Thursday, September 29, 2016


Of all the issues that face fisheries managers, probably none are as controversial as reallocating harvest.
It’s a no-win issue for regulators. The need to establish annual catch limits makes fisheries management a zero-sum game. The only way to increase the landings of one group of fishermen is to decrease the landings of another.
Managers can base reallocation decisions on many different factors, which range from historic patterns of harvest to recent, climate-driven changes in fish abundance. They know that any criteria they decide to use will be deemed “unfair” by those forced to land fewer fish, and “perfectly appropriate” by those who will get to land more.
Thus, managers are understandably reluctant to develop reallocation plans that they know will be loudly and bitterly condemned by many fishermen.
In an effort to provide some guidance, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a Fishery Allocation Review Policy (Policy) and accompanying Recommended Practices and Factors to Consider when Reviewing and Making Allocation Decisions (Practices) in July 2016.
The NMFS actions, however well-intentioned, didn’t add much clarity to the process.
The Practices note, “Several recommended practices would improve the allocation process by increasing transparency and reducing conflict.” It goes on to suggest that, when facing allocation issues, regional fishery management councils should “Evaluate and Update Council and Fishery Management Plan Objectives,” “Identify User Needs,” “Minimize Speculative Behavior” and “Plan for Future Conditions.”
That seems to be a reasonable, if obvious, approach to allocation issues, but even so, the Practices hedge, saying that the four specified criteria “should not be considered comprehensive and may not be applicable to all circumstances.”
Viewed in light of such warning, the criteria do little, if anything, to help resolve allocation issues.
If one continues to read the Practices, things don’t become any clearer. The document advises that
“Typically allocation decisions are closely aligned with the historical use of the resource because the government is hesitant to limit historically established privileges and access. While historical use may (or in some instances, shall) be taken into consideration when reviewing and making an allocation decision, the [Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act] requires achieving on a continuing basis the optimum yield (OY) from each fishery, which encompasses a broader range of considerations.”
It then sets out such considerations, which include “Ecological Factors,” “Economic Factors,” “Social Factors” and “Indicators of Performance and Change,” and describes various permutations of each. Then, the Practices hedge again, saying
“The list of factors is not all-inclusive, as there may be other important factors to consider. The factors do not prescribe any particular outcome with respect to allocation, but rather, are intended to provide a framework for the allocation analysis. Factors should be considered compared between groups for which an allocation decision is relevant. The priority and weight afforded each factor will vary depending on the time horizon of the decision, the objectives of the allocation decision, the objectives of the [fishery management plan], and the overarching Council goals…”
In the end, the Practices are filled with such ambiguity that they provide no meaningful guidance at all.
Since the Policy relies heavily on the Practices to determine whether a reallocation decision should be made, it doesn’t provide much useful guidance, either.
The commercial summer flounder fishery illustrates the difficulty of making reallocation decisions, even with the Practices and Policy in place.
There managers face the seemingly simple question of whether state allocations, which currently favor a few Mid-Atlantic states, should be changed to reflect the steady northern expansion of the stock into New England waters.
Summer flounder are managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC), which represents states between New York and North Carolina. Thus, New England fishermen have little say in how they are managed, and that makes them feel as if the deck is stacked against them.
David Simpson, the marine fisheries director from Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, gave voice to the frustration felt by New England fishermen, saying, “We have these allocations state by state that are fixed in yesteryear. How do you convince four people with a vote on the Mid-Atlantic Council from North Carolina that they should acknowledge all the fish are 20 miles south of Montauk now and that New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island now should have a bigger share than them?”
