Sunday, August 21, 2016
ASMFC: STILL IGNORING THE OBVIOUS
Most of the folks who read this blog are concerned with fisheries management, and they construe the “fisheries’ part pretty literally, limiting it to things with backbones, gills and fins that swim freely through the salt waters.
But fisheries management agencies manage some other critters, too, and even though they’re not of direct interest to anglers, the way that they are managed can reflect on the general merits of the fishery management process.
From that standpoint, it’s probably worth the time to take a look at how the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is managing—if that’s the right word—the southern New England stock of American lobster.
Before going further, I feel like I should post one of those warnings that often come up before TV hunting and nature shows: Some of the images that will be depicted are unpleasant, and may offend some people.
Start with the truth that southern New England lobster are not in good shape. The most recent benchmark stock assessment, which came out about a year ago, noted that
“the inshore portion of the [southern New England] stock has clearly collapsed. The SNE stock is clearly overfished according to both the model and the stock indicators…It is believed the offshore area 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 that the stock has little chance of recovering unless fishing effort is curtailed…by any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment has been observed. [emphasis added]”
Then remember that the current condition of the stock didn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
All the way back in 2009, another benchmark stock assessment found that
“Current abundance of the SNE stock is the lowest observed since the 1980s and exploitation rates have declined since 2000. Recruitment has remained low in SNE since 1998. Given current low levels of spawning stock biomass and poor recruitment further restrictions are warranted.”
“The [Technical Committee] recommends output controls as the best method to rebuild the SNE stock...
“A quota would be the most effective way to reduce harvest of lobster in the Southern New England stock.”
Such quotas are generally unpopular with fishermen, particularly in the northeast, because they have a direct impact on profits. Fishermen may find a way around gear restrictions, days at sea and similar “input controls,” but when you need to take your gear out of the water when a quota is reached, landings and profits are going to fall. It doesn’t help that a lot of the reason for the declining stock can be traced to increasing water temperatures, and not fishing pressure, making fishermen even more reluctant to reduce their harvest due to factors that they can’t control.
Thus, all ASMFC’s American Lobster Management Board had to hear the Technical Committee say was
“input controls can also accomplish rebuilding, but only if latent effort (traps and permits/licenses) are minimized or removed—and actively fished traps are reduced to a level where effort and catch are linear. Input controls are less certain in obtaining catch reductions that may lead to stock rebuilding, an additional measure is needed to act in concert with effort reduction…The [Technical Committee] believes the recommended input and output controls may have substantial socio-economic and law enforcement effects, and suggests that the Socio-Economic and law enforcement Committees investigate effects of these controls to provide guidance to the [American Lobster Management] Board,”
and all hopes of putting an annual quota in place flew straight out of the window.
Instead, since the 2009 stock assessment, we have seen ASMFC reduce the number of trap tags that a fisherman can transfer to another fisherman, including when a business is sold, and cap the number of trap tags that may be held by a smaller fishing operations (2009), require states to adopt regulations that might involve a larger minimum size, v-notching females or a closed season, which were calculated to reduce landings by 10% in each region, without requiring an actual reduction in landings (2012), further restricting the number of trap tags that may be transferred in one of the lobster management areas (2013), and additional measures related to trap tag transfer and the number of inactive trap tags that may be owned (2013 and 2015).
As the 2015 stock assessment demonstrated, all such input controls failed miserably in their intended purpose of rebuilding the stock. Instead, the inshore component of the stock collapsed and the offshore component is badly imperiled.
But ASMFC did not change its song.
Today, one year after the 2015 assessment came out, no additional restrictions have been placed on lobster harvest. No one is acting quickly or imposing emergency measures, despite the assessment’s clear tone.
At the August 2016 Management Board meeting, there was no hint that such Management Board had learned from its mistakes of the past. Although it began moving forward with a new Addendum XXV to the management plan, supposedly in response to the benchmark assessment, it ignored the assessment’s conclusion that fishing effort had to be curtailed if the stock was to have any hope of recovery.
Instead, the Management Board decided that the goal of Addendum XXV was
“to respond to the decline of the SNE stock and its decline in recruitment while preserving a functional portion of the lobster fishery in this area.”
In addition, the new Addendum was only viewed as “an initial response” to the impending collapse of the stock. So it’s pretty clear that no one is in a hurry to inconvenience the lobster fishermen while there’s still a few bucks to be made.
Although the both the Technical Committee and the panel which peer reviewed the stock assessment agreed that fishing effort must be curtailed if there is to be any hope of restoring the stock, the Management Board refused to heed that advice. The American Lobster Plan Development Team was instructed to draft a proposed Addendum XXV to the management plan, which would instead concentrate on increasing egg production. Options to increase egg production anywhere from 0% to 60%--but no higher—will be considered, which is a fairly modest goal given that managers are dealing with a stock that is already partially collapsed.
And even those measures, whatever they might be, will be phased in over a two-year period, which won’t begin until after Addendum XXV is adopted by the Management Board, a process which, if it even occurs, could easily take a full year.
So, in the face of a collapsing stock, ASMFC is only willing to make an “initial response” that won’t be fully implemented until roughly three years from now.
That’s no way to rebuild a fishery, although it is reminiscent of the ASMFC dithering that ultimately led to the collapse of northern shrimp, another stock adversely affected by rising water temperatures.
On the other hand, if ASMFC was truly serious about trying to rebuild the stock, it should take its Technical Committee’s advice, offered seven years ago, and impose a hard quota on the southern New England lobster fishery that would guarantee whatever reduction is harvest is needed—back in 2010, independent biologists suggested 50 to 100 percent—to give the stock a half-decent chance to rebuild.
It would be a simple thing to do, given that commercial lobster landings are recorded by the affected states. Merely take each state’s recent annual landings, and reduce them by the annual percentage. Once the lobster quota is reached, all traps have to come out of the water.
Given the impact of the needed cuts on lobster fishermen, it would also make sense to pair such quota with a catch share system, which gives each fisherman within a state a set percentage of that state’s overall quota, which shares may be freely sold or leased to other fishermen within the state. Under such a system, while the quota remains low, some fishermen would be able to make money from their shares without incurring the expenses of running a boat, while others would be able to profit directly from their participation in the fishery, which would be made economically practical by their ability to lease other fishermen’s shares.
It’s an obvious and very workable solution to the southern New England lobster problem.
But knowing ASMFC, and its aversion to pinching any fisherman’s profits, it’s a solution that will be studiously ignored.