Thursday, April 28, 2016
Red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico is probably the most contentions fisheries issue being debated today. To say that the rhetoric gets heated is a gross understatement.
Like most fisheries debates, it includes a little truth, a lot of emotion and quite a bit of information that doesn’t quite line up with the known facts.
The debate also includes a lot of folks who tend to spin the “facts” (both those that are true and those that are created to fill a particular need) to serve their own purposes and shape public opinion to conform to their own.
So, before going any further, it probably makes sense to set forth a dozen truths that you can verify for yourself by clicking on each one and linking to reliable sources.
1. In 1990, Gulf red snapper were badly overfished; the stock’s spawning potential was only 2.6% of the spawning potential of an unfished stock.
2. The annual red snapper catch limit is split into sector-specific catch limits that give 51.5% of all landings to anglers and 48.5% to commercial fishermen.
4. Commercial overfishing ended in 2007, when commercial fishermen began fishing under a catch share system.
5. Unlike commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen continued to chronically overfish the red snapper stock, with the situation growing so severe that a federal district court finally had to order the National Marine Fisheries Service to hold anglers accountable.
6. High recreational harvest rates, that include larger fish, have forced fisheries managers to shorten the season in federal waters.
7. State waters remain open to recreational fishing for at least part of the time when federal waters are closed; in Texas, the season never closes at all.
8. Party and charter boats that have federal fisheries permits can’t fish in state waters when the federal season is closed, although anglers fishing from private boats can.
9. Party and charter boats with federal fisheries permits have successfully petitioned NMFS to create a special annual catch limit applicable only to them, so that they might have a longer season that isn’t affected by private boats’ high harvest rates.
10. The federal fisheries management plan is working, and has already increased red snapper abundance to about half of the target level.
11. Because all red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico are managed as a single stock, fish caught in state waters are included in the federal annual catch limit, and have an impact on the length of the season in federal waters.
12. Some recreational fishing organizations, unhappy with the regulations that NMFS has adopted to rebuild the stock, are seeking federal legislation that would strip NMFS of its authority to manage red snapper, and would hand that authority over to the states, which aren’t bound by federal laws prohibiting overfishing and requiring management to be based on the best available science.
In short, what we’re dealing with is a successful fishery management plan that is well on its way to rebuilding what had been a badly overfished red snapper stock. The adoption of a catch share system ended commercial overharvest, but until a court imposed accountability measures on the recreational sector, anglers continued to overfish on a regular basis. Instead of trying to get their overfishing under control, anglers escape federal regulations by fishing within state waters, where the federal rules do not apply. Recently, they have taken that effort one step further by asking Congress to turn red snapper management over to the states, where harvest does not have to be maintained at sustainable levels.
That means that the same folks who have been failing to live up to their obligations to conserve the stock are trying to paint themselves as victims, so that they can convince federal lawmakers to let them kill even more.
That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, so the angling groups needed to come up with a little creative misdirection.
It’s the same thing that’s done in a staged magic show; in order to create the desired illusion, a magician must divert the audience’s attention away from his right hand, that’s performing the trick, and convince them to watch his left hand, his hat or his bespangled assistant, so that they can’t perceive what’s really going on.
If, along the way, they can invoke a base emotion—jealousy, say, or maybe greed—to help sell the illusion, well, then they’ll try that, too.
Thus, we see Ted Venker, the “Conservation Director” of the Coastal Conservation Association attacking federal red snapper managers by arguing
“The end result of catch share programs is what we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico today, with a very few, select commercial shareholders wielding a disproportionate level of power and enjoying a year-round red snapper season while the public is left with just an 11-day season to pursue this abundant and popular fish.
“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. In the red snapper program, less than 400 commercial shareholders “own” more than 50 percent of all the red snapper harvested in the Gulf of Mexico, and yet they don’t pay enough in administrative fees to even cover the cost of managing their own program…
“What kind of a fishery are we creating with this system for our grandkids, 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.”
Reading that piece, it’s hard not to get angry at federal managers, who seem to be giving away the public’s ability to fish to red snapper, and hand permanent ownership of what had been a public resource to just a few hundred commercial fishermen. Once you’re angry enough, it’s easy for you to accept the conclusion of the piece, which is that
“the states have never felt it necessary to hand over ownership of redfish or speckled trout, for example, to achieve good management…
“There are many problems with federal fisheries management and the primary one is that the feds have almost no idea how to manage recreational fisheries. Embracing flawed programs to give those marine resources away for someone else to manage for their own benefit is not the answer.
“If you have a freight train running out of control sometimes the only solution is to cut the fuel line…”
And thus, the illusionist set the stage to end federal management of red snapper, and hand responsibility over to the states.
The only problem is that just about everything that Mr. Venker wrote, which led up to that conclusion, was at best misdirection, and at the worst, untrue. But his words might get you so angry at (and perhaps jealous of) the commercial fleet, that you didn’t stop and think about the facts.
