Thursday, March 31, 2016

COOKING THE BOOKS ON MENHADEN

Earlier this month, a report entitled “The Fate of an Atlantic Menhaden Year Class” was distributed by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition.

That report concluded that fishing mortality is a very small part of overall menhaden mortality, and implied that further landings reductions will have little benefit for the stock.  It’s just the sort of conclusion that one would expect in a report commissioned by a group commissioned by the menhaden industry, which is trying hard to defeat conservationists’ efforts to further regulate menhaden harvest.

The menhaden report is interesting, because the data it presents isn't wrong.  It was lifted from the most recent menhaden stock assessment, which determined that the stock was not overfished and not subject to overfishing.

But that’s not the point.

It wasn’t the data, but how it was used, that ought to raise eyebrows.

The hot issue in menhaden management right now is the so-called “BERP,” Biological and Ecological Reference Points.  It’s cutting-edge stuff, and scientists are still trying to figure out the best way to figure things out. 

In traditional, single-species fisheries management, the key concept is “sustainable yield,” with “yield” being the operative term.  Biologists calculate the size of the stock that will allow the greatest volume of fish to be harvested over the long term, and then designate that stock size as Bmsy—the biomass that produces maximum sustainable yield.  It usually becomes the stock rebuilding target.  Harvest levels are then set at or, more typically, modestly below maximum sustainable yield.

The definitions can differ from species to species, but ½ Bmsy is usually the threshold that defines an overfished stock.

Although that’s not exactly how menhaden are managed—the key metric isn’t biomass, but rather fecundity, or the number of eggs produced by the spawning stock—the principal is the same, with the overfishing occurring when fecundity is one-half of the fecundity target.

However, that definition only considers one parameter, the ability of the stock to sustain current harvest levels without declining in abundance.  What it doesn’t consider at all is whether a stock size limited to Bmsy will provide adequate support for the greater ecosystem in which it exists.  

That’s important in the case of menhaden, because they’re one of the most important forage fish on the East Coast.  At some time or another during their lives, everything from the humble sea robin to the great whales will feed on menhaden at least some of the time.

The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition’s report doesn’t consider BERP at all.  It tries to argue, using questionable logic, that menhaden harvest removes such a small percentage of fish from each year class that current harvest levels are fine.  By taking that approach, it also implies that the conservationists’ efforts are, at the least, misguided.

Although the document is structured to resemble a scientific paper, it’s not.  It is an industry propaganda piece, and needs to be read with that in mind.  For example, the paper notes that

“The analysis depicts the magnitude of losses for the year class as it ages, keeping the losses of natural mortality and both types of fishing mortality, reduction and bait, in the proper perspective.  [emphasis added]”
Yet who is to determine what the “proper perspective” should be?  Giving that responsibility to the menhaden industry permits it to bias the reader in favor of its own analysis. 
That alone should raise warning flags.

And those warning signs are certainly justified by the way the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition tried to address the issue.  

Earlier, I noted that the report ignored BERP.  However, it also ignored fishing’s impact on the fecundity of the stock—the very measure that biologists use to determine the health of the menhaden population.

Instead, the report compares removals from fishing activities, over the life of a typical year class, to the size of that year class at the beginning of its very first year of life--before the juvenile menhaden begin experiencing any sort of predation or environmentally-related loss.  Based on that comparison, the author assures us that fishing has relatively little impact on the stock, accounting for a meager 6.4% of all mortality throughout the life of the year class.

Does that even make sense?

All species of fish probably experience their highest levels of mortality, in absolute terms, during their first year, when the juveniles are small enough to be vulnerable to just about anything that swims.  The size of a typical Age 0 year class of menhaden, when measured in individual fish, is so large that a comparison to the number of older fish harvested would, of necessity, make that harvest appear surpassingly small.

When losses from fishing mortality are calculated in that manner, the report is completely correct when it states that

“Whatever way you wish to calculate the impact of fishing, both reduction and bait, on the size of the standing stock [measured in individual fish], the overall percentage remains remarkably small.”
But there’s another, equally correct statement that deserves attention, and that’s when the report notes that

“with the greatest majority of natural mortality occurring on age zero and 1 year old fish, it is a fair assumption to identify predation as a major contributor of these small fish.”
That sentence is important for a couple of reasons.  First, is an acknowledgement of how important menhaden are as a forage fish; second, because it must be read in conjunction with a sentence from the benchmark stock assessment, which states

“Throughout the time series, age-2 and age-3 fish have produced most of the total estimated number of eggs spawned annually; however, in more recent years, ages-4+ have contributed more significantly to the overall number of eggs.”
Thus, when fecundity is the measure of a stock’s health, the measure used by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition to measure harvest’s impact is completely inappropriate.  What matters isn’t the number of fish harvested compared to the original size of a year class. 

