Sunday, August 14, 2016
FOR THE GOOD OF THE WHOLE
Last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council held its August meeting. That meeting is often a raucous affair, because it’s the time when the Council sets annual specifications for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and bluefish, and one or more of those species is always a lightning rod for discontent.
Such specifications were set at the meeting, and there was certainly some comments made. However, the big news coming out of the Council wasn’t about the usual “big three” species—summer flounder, black sea bass and scup—that usually generate most of the controversy. Nor did it involve bluefish, which looked like it was going to be a hot issue a few weeks ahead of the meeting.
Instead, the truly important story was that of the Council approving the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment, which will directly protect not the popular species that we all fish for, but the many small species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans that anchor the Mid-Atlantic’s food web and keep those popular species alive.
The amendment wasn’t intended to protect fish already covered by regional or federal fishery management plans, such as menhaden or Atlantic herring. Instead, it was intended to “freeze the footprint” of fisheries targeting important forage species, and prevent the creation or expansion of any such fishery until enough data can be gathered to demonstrate that such new fishery will be sustainable, both in the individual species and in an ecosystem context.
The amendment broke new ground on the East Coast, although a similar amendment has already been approved by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Quite honestly, when the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment was first proposed some years ago, I wished the effort well, but didn’t give it much chance of succeeding.
There was institutional inertia to be overcome; there had never been an amendment for largely unfished species approved by the Mid-Atlantic Council before, and it is always difficult to convince people to do something that’s new and different.
In addition, the concept of forage fish management didn’t sit well with owners of industrial fishing fleets, who were used to wringing substantial profit out of high-volume fisheries for low-value species.
Omega Protein Corporation, a company responsible for the lion’s share of the menhaden harvest, both on the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, had its outside legal counsel prepare a “white paper” for the Mid-Atlantic Council, in which Omega did its very best to cast doubt on the value of forage fish management, and stop the Council effort in its tracks.
Fortunately, the members of the Mid-Atlantic Council saw through the smoke screen. Through Council meetings and public hearings, through discussions in the press and in social media, they doggedly fought on to keep the Mid-Atlantic’s food web intact.
Thanks to their efforts, we’re not going to have to endure the sight of a big New England trawler, pushed off its traditional grounds by the collapse of cod and other groundfish stocks, deploying fine-mesh midwater trawls and scooping up tons of the sand eels that we need to support fisheries for everything from fluke to bluefin tuna, and selling them to fish meal plants for export to China.
Thanks to their efforts, the chub mackerel that have been so important to Long Island’s bluefin tuna and shark fisheries this season will, for the first time, be subject to real harvest restrictions, instead of being a part of a growing free-for-all that has seen more than 50 million pounds of completely unregulated landings hit the dock over the past five years.
Thanks to their efforts, well, we just don’t know what harm to the food web we won’t be seeing, as the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment prevents the creation of unsustainable and ecologically unwise fisheries for over 50 named species.
Yet the amendment is more than a closed and locked door that forever prevents the creation of new and potentially valuable fisheries. Should someone want to move forward with a forage fish fishery, and can get over the first hurdle of demonstrating that, so far as scientists can tell, such fishery will not cause ecosystem damage, they will be able to apply for an Exempted Fishery Permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, that will give them further opportunity to prove that the contemplated fishery is sustainable. If that fact can be proven to the satisfaction of NMFS, the fishery will be allowed to move forward.
Thus, the amendment takes a balanced approach to the forage fish issue, opting for precaution and protecting the ecological status quo in the first instance, but allowing fisheries to be created if they are demonstrably benign to the food web.
But the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment is important not only for what it says on paper, which is substantial in its own right, but about what it says about the mindset of Mid-Atlantic fisheries managers: That they are ready to move on from traditional, one-size-fits-all single species management, and expand into the new and more challenging world of managing fisheries on an ecosystem basis, where the impacts on an entire network of life, rather than just commercially and recreationally valued fish species, will be part of the management equation.
That was confirmed later in the week, when the Council approved an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management Guidance Document, which defined such approach by saying
“An ecosystem approach to fishery management recognizes the biological, economic, social, and physical interactions among the components of ecosystems and attempts to manage fisheries to achieve optimum yield taking those interactions into account.”
The Guidance Document stated that the goal of an ecosystem approach is
“To manage for ecologically sustainable utilization of living marine resources while maintaining ecosystem productivity, structure, and function,”
and defines “ecologically sustainable utilization” as
“utilization that accommodates the needs of present and future generations, while maintaining the integrity, health and diversity of the marine ecosystem.”
That’s a very big step forward.
Taken together, the forage fish amendment and ecosystem approach guidance document represent a real watershed moment, and a lot to get done in a single meeting. The annual summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and bluefish specifications pale in comparison, whatever they happen to be.
And once again, the members of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council prove themselves to be leaders, who pioneer new paths that the rest of the coast ought to follow.