Like the fact that the catch share program only affects the commercial red snapper quota, and has nothing to do with the recreational quota at all. Yes, you might be mad about the short federal red snapper season. But the length of the recreational season isn’t caused by the existence of commercial catch shares; it would be just as short if the commercial fleet fished under a “derby” system, when every boat rushes out to catch as much of the overall quota as they can land during a relatively short season. Either way, the commercial fleet would have the very same quota, regardless of how it was caught.
Mr. Venker contrasts a year-round commercial season with the 11-day recreational season, in an attempt to anger recreational fishermen; in fact, the comparison in meaningless. Whether the commercial fishery is managed as a derby or through catch shares, the recreational season—and the recreational quota—will remain exactly the same.
Moving from mere misdirection to falsehood, CCA’s statement that “anyone who wants to enjoy [the red snapper] resource will have to buy it from a shareholder” is just plain untrue. As mentioned earlier, the catch share system only impacts the commercial fishery. You have to buy shares from someone (if you don’t have them already) if you intend to sell your catch. If you fish recreationally, your fishery remains a “derby,” which is why the season must be so short (although at one time, CCA proposed that anglers buy tags at auction in order to fish for red snapper).
It’s possible that the party and charter boat fishery will one day be governed by a catch share system, too, but anglers are already paying to go out on such vessels, so it’s not like paying to fish on a for-hire isn’t already the status quo.
The notion that commercial fisherman “own” any red snapper is equally false. What they own is a share of whatever commercial harvest NMFS permits in any given year. In theory, that’s a good thing, because it incentivizes commercial fishermen to be good stewards of the resource; as the stock grows, their share of the harvest remains the same, but represents a greater quantity of fish (and, it should be noted again, the commercial sector hasn’t overfished since 2007, the year that the catch share program became effective).
The fact that commercial fishermen own a share of the harvest doesn’t even prevent NMFS from shifting allocation away from their sector and to recreational fishermen. Since Mr. Venker wrote the piece quoted here, the allocation changed from 49% recreational/51% commercial to 51.5% recreational/48.5% commercial, meaning that the catch shares will now all come out of a proportionally smaller pool.
Three percent of the price for each red snapper sold is deducted from the commercial fishermen’s earnings, and used to fund the cash share program. CCA complains that such revenues don’t cover the program’s costs, which may be true (I haven’t checked), but whatever the commercials are paying to manage the fishery, it is infinitely more than what red snapper anglers pay into the federal management system, which the last time I checked was something resembling $0.00 (federal excise taxes on fishing tackle are distributed to the states, not to NMFS), despite all of the expense angling organizations have cost the feds due to questionable lawsuits and such.
It’s actually hard not to wonder what the state of red snapper management might be if the many hundreds of thousands of dollars in member donations that the various anglers’ rights organizations poured into unsuccessful lawsuits, public relations and lobbying state and federal legislators had instead been invested in peer-reviewed science that could have cleared up some of the unknowns in snapper biology.
Of course, resolving some of those unknowns might not have helped the militant anglers’ cause…
For the problem with science is that it deals with fact, and leaves little room for misdirection. Anyone who says that the federal management system will be “forcing us to pay again and again to access those [red snapper] resources in the future” probably wants to leave fact strictly alone because—and I’ll say this again—the catch share program doesn’t apply to private recreational anglers.
The only people who have to pay for access to the red snapper resource are commercial fishermen seeking additional quota, those who buy their fish at a store and maybe, at some point in the future, those who fish from party and charter boats. The latter two groups would be paying for their access anyway, even in a derby fishery, so the only group with a right to complain are the commercial fishermen—and most of them seem to like things just as they are.
So it’s pretty clear that the people complaining the loudest about catch shares—the anglers’ rights community—in the end have the least to complain about. And that’s why their whining gets so annoying.
I hear it time and again, the same organizations grinding out the same lines in an effort to attract more supporters and, it seems clear, in an effort to keep everyone from noticing that it is their members, and not those holding catch shares, that keep overfishing the stock.
It’s really time for the noise to cease and for people to speak with some honesty. Allocations, and whether to change them, are legitimate policy issues. If that’s what they want to talk about—in fact, if they want to abandon allocation completely and claim all of the fish for themselves—let them be men about it, and say so right out loud, instead of hiding behind these deceptions.
Let them put out their own list of facts, confirmed by links to objective sources.
If they can. Which isn’t too likely.
The truth is a powerful spokesman.
And when someone avoids the plain truth, or tries to reshape it? Well, that speaks pretty powerfully, too.
Sunday, April 24, 2016
There was a recent editorial in the Newburyport (MA) Daily News titled “U.S. Needs to Protect Lobster Fishery.”
That such protection is needed is undoubtedly true.
However, the sort of protection that the editorial is seeking is a bit off the mark.
Apparently, Sweden is afraid of American lobsters invading its waters and outcompeting their European relatives, and is thus asking the European Union to ban the import of the New World crustaceans.
That has some of the good folks of Newburyport alarmed, causing their local paper to say that
“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Massachusetts congressional delegation need to make their voices heard in the deepening dispute between Sweden and the American lobster industry.”
