Sunday, February 28, 2016
Thursday, February 25, 2016
It was pivotal phrase from Jurassic Park, in both the move and in the novel.
After being reassured that the park had strict control of its dinosaur-production process, and that there was no way that unauthorized—and potentially dangerous—natural reproduction could occur outside of the lab, one of the more cynical characters expressed severe doubts.
Questioning whether humans could ever exert complete control over natural processes, uttered five simple words. “Life will find a way.”
And, of course, it did, which led to all sorts of unpleasant consequences in that fictional world.
Now, it seems that life is finding a way in the real world, too, but on those occasions, the consequences are nothing but good.
For example, just a few years ago, Atlantic salmon returned to France’s River Seine.
The fish had been missing for most of a century, victims of the dams, farm chemical runoff, sewage and industrial pollution that have teamed up to destroy runs of anadromous fish in rivers and streams all over the world.
Suddenly, without any formal effort to reintroduce them, the salmon were back. And it wasn’t just one or two fish; hundreds, perhaps one thousand or more, swam right past Paris in 2009. The only thing that people needed to do—although it was a big thing—was get the pollutants out of the river.
More recently, Atlantic salmon surprised folks on this side of the ocean, too.
Historically, New England’s Connecticut River hosted a strong Atlantic salmon run, perhaps the southernmost such run on the American coast. But hundreds of years ago, perhaps even before the United States gained its freedom, the same twin plagues of dams and pollution annihilated that run.
For forty-five years, the National Marine Fisheries Service worked with the states to return Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River, breeding hatchery fish in an effort to create a naturally-reproducing stock. Their success was extremely limited, with only a few of the released salmon returning. In 1991, they discovered a redd (salmon nest) in the Farmington River, but its location and timing made it highly unlikely to produce any young.
Finally, in 2013, NMFS shut down the salmon restoration program.
Thus, everyone was caught off-guard last year when three Atlantic salmon redds, containing viable eggs, were found in a tributary of the Connecticut River.
Some of the salmon released into the ocean had found their way home.
Before the hatchery program was terminated, about 2% of the released salmon returned each year. However, no natural spawning took place, as biologists captured all of the returnees they could find, to maximize hatchery egg production.
Now, with the hatchery program shut down, the salmon are trying to make it on their own.
The odds are against them. Three nests don’t produce many fry, and the perils of life in the ocean are great. But yet…
Things work out even better when people pitch in to give fish a hand.
On every coast of this nation, even those of Alaska and Hawaii, obsolete and unneeded dams are being removed to reconnect rivers’ headwaters to the sea and anadromous fish with their upstream spawning grounds. Where dams cannot be removed, there has been a renewed effort to restore fish passage and recreate historic spawning runs.
The results have been very good.
The nation’s largest dam removal project, on Washington’s Elwha River, began in 2011; salmon were soon ascending above former dam sites, seeking spawning grounds that they had been denied access to for one hundred years. With the dams removed and sediment no longer trapped behind concrete walls, habitat is being restored throughout the river's course, from the now swift-running channels to the new sandbars growing where it meets the sea.
But projects don’t need to be big to be successful, and while salmon are beautiful and iconic creatures, they are far from the only fish that run upstream to spawn.
In the spring of 2013, the Village of Babylon, New York, aided by the Seatuck Environmental Association and a federal grant, built a fish ladder on the Carll’s River, a modest stream on the south shore of Long Island.
The following March, as part of a project to monitor river herring runs in Long Island’s waters, I was standing on the banks of that river one evening when I spotted what might have been the first river herring in over 100 years attempt to reach upstream spawning grounds.
Yes, it felt like a victory, and it felt even better when I later learned that a video camera set up inside the ladder recorded a few hundred herring ascending the river that year.
America’s fish stocks have suffered countless abuses in the five hundred years since the founding of Jamestown. Dams, pollution, habitat loss and just plain overfishing have whittled down their numbers and extinguished spawning runs. On top of those historic insults, waters warming from climate change has created further challenges for many populations.
