After spending over 50 years on and around the water, I have realized that without strong fisheries laws and effective conservation measures, the future of salt water fishing, and America's living marine resources, is dim. Yet conservation is given short shrift by national angling organizations and the angling press. I hope that this blog will incite, inform and inspire salt water fishermen to reclaim their traditional role as the leading advocates for the conservation of America's fisheries.
in the room quickly latched onto predation as the cause of the lobsters’ ills.
requires a predator, and blame was quickly assigned to the black sea bass, a
stock that was badly overfished not too long ago, but has since been restored.
fishermen have grown so used to seeing stocks languish at some depleted level,
when one actually is restored, they can become intimidated by its abundance.
Thus, although the black sea bass is just a small bottom fish that rarely
weighs more than five pounds and probably averages closer to two, it has
become, in the minds of some fishermen, a terrifying super-predator that is destroying
the ocean’s balance.
New York representative to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (MAFMC) Summer
Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Advisory Panel demonstrated how divorced from
reality such thinking could become when he claimed that “The biomass for sea bass is so much
higher than what we have recorded. They’re wiping out other species. If we
don’t act soon you’re going to lose the lobster fishery throughout the
northeast. We need an emergency opening of both the commercial and recreational
black sea bass fishery. We need to allow 100 pounds of black sea bass bycatch
such comment were taken at face value, it would seem that lobsters just
couldn’t survive unless there were people around to protect them from black sea
bass and other potential predators.
biologists tell us that American lobster
have probably been around since the Pleistocene
Epoch, between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago. Back then, lobster
were completely on their own, and yet they managed to survive quite well until
just a few years ago, which suggests that black sea bass aren’t their real
so, the notion that lobster, fish and other sea creatures need people to
protect them from their environment has become a surprisingly pervasive part of
2014, when the MAFMC’s debate over forage fish management intensified, the law firm of Kelley, Drye and Warren (Kelley, Drye) weighed in on the
issue. Acting on behalf of Omega Protein Corporation (Omega), the
Atlantic Coast’s only industrial-scale harvester of menhaden, the firm
submitted a letter to the council, which questioned the need to give forage
fish any special consideration.
letter contained a number of carefully-worded arguments, all intended to
undermine efforts to adopt ecosystem-based forage fish management. When parsed
carefully, the letter doesn’t provide much support for Omega’s position (for
example, it quotes a paper that said “single-stock [forage fish] collapses may
not always be detrimental for
predators in the long term [emphasis added],”) but to a casual reader, it might
even a casual reader is going to stop short when they get to that part of the
letter which argues that abundant forage fish stocks pose a threat to other
species. Kelley, Drye argued that “Even forage fish are predators at some
stages of their life cycles…Juvenile Atlantic herring opportunistically prey on
fish eggs and larvae…Increased population sizes could therefore lead to
increased predation on other stocks.”
Drye went on to claim that “Filter feeders, such as menhaden, are also
predators, feeding on eggs and larvae of their own and other commercially
important species. A LIDAR study in the Chesapeake Bay found billions of menhaden,
numbers that can have a measurable impact on menhaden, striped bass, oyster,
and crab recruitment.”
again, it’s hard not to recall that jawed fish first
appeared in the Ordovician Period, roughly 450 million years ago,
and became abundant in the Devonian, 50 to 100 million years later. For almost
all of the hundreds of millions of years since, completely unfished populations
of forage fish have thrived in all the world’s oceans, and the fish that preyed
upon them have thrived as well.
Kelley, Drye’s claim that forage fish populations, maintained at levels equal
to forty, fifty, or possibly seventy-five percent of their unfished abundance,
threaten otherwise healthy fish stocks is nothing less than an insult to MAFMC
of course, those other stocks have been severely overfished, in which case any
natural mortality might cause further harm.
overfishing is a key issue, as fishermen are too often willing to blame a host
of predators for a stock’s decline, while refusing to admit that their own
overfishing caused most of the harm.
In 2001, the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab fishery was close to collapse,
and both Maryland and Virginia imposed regulations on fishermen that, it was
hoped, would allow the population to rebuild. Most of the fishermen, however,
denied responsibility for the crabs’ problems. One waterman, interviewed by
National Geographic, protested that “We’ve got millions and millions of fish in
the bay. If we could catch more fish it would help the crab population.”
attitude remained unchanged at least through 2014 when, at the October meeting of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board,
another waterman objected to a reduction in striped bass harvest, because
“We’ve got so many striped bass that it has affected our crab-catching
industry…When the charterboats catch the striped bass and they clean them, you
can count anywhere from ten to forty crabs in the belly of a rockfish…”
the speakers and the fish that they talk about vary, similar arguments are
heard on every part of the coast.
A New Jersey staffer for The Fisherman magazine,
objecting to more restrictive summer flounder regulations, wrote
“one might reasonably assume that stringent preservation of other predatory
species like spiny dogfish and black sea bass—an imbalanced effort to create
preservation and abundance—could significantly impact the amount of young
fluke. While local commercial fishermen are once again allowed to harvest spiny
dogs, the environmentalists who forced the closure of this fishery a decade ago
ultimately destroyed that market, creating an over-abundance of fluke-hungry
here on Long Island, where winter flounder have all but disappeared, fishermen
continue to blame seals, striped bass, cormorants and other species, but too
seldom regret taking countless bushels of fish off their spawning grounds, when
flounder still swarmed there a few decades ago.
truth, both forage fish and their predators managed just fine for millennia,
until too many fishermen killed too many fish and depleted too many fish
is time that all of us stopped looking for other species to blame, took
responsibility for the harm that we’ve done and demanded that fish stocks be
rebuilt, so that generations not yet born can inherit a healthy and abundant
ocean. ----- This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/