Sunday, October 15, 2017


I grew up in the southwest corner of New England’s coast, where fog was hardly unknown. I learned how to operate a boat in pea soup conditions when I was still a boy.
Running a boat in the fog can be an eerie, disorienting experience. You are surrounded by soggy gray walls that display a constantly shifting pattern of light and dark patches. Your eyes keep trying to make sense of it all, trying to convince you that every shadow is an island, a bridge or another vessel looming out of the murk. With visibility reduced to a few dozen yards, sometimes to a few dozen feet, all perspective is lost; a floating beer can might be mistaken for a buoy, and a barely-submerged reef may remain undetected until it’s too close to avoid.
One of the first things that I learned was that, under such conditions, you have to go slowly, to give yourself enough time to spot any hazards and, if other boats are nearby, to give them time to spot and avoid you.
Moving ahead carefully, when you’re not sure what’s ahead, might not get you to your destination as quickly as you would like, but it gets you there far more quickly—and more surely—than a reckless speed that results in collision, or that causes you to run hard upon a hidden shoal.
Slowing down and making sure that you know just where you are and where you are going is a hallmark of prudent navigation when the way ahead is obscured.
Managing data-poor fisheries can also be disorienting. Signals are mixed. Fishermen might be finding a lot more fish than the biologists’ surveys are. Spawning stock biomass might seem fairly high, while young-of-the-year fish counts stay low. Unusual environmental conditions might lead to below-average spawning success, or cause a stock to produce an unusually high year class. Without reliable data relating to a species’ life history, its reproduction and historic abundance, biologists lack the perspective to evaluate the current health of the stock.
Fishermen will tell them that “there are plenty of fish out there, you just have to know where to look,” and there is a natural desire to believe them. At the same time, their own sampling is telling them that abundance is headed downhill.
In such situations, where the data is ambiguous and the path ahead not completely clear, biologists are as unsure of their position as any navigator locked in a fog bank. And they ultimately have the same choice—move slowly and deliberately, and give themselves enough time and space to get out of trouble should something go wrong, or race ahead, increase harvest, and risk wrecking the stock due to some unknown hazard.
Thus I was dismayed when I heard Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, and tell the assembled lawmakers that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) was flawed, because “when scientific information is poor or unreliable for a stock, setting the annual catch limiting [sic] is done with a considerable amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to precaution which can result in a significant downward adjustment to an annual catch limit.”

His language suggests that fishery managers should use best-case assumptions when data is weak, setting catch limits high regardless of any uncertainties that might exist; it’s the biological equivalent of running full-speed into a fog bank, trusting that all will be well.
There’s not a better way to crash and sink a boat—or a fish population.
Black sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic region provide a good example of how the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), acting pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens, can prudently manage a fishery and maximize angling opportunity when the available data is poor.
Both anecdotal evidence and NMFS’ trawl surveys suggested that the population was increasing. However, a benchmark stock assessment completed in 2012 failed to pass peer review, with all three of the panel members agreeing that such assessment was not adequate for management purposes. While managers believed that the stock was neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, they were left with little guidance on what actions to take in the future.

Faced with such uncertainty, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) opted to make no changes to the annual catch limits for 2014.

Fishermen, who were seeing more black sea bass, were extremely critical of the decision not to increase the annual catch limits.The Jersey Coast Anglers’ Association complained that managers were unnecessarily restricting harvest on a species so abundant that it was “now considered by many to be the new nuisance fish.”

Fishery managers searched for ways to address the data deficit before the next benchmark stock assessment could be prepared. In 2015, a team of biologists developed a new approach to setting annual catch limits for data-poor stocks. Thanks to such approach, the MAFMC could safely recommend increasing the allowable biological catch (ABC) by more than 20%, from 5.50 to 6.67 million pounds.

In 2017, after a new benchmark assessment passed peer review and was deemed adequate for management, the ABC was increased again, by more than 50%. The recreational annual catch limit was increased by 52% as a result.

Thus, between 2013 and 2017, prudent management allowed the black sea bass ABC to nearly double, from 5.50 to 10.47 million pounds and, between 2013 and 2016, allowed recreational black sea bass landings to more than double, from 2.45 to 5.19 million pounds (as anglers regularly overfished their quota). Abundance is more than twice the target level, making the species an attractive and readily available alternative as the summer flounder population declines due to poor recruitment.

Despite this, those seeking to weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens still refer to black sea bass as a “problem” fishery, that can only be fixed by amending the law.