Concerns have apparently arisen because the American lobster, Homarus americanus, and the European lobster, Homarus gammerus, are closely related; in addition, the American lobster is larger. One spokesman for the Swedish Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science expressed concern that the American lobster
“pose several potential risks for native species, competing for space and resources, they can interbreed with local species and produce hybrid species, which we don’t know will be viable or not.”
It’s hard to tell whether such concerns are valid or not. Richard Wahle, a professor at the University of Maine, is not buying in, arguing
“Attempts to introduce American lobster elsewhere have failed. A newly introduced lobster would face a gauntlet of different species that it has no experience with.”
Given the similarities between the ecosystems on both sides of the North Atlantic, it’s not clear how many truly different species an American lobster would encounter while visiting Swedish shores.
While the species might be different, many would certainly be merely local variations on a very similar theme; the European pollack, Pollachius pollachius, and the American pollock, Pollachius virens, for example, may be different species, but perform about the same role in the ecosystem, and could be expected to react to lobster in about the same way.
On the other hand, a lobster would probably be in greater danger of being eaten by an Atlantic cod or Atlantic halibut in European waters than off New England, simply because European fisheries managers have done a better job of protecting such species in their local waters than New England fishery managers have done in waters under its jurisdiction.
The same thing that motivated folks in New England to turn a blind eye to declining cod and halibut stocks—the opportunity to make a good short-term profit—is motivating folks in New England to call for federal intervention in the lobster dispute today. Exporting lobster to Europe is a big-money business; Canadian and United States fishermen ship over about $200 million in lobster each year.
Massachusetts is second only to Maine in the size of its lobster fishery, so right at this moment, it has a real interest in using federal leverage to keep European markets open to Bay State lobstermen.
Unfortunately, in the long term, there may be a far more compelling reason to get the federal government involved in the lobster fishery. In southern New England, that fishery isn’t doing too well.
Right now, that’s probably too much of a concern for the lobstermen of Newburyport. They’re fishing on lobster that belong to the recently consolidated Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine stock, which is neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, and is at record-high abundance levels.
The southern New England stock, on the other hand, isn’t doing very well.
American lobster are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service. In 2015, ASMFC accepted the most recent American Lobster Benchmark Stock Assessment and Peer Review Report for management purposes. The following quote from that document just how dire the state of the southern New England stock of American lobster actually is.
“Closer scrutiny reveals the inshore portion of the SNE stock has clearly collapsed. The SNE stock is clearly overfished according to both the model and the stock indicators. Fishing mortality does not appear to be extremely high and this supports the conclusion that biological factors have contributed to bringing the stock to this point. It is believed that offshore areas of SNE depends on nearshore settlement as a source of recruits. Therefore, the offshore is also in jeopardy and the Technical Committee and Review Panel believe the stock has little chance of recovering unless fishing effort is curtailed…It is noted that pre-recruits are not measured in the offshore surveys, so the effects of recruitment failure in the inshore would not be seen in the offshore until years later when the lobsters become available to the fishery and to surveys. Hence, by any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment can be observed. [emphasis added]”
As mentioned, American lobster are managed by ASMFC, through its American Lobster Management Board. So, when faced with the above scientific advice, how did ASMFC’s Management Board react?
Certainly, not with urgency.
Although the verbatim transcripts for Management Board meetings occurring after the benchmark stock assessment was released are not available at this time, perhaps due to recent problems with ASMFC’s website, a quick look at press releases issued by ASMFC since last August suggests that most of the Management Board’s time was spent drafting a new management plan for Jonah crab, a species frequently caught as bycatch in the offshore lobster fishery, rather than addressing the collapse of the southern New England stock.
In fact, the only mention of that imperiled stock comes in an August press release, which states that
“In response to the findings regarding the status of the SNE stock, the Board established a working group of Board and Technical Committee members to review the assessment and peer review findings and develop recommendations for Board consideration.”
Given the dearth of announcements since that point, one can safely assume that either the working group is still working, that it is still reviewing the assessment and/or developing recommendations, or that the Board is still considering any recommendations made.
And, one can also safely assume that as time ticks on while all that is happening, the southern New England stock of American lobster is continuing to collapse.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because the current state of the stock is also no surprise.
All the way back in April, 2010, ASMFC’s American Lobster Technical Committee issued the report “Recruitment Failure in The Southern New England Lobster Stock.” It warned that
“The southern New England stock is critically depleted and well below the minimum threshold abundance. Abundance indices are at or near time series lows, and the condition has persisted.”
It advised that
“Given additional evidence of recruitment failure in [the southern New England stock] and the impediments to stock rebuilding, the Technical Committee now recommends a 5 year moratorium on harvest in the [southern New England] stock area…”
Provided with such dire advice, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission did…
Well, that’s not completely true, because it did decide to reduce harvest by 10%. However, it didn’t do so by such reliable means as, for example, a hard-poundage quota that would keep boats tied up to the dock, and away from the lobsters, once that quota was landed.
Doing that might hurt someone’s profits.