What matters is the number of fish harvested compared to the overall abundance of the older fish that produce the eggs.

And when we use the report’s data to tell that particular story, fishing mortality rises to a lot more than 6.4% of the stock. 

It breaks down like this:

At age 2, about 23% of the year class is removed.  At age 3, the number drops a bit to 16%.

After that, the number of fish begins to drop off quickly, since the reduction fleet concentrates on age-2 and age-3 menhaden, the most reproductively important age classes in the population.

Once the fishery is dominated by the bait fishery, percentages drop sharply, to 9% at age-4, 2% at age-5 and effectively 0% at ages-6+. 

The removals of the reproductively imporant menhaden total about 19%, roughly triple the 6.4% removal figure touted in the report.  The removals of the most important spawners—the age-2s and age-3s—is a little higher yet, about 21%.

Maybe that's still low enough to avoid overfishing, but it sure doesn’t tell the whole story, for the critical question isn’t just how many menhaden may be taken out of the water, but also how many must be left in to provide adequate forage for restored stocks of fish.  Everything from the summer flounder that might snatch a peanut (age-0) or two when they swim past an inlet sandbar to adult bluefin tuna that slam into schools of adult fish in winter off North Carolina, regularly feed on menhaden, and there must be enough left in the water to fulfill their needs.  

And that’s before we even begin to consider the ospreys, humpback whales and everything else that make menhaden part of their diet.

We won’t even come close to knowing how many menhaden they all will need until the BERP calculations are done.

In the meantime, we need to keep viewing the issue from the “proper perspective.”  And that’s the perspective that we deem to be proper, and not the one that the industry tells us to choose.



Sunday, March 27, 2016

"SCIENTIFIC BULLSHIT"

One of the joys of writing a blog is that once you let your thoughts loose on the Internet, you never know where they will land. 

You always hope that wherever your words alight, they have a chance to take root in open, fertile minds, where they can contribute to worthwhile debate.  In the two years that I’ve been a blogger, my essays have been read by many people not only here in the United States, and in many places throughout the world.  Over that time, I’ve had the privilege of exchanging ideas with anglers, scientists, regulators, legislators and others concerned with the fate of many different fisheries.

Of course, I’ve also run into my share of boors, loudmouths and trolls.

The latest example came a couple of days ago, in response to a piece that I wrote for the Marine Fish Conservation  Network, and reprinted on this site.  The topic was winter flounder, and made specific reference to my 30-plus years of experience with that species on Long Island’s Great South Bay.  

In response to what I had written, someone named Mike Paladino wrote

“Your [sic] a disgrace.  Your scientific bullshit is putting our sea bass fishery in the toilet.”
At first glance, that comment didn’t seem to have much to do with winter flounder, but first impressions can be deceiving.  
When you look a little harder, it was very relevant, indeed.

The first thing that you need to know is that there is a Captain Mike Paladino who operates party boats on the western South Shore of Long Island.  It’s not clear that’s who wrote the comment, as “Mike Paladino” is not really an uncommon name, but it’s certainly possible.  You also need to know that just a couple of days before the comment was posted, I attended a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, where black sea bass were discussed.  At that meeting, I opposed regulations favored by some party boat captains from the western South Shore of Long Island…

So that sort of explains why a comment about sea bass showed up in response to a blog about flounder; it doesn’t, however, explain why the comment was relevant to the flounder themselves.

The key lies in the phrase “scientific bullshit.”

For as I had explained in that blog, as early as the mid-1980s, biologists in New York and elsewhere began to voice some concerns for the health of winter flounder stocks, and began suggesting that regulations were needed to prevent a problem.  

Those concerns were driven by science.

However, the party boat fleet didn’t want to see any restrictions put in place, because they might discourage customers and so reduce the boats’ incomes.  They didn’t want fisheries managers to base their decisions on “scientific bullshit,” but rather on the party boats’ economic concerns.  

In that case, they got their way.

There really aren’t any winter flounder around anymore…

Black sea bass are in a lot better shape.  Biologists believe that stock size is 102% of the target level—right about where they want it to be.  


