Sunday, October 30, 2016
STATE MANAGERS STRIKE OUT ON THREE MAJOR SPECIES
Cleveland is leading Chicago three games to one in the World Series, and this year’s victor might well be decided before you had a chance to read this blog. Thus, if I wanted to use a timely baseball analogy as I write it, today gives me my last opportunity of this year.
Fortunately, the Center for Coastal Conservation hung a curveball right over the middle of the plate, setting things up for a perfect swing.
The curve came, as so many things do, in the Center’s report, A Vision for Marine Fisheries Management in the 21st Century; Priorities for a New Administration.
For a number of years, the Center has been attempting to weaken federal fishing laws, so that anglers may kill more fish each season, regardless of whether such harvest is sustainable or scientifically justified. While a report issued early in 2014 emphasized anglers’ role in marine conservation, the Center’s newest “vision” states that
“We look forward to collaborating with policymakers to find 21st Century solutions that ensure the right balance between recreational fishing access [i.e, harvesting more fish], economic growth and conservation of America’s coastal waters.”
That vision is in direct conflict with federal fisheries law, which makes the rebuilding and conservation of America’s fish stocks the top priority, regardless of how needed conservation measures may impact recreational landings or short-term economic goals.
Since federal fisheries laws emphasize the long term health and sustainability of fish populations, the Center needed another model to hold up as an example of the correct way to manage fisheries. Their choice defaulted to the state management of inshore species, with the latest “vision” report claiming that
“States are the experts at managing—very successfully—numerous fish species such as red drum, spotted sea trout, and striped bass.”
Of course, claiming that something is true doesn’t make it undisputed fact, and any real look at the facts quickly shows that state management of inshore species is often very far from successful.
We can look at a host of species to make that point, including tautog (a/k/a “blackfish”), weakfish, southern flounder and others. But for now, let’s just take a look at those that the Center uses as examples of good state management—striped bass, red drum and spotted sea trout.
I’ve written about how the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission mismanages striped bass many times before, providing the latest example of poor state stewardship of that resource just last Thursday. The story is so well known that I’m not going to go over it in too much detail again today.
Instead, I’ll go back more than two decades, and remind everyone how ASMFC managed to nurse a very severely overfished striped bass stock back to health by 1995, the one and only time in its 74-year history that ASMFC ever managed to rebuild a depleted fish population.
To summarize before getting into the details, ASMFC most certainly didn’t restore striped bass by finding a “balance between recreational fishing access, economic growth and conservation.”
They brought the bass back by putting the health of the stock front and center, and not worrying about what immediate impact the needed conservation measures would have on anglers’ landings or anyone’s short-term income.
That’s the kind of “fish-first” thinking that actually leads to success in rebuilding fish stocks. Amendment 3 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which was responsible for the striped bass stock’s recovery, had two very explicit and complementary objectives.
The first objective was
“That the states prevent directed fishing mortality on at least 95% of the 1992 year class females, and females of all subsequent year classes of Chesapeake Bay stocks until 95% of the females in these year classes have an opportunity to reproduce at least once. This objective is intended to apply to the fishery until the 3-year running average of Maryland’s young-of-the-year index attains 8.0. Management measures which will accomplish this objective include combinations of the following which insure that no fishing mortality occurs on the target year classes.
a) Total closures of striped bass fisheries. Where a state whose waters border on or are tributary to those which are closed should take complimentary action.
b) Establishment of minimum size limits below which 95% of females have spawned at least once.
c) Establishment of minimum size limits in combination with seasonal closures which insure that sub-adult females are not taken in open fisheries.
d) Elimination of any allowable bycatch below minimum lengths.”
You’ll note that nowhere in that objective was there any mention of allowing certain levels of harvest activity or business activity to “balance” against the conservation effort. You’ll also note that the objective contained clear standards that could be used to measure progress toward rebuilding the stock.
The second objective of Amendment 3 was far shorter, but followed along the same lines.
“That the Striped Bass Board support restoration efforts in the Delaware River System including the Delaware Bay and that a moratorium on striped bass fishing in the Delaware Bay system be implemented upon the onset of restoration efforts.”
Again, a clear, no-nonsense objective that was all about conservation, which would completely shut off what the Center calls “access” and the rest of us think of as “dead fish,” and doesn’t give an inch to short-term economic concerns.
Because the objectives were so clear and uncompromising, Amendment 3 actually worked, and fully rebuilt the striped bass stock.
When people talk about ASMFC successfully managing striped bass, this is the success that they’re talking about, a time when ASMFC was willing to impose management measures much tougher than anything that the feds are imposing on summer flounder or black sea bass or Gulf red snapper today.
But ASMFC’s success at conserving striped bass has nosedived since then…
In late 2008, ASMFC began to hear the first concerns that the striped bass population was declining, when Matt Boutet, a Maine angler, made a statement at the November Management Board meeting, saying, in part,
“I actually flew down for the meeting today because we’ve seen a multi-year declining trend in striped bass abundance up north. We don’t really feel that we’re being well served by the current management regime. Every year the fishing gets a little bit worse. Last year the fishing was bad. This year it was abysmal. ..”
Because Maine is near the northern extreme of the striped bass’ normal range, a decline in the abundance of fish there is an early warning that the stock as a whole is beginning to shrink. However, after hearing Mr. Boutet’s comments, the Management Board did not further consider the issue. In fact, it voted to give Delaware and Pennsylvania the right to adopt regulations allowing the harvest of what would otherwise be considered “undersized” fish in portions of the Delaware River system, even though New Hampshire Rep. Dennis Abbott objected to the idea, arguing that it, and other measures like it, subject the striped bass stock to “death by a thousand cuts.”