It’s a strange proposition.
For it might have been possible to ignore the uncertainties, and increase sea bass landings a few years ago, without doing harm to the stock.

Just as it might be possible to speed across a fogbound bay, without running into another boat, reef or bar.

But should anyone bet the future on “might,” when they can slow down a bit and be sure?

This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront”, the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Thursday, October 12, 2017


By now, everyone who follows the trials and tribulations of New England’s fisheries has heard of “The Codfather,” Carlos Rafael, who recently pled guilty to falsifying landings records for hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish that was illegally harvested by Rafael’s vessels, fish that included some of the northeast’s most valuable, and most overfished, species.

Rafael owned so many boats, and harvested so many fish, that he did real harm to the New England groundfishing industry. As reported in the Cape Cod Times,

“Cape fishermen in the Georges Bank Fixed Gear Sector once heavily relied on cod and still control a lot of Georges Bank cod quota. [Eric] Hesse [a Barnstable, Massachusetts fisherman] blamed Rafael’s fleet of draggers for wiping out a lot of the cod stocks. When there was no cod left for their small boats to catch, Hesse said that they had to fish for less valuable species and lease their cod quota to larger vessels like the Rafael fleet and their sector. But Rafael and his sector continually drove the price of their cod quota down, asking for below-market rates even as they were illegally circumventing the quota system by catching cod and labeling it as haddock.”
The damage done was severe enough that affected fishermen are asking that the penalties assessed against Rafael to be somehow reinvested in the groundfish fishery. John Pappalardo, who heads the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, wrote a letter to Undercurrent News, a commercial fishing publication, in which he said
“Carlos Rafael pled guilty to running a massive criminal enterprise that stole from honest fishermen and undermined the fisheries as a whole…
“Let’s put his money to work fixing the fishery he badly damaged…
“The fish quota he owns should be redistributed to all the fishermen he harmed…
“Honest fishermen have not been playing on a level field with the likes of Carlos. We need to make sure they aren’t put in that position again.
“To do that, we must invest some of his illegal gains in fishing’s future by improving dockside monitoring, expanding electronic monitoring and increasing fishermen-scientist collaborations to get better fish counts…”
Certainly, that’s part of the answer. At the same time, up until he was caught, Rafael made a lot of money through his illegal operation. During just one six-month period, he was reportedly paid $1.2 million dollars for illegally caught fish. His net worth, when he was arrested, was allegedly about $175 million. That kind of money, some of which has already been smuggled out of the country, can easily tempt a fisherman to step outside the law, and accept any penalty as a cost of doing business.

Thus, it is important that the penalty truly fits the crime, is harsh enough to dissuade would-be violators and, when possible, provides some sort of compensation for those hurt by the illegal action. The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which focuses on issues affecting New England, recently addressed all of those considerations when it filed a victim impact statement with the court deciding Rafael’s fate.

The language of CLF’s victim impact statement emphasizes the extent of, and the damage done by, Rafael’s actions, and asks that the court “impose criminal penalties that are just and commensurate with the significant economic, reputational, and environmental damage Rafael inflicted on the…victims through his extensive crimes, including full forfeiture of all the vessels identified by the Department of Justice and NOAA as having played a part in this criminal enterprise.”

It notes that Rafael’s victims include New England groundfishermen, the greater groundfishing community that depends on heathy fish stocks, conservation and recreational fishing organizations that have worked to establish sustainable groundfish populations, participants in the fishery management system that had their efforts frustrated by Rafael’s actions, as well as the government, in its role as trustee of the public’s interest in the nation’s marine resources.
The victim impact statement makes a compelling argument as to why “it is critical that his term of imprisonment and other penalties send a strong signal that conduct like Rafael’s will not be tolerated in our nation’s fisheries.” It notes that, pursuant to federal statute, “restitution is mandatory in any case where a victim has directly and proximately suffered a pecuniary loss as a result of a crime,” and asks that the court “create a process by which fishing operations that believe they have been directly harmed by Rafael’s illegal actions can make a claim for restitution.”
CLF also requests that some of the proceeds from the sale of Rafael’s vessels be used to fund better monitoring of New England fisheries, observing that “Greater monitoring coverage would not only help to deter and identify illegal fishing operations like Rafael’s but also improve data collection and scientific models that have been compromised by Rafael’s illegal behavior.”
The victim impact statement makes it clear that Rafael’s punishment should be more than mere retribution for the harm that he has done; it should also provide a mechanism that will help out those harmed by Rafael’s actions, and dissuade those who might otherwise be tempted to commit similar crimes at some later date.
Hopefully, the court will be swayed by CLF’s arguments and, hopefully, similar considerations will guide the punishment of others who violate fishery laws. While Carlos Rafael may well have perpetrated the greatest fishery-related offenses, in terms of pure dollar value, ever recorded, there are plenty of other crimes committed on a regular basis, which deserve a similar disposition.
Roughly ten years ago, state and federal prosecutors announced the completion of a 4-year-long investigation into illegal striped bass landings in the Chesapeake Bay. Fifteen individuals and two fish wholesalers were convicted in a scheme that involved wholesalers falsely reporting the quantity of striped bass purchased from complicit commercial fishermen.