The stock is healthy, and anglers are catching a lot of them.  So many, in fact, that in states between New Jersey and Massachusetts, 2016 recreational landings are going to have to be reduced by 23%, compared to such landings in 2015, despite the 20% increase.

That’s the “scientific bullshit” that commenter Mike Palladino was apparently so upset about.

His upset is not atypical.  When all is said and done, it is that dissatisfaction with “scientific bullshit” that lies at the root of most of our major fisheries debates.

Consider New England cod.

After a new, more accurate stock assessment was performed on the Gulf of Maine stock in 2011, it was clear that cod harvests would have to be cut back sharply.  John Bullard, the regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said plainly,

“The stock is in free-fall.”
That was mainly because the New England Fishery Management Council had managed to avoid the “scientific bullshit” for years, and instead continued to manage all New England groundfish for the largest harvest, resulting in the largest possible short-term profit, that the law would allow.  

But ignoring all that “scientific bullshit” has consequences, for as noted by Peter Baker, a fisheries specialist for the Pew Charitable Trusts,

“The cod collapse is largely due to a long history of risky management decisions that failed to rein in chronic overfishing, did not keep accurate track of how many fish were caught or killed, and did not do enough to protect ocean habitat.”
Even so, there are plenty of folks who still want to take a different approach.  

In the Gulf of Mexico, the National Marine Fisheries Service, relying heavily on “scientific bullshit,” is successfully rebuilding the red snapper stock

In the early 1990s, the population had fallen so low that its spawning potential ratio (SPR)—the difference between its current spawning potential and that of an unfished stock—had fallen below 3%; today, that ratio has increased to about 13%, and is halfway to the 26% SPR target that, according to biologists, will indicate a full recovery.

In some ways, Gulf red snapper are a lot like black sea bass here on Long Island; they’re a structure-dependent species that congregate on pieces of hard bottom, wrecks, artificial reefs and the like, making them easy to find, and they’re rarely shy about hitting any attractive bait or lure that passes by their noses.  Thus, they can appear to be a lot more abundant than they are, at least until a lot of the fish are cleaned off a particular piece of structure by heavy fishing pressure.

Harvest of both species is also governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which requires that

“Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available.”
In other words, federal fisheries managers actually have to pay attention to all of that “scientific bullshit” that Mike Paladino dislikes.

It turns out that, down in the Gulf of Mexico, some organizations who seem to share Mr. Paladino’s view of science-based fisheries management have banded together under the banner of the Center for Coastal Conservation to create a recreational red snapper fishery where such “scientific bullshit” does not apply.

Instead, they are seeking federal legislation that would strip the National Marine Fisheries Service of all authority to manage red snapper, and turn such authority over to state regulators.  In doing so, they would be able to escape a management system dominated by “scientific bullshit” and replace it with a system dominated by politics, profit and similar short-term considerations.

They would make it possible for the red snapper’s future abundance to more closely resemble that of winter flounder and cod.

Worse, they have endorsed H.R. 1335, legislation that would amend Magnuson-Stevens in a way that would allow federal fisheries managers on every coast, regardless of species, to pay less attention to “scientific bullshit”  and give greater consideration to “cultural and economic needs” of fishermen and the angling and boatbuilding industries.

If they had their way, cod and winter flounder could be the model for the way all of our federal fisheries are managed, without much—or any—“scientific bullshit” at all…

Mike Paladino isn’t going to like to read this, but I’m not going to jump onto the bandwagon.  When advising New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation as a member of the Marine Resources Advisory Council, I am going to continue to base my recommendations on “scientific bullshit.”

I hope that fisheries managers here in New York, and across the nation, continue to do so as well.

For in many ways, salt water fisheries management is still a new science, with new information constantly becoming available.  There is still much that we don’t know.

Limited by the available data, we remain far too ignorant of far too many things.

That is unfortunate, but excusable for now.

However, calling the information we do have “scientific bullshit,” and not using it to manage our fisheries is simply abhorrent.

For willful ignorance is not excusable at all.







Thursday, March 24, 2016

WINTER FLOUNDER: THE BILL HAS COME DUE

Here on Long Island, St. Patrick’s Day—March 17—was always the unofficial start of the winter flounder season.

That date wasn’t imposed by law. For many years, there was no closed season, and an angler who knew what to do could catch at least a few flounder at any time that the bays weren’t sheathed in ice. But even so, St. Pat’s was the day that things really got started.
From the East End of Long Island to Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, party boats would leave their docks and head for sheltered flats, where dark mud bottoms held the thin warmth of the sun, and encouraged flounder to feed. Even on raw, windy days, the party boats carried lots of anglers, who hid from the weather in crowded deckhouses until it was time to fish.

