably would not allow direct application of collected fees to a red snapper conservation and management program.”
So why would CCA propose such a program back in ’09 and yet be such a staunch opponent of catch share programs today?

Again, the answer is clear. 

Whether we’re talking about the private recreational advisory panel, or a program that requires fishermen to pay to harvest red snapper, CCA has no objection to the basic concept. 

If CCA (or ASA) can use such a program for its own benefit, it will endorse the concept and call it a good one.  If someone else benefits, and CCA (or ASA) does not, then the same concept is bad and quickly condemned.

As the recent CCA press release admitted,

“It is difficult to explain why recreational anglers should be highly suspicious of a Recreational Angling Advisory Panel…”
because, in the end, such panel is clearly a good thing, so long as it is peopled by folks who keep the red snapper’s best interests in mind,

“but things are seldom what they seem at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.”
But when you see honest folks looking out for the red snapper resource, and hypocrites just looking out for themselves, you can still figure things out pretty well.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Folks tend to think of fishing as an innocent pastime, something that takes us back to a cane-pole childhood where cares were few and simple pleasures abundant. Unfortunately, today’s fisheries are as politicized as timber and oil production, with various interests each fighting for a share of the resource.
Anglers must play a role in that battle, for it will ultimately determine whether our fish stocks are managed for long-term abundance, or depleted for short-term gain.
Thus, as we enter the new year, we should be asking ourselves what can be done to assure that fish stocks remain healthy and sustainable well into the future.
It may be hard to believe, but the biggest challenge conservation-minded anglers face is just convincing policymakers that we exist. The typical angler shies away from the myriad of meetings, hearings and such that are part of the management process. However, it’s said that nature abhors a vacuum, so when anglers are silent, someone always presumes to speak on our behalf.
Right now, that “someone” is a small group of organizations affiliated with the recreational fishing and boating industries, which have joined together to form the Center for Coastal Conservation (Center). Operating in partnership with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), it is promoting a report entitled A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, which TRCP published in 2014.

That report was produced by a handpicked “commission” headed by two prominent members of the angling and boatbuilding industries, and a number of organizations closely connected with the fishing and boating industries were recognized for having “contributed” to the report.
Thus, it was hardly surprising when such report favored policies that would increase recreational harvest and provide economic benefits to the recreational fishing industry.
It recommended that the annual catch limits of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which have proved effective in restoring fish stocks, be abandoned in favor of the sort of “soft,” mortality-based targets that provide little protection against overharvest. The report would also replace Magnuson-Stevens’ fixed deadlines for rebuilding fish populations with longer, undefined recovery periods that would supposedly reduce “socioeconomic impacts,” but would certainly let managers drag out the rebuilding process for as long as they chose.

Neither the Center nor TRCP appear troubled by the fact that such changes to Magnuson-Stevens would deny anglers the abundance of fish that they need to fully enjoy their chosen pastime. And as last year’s debate over striped bass management demonstrated, a lot of anglers want fish stocks fully restored. Even so, both organizations are trying hard to convince policymakers that the entire angling community supports its report; TRCP has claimed that it represents “the first time the recreational fishing community united to present a precise list of recommended changes to federal laws and policies.”

For most of the past two years, the Center has made the same claim, as it tried to impose the views expressed by the TRCP report on the rest of the angling community. In reality, most recreational fishermen probably don’t even know that such report exists; thus, they can hardly be “united” behind it.
So as the new year dawns, the first thing that anglers ought to do is tell policymakers that neither the Center nor TRCP represents them, and that they want a strong Magnuson-Stevens that will best assure that they, their kids and their grandkids will be able to enjoy an abundance of fish in the sea.
Yet Magnuson-Stevens, as good as it is, isn’t perfect. It encourages management decisions based on the number of fish that may be safely removed from the ocean, rather than how many fish should be left in the ocean to assure that the larger species which feed upon them may also thrive. Thus, anglers should strive to make 2016 the year that forage fish are managed conservatively, to enable them to provide necessary ecosystem services.

For as a nation, we reap greater benefits if there are sufficient menhaden around to support populations of striped bass and king mackerel than we are if those menhaden are captured, processed and turned into fishmeal that’s sent off to China. And we probably reap even greater benefits when forage fish such as sand eels (more properly, “sand launce”), which are not currently harvested in any numbers, aren’t made the targets of new industrial fisheries. Needed work to protect forage fish has already begun, but it remains too far from completion.