It is easy to despair.
It is easy to believe that we will never again see healthy populations of winter flounder or Georges Banks cod, or that drought, dams and irrigation’s demands will doom California’s salmon.
It is easy to talk ourselves into giving up, instead of “wasting” time and effort on a cause that was lost long ago.
But easy paths are seldom the right ones.
Instead, we must find occasions for hope.
We must gain inspiration from the River Seine’s salmon, and from the Carll’s River’s herring as well.
Life will, indeed, find a way, if given the slightest chance.
It is our job to create such chances.
Sunday, February 21, 2016
When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan in October 2014, it required all states to adopt regulations that would reduce harvest, when compared to 2013 landings, by 25% on the coast and by 20.5% in Chesapeake Bay.
Although the action was widely supported by recreational striped bass fishermen, who on the whole supported even deeper harvest reductions, it was not popular with elements of the commercial and for-hire fisheries. There were also pockets of anglers, most notably in New Jersey, Delaware and in Chesapeake Bay, who opposed the conservation effort.
Opponents felt that the 25% reduction was too deep a cut to be put in place all at once and believed that if it was to be adopted at all, it should be phased in over time. Supporters feared that the 25% reduction only had a 50-50 chance of reducing fishing mortality to the target level, and wanted to see an even deeper cut that had a better chance of success.
Preliminary harvest estimates for 2015 have now been released, so it’s natural to ask, “How did we do?”
The answer is that, on the whole, we did very well, although some states failed to do their part and forced others to bear the brunt of striped bass conservation while they, always complaining, reaped the greater rewards.
The standard for success, as I mentioned before, was to reduce striped bass landings by 25%, compared to what they were in 2013. As it turned out, anglers actually overshot their mark . The 15,318,614 pounds of striped bass that they landed last year represents a 42% reduction from their 2013 kill.
Of course, the stock has continued to shrink since 2013, while the fishing mortality rate continued to hover around 0.20, just about halfway between the target and the overfishing threshold. Thus, it’s good to know that last year’s landings also represent a 36% reduction from those of 2014.
Every coastal state, except for one, contributed more than its share to the conservation effort, with reductions that ranged from 90%, up in bass-starved New Hampshire, to 38% in Massachusetts.
The only coastal state that failed to reduce harvest at all was, predictably, New Jersey, which again managed to manipulate the “conservation equivalency” concept to escape all responsibility for conserving the stock. The 4,913,348 pounds if striped bass that it landed in 2015 represents a mere 1% reduction from its 2013 harvest; compared to 2014 landings, New Jersey’s 2015 kill was actually 19% higher.
Given that result, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board would be well-advised to meet by conference call and revoke its approval of New Jersey’s “conservation equivalent” regulations, and compel the state’s anglers to accept the coastwide standard of one bass at 28 inches or more. As a practical matter, that’s unlikely to happen, and we’re thus likely to see other states attempt to game the system with regulations that appear to be “equivalent” on paper but fail in the real world.
Two more non-compliant states pop up once we leave the coast and enter Chesapeake Bay. Even though the Striped Bass Management Board eased the burden of both Maryland and Virginia (along with Washington, D.C. and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission), allowing those jurisdictions to cut Chesapeake Bay landings by just 20.5%, instead of the full 25%, they failed to meet even that lowered standard.
Virginia only managed an 8% reduction, less than half of what was required, while Maryland blew through its cap, with 2015 landings fully 133% of what they were in 2013. All of that excess harvest took place in Chesapeake Bay, with Maryland anglers hammering the very 2011 year class that we are depending upon to rebuild the stock.
On the coast, both states did well, with Maryland reducing coastal landings by 94% and Virginia accounting for so few ocean fish that they didn’t even show up in the numbers. However, that modest good was more than set off by Virginia’s mere 3% cut in Chesapeake landings, and Maryland increasing its kill of bay fish by a whopping 45%, to 2,924,425 pounds.