A surprising number of private boats jointed in the hunt, despite often unpleasant conditions. Anyone who grew up on the bay can tell stories of huddling, exposed, on the thwart of a rowboat, not minding the chill once the flounder decided to bite.
The action got better as the water warmed; on a nice April day in the mid-1980s, anyone driving across the Robert Moses Bridge, which spans Great South Bay, could look to the east and see a solid fleet of small boats extending from the bridge pilings out to the channel that lay more than two miles away.

Party boats sailed just about every day, shaking off their long winter torpor. Tackle shops, gas docks and boat rental stations also kick-started their seasons, as anglers emerged from hibernation. From mid-March right through May, many thousands of fishermen turned to the bays, and brought flounder home for their dinners.
They caught a lot of fish, for a while. In 1984, New York anglers removed nearly 7.5 million winter flounder from their state’s waters.

That sort of harvest just couldn’t last; New York’s flounder stocks began to decline.
Beginning in the late 1980s, fisheries managers proposed regulations to protect New York’s flounder. Their efforts were strongly opposed by the fishing industry, and particularly the party boat fleet, which claimed that anglers would not pay to go fishing absent the “perception” that they could have a “big day” when they took home a pailful of flounder.

The result was a compromise: regulations put in far too late, which did far too little to halt the winter flounder’s decline. 
That was the pattern established for winter flounder management all along the coast. Fisheries managers recognized the need to reduce winter flounder landings, but were frustrated by concerted opposition from the recreational fishing industry, which depended on flounder-related business to keep their doors open during the spring.
It didn’t help that, after flounder left the bays in late spring and entered the ocean, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) managed their harvest. The same sort of ineffective fishery management plans that led to the decline of other New England groundfish affected the flounder as well. While anglers didn’t catch many in the open ocean, the trawler fleet did, and excessive commercial harvest also played a big role in the flounder’s demise.

Winter flounder were caught between state managers’ reluctance to harm their recreational fishing industries and the NEFMC’s reluctance to impact the incomes of the commercial groundfish fleet.
In February 1999, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Management Board (ASMFC Management Board) decided to ignore its previous decision to adopt more restrictive state regulations if harvest exceeded the fishing mortality threshold (F=0.40), because the NEFMC would not adopt similar cutbacks.

Roles were completely reversed in 2009, when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that the southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder was so badly overfished that it declared a complete moratorium on harvest in federal waters. Then, the ASMFC Management Board refused to follow suit, and merely reduced recreational and commercial landings in state waters.

In more recent years, NMFS again opened federal waters to winter flounder harvest, while the ASMFC Management Board elected to quintuple the length of the recreational season.

So many years of mismanagement has led to the inevitable result. Last year, New York’s anglers landed fewer than 5,000 winter flounder, roughly seven-hundredths of one percent (0.07%) of what they harvested three decades before.

Extensive research carried out at New York’s Stony Brook University suggested that New York’s winter flounder population has fallen so low that the fish could be extirpated in some or all of the state’s coastal waters.

Even so, New York’s party boats and fishing tackle businesses tried to wring the last drop of blood from a dry and crumbling stone. They asked the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to relax regulations, as neighboring states had already done, and allow anglers to increase their kill of the few fish that remained. Fortunately, the folks at the DEC’s Marine Bureau had the wisdom to refuse their request.

This year, when Saint Patrick’s Day rolled around, Great South Bay was empty. Captree’s party boats remained in their winter slumber; the once-busy docks were a ghost town.

The scene was the same from Brooklyn to Montauk, from the North Fork of Long Island to Little Neck Bay—with the flounder all but gone, and the season shut down, marinas are quiet. Tackle shops are empty and still.
When the season reopens on April 1, a few party boats will sail. Most will stay dormant for a couple weeks more, until angler interest increases enough to barely make sailing worthwhile. On a Saturday afternoon late in April, a driver crossing the Robert Moses Bridge should be able to look to the east and see at least two or three boats still seeking flounder.
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and early 2000s, the New York’s party boats and tackle dealers wanted to keep their customers’ flounder catches high. So they fought regulation, borrowing from the future in order to maintain a higher harvest than science or common sense allowed.
Today, the bill for that borrowing has come due with interest; folks are not pleased to learn what they owe.