To be fair, the MAFMC is currently considering a comprehensive amendment to its Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan, and reallocation of the commercial quota is one of the issues being discussed. However, comments made at a June 2016 advisory panel meeting make it clear that Mid-Atlantic fishermen are not sympathetic to Mr. Simpson’s arguments.
A commercial fisherman from the lower Mid-Atlantic said, “Infrastructure was put in place for distribution purposes, based on historical numbers. Fishermen knew the allocations when they were getting into the fishery.”
Of course, fishermen didn’t know that the center of summer flounder abundance would shift well to the north of where it was when the original allocations were made. But that wouldn’t change the mind of another Mid-Atlantic fisherman, who said
“I don’t think that [a reallocation] is justifiable. Even if all the fluke moved off of Connecticut and Massachusetts, I don’t think that would be a compelling reason to re-evaluate the quotas…Have the people who have made the complaints bought permits in other states? Have they done something to help themselves? Many fishermen went other places, re-invested to make it work. For those people who have not done that—I don’t think it’s fair for them to ask for more quota…Allocation changes would have to be very severe to make a difference. The reduction to North Carolina and New Jersey fishermen would be massive.”
That view was echoed by a North Carolina waterman, who argued, “Infrastructure and coastal economies were built on that allocation. North Carolina fishermen created the lion’s share of quota up and down the east coast. Most northern fishermen fished on groundfish, and didn’t care about fluke.”
Yet another fisherman insisted that today’s allocations must continue to reflect the landings patterns established three decades ago. “We used 1980-1989 [as base years], setting regulations in 1993. That’s 20+ years build around that…People are seeing that there’s money in this fishery and now they want to get into it. But people that are in it have worked hard to get it where it is. And it’s one of the only major fisheries we have in Virginia and North Carolina. We don’t need to change it.”
Thus, the scene is set. One group of fishermen calls for a new allocation that takes changing environmental conditions into account. Another believes that allocations based on past landings patterns should be forever cast in stone.
Is any reallocation justified? If so, who should prevail?
The Policy advises, “If the trigger [for reallocation] is based on public input to the Councils, then a check for changes in social, ecological or economic criteria is required.”
The change in summer flounder distribution certainly meets the “ecological” criterion, so the next step is to refer to the Practices for guidance.
They paint a mixed picture.
One could easily argue that the changes currently impacting the summer flounder fishery will continue, and that the fishery’s future lies in northern waters. One could also make the case that northeastern fishermen, suffering from sharp declines in their traditional cod and flounder fisheries, need a larger allocation of summer flounder to stave off the collapse of their fishery and the socio-economic damage that any such collapse would cause.
On the other hand, as the advisory panel comments show, Mid-Atlantic fishermen are more than willing to sail north to catch their quota of summer flounder. If some of their fish were reallocated to New England fishermen, they would suffer a significant loss of income that couldn’t be readily replaced by switching effort onto other species. And coastal communities along the Mid-Atlantic coast could also suffer socio-economic harm as more summer flounder are landed in northern ports, and jobs and infrastructure are lost in states such as Virginia and North Carolina.
Thus, despite NMFS’ Policy and Practices, it still comes down to a judgment call by the MAFMC, and a reallocation decision that no one sitting around the table is particularly eager to make.
An allocation decision that impoverishes one group of fishermen in order to enrich others will never solve the ultimate problem, which cannot be resolved so long as everyone insists on squabbling over the biggest piece of a small and oft-times shrinking pie.
If every fisherman is to land enough fish to survive, managers and fishermen must work together to make the summer flounder pie bigger, so that each such fisherman can enjoy a larger slice of that pie than they have today.
This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Sunday, September 25, 2016