Instead, as ASMFC explains,
“Given the critically depleted condition of the SNE stock, the American Lobster Board approved Addenda XVII – XXII, which implement a suite of measures to reduce exploitation and allow the SNE stock to rebuild. These measures include a v-notching program, trap reductions, closed seasons for certain areas, and a trap consolidation/transferability program. Throughout 2014, the American Lobster Board monitored the monitored the progress of the SNE [Lobster Conservation Management Areas] in achieving the required 10% reduction in exploitation in order to address rebuilding…”
Some of the LCMA’s achieved the reduction and some did not, but even for those that succeeded, “success” was meaningless, because a 10% reduction in landings is a very different thing than a 5-year moratorium. As the 2015 benchmark stock assessment showed, ASMFC’s minimal actions did nothing to improve the health of the stock.
And that’s why the Newburyport Daily Times got the story wrong, but the headline right, when it declared “U.S. Needs to Protect Lobster Fishery.”
For the states have demonstrated that they lack the ability and/or the will to protect it themselves.
If the southern New England stock of American lobster is to be rebuilt, at least to the extent that oceanographic conditions allow, a federal fisheries management plan will be needed.
Unlike ASMFC, federal fisheries managers, acting pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, are required by law to rebuild overfished stocks promptly, and within a time certain. Federal fisheries managers must base their management measures on hard science, not merely on the fear of lost income.
There would have to be a hard annual catch limit, and not merely “soft” restrictions on landings based on reducing the number of traps or v-notching females.
And should a federal Science and Statistics Committee, the equivalent of an ASMFC technical committee, say that a moratorium is required to rebuild the stock, that annual catch limit will be set at zero, for as long as is necessary to get the job done. Any effort to impose a token 10% reduction, which may or may not actually be achieved, would be clearly illegal, and subject to a review in the courts.
Such factors explain why federal fisheries managers have been successful in rebuilding a number of overfished stocks, when ASMFC’s more “flexible” management measures have resulted only in failure.
They also explain why some in the fishing industry—regrettably, including the recreational fishing industry—are pushing so hard to amend Magnuson-Stevens, to make it look more like the ASMFC model of management.
For if ASMFC’s flexible approach doesn’t do much to build fish populations, it does a good job of building folks’ profits, at least until the fish stocks collapse.
And for a lot of the industry voices, profit is their sole concern.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
Right now, striped bass are headed up New York’s Hudson River, preparing to spawn. Folks who don’t fish for stripers are often surprised. They think of the Hudson as something dead, and not the vitally important river that it was, is and always should be.
In truth, the Hudson’s bad reputation is overdone, and also very far out of date. Not very long ago, as time is measured by species and rivers, the Hudson was heading toward a tragic demise. Sewage dumped into the river, along with varied industrial wastes, led to hypoxic “dead zones” where fish could hardly survive, much less reproduce.
Up through the 1970s, as striped bass populations declined all along the coast, manufacturers such as General Electric allowed polychlorinated biphenyls—usually just called “PCBs”—to leak into the river from factories building transformers and other electrical parts. The chemicals spread through the food chain, accumulating in the larger predators.
Things got so bad that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation shut down the commercial bass fishery not only on the river but, for a while, in all of the State of New York, in order to prevent people from consuming PCB-tainted bass. Over the years, the PCB-producing factories were all shut down, and a massive remediation project has removed PCB-laden silt from the river. The commercial striped bass fishery in some New York waters reopened long ago.
Yet even today, the New York Department of Health advises that
“Women under 50 years of age and children under 15 should not eat any fish from the Hudson River downstream of the Corinth Dam.”
Everyone else is warned not to eat fish from a long section of river running from above Albany well down toward the ocean due to remaining PCB contamination, and to eat fish from the lower reaches of the river just one time each month.
Warnings even apply out past the river’s mouth, although in New York’s salt waters, younger women and children may safely consume one meal of striped bass each month, while all other persons are advised to limit their monthly intake to just fourer servings.
In order to minimize PCB consumption by unsuspecting consumers, the DEC still does not permit commercial striped bass harvest west of East Rockaway Inlet on southern Long Island, or west of Wading River in Long Island Sound.
Hudson River striped bass may travel as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as North Carolina. Yet however far they may travel over the course of the year, the conditions that they face in just a short length of river will determine the success of their spawn and the fitness of their flesh as food.
And as the striped bass swim back to the Hudson, they do not travel alone.
American shad and river herring (the latter a term that encompasses both alewives and blueback herring) are heading upriver also, seeking out their spawning grounds.
At one time, to steal a phrase from author John Waldman, rivers all along the Atlantic coast, including the Hudson, “ran silver” with hordes of fish. But that, sadly, is a thing of the past.
The Hudson’s run of big shad—some of the largest and oldest shad on the coast, which returned to the river multiple times—has collapsed. A fish that once provided cheap protein for the masses of immigrants that came to Manhattan, and prized, costly roe for New York’s moneyed elite, now is so scarce that both the commercial and recreational fisheries have been closed.
The shad were hurt in the Hudson by dead zones and dredging that degraded their spawning grounds, and by long-term overfishing as well. Shad runs on other rivers faced similar problems; in addition, many were blocked by impassible dams. And those were only the problems that faced shad during their spawning runs; during the rest of the year, which shad spend in the ocean, large numbers of them were killed as bycatch by fishermen targeting mackerel and Atlantic herring.