-----
This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at http://www.conservefish.org/blog/

Sunday, March 20, 2016

HOUSE BACKS DOWN ON EEZ STRIPER BILL

Last December, I wrote about H.R. 3070, a poorly-drafted and even more poorly conceived piece of legislation introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), which would have opened up some federal waters surrounding Block Island to striped bass harvest, and turned such waters over to the states’ jurisdiction with respect to all fisheries matters.

The bill’s primary, and perhaps only substantial support, came from party and charter boat operators on the East End of Long Island, who wanted to target striped bass in areas that, for the last quarter-century or so, have been off-limits to striped bass fishing.  When the House Natural Resources Committee held a field hearing on New York on December 7, 2015, only one out of the seven witnesses who testified, Capt. Joe McBride of the Montauk Boatmen’s and Captains’ Association, spoke in favor of the bill.

On the other hand, the legislation ran into substantial opposition from recreational and commercial fishermen in the region.  The strongest opposition came from the State of Connecticut, where both state officials and its Congressional delegation went on record in opposition to the bill, largely because of its potential effects on Connecticut commercial fishermen who fish in federal waters that would be affected by the bill.

Recreational fishermen all along the coast also took up arms against Zeldin’s legislation.  Stripers Forever, a national organization that advocates for healthy striped bass populations, issued an alert that stated, in part

“Stripers Forever regards this bill as a danger to the health and recovery of wild Atlantic striped bass.  Not only will it increase pressure on striped bass stocks, but it sets a bad precedent by ceding federal waters to state control.  The water that would be opened to state management—and thus commercial fishing—is well known for attracting large female stripers, the very fish on which the future of the species depends…”

“Bill HR 3070, sponsored by Representative Zeldin of New York would allow fishing for striped bass in a portion of the EEZ off Montauk and out toward Block Island and Rhode Island.  We all know that opening of the EEZ for striped bass would result in more stripers being killed at a time that we are supposed to be conserving them.”

Up in Rhode Island, one of the most directly affected states, the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers’ Association published an editorial entitled “Keep the EEZ closed to striper fishing.” It noted that

“Currently all waters beyond three miles of the shoreline is considered ‘federal waters’ and the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone).  In 1990 a federal moratorium was created prohibiting fishing for striped bass in the EEZ to protect them from overfishing (especially in the south).
“An attempt to reverse this was tried in 2006, but after receiving over 8,000 public comments supporting the continued closure, NOAA [decided] to keep the closure in place.
“So now another attempt is made to create a special open zone here in our backyard.  Bill H.R. 3070 was introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin from New York and referred to the House Natural Resource Committee…
“What would happen if H.R. 3070 passed?  The SW Ledge [off Block Island] would not only be inundated with Rhode Island anglers, but an armada of fishing boats from New York would flood Block Island waters.  
“In an article on this subject, John McMurray, an New York Charter Captain who always sides ‘for the fish’ said, ‘The Montauk charter/party boat fleet is arguing that such a regional opening would provide economic benefits’
“’Perhaps it might,’ continued McMurray, ‘But the larger question is whether such potential economic benefits, for what appears to be a narrow special interest, trump the long term health of a public resource.’”
As I said before, the majority of the striped bass angling community was not pleased with the introduction of Rep. Zeldin’s bill...

Thus, there was some dismay in striped bass angling circles when news came out that the House Natural Resources Committee gave its unanimous approval to H.R. 3070.

Speaking personally, I was dismayed, but not surprised, as the current majority of that Committee is usually in favor of anything that provides an economic boon to narrow groups of special interests, while impairing the greater public interest in conserving America’s natural resources.  Approving H.R. 3070 would have been just another step taken along the same ill-advised path.

However, things were not as simple as they originally seemed.

It turns out that the only similarity between the legislation debated at last December’s hearing and the one reported out of Committee last week was the bill number.  Even the name had changed.

The original version of H.R. 3070 was entitled the “EEZ Clarification Act,” and began by stating that

“For purposes of all Federal laws governing marine fisheries management—
(1)     the landward boundary of the exclusive economic zone between the area south of Montauk, New York, and the area south of Point Judith, Rhode Island, shall be considered to be a continuous line running…”
And the boundaries were set forth from there.

The new version of H.R. 3070 was provided not by Rep. Lee Zeldin, but by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ).  It is entitled “EEZ Transit Zone Clarification and Access Act,” and begins

IN GENERAL—The Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, may issue regulations to permit and regulate recreational Atlantic striped bass fishing in the Block Island Sound Transit Zone…  [emphasis added]”
In other words, the bill has changed from one which threatened to open the EEZ off Block Island to striped bass fishing, and handed all fishery management responsibilities within the proposed boundaries over to the states, into one that does nothing at all.