Of course, there is irony here, for it was the two states which failed most dismally in meeting their conservation obligations—Maryland and New Jersey—that, at the November 2015 Striped Bass Management Board meeting, fought the hardest to kill more striped bass.
The hard numbers cast new light on the testimony of Jay A. Jacobs, a member of Maryland’s House of Delegates, who argued for increased harvest in Chesapeake Bay, saying
“Specifically in Maryland, with the implementation of the 20.5 percent reduction and also the slot size that was implemented for the trophy season and the increase from 18 to 20 inches in the fishery, we’ve had huge economic impacts in those other industries, in the charterboat industry and the recreational side of those.”
Given that Maryland did not, as things turned out, take a 20.5% reduction in recreational landings at all, but actually enjoyed a 45% increase in Chesapeake Bay landings, his claim that the state’s recreational fishing industry was hurt by a “reduction” that never really occurred was clearly false—so egregiously false that Mr. Jacobs should apologize to the Management Board for his blatant lack of veracity.
Bill Langley, a member of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and President of the Maryland Charterboat Association, told a similar tale of fabricated woe, complaining that
“This past year’s reductions have caused a negative economic impact on the bay’s user groups, especially the charter fleet.”
Langley was a little more astute than Jacobs, though. Despite his complaints and his plea to kill more striped bass, he might have suspected that the facts didn’t support his arguments, as he qualified his comments by saying
“I know that MRIP data will—I don’t know what MRIP data will show. However, I can assure you that most of the charter fleet experienced a greater reduction than 25 percent. Many captains are experiencing greater than 50 percent reductions through Wave 4. In Wave 5, we may see some relief possibly…”
Langley is probably happy that he hedged his bets, since the Maryland charter boats that fished Chesapeake Bay in 2015 landed an estimated 536,541 pounds of striped bass, about a 5.5% increase over 2013’s 508,790 pounds.
He was wrong about landings through Wave 4, too; his claimed 25% to 50% decrease in harvest never happened. Instead, Maryland charterboat harvest through Wave 4 was actually 14% higher than it was in 2013, 468,720 pounds versus just 410,068 pounds in 2013.
So yes, fishermen’s tales—and captains’ tales, and legislators’ tales—must all be taken with very large grains of salt…
But the good news is Addendum IV seems to be working better than many anglers, including myself, expected.
It appears to have reduced landings by more than the needed 25%, which can only help the striped bass to rebuild. Now that we have gotten this far, the trick will be to stay the course, and to bring states such as New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia into line with the rest of the East Coast jurisdictions.
That won’t be easy to do, because they’ve already tried to increase the kill.
But it would be a shame to step backward now, when we’re finally making some progress.
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Empowered by the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which was largely responsible for rebuilding the collapsed striped bass stock after it collapsed in the late 1970s, the National Marine Fisheries Service adopted regulations prohibiting all striped bass fishing in federal waters.
Since then, there have been sporadic efforts to reopen the fishery in what is formally known as the Exclusive Economic Zone, or “EEZ”, that lies between 3 and 200 miles off the East Coast.
The first try, in the late 1990s, was largely spurred by fishermen in Massachusetts who wanted to fish productive rips off southern Cape Cod, which lay in federal waters. It never got real legs, and failed without reaching the rulemaking stage.
A more serious effort occurred around 2005, after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass suggested that NMFS consider reopening the federal fishery. That proposal went to formal rulemaking, with hearings held up and down the coast, before overwhelming opposition from recreational fishermen convinced the agency to take no action.
More recently, there has been a steady effort, led by the Montauk Boatmen’s and Captains’ Association, which represents the operators of for-hire vessels, to obtain a legislative solution. Representatives from New York’s 1st Congressional District have repeatedly proposed legislation that would permit anglers to fish for striped bass in the federal waters that lie between Montauk Point and Block Island, RI. The most recent example of such legislation is H.R. 3070, a very poorly drafted bill introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin.