River herring suffered the same fate as shad. Although they once ran up just about every creek and river that flowed into the sea, and thus had far more potential spawning grounds, dams in the rivers and bycatch in the sea caused their numbers to fall sharply as well.
Yet the problems of striped bass, river herring and shad are not as great as those faced by salmon, which spend most of their lives out at sea, vulnerable to threats from many sources, and reproduce in rivers with myriad problems.
On the U.S. East Coast, Atlantic salmon are all but gone.
They travel far during their time in the ocean, to waters off Greenland, where local netters decimate their numbers; even those that survive are threatened by a warming northern ocean that impacts their ability to feed. When they return to their natal streams, they face the same problems that frustrate too many other anadromous species; dams block upstream passage, and what spawning habitat remains accessible is vulnerable to pollution and other forms of degradation.
In the United States, the Atlantic salmon’s range has already shrunk from rivers throughout New England to just a few streams in Maine. It has been listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, working in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is drafting a plan to rebuild the stock to sustainable levels, but under the best circumstances, the process will take around 75 years.
Pacific salmon pose a more intricate puzzle. They form a complex web of not only individual species, but unique salmon “runs” within the same species that differ somewhat from river to river, and have their own management needs. Some individual runs are “endangered”. Others are completely healthy, at least at this time.
The threats that the Pacific salmon face are varied, ranging from a lack of water, caused by both drought and the demands of irrigation in California to pollution discharged from hard-rock mines, including mines located upriver in Canada, impacting pristine Alaskan streams. Dams, increasing water temperatures, siltation and competition from hatchery fish all place additional burdens on native salmon populations.
Salmon are harvested irresponsibly by other nations while out at sea, and recent high water temperatures in the Pacific, including the impacts of the infamous warm-water “blob,” have made it difficult for salmon in the Pacific Northwest to find enough food to survive in the ocean.
The bottom line is that anadromous fish—those that spawn in the rivers but live in the sea—are facing serious threats wherever they are found. Countering those threats, in order to conserve the healthy stocks and rebuild those that have declined, is going to take a new approach to the management process.
It’s not just about regulations adopted by NMFS, pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, that protect fish at sea, nor is it about the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates harvest of shad, river herring and striped bass when in state waters. State regulation of in-river fisheries isn’t enough.
To adequately protect anadromous fish stocks, everyone must step out of their silos, which protect certain fish in certain pieces of water, and work hand-in-hand to adopt a comprehensive, integrated management approach that reaches out from the heads of natal rivers into the heart of the sea, and assures that wherever the fish may wander through the course of their lives, they will be given sufficient protection.
It will not be easy to get there. No law provides for such comprehensive management today (although, in dire circumstances only, the Endangered Species Act comes somewhat close), and adopting an integrated approach will step on many jurisdictional toes. Stakeholders will undoubtedly be wary of any new management layer, while bureaucrats will undoubtedly object when “outsiders” invade what they consider their own personal fiefs.
Yet, if runs of anadromous fish are to thrive, there is no viable alternative.
For so long as one dam on a river can keep salmon from spawning after long years at sea, and one mid-water trawl in the ocean can destroy all of the alewives that a river produced in a year, such fishes’ future must remain insecure.
Sunday, April 17, 2016
About a year ago, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1335, a bill that its sponsor named the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.” H.R. 1335 is substantially similar to a bill of the same name, but different number, that retired Washington representative Doc Hastings introduced in the previous Congress.
The conservation community dubbed Hastings’ bill the “Empty Oceans Act,” predicting that if it were made law, and so gutted the most effective conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the current abundance in our coastal seas would be drained off pretty quickly.
Fortunately, the Senate has not yet been foolish enough to introduce anything like H.R. 1335, but they could do so at any time. So it might be worthwhile to take a look at just what just might occur if they do.
Proponents of H.R. 1335 might try to argue that not many bad things would occur, and that the moniker “Empty Oceans Act” is merely empty hyperbole. However, it’s easy to test that claim. We can go back to the days before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 put those provisions in place in the first place—or, perhaps better, before the court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley upheld the key points of the law—and take a look at how fishing was then.
For convenience, I’ll look at fish in my home waters, for no better reason than the fact that I was familiar with them in the years before the Sustainable Fisheries Act became law.
I’ll start with summer flounder, because in New York, it’s arguably the most important commercial and recreational fish of them all
In the late 1980s, the fishing was pretty bad. I bought a new boat in 1988, so the year stands out in my mind. My fishing club, which had about 250 members back then, held a summer flounder contest one weekend in June. It planned to offer prizes for the eight largest fish caught, but on Sunday evening, after the scales were awarded, all of the anglers combined could only bring seven legal fish to the scales, and the smallest of those weighed a mere 15 ounces.
That pretty well set the pattern for the season. New York anglers harvested about 3 million pounds of summer flounder in 1988, but about 94% of those fish were less than 18 inches long. The minimum size limit was a mere 14 inches back then, but 15% of the landings failed to meet even that meager mark.