The key is in the word “may,” which means that the Secretary of Commerce is allowed to amend current regulations to permit striped bass fishing in the so-called “transit zone” between Block Island and the mainland, but only if the Secretary should choose to do so.

And that has always been the case.

The current prohibition on striped bass fishing in the EEZ was imposed by regulation, not by legislation.  The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the Commerce Department, considered reopening the EEZ to striped bass fishing in 2006, but ultimately decided that it was the wrong thing to do.  Commerce could reopen the question at any time, should it decide to do so.

So all that the current H.R. 3070 does is reaffirm the status quo.  The Secretary of Commerce still has the power to open the EEZ to striped bass fishing, and the power to keep the EEZ closed.

Hopefully, the closure will continue, and H.R. 3070 will soon be lost in the mists of obscurity, a fate that it most certainly deserves.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

WHAT FISHERMEN CHOOSE TO BELIEVE

Recently, a team of researchers from the National Marine Fisheries Service, collaborating with the University of Massachusetts’ Large Pelagics Research Center, claimed to have discovered a new spawning ground for bluefin tuna.

On its face, the research seems fairly convincing.  Five- and six-day-old bluefin tuna larvae have been found in an area known as the “Slope Sea,” a piece of water that lies between the Gulf Stream and the edge of the continental shelf in the Mid-Atlantic Bight. 

Prior to the announcement, the only known North American spawning ground for Atlantic bluefin was located in the Gulf of Mexico.  The NMFS research team asserts that ocean currents could not have carried larval bluefin from the Gulf all the way to the Slope Sea in five days, meaning that such larvae must have been spawned somewhere else.

They also point to tagging data that shows smaller, 100- to 500-pound bluefin lingering in the Slope Sea region during certain times of the year.  A previous study, conducted by researchers at the UMass Center, suggested that western stock bluefin tuna mature significantly earlier than previously believed.  The two findings, taken together, could have a meaningful impact on the fishery for western stock bluefin.

Based on the two studies, it would not be unreasonable for people to argue that if western-stock bluefin actually mature while relatively young, and have more than one spawning ground, they can be sustain larger harvests than they could if they only matured after a decade or more and only spawned in one, vulnerable piece of the ocean.

However, a number of scientists specializing in bluefin tuna research remain properly skeptical of the team’s findings.  “Properly” skeptical, because the purpose of science is to discover the truth, not to make headlines or to tell people the things that they want to hear.  The NMFS team’s findings may well be correct, but it is the duty of the scientific community to try to poke holes in their paper and conduct further research to prove that they are wrong.

If, after the skeptics take their best shots at the data, the team's conclusions remain largely intact, then—and only then—it will be time to announce that bluefin do, indeed, spawn in the Slope Sea.

Many fishermen, however, are already celebrating, in anticipation of relaxed harvest regulations.  Sport Fishing Magazine, which targets recreational anglers, addressed the study by saying

“A bombshell in the world of fisheries management fell on March 7.  That’s when a report revealed new evidence that Atlantic bluefin tuna spawn off the northeastern United States…
“This finding transcends pure scientific discovery, as the study states, it possibly ‘leads to lower estimates of the vulnerability of this species to exploitation…’
“Put more simply, there are already suggestions being heard from various interests that bluefin that bluefin populations may be more resilient than we had thought, that stocks may be in better shape, and that more generous fishing quotas may be called for.”
Sport Fishing did express one cautionary note, pointing out that some members of the scientific community deemed the study to be preliminary, and feel that it would be premature to change the bluefin management paradigm.  However, it ended the announcement by saying

“…there is little doubt that this research will ultimately have implications for how we manage the ocean’s most valuable apex predator.  It will be interesting to see how this knowledge and more to come (as a search for more undocumented spawning grounds continues) will shape those implications.”
Over all, it was an exceptionally upbeat article, expressing none of the skepticism that should accompany news of new scientific discoveries.  In short, it was typical of how fishermen react when they hear news that might cause quotas to rise.

We saw the same sort of thing occur a few years ago in the Gulf of Maine cod fishery.