The Gulf of Mexico pops up frequently when folks talk about fisheries management, mostly because some overly hungry members of the recreational fishing community are throwing a hissy fit because the National Marine Fisheries Service isn’t letting them overfish red snapper.

Still, groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association have spent substantial amounts of money on litigation, either bringing or intervening in lawsuits intended to hold anglers accountable for overfishing, hold states unaccountable for excessive red snapper caught in their waters while federal waters are closed and prevent allocation of a share of the harvest to recreational anglers who fish from for-hire vessels, to keep them from being harmed by private boat anglers’ overages.

Those lawsuits had very modest objectives that, in the end, probably weren’t worth the amount of money invested in the litigation (even if CCA won, which it usually didn’t).  However, CCA also joined with other organizations comprising the Center for Coastal Conservation, and expended substantial resources to convince NMFS to adopt a wide-ranging recreational fishing policy, and in the words of Bill Bird, Chairman of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee,

“the Gulf recreational red snapper fishery…is virtually the sole impetus for the creation of the policy in the first place.”

That’s a lot of money, time and effort being spent to kill a few additional fish.

It also seems to be a very careless use of such resources, given the much bigger issues facing anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, which are far more worthy of such expenditures.

Consider the Dead Zone.

The Dead Zone, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a large expanse of the Gulf of Mexico in which the bottom waters (yes, water where red snappers might live) contains little or no oxygen.  According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, it is

“fueled by nutrient runoff and other human activities in the Mississippi River watershed, which stimulates an overgrowth of algae that sinks, decomposes and consumes most of the life-giving oxygen supply in bottom waters.”
NOAA also observes that

“Despite fluctuations in size during each year’s weather conditions, these chronic, recurrent hypoxic zones every summer represent a significant threat to Gulf ecosystems.  Until we achieve a substantial reduction in nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River watershed, we will continue to experience extended periods of time each year when critically needed habitat is unavailable for many marine organisms.”
The typical size of the Dead Zone is around 6,700 square miles, about the same area as the entire State of New Jersey, although spring floods that wash higher-than-normal amounts of pollutants down the Mississippi River can cause it to grow much larger.

Given that such a threat to marine resources important to anglers exists right in their back yard, one would think that the Texas-based Coastal Conservation Association and Louisiana-based Center for Coastal Conservation would spend at least as many resources fighting to reduce the extent of the Dead Zone as they do fighting to kill more red snapper.  

However, that does not appear to be the case.

A fairly deep Google search revealed that neither CCA nor the Center has apparently made a strong commitment to reduce the size of the Dead Zone, and that neither organization has dedicated substantial resources to that cause.  Instead, both groups seem to be concentrating their efforts on increasing red snapper harvest, weakening federal fisheries laws and various other causes that would maintain or increase recreational harvest levels for various species, while protecting the short-term income stream of the angling and boating industries.

Certainly, any fight to significantly shrink the Dead Zone would cause CCA and the Center to take on far more, and far better funded, opponents than those they face in their red snapper fight.  On the other hand, the fact that the combined resources of CCA, the American Sportfishing Association (representing the fishing tackle industry) and the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association, to name just three component organizations of the Center, can’t make much progress on the red snapper issue is probably more testimony to how weak and out-on-the-fringe their position actually is, than any reflection on their willingness or ability to win a more rational debate.

It would be extremely tough for CCA and the Center to prevail in a fight over the Dead Zone, but at least they would have the facts and the equities of the situation strongly on their side, which is a lot more than they have now.

A recent battle over pollution in Chesapeake Bay, which also suffers from hypoxic dead zones during the summer, provides a good idea of how the battle lines would be drawn in a Dead Zone fight.

In that battle, the United States Environmental Protections Agency issued, in 2010, regulations that specified the “total maximum daily load” of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that could be released into Chesapeake Bay.  Such regulations were immediately challenged by a group of business interests that included the American Farm Bureau Association, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau Association, The Fertilizer Institute, the National Chicken Council, the US Poultry and Egg Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Turkey Federation and the Association of Homebuilders—in other words, a lot of the same organizations that represent the people and businesses that helped to create the Dead Zone in the Gulf (as an aside, the good guys--and Chesapeake Bay--won).

But what was really interesting was who intervened on the side of the Farm Bureau—the attorneys general representing various states that included, among others, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and West Virginia, all of which abut either the Mississippi River or one of its tributaries, who went to court to defend their citizens’ God-given rights to dump excess fertilizer and pig shit in such waterways.  

They clearly feared that if the flow of agricultural waste into Chesapeake Bay could be limited, the flow into the Gulf of Mexico might be limited as well.

Thirty-nine congressmen from the pig shit and fertilizer states also intervened on the side of the Farm Bureau.  Of those thirty-nine, half a dozen have been actively supported by the Center for Coastal Conservation’s political action committee in at least one of the past three election cycles, including Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-South Carolina), John Fleming (R-Louisiana), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Andrew Harris (R-Maryland), Scott Tipton (R-Colorado) and (now-Senator) David Vitter (R-Louisiana).  