Killing large numbers of small summer flounder, just as they became old enough to spawn, didn’t do the stock any good, and made it very vulnerable to years when recruitment was poor. In 1989, for example, recreational landings dropped sharply, to less than 0.7 million pounds.
Other bottom fish weren’t doing very much better. New York’s anglers only landed about 0.25 million pounds of black sea bass in 1988, and most of those fish were little “pins.” Nearly 75% were less than a foot long, and 25% were under 9 inches (I don’t recall what the size limit was back then, it was either 9 inches or 10). Not a single sea bass more than 17 inches long was reported.
The story was similar in the case of scup. New York anglers caught a little less than 0.6 million pounds in 1988, and few were particularly large. Roughly 85% were less than 10 inches long.
NRDC v. Daley was decided in 2000, and required fisheries management plans to have at least a 50% chance of successfully rebuilding stocks within the deadline established by the Sustainable Fisheries Act.
In 2001, regulations began to reflect the court decision’s impacts. That year marked the true beginning of the rebuilding process, and the opening of a new era of fisheries management.
Yet, despite the court’s findings, fishermen weren’t ready to embrace conservation. In the Mid-Atlantic region, fights against new, more restrictive rules were long and bitter, with the most intense arguments centering around summer flounder. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service stayed the course, and the results speak for themselves.
In 2015, despite two years of poor spawning that reduced the number of fish available, New York’s anglers still managed to land over 1.5 million pounds of summer flounder. That’s a lot fewer fish than they landed in 1988, when unsustainable numbers of fish were killed. However, the restraint has paid off with far larger fluke in the population.
In 2015, about 15% of the fluke killed by anglers were still undersized, but the size limit had been raised to 18 inches, so even the “shorts” were a lot bigger than they were in 1988; the smallest fish reportedly retained by anglers IN 2015 would have been legal back then. 2015 saw 85% of the fish landed measuring at least 18 inches long, with 6% over 24 inches and a few as large as 30 inches—a size that was all but inconceivable in 1988.
Black sea bass and scup tell even more striking success stories.
New York’s 2015 recreational black sea bass landings were over 1.25 million pounds, five times the landings in 1988. In addition, the average fish were much larger.
The minimum size had been increased to 14 inches, so it should come as no surprise that virtually all of the fish landed measured 10 inches or more. Noncompliance remained high—roughly 20% of all black sea bass retained were undersized.
However, the increased average size of the fish landed was striking. Not only were about 80% of the black sea bass landed in 2015 at least 14 inches long—a striking contract to 1988, when nearly 75% were under 12 inches—but more than 10% measured more than 18 inches long, a size completely unknown back in ’88.
Again, the scup followed a similar trajectory. New York recreational scup landings exceeded 2.3 million pounds in 2015, quadrupling the 1988 figure. And, like black sea bass, the size of the fish had increased substantially. A significant majority—more than 2/3 of all fish harvested—was more than 10 inches long.
The numbers speak for themselves. Looking at them, it is difficult to understand why any rational fisherman would want to turn back the clock, and weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, which were added when the Sustainable Fisheries Act became law.
For we already know what an emptier ocean looks like. We have no need to see one again.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act celebrated its 40th anniversary yesterday. Or, to be more precise, the Act became law 40 years ago, and anyone who values America’s living marine resources should have been celebrating that things worked out so well.
I chose to celebrate Magnuson-Stevens’ 40th year by joining up with a bunch of other fishermen and wandering the halls of Congress, trying to keep the “kill ‘em now” faction from ruining a great law.
It’s a tough fight. The recreational fishing industry and the boat-building folks have decided that a quick profit now is better than healthy stocks in the future, so they’re doing all that they can to weaken the law in ways that would let overfishing drag on and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks.
Some of the less cerebral members of the commercial fishing industry are on the same bandwagon, although the big-time commercials have caught on to the fact that Magnuson-Stevens actually works, and will put more cash into their pockets over the long term.
Right now, the law is being seriously threatened. A year ago, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1335, which would allow fisheries managers to delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks and would even elevate the casual, self-serving observations of fishermen to the level of “the best available science.”
Should H.R. 1335 become law, it would effectively reverse 20 years of effective fisheries management, and take us back to the days when a quick dollar always stood in the way of rebuilt fish populations.
H.R. 1335 is so bad that its sponsor, Alaska representative Don Young, had to reassure his local constituents that
“My legislation, HR 1335…will not change the way that the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] manages our fisheries. Alaska fishermen and the communities they support will continue to reap the benefits of our well-managed fisheries resources and the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] will continue to use sound scientific information in their management decisions. Regardless of the changes proposed to the [Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act], the [North Pacific Fishery Management Council] will continue to utilize innovative practices to be leaders in fisheries management…”
Rep. Young went on to explain that his bill was only intended to weaken Magnuson-Stevens’ effective provisions elsewhere, not in Alaska.
Those seem to be the words of an inventor condemning his own creation, yet organizations that supposedly represent recreational fishermen support such a dismal turn of events.
The Senate has, to this date, been more reasonable. It has not sought to unmake a good law. However, there are now rumblings coming from that chamber as well, which suggest that some less-than-desirable legislation will soon emerge in Committee as well.