In 2008, NMFS produced a stock assessment that was the most optimistic in years.  Although it indicated that overfishing was still occurring, it also showed that the stock was making a strong recovery and was no longer overfished; estimated spawning stock biomass was 33,877 metric tons in 2007, seemingly well on its way toward reaching the SSB target of 58,248 mt.

When the results of the 2008 assessment were released, fishermen had no problems in accepting its conclusions, even though it seemed to be based on some somewhat suspect data—the supposed strength of the 2005 year class of cod, upon which most of the rosy analysis depended, was based on just one or two tows of the research vessel’s net, which captured very high numbers of fish.  No other tows were anywhere near as productive.

Still, despite this obvious warning sign, the fishermen didn’t question the data at all.  It said that the stock’s health was rapidly improving, which meant that they’d soon be able to harvest larger numbers of fish.

That was all that they wanted to know.

However, things turned around quickly just three short years later, after another stock assessment, released in 2011, said that the cod stock was in some real trouble.  The new assessment determined that the size of the spawning stock biomass was a mere 11,868 metric tons, roughly 1/3 of the 2008 estimate.  It employed a different mathematical model than the 2008 assessment, considered more sets of data, and was generally considered a more reliable estimate of the stock’s true size.


“The modeling approach used in this assessment represents a quantum leap, in terms of the ability to handle the underlying data and also its uncertainty.  There was far more rigorous treatment of the discard information and its consequence, and also the treatment of the landings and the survey data.”
But that’s a fishery scientist’s view.  Fishermen’s views were very different.

David Goethel, a commercial groundfisherman who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council,complained

“…why should it be accepted that the current data and model provide the best available science?
“…I think we need to have a thorough reexamination of everything here.  We need to examine cod, period.  We need new reference points, we need new [Stock Assessment Review Committee] boundaries.  We need all this done, and then we can address the underlying problems, if they still exist.  I’m not prepared to shut down the Gulf of Maine, or to put out a [limit on catch levels] that would shut down the Gulf of Maine until we address these issues.”
And that last sentence, of course, says it all.

Goethel had no problem with the 2008 cod stock assessment, because it had the potential to increase his catch.  But once the 2011 assessment came out, declared the 2008 assessment to be inaccurate and threatened to sharply decrease fishermen’s landings, it was time to condemn the science, call for additional research, reset all of the existing parameters and start over again.

For while many fishermen are willing to accept science that leads to increased harvest as unquestionably right, they are even more inclined to declare any science that leads to decreased landings as completely and irreparably wrong.

It's a problem that managers have had to live with for years, and it's not likely to go away at any time soon.  But it makes it very clear why, when setting annual catch limits, scientists, and not fishermen, must have the last word.





Sunday, March 13, 2016

UNITY IS NOT ALWAYS USEFUL

Back in 1982, the junta that ran Argentina ran into a bit of a problem.  Citizens were getting tired of its authoritarian ways, and starting to ask questions when people disappeared in the dark of the night, or showed up as corpses at sunrise. 

The junta wasn't used to public unrest.  The last thing that they wanted were too many people asking too many questions.  Folks who paid too much attention and thought a little too hard ended up making trouble.

The junta needed a way to divert their attention, so it started a war with England.

Argentine leadership dressed the thing up in patriotic trappings.  It called for a united national effort to oppose perfidious Albion and retake the Falkland Islands—what Argentina calls the Islas Malvinas—which Britain supposedly stole from the Argentines in 1833.

In the end, the junta’s plan failed, largely because they lost the war.  Even so, diverting the Argentine public’s attention from the junta by conjuring a threat from “outside” followed a tried-and-true political formula that has been used throughout the ages, one that created tragedy in the mid-20th Century, and is raising its head again today in America’s presidential politics.

It's used in fisheries politics, too.

I was reminded of that recently as I thumbed through the March/April issue of Tide magazine, the house publication of the Coastal Conservation Association, and came across an article by Ted Venker, entitled “Unity at a time of adversity.”

As far as I know, the piece is not available on-line.  There’s no reason that it should be, as it targeted CCA members, using the same old strategy of focusing attention on another supposed outside threat, in this case commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico.

The article lays it on clearly, throughout its text.