One can only assume that the Center believes that it may need their help to trash federal fisheries law.

So yes, it’s easy to understand why the Center might not want to get involved in a Dead Zone fight, and risk letting some of its past campaign contributions go to waste.

And that’s too bad.

Because if a coalition of anglers, the tackle industry and the boatbuilders ever grew the cojones to stand up against the people and businesses that profit by letting fertilizer and shit flow into America’s rivers and choke out life in the Gulf, it would be a powerful coalition, particularly if the Center also had the moral courage to put past disputes behind it and link its efforts with those of mainstream conservation groups, and other sportsmen’s groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, who are already in the fight.

There is a chance that, after hard effort, they might even win, and such a victory would be far more valuable to all anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, whatever they choose to fish for, than a few more red snapper tossed, dead, on the dock.  

In the long run, it would be more valuable to the tackle and boatbuilding industries, too.

But to get to that point, the Center would first have to dare to do something greater than merely carping over a dead snapper or two.

So far, it hasn't proven itself capable of that.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Earlier this month, a group of tackle industry, boatbuilding industry and anglers’ rights groups, which  have banded together under the banner of the Center for Coastal Conservation, announced their latest plan for gutting the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

They call it “Let America Fish.”

Details remain a little sketchy, but given that the Center supported and praised H.R. 1335, the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act” introduced by Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska), which would have emasculated key provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, it’s safe assume that if the Center is behind something, it’s probably not anything good.

“a communications campaign focused on adjustments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) that benefit recreational fishing.  The campaign highlights the impact of the recreational fishing and boating industries on the U.S. economy, speaks to the conservation efforts put forth by recreational anglers, and sheds light on the fact that the current laws are unbalanced thereby severely limiting access for recreational anglers”.
Put in plain language, Let America Fish is a propaganda campaign aimed at weakening the conservation provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, so that some businesses can make more money and some fishermen can kill more fish until overfishing and declining abundance brings the Center’s efforts to their crashing and inevitable conclusion.

There’s nothing particularly new here.  There have always been businesses eager to profit at the expense of healthy fish stocks, and there has always been an irresponsible element within the recreational fishing community that was willing to abet their efforts.

That event was spearheaded by a group operating under the banner of, which sponsored a similar “United We Fish” rally two years before.  At the time, FishUnited issued this mission statement:

“’Keep Fishermen Fishing’ states its mission as ‘to pass federal legislation to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.’
“Coalition partners will educate and inform legislators and the general public on the onerous and devastating effect the current law is having on angler access and the angling experience, the systematic destruction of both recreational and commercial fishing communities and businesses by attempting to rebuild our Nation’s fisheries at the expense of our fishermen instead of for the benefit of them and the nation as a whole…”
In other words, FishUnited, like the Center, wanted to weaken Magnuson-Stevens so that businesses could make more money and anglers could kill more fish until the stocks come crashing down.

“…those who took in the ‘Keep America Fishing’ event were stronger in passion, volume and anger.  There was little backpatting, laughter, or any kids-in-the-park-on-a-nice-day feeling.
“They wore shirts that compared the national fisheries management to Nazis.
“They bore signs that said, ‘How high up is the corruption?’; ‘Give it back, thief’; and ‘Jesus was a fisherman, why can’t we be?’”
Let America Fish is clearly designed to stir up the same sort of sentiments.  Jeff Angers, the Center’s President, even uses language that sounds much like that used by Fishing United.

“Through the ‘Let America Fish’ campaign, we hope to help lawmakers and the general public understand why current federal fisheries law is unfair to the recreational angling community.  Revising federal law and agency guidance will insure fair and reasonable access to America’s fisheries and improve fisheries management to guide the future of recreational fishing and boating,”
In fact, Angers’ language is so close to that of FishingUnited that it’s fair to wonder whether Keep Fishermen Fishing was the model for Let America Fish.