Even if the Senate legislation is somewhat moderate, and not nearly as bad as what emerged from the House, it is likely to do only harm. For when both houses of Congress pass bills that address the same subject, but differ in form, such bills are referred to a conference committee, which hammers out a version that is acceptable to both House and Senate.
There is virtually no doubt that any Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill that is acceptable to the House, which has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to any legislation that imposes even a modicum of restraint on the exploitation of natural resources of any sort, would rip the heart out of our current fisheries law.
Concerns over a bad conference bill are only nourished by the fact that both houses of Congress will recess in July, when members will be preparing for the upcoming election. That guarantees that any efforts to put together a bill will either be rushed or, perhaps worse, completed after the election by a lame-duck Congress, which will include a number of members who failed to hold their seats and need not worry about the further consequences of their actions.
The best bill that can emerge from this Congress is no bill at all.
Given the time constraints facing legislators, that may be the most likely outcome. Even so, it is important to continue to make legislators aware of how important Magnuson-Stevens is to the health of our fisheries and, in the end, to the health of the wider ocean ecosystem.
I think that we were successful in conveying that message to the Congressional staff who spoke with us.
There is an essential magic in the truth. You could see it at work when we told our stories, and conveyed to legislative staff why we felt that it was worth taking time off from our jobs and leaving the comfort of home to come to Washington and fight to preserve Magnuson-Stevens.
We came from as far away as the Pacific coast, and from as nearby as suburban Virginia.
We all had different motivations.
There was a fishing guide from the Pacific northwest, forced to give up much of his guiding when the fish stocks he depended on crashed. Anglers from New England lamented lost groundfish. Charter boat captains from the southeast feared the loss of important reef fish stocks, while a Florida angler, who long sat on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, sought to maintain a management system that benefitted his section of coast.
I have been fishing for a very long time, and it was easy to invoke scenes from the late 1980s, when summer flounder had grown so scarce that you might put in hours to catch a single 14-inch fish, so small and so thin that you could hold it up to the sun and see the shape of its bones, and compare it to today, when a 5-pound fish is too small to even raise eyebrows.
I could talk of years long ago, when New England groundfish still swam in abundance, and winter flounder carpeted the bottom of Long Island’s bays. And I could describe how the New England Council’s failure to impose hard poundage quotas helped lead to the desolation that we see today.
You could see that the stories hit home.
But the fight isn’t just about defense; Magnuson-Stevens can, in fact, be improved. Perhaps the biggest improvement needed is the recognition that fish provide food not only for people, but for a myriad of oceanic life, and that such life, too, must be fed. So I talked about the need to protect forage, things I saw last summer, when thirty fathoms of sand eels clogged the ocean south of Long Island and east of New Jersey.
We often forget that, no matter how much they care for our oceans, legislative staff don’t spend much time offshore.
They need to see through our eyes and our words the yellowfin tuna that fed on those sand eels, along with the bluefin, skipjack and grey, lurking sharks that slid through the waters and fed on them, too.
They need to feel, on a gut level, the majesty of a fin whale, fully seventy feet long, as it rolls on the surface just 10 yards abeam, straining sand eels out of the sea. They need to know the connection between all of those sand eels and the female dolphin that swam, with her calf, beneath my boat’s bow.
As we sat in the offices and told those clear truths, you could see them take root and blossom in the staffers’ eyes.
We were there to tell our message, and have it understood.
In the end, I think we succeeded, at least with the persons we met.
The fight is a long way from over; a win is in no way assured.
But truth is a powerful weapon, and the truth is that Magnuson works.
We only need to convey that, and we'll have a good chance to prevail.
Sunday, April 10, 2016
Anyone who has spend any time following fisheries issues down in the Gulf of Mexico has to admit that things are a little different down there, particularly when it comes to red snapper.
A fishery management process that is successfully rebuilding the stock, and which has increased the overall catch limit from 5 million pounds in 2009 to nearly 14 million pounds in 2016 is said to be “broken.”
A recreational fishing organization that once held itself out—and to some extent still holds itself out—as a conservation advocate is actively supporting H.R. 1335, a bill that would tear the heart out of the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
And for the first and only time that I am aware of, a group of commercial fishermen successfully sued the National Marine Fisheries Service in federal court, asking them to protect a fish stock from abuse by the angling sector.
To that list of wonders, we can now add one more: Some Texas fishing operations are now offering what are being called “catch share fishing experience” trips for red snapper and other bottom species.
Technically, the trips are not recreational charter boat excursions; instead, they are being sold as an opportunity for people to go out and experience hook-and-line commercial fishing for red snapper and other reef fish, conducted under the current commercial catch share system.
People who venture out on such trips serve as uncompensated (at least in cash, they are theoretically enriched by the experience) crewmembers on a commercial trip, with all fish caught being delivered to a commercial fish packing house. The passengers/unpaid crew can’t just take home what they catch, as that would run afoul of recreational regulations. They are permitted to purchase some of the fish, at what seems like a premium price, although the fish they take home is arguably much fresher than what they’d typically buy in the market. However, they can reportedly also let the boat sell all of the fish, purchase nothing for themselves, and not pay a cent for their day on the water.