Traditional recreational opposition to opening the EEZ to striped bass fishing often centered on the damage such legislation could do to the so-called “gamefish” laws that prohibit commercial striped bass fishing in a number of states. Should an EEZ fishery be created, the argument goes, vessels legally harvesting striped bass in the EEZ would be allowed to land such fish even in “gamefish” states, creating an opportunity for poachers who fished illegally within state waters, but claimed to have caught their striped bass in the EEZ.
That argument was pretty much put to bed in 2007, when then-President George H. W. Bush issued an executive order that prohibited commercial striped bass fishing in federal waters, but left the door open, should NMFS agree, to recreational harvest.
There has also been generalized recreational concern about the higher overall landings that would result should the EEZ be opened. Much of that concern focused on the recreational fishery off Virginia and North Carolina; opening the EEZ would allow anglers to target the large, female striped bass that spend most of the winter in federal waters off those two states before moving into Chesapeake Bay to spawn.
But what anglers have largely been unable to articulate is why it would do any more harm to catch such big fish in the EEZ off Virginia, rather than, say, when they were sucking down bunker inside state waters as they migrated along the coast.
The answer lies in how striped bass are managed.
Unlike federal fisheries managers, who are required to establish an annual catch limit for all managed species, ASMFC does not impose hard poundage quotas on the recreational sector, but only on commercial fishermen. Instead, the recreational fishery is constrained only on a “soft” cap, expressed as a fishing mortality rate. Such an approach makes it extremely difficult to regulate landings and prevent overfishing.
Under the federal management system, biologists begin by establishing an Overfishing Limit, generally based on maximum sustainable yield, which sets an absolute poundage cap on landings. The Science and Statistics Committee of the relevant regional fishery management council then revises the Overfishing Limit downward, to allow for inevitable scientific uncertainty, to arrive at the Acceptable Biological Catch.
The ABC then goes to the council itself, which often reduces it a bit more—usually by 20 or 25 percent—to account for management uncertainty (read the court decision in Guindon v. Pritzger to learn what can happen when such a reduction does not take place), to ultimately establish an Annual Catch Limit, denoted in pounds.
At that point, regulations are crafted to constrain harvest to the Annual Catch Limit; if landings exceed such Annual Catch Limit in any year, regulations are revised to prevent such overfishing from occurring; if the Overfishing Limit is breached, Accountability Measures will be imposed to avoid further damage to the stock.
A new Annual Catch Limit is usually calculated each year to respond to changes in the size of the fish population.
ASMFC works very differently. The target fishing mortality rate, and the regulations calculated to achieve it, are hard-wired into Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan.
Regulations don’t automatically change to keep pace with changes in harvest levels or the size of the stock. They persist until the fishery management plan itself is changed, a process that can take years.
For example, after a 2011 stock assessment update warned that striped bass stock might become overfished in the not-too-distant future, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board decided wait until a new benchmark stock assessment was completed before taking action. That benchmark assessment ultimately revealed that the stock had been subject to overfishing for six out of the previous ten years, and that harvest reductions were needed. Even so, such reductions weren’t adopted until late 2014, after a year of rancorous debate and fully three years after the Management Board was aware of the stock’s decline.
Had the stock assessment not taken place, ASMFC may never have reduced harvest at all.
That’s the biggest problem with “soft” harvest caps. They are difficult to monitor and easy to ignore.
Part of the reason is that managers can’t really know what the fishing mortality rate is, and thus whether the target was exceeded, unless they perform a stock assessment of some sort, and that’s not done every year.
If the EEZ were opened to striped bass harvest, striped bass would be targeted on their summer feeding grounds in federal waters off Massachusetts. Charter, party and private boats would catch them in the EEZ off Montauk and Block Island. And all throughout the winter, the big female bass that stage off Virginia and North Carolina ahead of the spring spawning run would be hammered by anglers.
Landings could only increase substantially.
Around February 15, managers receive an estimate of recreational landings for the previous year but, unless ASMFC chose to update its stock assessment, it would be impossible for mangers to use that information to figure out whether the fishing mortality cap had been exceeded.