According to a Justice Department press release, “By under-reporting the weight of fish harvested, and over-reporting the number of fish taken, the records would make it appear that the fishermen had failed to reach the maximum poundage quota for the year, but had nonetheless run out of tags. As a result the state would issue additional tags that could be used by the fishermen allowing them to catch striped bass above their maximum poundage quota amount.”

600,000 pounds of illegal striped bass, worth about $3 million, were landed before charges were brought.

That level of overfishing, combined with the inaccurate fishery-dependent data generated by the falsified records, would have impaired regulators’ ability to properly manage the striped bass stock, and done harm to everyone who participates in or otherwise benefits from the striped bass fishery.
I represented the New York chapter of a national angling organization when the prosecutions were announced. In that role, I submitted a victim impact statement to the court hearing the matter. Other persons did the same.
It’s impossible to know what impact the victim impact statements made, but it was heartening to learn that in addition to the prison terms and fines imposed on the poachers, many of which were substantial, the court required the violators to pay more than $375,000 in restitution, which was directed to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chesapeake Bay Striped Bass Restoration Account, as a way to help offset some of the damage done.

And no one should believe that such abuses are limited to the commercial fishery. In September 2017, two Montauk, New York party boats, carrying recreational anglers, were boarded by state enforcement agents, who found large numbers of illegal black sea bass and other fish on board.

No, neither vessel was accused of landing illegal fish in “Codfather” quantities. Not even close.
But in a recreational fishery already suffering from excessive landings, which are causing regulations to become more restrictive every day, the quantities found can still add up into a number big enough to hurt.
It is more difficult to hold the vessel operators responsible in recreational fisheries. However, if a court does hold either or both of the Montauk operators culpable, it would be nice to see them pay some sort of restitution, too—perhaps directed toward funding more black sea bass research at the state or federal level.
Because marine fish are a public resource, any time a poacher violates fishery laws, that poacher is stealing from all of us.
Whether we’re commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, fish dealers, restaurant owners, tackle dealers, consumers or just citizens interested in maintaining a healthy, intact marine ecosystem, when someone violates fishery laws, we’re all victims.
And we should demand that real justice is done when poachers are caught.
This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Sunday, October 8, 2017


Last week, I wrote about the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the good work that it has done on inland issues, and its strangely misguided position on saltwater fisheries matters, most particularly the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

It seems that I wasn't alone in my thinking, because just as I was finishing up last Sunday’s blog, I came across Mark Eustis’ piece in The Hill, which trod the same ground; our thinking was alike enough that I stole a few of his words to sum up what I had been trying to say.

Of course, no one likes to be criticized, so I wasn’t particularly surprised when I saw that Whit Fosburgh, the president and chief executive officer of TRCP, published his own op-ed in The Hill, trying to rebut and belittle Eustis’ comments.

I also wasn’t surprised to note that Fosburgh started right out with a red herring that dodged the main issue, titling his piece “Roosevelt wouldn’t stand for privatizing a public resource, and neither will we.”

While that title—and statement—may or may not be true, it’s completely beside the point.  The critical issue in the Magnuson-Stevens debate is conservation—whether we will be able to pass down healthy fish stocks to the next generation—and not merely who’s going to get to kill the fish or how they’re going to do it.

Now, I understand why Forsburgh decided to change the subject, because if he tries to stand and defend TRCP’s Magnuson-Stevens position from a conservation standpoint, he’s fighting from a very weak position—a position so weak that it’s just about impossible for him not to lose.  He’s just looking for a rhetorical terrain that might give him a fighting chance.

But that’s not where this battle has to be fought, so let’s take a look at where he, and TRCP, have again gone wrong.

The biggest problem seems to be that they keep avoiding the truth, leaving a lot of important facts out of their arguments, and interpreting the facts that they do present in what might charitably called “creative” ways.