The stock continued to decline, and a 2011 update to the stock assessment predicted that biomass would drop near, if not below, the threshold denoting an overfished stock by 2017. Even so, at the November 2011 Management Board meeting, state fisheries managers decided to take no action, because the stock was not yet overfished. Apparently, they felt that they had no need to avert a crisis, but rather could wait until the crisis occurred before taking any action.
Finally, after a benchmark stock assessment in 2013 showed that the stock had been repeatedly subject to overfishing, and was nearly overfished, ASMFC reluctantly took action to reduce fishing mortality to the target level. Even then, it completely ignored language in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass that required them to adopt a plan to restore the biomass to the target level within ten years.
The ink wasn’t even dry on that final action when Maryland, supported by other Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, began agitating to increase the harvest again. Although the initial effort failed, after a 2016 stock assessment update showed that fishing mortality was 0.16, slightly under the target of 0.18, Maryland convinced the Management Board to ask the Striped Bass Technical Committee how much harvest could be increased in order raise fishing mortality to the target level.
The Management Board passed that motion knowing that the female spawning stock biomass remained just 1,200 metric tons above the "overfished" threshold, and was fully 13,000 metric tons below the biomass target.
Chesapeake Bay anglers have already increased their harvest by more than 50%, when they were supposed to reduce it by 20.5%. Yet no additional action was taken to restrict their landings.
Thus, the Center clearly whiffed when it claimed that striped bass are being “very successfully” managed.
Red drum are a very important recreational species in both the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic region. Many years ago, in response to a drop in spawning stock abundance, federal fisheries managers prohibited all fishing for red drum in federal waters. However, that has recently started to change.
About eighteen months ago, the State of Mississippi asked NMFS to issue it an exempted fishing permit, which would allow Mississippi charter boats to harvest about 30,000 adult, spawning-age red drum over a two-year period.
Supposedly, the request was made as part of a scientific sampling effort, but anglers in the region saw it as the first step in opening up federal waters to red drum harvest, and placing the red drum spawning stock at risk.
The application for an exempted fishing permit put the Coastal Conservation Association, an anglers’ rights group that is one of the leading supporters of the Center, into an awkward place. They had long held out state fisheries managers as the shining knights of the fishery management system, but here were state managers from Mississippi threatening CCA’s beloved red drum.
What was the organization to do?
Being a little dishonest was the first step.
In a letter to NMFS opposing issuance of the exempted fishing permit, CCA wrote that it was
“opposed to the exempted fishing permit (EFP) application filed by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources… [emphasis added]”
CCA went on to explain its opposition, citing the proceedings at a red drum data workshop and saying
“The workshop was requested by the [federal] Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council…The workshop determined that ‘fishery dependent’ data (such as those collected by fishermen those that would be collected by the EFP) were already more than adequately represented by each state.”
It was clear from those comments that CCA knew that it was Mississippi, and not the federal managers, who were trying to allow red drum harvest in federal waters. However, in a public press release, CCA sang an altogether different, and very misleading, tune.
The release was titled “Not Another Flawed Federal Experiment [emphasis added],” as if it was NMFS, and not CCA’s beloved state managers, who were trying to open up federal waters to red drum harvest.
It concludes by saying
“The Mississippi permit application is another unfortunate byproduct of failed federal management,”
without even trying to explain how, given that Mississippi was actually seeking an opportunity to find a new fishery for its charter boat fleet, the fish would be better off under a state management regime that would undoubtedly increase pressure on spawning-sized drum.
Because, of course, when you’re doing everything you can to smear the record of federal fisheries managers, while putting the same amount of efforts into exalting the deeds of state fisheries managers, you can’t admit that a state is at fault, even when the facts all point that way…
FOUL! STRIKE TWO!
Mississippi is again in the spotlight when it comes to spotted sea trout, although they call them “speckled trout” down there.
Apparently, the Mississippi population of speckled trout isn’t doing very well; in fact, it’s overfished. That is very possibly because, back in 2007, the size limit was reduced from 14 to 13 inches, and that size limit remained in place even after the stock showed signs of steady decline, beginning in 2009.
The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission produced a spotted sea trout management plan in 2001; it was the last such plan ever prepared. It may be just as well that no further time and effort was spent on such a project, for some of the most important conclusions of the 2001 plan seem to be largely ignored.
That is particularly true for the plan’s suggested benchmark for a healthy stock, a spawning potential ratio of 18%.
Mississippi has set its benchmark a little higher, at 20%, but it’s clear that, for years, that number was largely ignored. Between the years of 1981 and 2013, the SPR for Misissippi’s speckled trout never rose even a single point above that 20% number, and fell as low as 8% SPR, but the state never managed to adopt effective regulations to rebuild the stock. Today, SPR stands at a mere 10%.
The irony here is that even as the Center, supported by the leadership at CCA’s national office, are doing whatever it takes to produce a “vision” depicting the superiority of state fisheries managers, the members of CCA’s Mississippi chapter know where the problems lie, and are trying to fix things.
A press release issued by CCA Mississippi declared that
“CCA Mississippi calls for action on speckled trout. Anglers undo state managers to undo damaging regulations…
““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 would even CCA Mississippi agree with the Center that spotted sea trout are being “very successfully” managed by the state?
It doesn’t look that way from what they’re saying. And that means it’s
for the Center, and time to send it, along with the fatuous claim that state fisheries managers are, on the whole, more successful than those in the federal management system, to the showers.
When you take a look at the management of three showcase species, which the Center holds out as examples of exemplary state management, what you find is something very different—state management so bad that, in two out of three cases, even CCA, one of the Center’s foremost members, has to admit that it’s not even in the same ballpark as the sort of work federal managers are doing on a regular basis.
So let’s do the right thing, score the “vision” report as a game-ending error, and declare a win for the federal fisheries management system.