ASMFC only conducts benchmark striped bass assessments every five years, although a couple of updates are normally performed in between. And unlike harvest estimates, which are available less than two months after the close of the year, assessment updates take far longer to compile, and are normally not available until October or November. Full benchmark assessments take even longer.
Opening the EEZ to striped bass harvest would probably subject the stock to at least three years of overfishing (if the fish were overfished in Year 1, the assessment update wouldn’t be completed until the end of Year 2, and it would take the Management Board until the end of Year 3 to finalize any change to the regulations).
Of course, that assumes that ASMFC performed an assessment update in the year after the EEZ was opened. If no such update occurred, the overfishing could drag out for a couple more years.
Thus, the biggest obstacle to opening the EEZ to striped bass harvest is ASMFC’s unwieldy and unresponsive management system, which is slow to detect overfishing and even slower to end it—which, in fact, isn’t legally bound to do at all.
So long as that system is in place, it would be extremely foolish to allow striped bass fishing in federal waters, for doing so would open a Pandora’s Box full of problems that ASMFC might not choose to resolve.
That would be a bad thing, because as Pandora herself would explain, opening a box is easy.
But keeping the various evils contained is a hard thing to do.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Thursday, February 11, 2016
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission plays a very big role in East Coast fisheries issues.
It holds the primary management authority for many key species. The most notable of those, at least along the upper half of the coast, is striped bass, but ASMFC is also responsible for such important inshore fisheries as red drum, weakfish, menhaden and more. In addition, it has significant say in how some federally-managed fisheries, including summer flounder, black sea bass and bluefish, are prosecuted within, and sometimes outside of, state waters.
ASMFC has a dismal record of restoring depleted stocks; Atlantic striped bass, rebuilt in 1995, still stands as its one and only success.
It often lacks the political will to keep overfished stocks from declining further. Weakfish, tautog, and the southern New England stock of American lobster are but a few examples.
Many of the people who sit on its various species management boards have economic interests in the fish that they manage, or represent people who do. As a result, ASMFC decisions often elevate short-term economic concerns above scientific advice and the long-term health of the resource. Southern New England lobster, and the American Lobster Management Board’s years-long failure to take meaningful measures to address its collapse, provides the perfect example.
Yet, despite ASMFC’s many and serious flaws, the fish and fishermen of the Atlantic coast benefit from its existence. It forces the various state fisheries managers to cooperate with one another and, thanks to the authority granted to ASMFC in the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, it imposes a sort of discipline that keeps any one state from drifting too far out of line.
Without ASMFC, each state would be free to become another New Jersey, always seeking and scheming to kill more and smaller fish than its neighbors, and trying to account for the largest share of the catch. It was that truth, which initially prevented the rebuilding of the striped bass stock, that led to Congress passing the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984, which first gave ASMFC the authority to oversee state management actions, and ultimately led to the greater authority that it holds today.
Given ASMFC’s important role in East Coast fisheries management, it’s always helpful to have some insight into the collective thoughts and goals of the people who sit on its management boards. Some of that insight can only be gained by knowing a few of the commissioners personally, speaking with them, and watching them interact with their colleagues over the course of contentious meetings. Some can be gained by going over the meeting transcripts, where the personalities and policies of each board member will ultimately be revealed.
However, much can also be gained by perusing the results of a survey of its commissioners that ASMFC makes public each year. In that survey, commissioners respond to a number of uniform questions, but are also allowed to give free-form answers on the problems and opportunities that they discern.
The results of the most recent survey were released at the February 2016 ASMFC meeting, and they provide a good look into the hearts and minds of the folks who, collectively, dictate how many of our most important fisheries are managed.
Thirty-seven commissioners responded, and it seems that, by and large, they’re happy with ASMFC’s work.
When asked whether they believe that the Commission has a clear plan for achieving its vision of achieving sustainable fisheries on the East Coast, the average response was a positive 8.08 points out of a possible 10, the third highest in the seven-year time series, although down from the two years before. A second question, asking whether ASMFC is making progress toward achieving that vision, received an identical response.