Let’s start with their central talking point, that the current federal fishery management system is

“designed for commercial fishing into which recreational anglers are shoehorned.”

Exactly what does that mean?

If we believe TRCP’s first report on the topic, A Vision for Managing America’s Recreational Saltwater Fisheries, Magnuson-Stevens emphasizes commercial fisheries because

“While the [original version of the] act was successful in keeping foreign fleets out of U.S. waters, many marine fish stocks were at low levels, prompting legislative changes to better ensure the fisheries’ sustainability.  Led by Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, in 1996 the act was amended with provisions to end overfishing and protect important fish habitats.  This became the 1996 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act).  [AUTHOR’S  NOTE:  The 1996 law was actually called “The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996”, which merely amended Magnuson-Stevens; it’s surprising that the report got the name of such an important bill wrong, but when it comes to salt water, TRCP always does seem to have just a little bit of a problem with facts.]   The Magnuson-Stevens Act was again reauthorized in 2006, which added strict deadlines to end overfishing and called for annual catch limits to be put in place for all fisheries by a certain date.
“…Because it is a fundamentally different activity than commercial fishing, recreational fishing requires different management approaches.”
Taking TRCP’s words at face value, it would appear that the current version of Magnuson-Stevens is intended to end overfishing by a strict deadline, and limit the amount of fish that can be removed from the stock in any given year, and that TRCP believes that “recreational fishing requires different management approaches” that don’t emphasize such seemingly basic conservation measures.

And that impression is apparently correct, for a press release issued by the Coastal Conservation Association, one of TRCP’s “partners" in marine fisheries advocacy, praises pending legislation that would amend Magnuson-Stevens because, among other things, it would support “smartly rebuilding fishery stocks” and permit “establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit.”  

The release quoted a number of TRCP’s other “partners” that also supported the changes.

For those who don’t understand the euphemisms, “smartly” rebuilding fish stocks means doing so very slowly, if ever, so that anglers can keep killing more fish than science, and the current legal requirement to rebuild stocks as quickly as possible, would allow.  

And “annual catch limits don’t fit” when such science-based restrictions, designed to prevent overfishing, restrict anglers’ ability to kill as many fish as they want to over the course of an over-extended season.

Forsburgh might try to deny those truths.  But I spent 17 years sitting on the National Executive Board of one of TRCP’s “partners,” including a long stint as Vice Chairman of its National Government Relations Committee.  

I was a part of the discussion when the “white paper,” that eventually morphed into the “Vision” report, was circulated, and ultimately resigned my leadership roles when I saw that the people who mattered were hell-bent to adopt that ethically bankrupt policy and that no argument I could make would convince them to change. 

So yes, I know all of the unpleasant truths that euphemisms such as “smart” and “don’t fit” and “access” are trying to mask, because I was an unwilling part of the team when the effort to weaken Magnuson-Stevens took wing.

I was also around when the striped bass crashed, and when managers brought it back. I still fish for striped bass today.  So I know that Forsburgh got a lot wrong about that issue, too.

Because the plan that restored the striped bass population after it collapsed looked nothing like the “alternative management measures” that TRCP and its partners are proposing today; it was, in fact, far stricter than any federal management plan, including Gulf of Mexico red snapper, that they are currently criticizing. 

Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass was only 3 pages long.  It recognized that the 1982 year class was critical to the species’ recovery, and put in measures designed to prevent more than 5% of the females of that year class, and every year class that followed, from being harvested. 

That’s a pretty strict approach.  If the same standards were applied to Gulf of Mexico red snapper, the stock that Forsburgh nominated as “the poster child for why federal managers need to look at new management approaches,” the maximum fishing mortality threshold would have to be reduced from the current 0.078 to 0.051, to keep such mortality under 5%.  That would reduce fishing mortality—and the recreational catch limit, by roughly one-third. 

Given their current complaints about the length of the red snapper season, it wouldn’t seem likely that Forsburgh, TRCP or its partners would really like to see the recovering red snapper stock managed like striped bass was during its recovery period, if that sort of cutback was in the cards.

On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that they would like to see red snapper managed the same way that striped bass are managed today, either. 

These days, striped bass are managed with a “soft” target based on a fishing mortality rate rather than by a hard-poundage quota.  That approach hasn’t served the bass very well.  

Themost recent update to the striped bass stock assessment reveals that such “alternative” management measure has allowed the female spawning stock biomass to fall from 77,000 metric tons in 2003 to 58,853 metric tons in 2015—roughly a 25% reduction.  The spawning stock biomass is now well below the target of 72,032 mt, and barely above the 57,626 metric ton threshold that defines an overfished stock.