However, the efforts differ in one important aspect.  While Keep Fishermen Fishing and United We Fish were broad-based demonstrations that, as the latter name suggests, were intended to bring commercial and recreational fishermen together in common cause, Let America Fish is much more narrowly-focused.  It is designed to bring more money into the coffers of the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries by allowing anglers to kill too many fish.  

Such focus is clear in the Center’s statement that

“As a group, recreational anglers provide a greater economic impact than industrial commercial fishermen.  America’s 11 million recreational saltwater anglers make a combined economic contribution of $70 billion annually, spend $26.5 billion each year, and create 455,000 American jobs.”
Let America Fish differs in another aspect as well; it communicates a far more hypocritical message than did Keep Fishermen Fishing and United We Fish.

The latter efforts did not try to conceal their goals.  They argued that Magnuson-Stevens was hurting fishermen’s bottom lines, to the extent that some were forced to go out of business, and called for the law to be revised to fishermen them kill more fish.  There was none of the simpering language employed by the Center, saying that Magnuson-Stevens needed “adjustments”, or that the goal was merely “revising” and “fixing” the statute.

Keep America Fishing and United We Fish also didn’t insult the public’s intelligence by saying on one hand that

“recreational anglers have led the way to maintain sustainable fish populations”
“Our goal is to sustain healthy fish stocks”
while, on the other hand, working to cripple the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions created by the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which are the very provisions that ensure that American fisheries and fish stocks will remain healthy and sustainable.

Still, United We Fish, Keep Fishermen Fishing and Let America Fish are, at heart, all variations on the same theme.

All are efforts to weaken Magnuson-Stevens, the most successful fisheries management law in the world.

And all deserve to fail. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016


As part of the ongoing red snapper debate, various “anglers’ rights” organizations frequently tout the superiority of state fisheries managers, when compared to their counterparts at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
One such organization, the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), has frequently expressed its support for H.R. 3094, legislation that would strip NMFS of all authority to manage red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, and transfer such authority over to a panel composed exclusively of state fishery managers. In an effort to justify their position, CCA argued that, “Through their highly successful management of species like red drum, speckled trout, snook and numerous others, the states have demonstrated that they can effectively manage fisheries for both sustainability and access.”

However, in the case of speckled trout, saying that state management is “highly successful” is patently untrue.
The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune recently reported that biologists employed by Mississippi’s Department of Marine Fisheries have determined that the state’s speckled trout (formally known as “spotted seatrout,” Cynoscion nebulosus) are overfished.

The health of the speckled trout stock is determined by its spawning potential ratio (SPR). SPR is calculated by dividing the number of eggs that an average fish in the current population can produce by the number of eggs that an average fish could produce if the population wasn’t subject to any fishing at all. Thus, the SPR of an unfished population is 100%, while the SPR of a population that is subject to fishing will be some smaller number, determined by the rate of fishing mortality.

It is generally believed that, depending on the species, an SPR between 20% and 35%, or perhaps a bit more, will maintain a stock at sustainable levels, while anything less than 20% could lead to sharp declines in abundance.

Mississippi regulations allow anglers to take home 15 speckled trout, which must be at least 13 inches long, on each day that they choose to go fishing. The 15-fish bag limit has remained unchanged for the past 20 years, while the 13-inch minimum size was actually reduced from 14 inches in 2007.

Such regulations remained unchanged even after the stock began to decline after 2009; state managers made no effort to impose more restrictive regulations in an attempt to stop the stock’s slide and begin its recovery.

Facing a depleted stock, Mississippi fisheries managers have finally expressed a willingness to impose regulations that might allow the speckled trout to recover. But now, instead of relatively mild restrictions that might have been enough to halt the decline when it had first begun,managers will have to cut the recreational harvest in half if they want to assure the stock’s recovery.

The decline of Mississippi’s speckled trout stock, and state fisheries managers’ tardy efforts to begin its recovery, are troubling enough. However, speckled trout in Louisiana seem to be following a parallel course.

