Thursday, December 1, 2016
AND SO IT BEGINS...
For three years, life at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council was fairly peaceful.
It managed its fisheries well, and even found enough time to extend federal protection to a host of forage fish and deep-sea corals.
The fluke wars that had troubled the Council throughout between 2000 and 2010 or so, with all of their hype, hypocrisy and vituperation, seemed a thing of the past.
But history has a way of repeating itself, and it appears that the Second Fluke Wars have begun.
In retrospect, the signs of the coming conflict were clear.
After a successful spawn in 2009, recruitment dipped in 2010, and again in 2011. A biologist I spoke with around 2012 predicted problems if it didn’t improve.
However, a benchmark stock assessment that came out in 2013 which assured folks that all was well.
Finally, the data could no longer be ignored. Thanks to the lack of new fish entering the stock, the summer flounder biomass was falling, while fishermen, enjoying the bounty provided by the healthy 2008 and 2009 spawns, were beginning to overfish the stock.
At first, it appeared that the annual catch limit might be reduced by 43%; fishing-related businesses were outraged. The Mid-Atlantic Council’s Science and Statistics Committee, hoping to forge the sort of compromise that might stave off a new war, reviewed their data and determined that a lesser, 29% reduction would still prevent overfishing. That compromise, coupled with estimates of reduced fishing effort in key fluke-catching states, allowed regulations to remain unchanged in 2016.
In the meantime, the 2014 and 2015 spawns were also sub-par.
At its August 2016 meeting, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, after being presented with the best information available and the recommendation of its Science and Statistics Committee, voted to reduce the annual catch limit for summer flounder by 30%.
The decision was the only one that they could make; with few new fish entering the population, they needed to reduce the number of fish being removed from the population in order to maintain an adequate spawning stock.
Still, it made the coming fight inevitable. The upcoming reductions are big enough that they’re likely to cause some real economic discomfort to the recreational fishing industry, and the industry isn’t going down without a fight.
Thus, the first salvos of the Second Fluke War were fired a few days ago, when a piece in The Fisherman magazine (which always caters to the needs and desires of its advertisers), with the title “Will Angry Anglers Respond to Fluke Fiasco?” appeared.
Given that title, and a lead sentence that read
“I’m about to really tick you off,”
it was clear that the article, although billed as a “feature,” would be a lopsided propaganda piece intended to elicit a knee-jerk reaction from anglers and incite them to oppose the harvest reductions before they had a chance to think about why such cuts might be needed.
The author reinforced that impression when he continued
“Seriously, reading any further is just going to make you incredibly angry.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat this, the coastwide quota for summer flounder (fluke) in 2017 is expected to be cut by about 40%. That means a shorter season, lower bag, an increase in size limits, or any combination of the three.
“Pardon my French, but I told you that you’d be pissed.”
Over all, it’s really a remarkable piece, requiring a reader to churn through two full pages (in the on-line version) of hype before, in the last full paragraph, getting just an inkling of why the harvest reductions are needed. But even then, the article only mentions in passing that
“NOAA Fisheries is showing diminished recruitment of new fish,”
without revealing that the stock has experienced six consecutive years of below-average spawns (something that readers might want to know) and admitting that such poor recruitment will impact the future size of the spawning stock.
The author even took pains to suggest that NOAA Fisheries could be responsible for the poor spawns, by asking
“could it be all the tinkering over the past 8 years, the increasing size limits and intensified harvest on broodstock fluke that actually impacted the overall biomass and recruitment numbers?”
There’s no evidence that managers actually did cause the problem, but the author apparently didn’t want to miss any opportunity to poison anglers’ views of the current management system.
Back in 1918, U.S. Senator Hiram Warren Johnson reportedly said that
“The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
It’s not clear whether he really said that, but if he did, it seems that he was quoting something even older, for back in 1758, in his work The Idler, Samuel Johnson observed that
“Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”
Now, that’s a statement fit for the Fluke Wars, where folks with a vested economic interest in killing more fish feed a distorted version of the truth to trusting anglers, who are all too willing to believe in so-called “leaders” and are thus exploited to achieve others’ goals.
The truth took a hit when The Fisherman, perhaps trying to scare anglers into opposing the cuts, wrote that
“The result [of the proposed reductions] would be something in line with a two-fish bag limit for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and perhaps even Rhode Island, a 19-inch minimum size and a three-month season spanning June, July and August at best,”
since anyone who took the time to familiarize themselves with the issue would know that Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council staff already determined that coastwide measures
“that include a 19-inch minimum fish size, 3 fish bag limit, and open season from June 1-September 15”
would be enough to keep harvest below the 2017 annual catch limit.
And no, it’s not just The Fisherman who’s writing such decieving things.
The American Sportfishing Association, a trade group that represents most of the major players (and a lot of minor ones) in the recreational fishing industry, has issued a release announcing that
“NOAA Fisheries and the Mid-Atlantic Regional [sic] Fishery Management Council are considering cutting 2017 summer flounder recreational quota by up to 40%.
“Unfortunately, this decision is being based on an outdated benchmark stock assessment from 2013.”
Aside from the questionable accuracy of those statements—the “recreational quota,” more properly the annual catch limit, will be cut by 30%, not 40%, and it’s questionable whether a three-year-old stock assessment, particularly one that is updated every year, can be reasonably considered “outdated”—it's striking that ASA’s release didn’t mention the summer flounder recruitment issue at all, thus effectively misleading anglers by withholding information that they need in order to make an informed decision on the issue.
Surprisingly, the most honest player in the field seems to be the Recreational Fishing Alliance, for while it, too, is seeking to block any harvest reductions, it was at least willing to say that
“Rebuilding efforts increased that stock size to historic levels of abundance in 2007. Since that time, the stock has displayed average to below average recruitment and the spawning stock biomass has dipped…”
While that still doesn’t capture the full extent of the recruitment problem, RFA at least came close to admitting that the problem exists…
What is somewhat reassuring is the fact that at least some anglers seem to be able to see through all of the smoke.
On the Water Magazine reprinted the American Sportfishing Association release on its website. Two of the three people who later left comments on the site clearly didn’t agree with ASA. One observed that
“Article is a bit lacking…Seems the inshore folks like me get very few keepers, lots of shorts, maybe it is a good time to shorten the season rather than hike the size limits again.”
The other wrote
“I’m all for massive cuts to recreational (AND commercial) flounder. It seems like the entire coastal policy is set up with no consideration for the fish stock. Instead, it seems like it is based on how many fish and how small a fish they can catch in NY and CT. The last 3 years have seen a drop-off in recreation catches here in RI…I love flounder. It’s my favorite fish to catch and eat. I need one or two 18-22” fish from a day’s outing to feed my family. The fact that the limits have been down in the 16”-range and up at the 8-fish range is unacceptably high to ensure the quality of the stock.”
Anglers such as those, who actually take the time to think about summer flounder management, and aren’t stampeded onto the “no harvest reductions” bandwagon, pose a real problem for the American Sportfishing Association and similarly-minded groups.
And that’s a good thing, because the fluke, like all of America’s marine resources, belong in the end to those anglers, and to every other angler and every other citizen of the nation alive today, and in a very real way, even to those yet unborn, who should all have the right to experience the joy of fishing in a vital, abundant ocean, and not in one that has been plundered for an industry’s short-term gain.
The Second Fluke War has already started. It promises to be a brutal affair, fought with deception and guile. Yet in the end, if anglers don’t allow themselves to be deceived or distracted, but instead focus only on facts and the future, victory can still be theirs.