There are also a number of species that do not support directed fisheries, but are caught incidentally by fishermen seeking something else. Some such fish are retained, to be sold or eaten with the rest of the catch; others are returned to the water, where many do not survive. Because fishermen don’t particularly value these fish, they are often not included in management plans, and even when they are, the health of such stocks are seldom, if ever, assessed.
Yet such fish are part of the ecosystem, and must serve some particular function. Even though biologists may not fully understand what that function is, it is folly to assume that any species is not important. For as pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold noted,

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’…If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Thus, any reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens should protect not only forage fish with clear ecological roles, but all members of marine ecosystems, whether or not they are considered commercially or recreationally valuable.
Yet Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t govern every fishery. Some are managed at the state level, where regulations are often a bigger product of local politics than of science. That’s not going to change.
On the other hand, Congress gave the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) authority to enforce its management plans within state waters; thus, it is not unreasonable for Congress to prescribe how ASMFC’s management plans are written.

Such prescription is badly needed. When compared to the successes of federal managers, ASMFC’s record is dismal. Over the past 20 years, it has not rebuilt a single species under its sole jurisdiction.
Of the nineteen stocks managed solely by ASMFC, only three are deemed to be at sustainable levels while two—both stocks of red drum—are thought to be rebuilding. Of the remaining fourteen stocks, six are deemed “depleted” and three to be of “concern,” while the status of the other five remains unknown (although one of them is considered to be “overfished”).

Requiring ASMFC management plans to comply with the conservation and rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens could only help that situation.
Making that happen won’t be easy, but it is not an impossible dream.
Letting policymakers know that there is a legion of anglers who believe in a vision of healthy, sustainable populations of fish, and not in the “vision” that the Center and TRCP would impose, is the first step in achieving that goal.
This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at 

Sunday, January 17, 2016


“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know.  It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
That observation can be applied to just about every aspect of human endeavor, but whether we’re talking about issues in New England, the Mid-Atlantic or the southern U.S., it’s particularly relevant to fisheries management.

We can invoke Twain’s quote when we discuss Gulf of Maine cod, black sea bass or summer flounder.  But out of all of today’s fisheries debates, it is probably most applicable to Gulf red snapper.

I realized that a few days ago, when I read an article about red snapper on the website of the Houston Chronicle.  As red snapper articles go, it was better than most, for it noted that

“The Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper fishery, staggered to near collapse by the late 1980s after decades of unregulated plundering, has over the past 20 years or some made a comeback.”
And it correctly acknowledged that

“Actions guided by federal mandates, decided by federal fishery managers and interpreted by federal courts have driven the snapper recovery.”
It even pointed out that

“This past year, the annual recreational quota of red snapper set by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service was 7.01 million pounds, an increase of 1.6 million pounds from 2014, more than double the 2010 allowable catch and the highest since annual quotas were implemented in 1996,”
Unfortunately, after that the article went off the rails.

It made the absolutely incredible claims that federal management measures

“have left Texas’ recreational anglers almost cut out of the snapper fishery,”
and that the current short federal season for recreational anglers

“was a result of an amendment to the federal red snapper management plan that divided the annual recreational quota between anglers fishing from private boats and those fishing from charter boats and other for-hire vessels that operate under federal permits.”
Both statements are demonstrably false, and in fact are as completely contrary to the facts as a statement can be.  And that’s where Mark Twain’s quote, and the notion of “misinformation,” comes into play.

Far from being cut out of the red snapper fishery, Texas anglers enjoy the most permissive red snapper regulations anywhere in the Gulf.  Within state waters, which extend nine nautical miles from shore, there is no closed season.  The bag limits is four fish, which is twice the federal limit, while the 15-inch size limit is an inch below the federal minimum.  In federal waters, Texas anglers fish under the same regulations as everyone else.

Thus, it’s clear that they are hardly “cut out of the snapper fishery.”

Blaming the for-hire fleet for the short federal fishing season is equally untrue.  In fact, it's is akin to a thief blaming a victim for allowing himself to be robbed.

For an unbiased look at the truth with respect to this matter, one might well look to the court’s decision in the recent matter of Coastal Conservation Association v. United States Department of Commerce, which lays it all out pretty neatly.