That hardly sounds like an effective management approach.

TRCP and its partners might well object that the decline was primarily attributable to poor recruitment, rather than fishing pressure, but the two factors aren’t that easily separated.  

Fish stocks aren’t really very different from checking accounts—if you remove fish from the stock, or money from an account, faster than it can be replaced, you’re headed for serious trouble.

“If we take action now of the magnitude that was recommended in this addendum [to reduce landings], we are overmanaging this fishery and that’s one of the things that we’ve got to get away from.  From anything that I’ve seen or read in the reports, I think the fishery is in good shape and we really need to do nothing at this point.”
The consensus was that it was better to let the stock become overfished before taking action, rather than trying to halt the decline before greater damage was done.

So if red snapper were managed the way striped bass are managed today, rather than under Magnuson-Stevens, there’s a pretty good chance that the stock would begin to decline, and that nothing would be done to help it.

I would hope that Forsburgh, TRCP and the rest wouldn’t want to see that happen, either, but given their attacks on federal management, it’s hard to be sure.

And the fact is that it’s not clear that alternative management is doing that well with the other species that Forsburgh mentioned in his op-ed.  Sure, he said that

“almost all recreational stocks are in very good shape.  In addition to striped bass, important recreational stocks like snook, speckled trout, redfish, Alaskan salmon and bluefish are all thriving.”
We’ll leave out bluefish for now, as they're actually managed under Magnuson-Stevens—as I said before, TRCP does have this problem with facts—and take a look at the other species. 

First, we’ll ask the big question—JUST WHO SAYS that those species are “thriving”—other than Forsburgh and TRCP?

In the case of fish managed under Magnuson-Stevens, there are standards that can be used to gauge the health of a stock, which are based on actual science, rather than laymen’s opinions.  Sustainable biomass levels and sustainable removal rates must be established, and regulations imposed to make sure that things don’t get out of hand.

But for the state-managed species that Forsburgh mentioned, "healthy" is in the eye of the behoder.  It’s mostly a matter of opinion, with no objective measure at all.

Mostly—but not completely.  There is a little information out there, and what there is doesn’t support Forsburgh—or TRCP—very well.

Start with speckled trout.  

In the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission did put a management plan together, which determined that a healthy speckled trout stock will have a spawning potential of at least 18%--that is, a spawning potential equal to at least 18% of the spawning potential of an unfished stock.  

But that’s not what’s going on.  

In Mississippi, the spawning potential ratio of the stock has fallen to 10.2%, and the harvest had to be cut in half to get fishing mortality back to sustainable levels.  Mississippi recently raised its size limit from 13 to 15 inches in an effort to do just that, which is good, but the question is why the state allowed the population to fall so low in the first place.

In Louisiana, speckled trout are in slightly worse shape, and there is no evidence that the state is even thinking about fixing the problem.  There, the population stands at about 10% of its spawning potential; over the 32 years between 1981 and 2013, it averaged only marginally higher, at 11%.  

Yet state fishery managers seem unconcerned, with one saying that

“The current limits, biologically speaking, are designed to maximize angler yield while not putting the stock into a condition where we may see recruitment overfishing.”
"Recruitment overfishing" occurs when there are not enough fish in the population to maintain the size of the stock; that may not yet be occurring in Louisiana, but it appears that “growth overfishing,” which occurs when fish are being caught so fast that they have no chance to grow large, is already an issue. 

“On an average day, we’re throwing back between 50 and 150 fish.
“…the fish aren’t getting a chance to grow up.  The minute they hit 12 inches, they’re getting killed.”
The guide noted that he used to be able to find some fish between 6 and 8 pounds, and that 5-pounders were once relatively common, but

“You don’t see them anymore.  You just don’t.  The fish get killed before they have a chance to grow up.”
Despite Whit Forsburgh’s assertions, when anglers are killing speckled seatrout so quickly that the population structure is truncated, and there are very few older, larger fish availabl, the stock isn’t healthy, and management isn’t very good.

Red drum are also hardly an example of good fishery management.

Anglers on the west coast of Florida are experiencing a real decline in red drum numbers.  An article in the Bradenton Herald noted that

“About five to seven years ago the amount of redfish around Tampa and Sarasota Bay was astonishing.  From the spring until the fall, it was catch as many redfish as you wanted from dozens of schools that patrolled the flats…
“These days you’re lucky to find a few redfish, nevertheless a school of hundreds.  And when a big school is found, the boats soon follow, and the fish are targeted day after day until they leave or are kept if of legal size.”
And western Florida isn’t alone.