There, according to a Louisiana fisheries biologist, the SPR of the state’s speckled trout stock has fallen to 10%, marginally lower than in Mississippi. But while Mississippi biologists believe that their speckled trout are overfished, Louisiana biologists have no such concerns.

Louisiana regulations are even more liberal than those in Mississippi. Anglers may keep 25 speckled trout each day, and the minimum size is a mere 12 inches (although somewhat more restrictive rules are imposed in the southwestern corner of the state). Such regulations were adopted in 1987; since 1981, the SPR of Louisiana’s speckled trout has never exceeded 20%, and has fallen as low as 8%.

A biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries admits that, “The current limits, biologically speaking, are designed to maximize angler yield while not putting the stock into a condition where we may see recruitment overfishing.”

Managers never want to see recruitment overfishing, for recruitment overfishing is a prologue to crisis.
It is defined as “The rate of fishing above which the recruitment to the exploitable biomass becomes significantly reduced. This is characterized by a greatly reduced spawning stock, a decreasing proportion of older fish in the catch, and generally very low recruitment year after year. May lead to stock collapse if prolonged and combined with poor environmental conditions.”

Louisiana guides are already noting that larger, older speckled trout are becoming scarce. One complained that “On an average day, we’re throwing back between 50 and 150 fish” that fall below the 12-inch minimum size. “My theory is that the fish aren’t getting a chance to grow up. The minute that they hit 12 inches, they’re getting killed.”

That guide went on to say that, at one time, his clients occasionally caught speckled trout weighing between 6 and 8 pounds, and that 5-pounders were relatively common, but “You don’t see them anymore. You just don’t. The fish get killed before they have a chance to grow up.”
So it appears that at least one element of recruitment overfishing, a declining number of older fish in the catch, is already occurring in Louisiana. Even so, state fishery managers don’t believe that a “complete collapse” will ever occur because speckled trout mature when still very young, and a relatively small population can produce an adequate number of eggs.

State managers’ treatment of speckled trout in Mississippi and Louisiana provide key insights into how Gulf of Mexico red snapper might fare, should management authority ever be taken away from NMFS and given to the states.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which currently governs red snapper management outside of state waters, mandates that “management plans shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery.” “Optimum” yield, in turn, “is prescribed as such on the basis of maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social or ecological factor; and in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for a rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield…”

That certainly isn’t what’s going on in Louisiana, where managers “walk a tightrope between getting full public use out of a renewable resource and harming a fishery at least in the short term,” trying to keep harvest just low enough to prevent recruitment overfishing, and avert a stock collapse.

Unlike NMFS, state managers are not legally required to “prevent overfishing” at all.
That’s particularly dangerous in the case of red snapper, which mature late and don’t enter their most productive egg-producing years until nearly 10 years old. Overfishing, which reduces the number of older, larger fish in the population, would have a serious adverse impact on the snapper’s spawning potential.

Furthermore, Magnuson-Stevens requires that “management measures shall be based on the best scientific information available.” States are bound by no such standard, a fact that’s evident in the case of speckled trout.
The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC) published a Gulf-wide speckled trout management plan in 2001. The GSMFC plan notes that

“evaluating the status of the spotted seatrout stock Gulf-wide is problematic because different states have different conservation standards…Louisiana has adopted a SPR value of 18% as their conservation standard…[Florida’s] management objective is a transitional SPR value of 35%. Florida’s conservation standard was chosen in an effort to increase both the number of older, larger fish in the spawning stock and angler satisfaction…Texas does not use a “conservation threshold” associated with any one stock measure…Rather, a broad-based, more holistic approach is used. Management objectives are: 1) to allow fish to spawn at least once before entering the fishery, 2) to prevent growth overfishing, and 3) to provide for a quality and/or trophy fishery…”
When three different states take three very different approaches to managing the same species, it’s clear that at least two of them can’t be adhering to “the best scientific information available.” The fact that Louisiana apparently adopted an SPR of 18% as a conservation standard, and then does nothing when the SPR of the speckled trout stock drops to half of that level, speaks volumes about the importance of science to state management efforts.
Should red snapper management ever be transferred to a panel of state fisheries managers, it’s not hard to predict that the same sort of chaos will ensue. One or more states will try to “maximize angler yield,” and push the stock to the verge of collapse, eliminating most of the older, larger fish from the population as they do so. Others will use subjective criteria to manage the stock, and avoid the discipline imposed by hard data. And one, maybe two, will be like Florida, and try to use good science and maintain a stock that is healthy and includes some older, larger fish in the population.
Chaos would be bad for red snapper. In the long run, it would be bad for red snapper fishermen, too.
Right now, NMFS’ approach to red snapper management has been successful. The stock, which had an SPR of 4.2% in 2005, is rebuilding nicely, and is now about halfway to the target SPR of 26%.