“[The] rebuilding effort has been complicated by state seasons that are much longer and have higher bag limits than their federal counterpart.  As a further component of management efforts…federal permit holders have been prohibited since 2009 from fishing in state waters when federal waters are closed…”
“…recreational fishermen…can, due to lengthy state seasons, pursue snapper fishing opportunities in state waters while federal waters are closed to them.  The federal for-hire sector may not take advantage of state fishing opportunities.”
That prohibition is the real reason that sector separation occurred.  As explained by the National Marine Fisheries Service in Final Amendment 40 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico, when describing an increase in private-boat landings and a decrease in the red snapper landed by the for-hire fleet,

“A part of this shift is attributable to changes in state regulations where state waters are open when federal waters are closed.  For 2014, while the season in federal waters was nine days long, Texas waters were open for a total of 365 days, Louisiana for 286 days, Florida for 52 days, and Mississippi and Alabama for 21 days.  Charter vessels and headboats with a reef fish for-hire permit are not allowed to fish in state waters for red snapper when federal waters are closed.”

Thus, far from sector separation causing the federal private boat season to shorten, it was instead the landings of private boats, often fishing in state waters over very long seasons, which forced charter and party boats into a red snapper season that could be measured in just a few brief days.  

Sector separation could best be characterized as the for-hire vessels’ effort to restore some historic balance to the fishery, and recover a reasonable fraction of the season that they had before the states went so very far out of compliance with the federal management plan.

So why, in the face of such very clear facts, is there so much misinformation out there, not only in various newspaper columns, but in the minds of Gulf red snapper anglers?

It turns out that folks have actually studied the question, not with respect to just fisheries, but as part of the broader question of how misinformation influences the political process.  Their findings make sense, but are nonetheless disturbing.

In “When Corrections Fail:  The persistence of political misperceptions”, professors Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler note that

“many citizens may base their policy preferences on false, misleading, or unsubstantiated information that they believe to be true.  Frequently, such misinformation is related to one’s political preferences…
“…people typically receive corrective information within ‘objective’ news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source.  In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions…
“…humans are goal-driven information processors who tend to evaluate information with a directional bias toward reinforcing their pre-existing views.  Specifically, people tend to display bias in evaluating political arguments and evidence, favoring those that reinforce their existing views and disparaging those that contradict their views.”
In other words, when an answer isn’t completely clear-cut, and there is some room for error—which is the case in just about every fisheries debate—people will only believe the bits of information that support their opinions.  

Or, as Simon and Garfunkel sang after they wrote “The Boxer” back in 1970,

“Still, a man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest.”
And that’s a problem when it comes to translating scientific data into policy.  Because, as Nyhan and Reifler discovered from their experiments,

“ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions.  Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.”
That may be an important finding for political scientists, but the notion that people are not only willing to cling to wrongheaded ideas, but willing to fight you to prove that they’re right, is hardly news to anyone who’s ever had a couple of beers in a waterfront bar…

It certainly explains why debates such as the current battle over red snapper can go on for so long and are fought so bitterly.  People double down on what they believe, and aren’t willing to surrender those beliefs easily, even when facts say that they should.

In the case of red snapper, anglers want to believe that they’re the good guys, who do no harm to the stock (unlike the commercial fishermen or, increasingly these days, the for-hire fleet, who make perfectly acceptable villains), that the stock is healthy and can support more recreational harvest, and that they only reason that they can’t have a longer season, and bring home more red snapper, is because NMFS, the commercial fishermen, the for-hire fleet, the environmental community, the scientists, the law and the courts are all arrayed against them.

That makes them vulnerable to press releases such as one issued by the Coastal Conservation Association, in which the chairman of its Government Relations Committee said

“The Environmental Defense Fund, a select few charter/for-hire operators and the commercial shareholders are working hand-in-glove to privatize roughly 70 percent of the entire red snapper fishery, and the federal government is facilitating it.  The merger of a major environmental group with for-profit harvesters is making a mockery of the federal council system…”
It also makes them predisposed to agree with statements made on sites such as Keep America Fishing—which is nothing more than a tool designed by the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle manufacturers’ lobby, to influence public opinion—that

“Federal management of red snapper has been broken for years,”
despite the fact that last year’s recreational red snapper quota was the highest it has been in nearly two decades.

Fisheries management is a political process, and American politics is based on the notion of informed citizens driving the policy process.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely defend against misinformed citizens pushing policy in the wrong direction.

That’s why it’s critical that federal managers keep a firm hold on the reins of red snapper management, and a that strong Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which requires that decisions be made based on the best available science, and not the most strongly-held misinformation, continues to chart their course.

The alternative, being pushed hard by some folks right now, is to strip federal managers of their authority to manage red snapper and turn such management over to the states, which will make red snapper even more vulnerable to local politics and the wrongheaded opinions that so often drive it.