In Texas, anglers put so much pressure on the red drum population that fish raised in hatcheries are now an important contributor to redfish landings.  As Forsburgh should have learned in his 15 years with Trout Unlimited, when anglers put such a strain on natural populations that hatcheries are needed to sustain angling effort, management has gone badly off course.

And when it comes to Alaskan salmon, the facts are, at best, mixed; some runs appear healthy, others do not.  

Forsburgh’s simplistic and overbroad claim that Alaska salmon are "thriving" falls very wide of the mark.

“Since 2007, Alaskans have suffered from the effects of low runs of Chinook salmon…
“Chinook salmon runs across the state since 2007, for the most part, have been well below average.”

“Alaska seeks relief for grim pink salmon harvest.

“Alaska’s pink salmon harvest for 2016 is over and was well below the preseason forecast.”

So at least two of five Alaskan salmon runs were nowhere near "thriving," one saw spotty abundance, and another two of the five runs were strong.

Thus, when all is said and done, Forsburgh and TRCP have few facts to support their assertions that amendments to Magnuson-Stevens’ fishery management approach would benefit fish stocks.  

Forsburgh’s supposed rebuttal of Mark Eustis’ op-ed was supported only by heated rhetoric, and not by hard data.

Which is the same problem with the legislation that Forsburgh and TRCP supports.  People have been making all sorts of unsubstantiated claims about how amending Magnuson would promote conservation.  But they can’t point to any part of their favored bills and provide hard data to demonstrate how such bills might increase the abundance of fish stocks, and provide more fish for anglers to pursue.

And that’s because such bills have a very different purpose.  
They are intended to allow overfishing—what the TRCP partners call “access”—and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks in order to increase harvest in the short term.

And that doesn’t lead to abundance.

It leads to far emptier seas.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


Let’s start out by agreeing on one simple truth:  Fishing isn’t much fun without fish.

To have a viable sport fishery, and a viable sport fishing industry, there must be enough fish around to keep anglers interested.  The fish don’t necessarily have to be biting.  One of the things that keeps angling interesting is figuring out how to convince reluctant fish, whether they’re striped bass or bluefin or mangrove snapper, to actually ingest what we offer.  But the fish have to be there, and if some of those fish are big ones, that makes things even better.

The self-appointed leadership of the saltwater fishing community freely acknowledged that fact in their 2014 manifesto, A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, in which they noted that

“federal fisheries managers set catch limits for recreational and commercial fishing at or near maximum sustainable yield.  While this may be an ideal management strategy for commercial fishing, where harvesting the maximum biomass is desired, it is not an effective management tool for saltwater recreational fishing.  Recreational anglers are more focused on abundance and size, structure of the fisheries, and opportunities to get out on the water.”
That sounds right and good.  The organizations who contributed to the “Vision” document—the American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Sportfishing Policy and the rest—can certainly talk the “abundance” talk.

But when it comes to walking the "abundance" walk, the story is starkly different.

Over the past five or six years—at least since the founding of the Center for Sportfishing Policy (formerly, the Center for Coastal Conservation)—it is hard to recall a single instance in which the various manufacturing and anglers’ rights organizations behind the “Vision” report came together to seek greater abundance of a federally-managed fish species.

Instead, they have repeatedly staked out positions and praised federal actions that, at best, would maintain harvest near the very level they had condemned—maximum sustainable yield—and at worst would increase harvest beyond that threshold of sustainability, and lead to overfishing and the delayed recovery of overfished stocks.

The most blatant example of that is the various organizations’ reaction to the Commerce Department’s now-infamous decision to reopen the private-boat recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, even though the National Marine Fisheries service admitted that

“The stock is still overfished…if employed for a short period of time, this approach may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as 6 years.  This approach likely could not be continued through time without significantly delaying the rebuilding timeline.  Similarly, the approach will necessarily mean that the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit, which was designed to prevent overfishing the stock.”
If an organization was truly seeking an abundance of fish, and really believed that “harvesting the maximum biomass” by setting catch limits “at or near maximum sustainable yield” was a bad idea, it would have seen the red snapper reopening as a very bad thing.  After all, by pushing back rebuilding by as much as six years, the reopening would keep red snapper abundance lower for an extended period of time. 