Red snapper anglers have a choice.
They can let NMFS continue its efforts, and expect to see the red snapper stock fully restored around 2032. Or they can turn management over to the states, and let them fail the red snapper as badly as they have failed speckled trout.
When you look at it that way, there is really no choice at all.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


That’s because it’s a dangerous and ill-conceived bill that would strip the National Marine Fisheries Service of its current authority to manage red snapper in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and transfer such authority to a panel of state officials, which would  not be bound by federal conservation and stock rebuilding mandates.

The bill is dangerous not only because it threatens to halt NMFS’ successful rebuilding of the red snapper stock, but also because it would set a precedent that could be used elsewhere on the coast, to strip federal managers of their authority to manage depleted stocks and turn such authority over to state managers more interested in short-term exploitation than in long-term sustainability, who would be likely to increase harvest beyond prudent levels.

H.R. 3094 is being pushed by a coalition which calls itself the Center for Coastal Conservation which is made up of various fishing tackle industry, boating industry and anglers’ rights organizations and, despite its strikingly inappropriate name, seems more concerned with wringing as much short-term profit and as many dead fish out of the Gulf red snapper population it can, rather than with conserving anything at all.

To that end, the Center and its component organizations have spent a lot of time and effort in attempting to weave the enticing illusion that federal fisheries management (despite its clear and documented successes) is incapable of properly managing fish stocks.  That illusion can be summed up by a statement issued by the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the Center’s component groups, which wrote

“Through their highly successful management of species such as red drum, speckled trout, snook and numerous others, the states have demonstrated that they can effectively manage fisheries for both sustainability and access.”
The trick to selling that illusion to the public is keeping them from looking at the facts, because when you start to do that, the pretty picture that the Center is trying to paint doesn’t just get a little hazy.  It falls completely apart.

One fact that the Center doesn’t want anyone thinking about is what state management of red snapper might cost.  Fisheries managers may disagree on many things, but they all know about budgets, and the fact that good science doesn’t come cheap.

Thus, it should surprise no one that Louisiana’s Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries, Charles Melancon, recently announced that his department would not be supporting H.R. 3094, because it wasn’t prepared to spend something close to $10,000,000 in a single year to manage a single species.

That didn’t go over well with Rep. Graves, who stated that there would be plenty of money around to manage the species (even though federal spending for red snapper management was specifically removed by his bill), but the fact that Mr. Melancon called Rep. Graves “Pinocchio” immediately afterwards made it clear what he thought of that statement.

Mr. Melancon’s concerns about cost were echoed in a rough calculation made by the Environmental Defense Fund, which found that state management of Gulf red snapper would cost the five states involved more than $100,000,000, spread out over a period of five years.  I only saw the report that EDF published, and not data behind the calculations themselves, so I can’t vouch for their accuracy.  However, if they’re even close to right, that’s a big price for the states to pay for a few more dead fish.

Maybe enough to get some states to change their minds.
Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to support H.R. 3094 at some point last year.  At a meeting held earlier this month, they took another look at that action.

I can’t find any news item that describes the proceedings, but people who attended the meeting report that the Commission expressed new concerns, not about the costs of management, but about the impacts that H.R. 3094 might have on Florida’s commercial and for-hire fisheries.  That’s not the sort of big U-turn that Louisiana, another former supporter, has made, but it does suggest that Florida is again re-evaluating the purported merits of the bill.