The commissioners feel that they work well with each other, rating themselves an 8 on that score. However, they don’t get along with others quite so well, rating cooperation with federal managers at only 7.11 (which is still the second-highest in the time series) and relations with constituents just a bit better, at 7.57 (also a second-place high).
When the commissioners get to the important issue, the effectiveness of ASMFC’s management, a dose of reality seems to set in. We’re not given a chance to compare responses over a seven-year time series here, but rather just a comparison with commissioners’ views in 2014.
Even so, the results are somewhat revealing.
When asked whether the number of stocks subject to overfishing is a good measure of management progress, the commissioners’ average response was a 7.47, down from 7.8 one year before, suggesting that they didn’t view overfishing as a truly accurate measure of how well the Commission performed.
At the same time, they were not particularly satisfied with their progress in ending overfishing, rating such progress a 7.44 (perhaps equivalent to a college frat boy’s “gentleman’s C”?), down slightly from 7.66 in 2014.
There was even greater dissatisfaction with the Commission’s ability to manage rebuilt stocks, with that metric rated a mere 6.97, again down a bit from 7.17 a year before. On the other hand, given that ASMFC hasn’t rebuilt a stock since 1995, that might not be an important consideration…
However, the best look into the minds of the commissioners may be found where they had an opportunity to verbally express their concerns.
There are clearly thoughtful, responsible people sitting on management boards. When asked
“What is the biggest obstacle to the Commission’s success?”
such folks provided answers that included
“Incomplete information about the stocks coupled with reluctance to make tough decisions without high level of certainty,”
“We sometimes don’t have a good grip on the long-term socio-economic aspects of good management, and that a little pain now can yield good fruit in the long run,”
and recognition of the fact that
“Once a species is depleted and overfishing is no longer indicated, the Commission has had little to no success in rebuilding depleted stocks.”
Perhaps explaining why that is so, others still try to avoid the tough questions, arguing that the Commission’s lack of success is due to
“Non-fishing factors such as changing environment and coastal development,”
and pulling out the old canard that some fish stocks aren’t rebuilt because ASMFC is
“Allowing apex predation or a dominant species to be the fall of other less aggressive fish species that are often as important to the eco-system [sic] as the top of the chain feeders.”
There are also suggestions that cooperation among the commissioners isn’t quite as good as earlier survey answers suggest. One commissioner complained that
“A growing obstacle is the factionalism I see on certain Management Boards. The desire to have other states make the sacrifices to rebuild stocks rather than one’s own state seems to be getting stronger…”
Another blamed the Commission’s lack of success on
“Politics and self-preservation by states.”
A troubling trend, which emerged in response to other questions, was some commissioners’ apparent desire to separate ASMFC actions from that of federal managers. One expressed a desire for
“Developing a purely Commission discussion/perspective/position on species under joint management independent of the [Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council,”
while another said that the Commission should focus more attention on
“Correcting the problems dealing with the [Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee].”
Both are clearly references to some commissioners' preference for escaping the rebuilding and conservation provisions of federal law that bind the National Marine Fisheries Service, but are not binding on ASMFC.
In short, the survey makes ASMFC look very much like the federal fisheries management councils prior to passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, when there was no requirement to rebuild overfished stocks and council members could, and usually did, avoid making the tough decisions needed to replenish depleted fish populations.
It provides a picture of a very flawed, and yet very fixable and potentially very beneficial organization, that just needs a little outside help to put its house in order.
As was the case with the federal management councils, that help can only come from a concerned and informed Congress, that insists that the Management Boards do their job right, that they end overfishing and rebuild stocks within a time certain, and base their decisions solely on science, and not on short-term cash flows.
With the right legislation to help it along, ASMFC could easily become one of the most successful fishery management bodies anywhere in this nation.
Without such help, it is likely to continue to flounder along, forever lacking the will and the courage it needs to live up to its promise.