Knowingly allowing the private boat recreational sector to “substantially exceed its annual catch limit” would not only lead to decreased abundance, but would result in overfishing, increasing red snapper landings above maximum sustainable yield, a level that the “Vision” report already condemned as anathema to anglers.

Given those things, one would think that the folks calling out for “abundance” would have condemned the Commerce Department’s actions.

But that’s not what happened.

“a welcome boon to anglers who have been painted into a corner by a federal fisheries management system that does not understand us,”
and went on to say that

“The recreational angling community should feel vindicated, and we should take heart that after years of being systematically sidelined by NOAA Fisheries, our efforts to encourage our elected officials in Congress to engage in this man-made disaster are yielding results…As a result of our passion and our refusal to be cast aside, anglers will be allowed to venture into the Gulf of Mexico with their family and friends on weekends throughout the summer in pursuit of the most popular offshore fish in our waters…”
CCA was not alone.

“The federal fisheries management system is failing recreational anglers on many levels, and the red snapper is ‘poster fish’ of the quagmire.  The temporary rule directly addresses this problem, giving millions of recreational anglers in the Gulf of Mexico opportunity to enjoy America’s natural resources and giving the Gulf economy a much-needed shot in the arm…
“Anglers commend the Trump Administration and Members of Congress for hearing our calls for more access to federal waters—and for taking action.  We must now find a permanent solution to the problem…”

“While this is neither a perfect nor a long-term fix, it will provide much-needed relief for the recreational fishing industry this year while a permanent solution for Gulf red snapper is developed…
“Despite the continued frustrations with federal saltwater fisheries management, progress is being made both at the regional and national levels to make the system work better for recreational fishing.  The Gulf red snapper season extension clearly shows that our industry’s concerns are being heard.”
Three comments, from three organizations which, if the “Vision” document is to be believed, all supposedly support “abundant” fish stocks, yet they all praised the red snapper reopening—even though NMFS admits that it will have a negative impact on the abundance of snapper.


But Gulf red snapper is only part of a much bigger picture, one that is revealed in the last paragraph of the CCA press release, which says

“This order signifies that we have left the ramp, but we still have a long run ahead of us.  We must ensure that this renewed scrutiny on the inherent problems in the federal management of this fishery leads to meaningful reforms to the Magnuson Stevens Act…”
What sort of “meaningful reforms”?

Those are described in another CCA press release, which heralds a bill called the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017,” often referred to as the “Modern Fish Act.”  In that release, CCA assures readers that

“The Modern Fish Act addresses many of the recreational fishing community’s priorities including allowing alternative management for recreational fishing, reexamining fisheries allocations, smartly rebuilding fishery stocks, establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit and improving recreational data collection…”
Readers might notice that increasing the abundance of fish stocks doesn’t appear as one of the stated priorities, and that some priorities, such as “smartly” (which, given the exuberance over the red snapper reopening can be read as “slowly, if ever”) rebuilding fish stocks and creating exemptions to annual catch limits, are likely to cause abundance to remain stagnant or decline…

But what makes the CCA press release truly instructive are the quotes from some of CCA’s allied organizations, with respect to the Modern Fish Act.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association said

“We applaud the introduction of the Modern Fish Act in the House and the efforts of Rep. Graves and his colleagues to modernize the federal regulations governing access to the public’s natural resources by boaters and anglers…  [emphasis added]”
while the American Sportfishing Association hailed the bill because

“…The Modern Fish Act addresses the core issues within federal saltwater fisheries management that are limiting the public’s ability to enjoy saltwater recreational fishing…  [emphasis added]”
Again, both were clearly more concerned with the public’s ability to go fishing—not an unreasonable position for organizations speaking on behalf of their industries—than with the abundance of fish stocks.

But the most interesting quote of all came from Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the only CCA ally that was neither a contributor to the “Vision” report nor a member of the Center for Sportfishing Policy.  

Donofrio said

“For decades in federal fisheries management, recreational fishing was always an afterthought.  The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act…finally addresses the specific needs of the recreational fishing community, stands to bring parity to fisheries management and will get anglers back on the water.  [emphasis added]”
The Recreational Fishing Alliance’s statement isn’t remarkable for what it says, which isn’t much different from what was being said by representatives of the other organizations.  What makes it remarkable is the RFA’s endorsement of the Modern Fish Act in light of that organization’s historic opposition to the concept of “abundance.”

Three years ago, just a few months after the “Vision” report came out, Jim Hutchinson Jr., then the Managing Director of the RFA, authored a piece for the organization’s blog.  Titled “Environmental Defense Fund:  Another Abundance of Crap,” the blog attacks the concept of “abundance” as merely a ploy by “the environmental business community” to harm recreational fishermen.  