But the hammer that really shattered the illusion that the folks at the Center are trying to spin came, ironically, from one of the Center’s most influential members, the Coastal Conservation Association itself.

Remember that CCA boldly proclaimed that the Gulf states’ management of speckled trout was evidence that the states could also properly manage red snapper?

As it turns out, some of the Gulf states haven’t been managing their speckled trout stocks very well at all.  Mississippi has recently declared that its speckled trout are overfished, with a spawning potential ratio of just 10.2%, and has said that recreational landings would have to be cut in half in order to restore those stocks to health.

Louisiana’s speckled trout stocks are marginally worse off, with a spawning potential ratio of a mere 10%, although Louisiana seems to believe that’s good enough, and intends to take no action.

CCA’s Mississippi chapter is not happy about having overfished trout stocks.

“CCA Mississippi calls for action on speckled trout.  Anglers urge state managers to undo damaging regulations.  [emphasis added]”
It appears that state management of speckled trout might not be as good as CCA’s national propagandists would have us believe…

CCA Mississippi goes on to say

“A controversial decision to lower the minimum size limit for speckled trout to 13 inches eight years ago has resulted in exactly the kind of stock decline that recreational anglers feared at the time…the Mississippi chapter of Coastal Conservation Association is calling on the Commission on Marine Resources to reverse course and take the necessary steps to put the fishery back on solid footing.
“’Eight years ago, we were very much opposed when [state] mangers took an awfully risky position with its trout regulations and now that unfortunate decision has come home to roost,’ said F. J. Eicke, Chairman of CCA Mississippi’s Government Relations Committee.  ‘We’ve taken a giant step backwards with a resource that’s treasured by anglers, but now we have an opportunity to work with the states to set things right and we shouldn’t waste any more time.’
“…’At 13 inches it is clear that too many fish are being caught and kept before they have a chance to spawn even once.  If you remove fish before they can spawn, catastrophic declines are inevitable, ‘ said Eicke.  ‘Fortunately, trout can rebuild relatively quickly if state managers will put the proper conservation measures back in place.   They dug quite a hole for trout that we have to dig out of now…  [emphasis added]’”
So, while the leadership in CCA’s head office—and in the offices of the Center for Coastal Conservation and its other constituent organizations—are trying to sell legislators and anglers the illusion that state fishery managers are doing a good job managing fish populations, and should thus be trusted with the red snapper stock even in  federal waters, the folks out in the trenches—the CCA Mississippi angler/volunteers—are out on the front lines trying to protect their speckled trout from the state managers’ mistakes.

The words of CCA Mississippi ring clear and true: 

“Anglers urge state managers to undo damaging regulations.”
“The Mississippi Chapter of Coastal Conservation Association are calling on the Commission on Marine Resources to reverse course.”
“[State] managers took an awfully risky position with its trout regulations.”
“They dug quite a hole for trout that we have to dig out of now.”
Thus, it’s time for CCA’s national leadership to get their backsides out of those soft office chairs, and into the marshes of Mississippi (and Louisiana), so they can get a good, first-hand look at how an “awfully risky” state management approach has trashed a “treasured” inshore fish stock.

It’s time for them to stop trying to polish a tarnished and fatally shattered illusion. 

It’s time for them to admit that there is no reason to believe that Mississippi won’t manage red snapper just as badly as they have managed speckled trout, taking an “awfully risky position” that would have been illegal had they, like their federal counterparts, been bound to the conservation and rebuilding mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

It is time for CCA, the Center for Coastal Conservation and all of its constituent groups, such as the American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, to admit that when they tried to sell legislators and anglers the illusion that states managed fish better than federal managers, they were trying to sell a bright and shining lie that, if believed, might have increased the red snapper kill—and the profits of folks belonging to ASA and NMMA—in the short term, but put the snapper’s future in real and immediate peril.

For if we want to know how the states would really manage red snapper, we just have to look at Mississippi’s speckled trout.

That pretty much says it all.