The folks who offer such trips claim that they’ve done all of the required legal due diligence, and that both state and federal regulators have signed off on the “experience” being a legal commercial fishing enterprise.
Others aren’t so sure, and attack the trips as disguised recreational fishing trips that use commercial catch shares to get around restrictive federal red snapper regulations.
I have to admit that when I first heard of the “catch share fishing experience” trips, the whole thing didn’t sound right to me. I couldn’t say exactly why, but something about it made me feel uneasy.
But then I looked a little closer, and couldn’t find anything wrong.
To really understand what’s going on, you have to start with the fact that the red snapper that are being caught on “catch share fishing experience” trips do not come out of recreational fishermen’s annual catch limit; they are counted against the commercial quota.
That being the case, the red snapper involved are fish that anglers would normally never bring home, or even see. They are set aside strictly for commercial harvest.
That they’re caught pursuant to a catch share program, or caught on a “catch share fishing experience” trip, does not change that fact. Nor does it change the fact that such fish were always going to be sold to someone. Whether that “someone” is a restaurant in Manhattan or a participant in the “catch share fishing experience” is irrelevant to the health of the stock.
Ted Venker, who represents the Coastal Conservation Association, the largest anglers’ rights group in the Gulf, criticizes the “expeience,” saying
“It’s the ultimate blurring of the line between recreational and commercial. Under this scenario, that distinction doesn’t exist as it all just deteriorates down to who owns the fish, and it isn’t the public anymore.”
That sounds good at first glance, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny very well.
First, the public still own the fish.
Pursuant to the current catch share program, the only thing that a commercial red snapper fisherman owns is the right to catch a certain percentage of the annual commercial catch limit, which is very different from owning the fish themselves.
No commercial fisherman has the right to land a guaranteed poundage of snapper each year, and the commercial sector as a whole does not have a right to any particular allocation of the red snapper landings.
The fact that, just a few months ago, NMFS changed the allocation from 51% commercial/49% recreational to 48.5% commercial, 51.5% recreational, demonstrates that in the real world, as opposed to the fever dreams of anglers' rights advocates, the existence of the red snapper catch share program does not prevent managers from allocating a greater share of the catch to the recreational sector.
Second, to the extent that the distinction between recreational and commercial fishing is blurred by the “experience” trips, it’s not clear why CCA should be troubled. It made a much more far-reaching proposal to “blur” the distinction between the sectors back in 2009, in a paper entitled “Is there a better way to manage U.S. shared commercial and recreational fisheries,” which it presented to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
Anyone reading the CCA paper would have to call its proposal, and not the “catch share fishing experience,” the “ultimate blurring of the line between recreational and commercial,” for in 2009, CCA proposed a
“free market approach to managing red snapper and other marine fishes”
that would have completely eliminated the distinction between recreational and commercial fishermen.
Instead of setting aside allocations for each sector, it would have thrown all of the red snapper into a single pot, and then auctioned off tags every year to determine who would be able to catch them. The way CCA pictured such a fishery,
“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…”
Thus, it rings a little hollow to hear CCA complaining that the “catch share fishing experience” is wrong for its “blurring of the line between recreational and commercial” fishing today.
It’s also hard to take CCA seriously when it laments that “the public” no longer owns the fish due to catch shares, when it was willing to auction those fish off to the highest bidder just a few years ago.
Finally, the distinction between commercial and recreational fishing has always been blurred.
Anyone who charters a boat to pursue giant bluefin tuna quickly learns that any giants caught, at least if the season is open, will be taken to market by captain and crew, with the anglers playing a role very similar to the one they would play on a “catch share fishing experience” trip—with the exception being that they have to pay the price of the trip, even though they took none of the big tuna home.
The sale of angler-caught fish by charter boat crews, whether bluefin in New England, bigeye tuna in the mid-Atlantic or various species in the southeast has long been a tradition along the coast, so it’s hard to argue that the “experience” trips are really breaking any new ground in that regard.
What the trips really represent, more than anything else, is creative marketing, and that’s not a bad thing.
Here on Long Island, there are plenty of farms that allow the public to pick their own berries, pumpkins, apples, etc. People have a good time with their families out in the orchards and fields, and the farmer is paid for what they take home.
Neither traditional farmers nor home gardeners are threatened by such operations. Both the public and the pick-your-own farmer win in the end.
The “catch share fishing experience” trips strike me as the same sort of thing.
Instead of just catching their annual quota of fish and dropping it off at the packing house, a few enterprising fishermen have created what are essentially “pick-your-own” red snapper operations.
They benefit, because their customers are willing to pay a better price than the buyers at the packing house would. The customers have a good time catching their dinner, and get very fresh fish, so they benefit, too.
And because the fish are counted against commercial catch shares, and not the angling catch limit, neither the angling public nor other commercial catch share holders are harmed.
Yes, a lot of strange things are happening down in the Gulf of Mexico these days.
But after taking a long, hard look at the “catch share fishing experience,” it seems that the strangest thing of all about it is that some folks believe that it’s wrong.