It begins

“There’s a new buzzword circulating throughout the recreational fishing community of late; a word that’s being actively embraced by many saltwater anglers because of its simple, seemingly straightforward connotation that gives those who speak it a sense of ample warmth and coziness.
“That word is abundance…”
It goes on later to say

“asking for abundance is another way of saying ‘please, take away my right to fish.
“I know it sounds good when presented by well-spoken, hip conservationists who claim to be friend to both fish and fishermen.  Ripping a page from the 21st century progressives’ handbook, these angling elite tear into the fishing industry, demonizing those who earn profit in some way, shape or form from the harvest of fish, while pledging to build our oceans to levels of abundance never seen in our lifetime on behalf of the ‘99’ percenters who apparently struggle to catch even a single fish in these dire environmental times…
“The ‘fish first’ conservationists are talking a good game and leading some folks to believe that oceans of abundance will punish greedy business owners while leaving more fish in the ocean to catch, but its really just a ploy to build support for reduced fishing participation through shortened seasons and bag limits.”
Again, that was written less than six months after the “Vision” report, with its endorsement of the “abundance” concept, was released, which makes it reasonable to assume that RFA had a very different vision than the one such report espoused.

Three years later, Hutchinson is no longer managing director of RFA, although he still seems to be close to the organization.  His attitudes on “abundance” don’t seem to have changed, as he recently wrote in The Fisherman

“On the other hand, some of the opposing [the weakening of Magnuson-Stevens] environmental groups have been working to create new statutory definitions, one in particular through manipulating the word ‘abundance.’  Statistically speaking, abundance is primarily a theoretical measure of how many fish are in a population or a fishing ground.  In preying upon anger emotions in promoting abundant fisheries (as in ‘we need fish in such vast abundance that I can’t help but catch a few on every trip even while using the new fly I tied with dental floss and a pipe cleaner’), some of the very same groups who helped create the statutory definition of ‘overfishing’ manufacturing acronyms like ACL and AM, hope to somehow influence Congress into writing up yet another mealy mouth, statutory definition.”
It can be that Hutchinson no longer speaks for RFA, but it appears that RFA’s position on “abundance” remains the same as it was back in 2014.  In another Fisherman article, which appeared last March, Hutchinson wrote

“In his first formal address to employees upon arrival at the Department of Commerce on March 1, Secretary Ross outlined a series of goals and initiatives for the agency moving forward, including ‘obtaining maximum sustainable yield for our fisheries.’  According to the Recreational Fishing Alliance’s (RFA) Jim Donofrio, that statement alone is a game-changer.
“'That’s the green light to hold the line on the bogus proposal we have in front of us right now [to reduce summer flounder landings in response to a declining biomass and six consecutive years of below-average spawns]…'”
When you put it all together, it seems like the Recreational Fishing Alliance likes the idea of fishing “at or near maximum sustainable yield,” and isn’t very supportive of the concept of managing for abundance.

That immediately leads to the question of why a group with such a philosophy would ally itself so closely with CCA and the other "Vision" contributors that it is quoted in a Coastal Conservation Association press release.  And if CCA, the American Sportfishing Association, the Center for Sportfishing Policy, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and other allied groups truly want fish stocks to be managed for abundance, and not for maximum sustainable yield, why would they partner with RFA?

And why would RFA support the Modern Fish Act, if such act really would cause fishery managers to seek greater abundance rather than higher harvests?

There is an old adage that says

“You will be judged by the company you keep.”
In the Bible, Matthew 7:15-20 states

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
When an organization such as CCA, which claims to support abundance, works so closely with an organization such as RFA, which wants fish to be harvested at maximum sustainable yield, that it quotes RFA in its press release, you have to start wondering just a little bit about CCA’s dedication to the abundance concept—and wonder whether their pet project, The Modern Fish Act, just might result in some fish getting scarcer.

But when CCA, along with organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association and the Center for Sportfishing Policy aggressively support measures that will decrease abundance, such as the reopening of the recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s time to stop wondering.

Because their words about abundance and managing for less than maximum sustainable words sound pretty good.

But by their fruits—delaying red snapper rebuilding while overfishing the stock, and seeking laws that will let them treat other federal fisheries in the same way—you will know them.

And thus you know that there talk of abundance and healthy stocks is just window dressing, for the only abundance they seek is in fishermen’s coolers and industry coffers, and not in our future sea.