“Group defense is the best way to ensure survival and eventual success.
“Swim in strength together or die alone—such is life in the ocean, and, unfortunately, in the federal fisheries management process, too, it seems…
“In this system, a solitary recreational angler has no chance.  Commercial operators of all stripes have a clear financial motivation to do whatever it takes to work the system inside and out to take advantage of the situation and secure a personal windfall…
“The need has never been greater for the recreational community to swim together and we are fortunate to have an entity like the Center for Coastal Conservation to draw all facets of the vast recreational angling community together to face this challenge…”
So who is this “Center for Coastal Conservation”?  Ted Venker tells us that it is

“an all-star team of industry players including the American Sportfishing Association [representing fishing tackle manufacturers and dealers], the National Marine Manufacturers Association, CCA, Yamaha, Shimano, Maverick Boats, the International Game Fish Association, Costa del Mar, AFTCO, Brunswick and many others.  It is an  compilation of the recreational angling community, and it stands unified against interests that stand only for their pocketbooks. [emphasis added]”
For the purposes of this essay, we can think of them as recreational fishing’s equivalent to the Argentine junta. 

Where the Argentine junta tried to maintain their power and influence by riling up the citizens and urging them to unify against the British “enemy”; the recreational anglers’ junta seeks to achieve its goals by playing on anglers’ dislike and distrust of their supposed “enemy,” the commercial fishery.

The anglers’ junta must keep that dislike strong and alive, because if anglers started looking at the Center too hard, they might start believing that outfits such as the American Sportfishing Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Yamaha, Shimano, Maverick Boats, Costa del Mar, AFTCO, Brunswick and many others might just be in it “for their pocketbooks”, too, and wondering what they really want…

All of those institutions are for-profit companies, and filling “their pocketbooks,” or more precisely, their investors’ pocketbooks, is the sole reason that they exist.  

Let’s not be na├»ve about this—corporations do what is in their corporate interest; unless they can get some favorable publicity out of appearing concerned, they don’t care about your interests at all.

And no, however, that sounds, I’m not some left-wing ex-hippie.  When I’m not fishing or hunting or writing this blog, or taking part in the fisheries management process, I’m doing my job as in-house counsel for an international investment bank.  I’ve been a Wall Street lawyer for most of my professional life, even working for Lehman Brothers for a year and a half before that firm’s demise.  So I know how business folks think.

And what business folks think about most is the next earnings announcement—the next fiscal quarter, the next fiscal year.  That’s particularly true if a company is publicly owned, for if earnings come in below analysts’ expectations, even by just a few cents, the stock price is likely to fall; falling stock prices make investors unhappy and tend to reduce top executives’ net worth.  Good short-term earnings, on the other hand, can make stock prices rise, and increase executive pay.


Over $7 million in all.  Some might call that a “personal windfall…”

So it’s natural that the executives who run America’s businesses focus on the short term.  Tackle businesses and boat-building businesses aren’t any different.

Anglers, however, are different.

Most anglers, if you catch them in a moment of honesty, will tell you that they want to bring home a few fish today, but not at the expense of their kids or grandkids.  They’ll take the truly long view, thinking in generations, not in fiscal quarters.

So while they’ll grumble and complain about regulations, they’ll usually do the right thing once they understand why they should.

However, that grumbling and complaining presents an opening for the corporate folks; times of unrest are when juntas take power.  They’ll do their best to revive old hostilities between the recreational and commercial sectors, blaming the commercial fishery for all of the anglers’ woes, whether they deserve such blame or not.  They need to keep anglers distracted, and get their support to achieve corporate ambitions.

And their primary corporate ambition is weakening the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. 

That is made clear in the Center-supported report “A Vision for Managing America’s Salt Water Recreational Fisheries,” which was issued by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.  The report supports weakening the portions of Magnuson-Stevens that require fish stocks to be rebuilt promptly, and within a set time.  It wants that done so fishery managers may allow populations

“to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
Such ambition is reinforced in corporate press releases such as the one put out by Yamaha, which declared that

“Yamaha Marine Group Applauds Passage of H.R. 1335.”
H.R. 1335, you may recall, is the latest iteration of the “Empty Oceans Act,” which was passed by the House of Representatives last May.  Purporting to add more “flexibility” to the fishery management process, it would substantially weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, providing many loopholes that would perpetuate the overfishing of some stocks and prevent others from ever being rebuilt.

H.R. 1335 is not only supported by the recreational anglers’ junta but also, ironically, by many of the same commercial fishermen that, they claim, anglers must oppose.  That should tell us a lot about folks' true motives.

They all like the bill for about the same reason; it would let more fish be killed, and more money made, before everything fell apart.

If you’re only focused on the short term, it’s a pretty sweet deal; for anglers, and for the fish, it’s a long-term disaster.

Which really says it all about juntas.  They may speak about “unity,” but in the end, they only take care of their own.