Sunday, January 10, 2016


The headline in the Alaska Dispatch News put it pretty well.

“If Alaska’s leaders put ‘fish first,’ we’ll prosper for generations.”
It’s not a difficult concept.  Whether you’re a commercial fisherman, a recreational fisherman or somebody who likes to snorkel or SCUBA dive and just watch fish swim by, without an abundance of fish, you don’t have much fun and you don’t make much money.  And not making money extends to other businesses, too, particularly those that support the angling and diving sides of things.

Even so, people have trouble wrapping their minds around it.  Even those who have given the concept of “putting the fish first” some level of lip service turn their backs on the notion when it begins to cause them inconvenience.

Yet without the fish, fishing becomes sort of futile, so folks ought to be giving “fish first” management a whole lot more thought.

That seems to be what’s happening up in Alaska.  The article in the Alaska Dispatch News was written by folks on the newly elected governor’s transition team, who were tasked with recommending the fisheries policies the state should adopt going forward.  They summarize their recommendations pretty clearly.

“The first recommendation from our committee at the transition team meeting was for the state of Alaska to define and implement a clear ‘fish first’ policy.  It is our consensus that such policy would include actions like creating enforcement methods for Alaska’s Policy for Sustainable Fisheries Management, enacting legislation that would ensure that there is always an adequate amount of water left in streams for fish, and ensuring that resource development projects never block the passage and migration of salmon to their spawning grounds.  It also includes protection for salmon and halibut while in the marine environment, ensuring salmon are not intercepted at sea and juvenile halibut survive to support historic fisheries.  Our committee put forward common-sense changes and recommendations for fisheries and habitat management that improve the system for Alaskans today and for generations to come…”
The recommendations were, of necessity, Alaska-specific, but the basic principles that underlie them are applicable to every coast of the United States.

Every coast would benefit from fish-first management policies that

  • ·  Were based on a policy of managing fisheries for sustainability, coupled with enforcement mechanisms that assured such policy would not be evaded;
  • ·  Maintaining healthy habitats in which fish can thrive;
  • ·  Adequate marine spatial planning to assure that development, of any sort, does not interfere with the life cycles of any fish stock;
  • ·  Protecting anadromous species while they are at sea, and not merely in the rivers;
  • ·  Restricting harvest and discard mortality of juvenile fish, so that they may mature and support healthy fisheries; and
  • ·  Perhaps the most important of all, manage not merely for current users, but for the benefit of generations that have not yet been born.

It’s hard to look at the above list of goals and not think of fisheries where they should be applied; it is equally hard to look at that list and think of fisheries where such goals are being openly and aggressively subverted.

The committee on which the article’s authors served also produced a detailed report that contained their recommendations.  It also contained a list of barriers to successfully implementing such recommendations, along with some ideas of how those barriers might be breached.  

Once again, we find things that are common to every coast in the nation.

Some are almost too obvious to discuss, such as the “Lack of scientific data due to lack of money” hampering fishery management efforts.  But others deserve a little closer look, particularly because they do come out of the Alaska experience, which represents what is arguably the most successful fishery management effort in the country.

For example, two of the barriers mentioned were “Subversion of science to politics” and “Sustainability rhetoric from state versus reality (i.e. effective implementation of sustainable practices).”

Anyone who is active in the fisheries management process is familiar with those issues, for in the end, fisheries management is a political process.  That’s frustrating to fishery management professionals who, on the whole, are trained biologists who want to do the right thing, and the lifeblood of various economic interests and advocacy groups who want to operate at the state level, where they can use political pressure to subvert science based fishery management.

“promot[ing] the conservation of Atlantic coastal fisheries resources…based on the best scientific information”
in its charter, but has repeatedly failed to heed scientific advice on stocks ranging from American lobster, to tautog, to weakfish.

The solution to such problem that the Alaska report suggests is both simple and sensible,

“Recommit to sustainability and precautionary management—walk the talk.”

Federal fisheries managers, bound to such course by the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, are already acting that way.  Unfortunately, such precautionary management style necessarily results in lower harvest levels in the short term than does the sort of politically driven management often practiced by the states—which is exactly why some folks in the Gulf and elsewhere are currently trying to weaken the law.  They have invested fully in the short term, while their commitment to “generations to come” is nearly nil.

Closely related to that is the recommendation that managers combat the “Myth that we can re-create fish, recreate nature, recreate habitat or replace wild runs with hatchery production.”  

Such myth is irresistibly attractive to the sort of folks who want to kill as many fish as they can, without concern for the impact on natural systems.  Experiences across the country with trout and other salmonids has proven it wrong, but its promise that anglers can abandon restraint and continue to overfish natural stocks lends it a timeless measure of support.

It really hasn’t caught on in East Coast salt waters, except down in the Gulf of Mexico, where Texas has ballyhooed the concept for years, despite an American Fisheries Society review that notes

“Substantial resources have been allocated to augmenting populations of red drum and spotted seatrout with hatchery stockings.  While the survival of hatchery-reared fish has been documented, the research hypothesis that hatchery stockings increase abundance has not been conclusively proven.”
It is not unlikely that the money currently allocated to such stocking efforts would be better utilized to better manage wild stocks.

Because, in the end, maintaining wild stocks at sustainable levels of abundance is the only way to assure that future generations will have any real opportunity to reap the same benefits from coastal fisheries resources that we have enjoyed.

And you don’t assure such sustainability by permitting overharvest in order to avoid short-term socioeconomic impacts or placing political considerations above scientific advice.

You assure it by putting the needs of the fish, themselves, first.

An abundance of good will flow from there.

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