Sunday, January 8, 2017


Last week, someone sent me an article from the Boston Globe, which described the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ effort to prove that there are more fish in the sea than federal fisheries managers believe.

According to the article,

“National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration [sic] estimates put the Gulf of Maine groundfish stock at historically low levels, dictating a corresponding reduction in catch limits.  Between 1982 and 2013, the number of metric tons of cod landed aboard commercial vessels plunged from more than 13,000 to 951, according to federal estimates.  That, predictably, has drastically undercut the industry…
“The 55-foot Miss Emily, skippered out of Scituate by captain Kevin Norton, has been equipped to approximate a smaller version of the Henry B. Bigelow, a 209-foot floating research vessel operated  by NOAA, that is used to count fish for the federal government.  Using a small portion of $21 million in federal fisheries disaster relief, the state launched a series of random ‘tows’ to counter what some think is the less accurate federal vessel.”
Why is Massachusetts taking such action?  Because

“Federal catch limits—caps on how many fish each boat can catch—have devastated the state’s most iconic commercial sector, fishermen say.  [emphasis added]”
Other folks, who aren’t fishermen, might say something else.

They might say that it’s the sharp decline in groundfish abundance that caused the harm to the fishing industry.

Or maybe, folks with a bit of a historical bent might argue that it was the recalcitrance of the New England Fishery Management Council, which for many years refused to impose hard annual quotas on most fisheries under its jurisdiction, and thus subjected already overfished stocks to continued, chronic overfishing, which caused the industry’s ills.

But if you’re a fisherman, the odds are pretty good that you won’t blame fishermen’s stubborn refusal to accept scientific advice for the problem, because that would be too much like taking responsibility for your own misdeeds.  There’s a pretty good chance that you won’t even admit that changing oceanographic conditions have made the population more vulnerable, meaning that landings must be pared back.

If you’re a fisherman, you know that here are still cod out there somewhere, and that you’re  a good enough fisherman to figure out where they are.  You'd know that, if it wasn’t for those regulations, you’d still be making good money putting those cod on the dock—at least until they were gone.

That doesn’t mean that Massachusetts’ new survey isn’t a good idea.  Fishery management is data-driven, and the more data managers have—provided that it is accurate data, obtained through reliable means—the better they can do their job. 

From a management perspective, if the Massachusetts effort can cast a little more light on the state of New England groundfish, whatever data it develops can only be good—even if it confirms that cod are growing ever more scarce.

But from a fisherman’s perspective, the effort will only be worthwhile if it compels federal managers to relax regulations.

That puts Massachusetts fisheries managers in a difficult place, as far as their relationship with the fishermen is concerned, for as the Boston Globe article reports,

“The last time the state conducted a similar exercise, from 2003 to 2007, it stopped short of picking up the ‘collapse’ of the cod stock, [Bill] Hoffman [a senior state biologist] says.  Had the research continued, ‘We probably would never be in the predicament we’re in with cod right now.’
“Clear evidence might have led federal officials to impose catch limits or other measures, like time- and area-specific closures.”
If such regulations had been imposed in a timely manner, the collapse of the cod stock might have been avoided, any decline in abundance mitigated, and the fish more abundant today.

However, such timely intervention would, very likely, have angered fishermen, since

“some fishermen believe that additional research would have revealed more fish, perhaps undercutting the argument that the stock has dropped off.”
Given how so many New England fishermen think, it is probably a lot more than just “some” fisherman who believe that a study would have discovered more fish.  Because it is regulations, and regulations alone, that are causing the industry harm…

That’s sort of thinking isn’t unique to New England, or even to the fishing industry. 

We’ve just gone through a long national debate which taught us that coal miners believe that regulations, and not the price of other fuels or advances in cleaner energy technologies, is killing off their industry. 

But coal can’t be easily mined without removing mountaintops, polluting waterways or leaving gaping wounds in the ground.  And even if it could, in time the coal would run out.

Fish are different.  If harvest is limited to demonstrably sustainable levels, which are adjusted to accord with natural fluctuations in the abundance of the various stocks, both commercial and recreational fishing could go on indefinitely, without harming the integrity of marine ecosystems.

But it’s those limits on harvest that cause all of the problems, because fisherman and fishery managers tend to disagree on just what a “sustainable” harvest looks like.

A manager might cap the upper limit at maximum sustainable yield, the most fish that can be removed from a population each year, over an indefinite term, without causing such population to decline.

A fisherman is more likely to say that is the amount of fish that were caught in the past—which is likely to be no less than the amount of fish that he thinks he can catch in the future—without any reference to the health of the stock.

For “We used to be able to catch” is a well-used phrase at fisheries meetings…

Probably the hottest fisheries debate going right now involves 2017 recreational regulations for summer flounder.  

So regulations are, again, under fire.

“Fishermen packed a public hearing Thursday night to discuss a federal regulation that some say would effectively kill summer flounder fishing in South Jersey.”
Granted, unlike New England groundfish, the summer flounder population wasn’t driven down by overfishing; instead, natural influences on population seem to have played the primary role, and “overfishing” only occurred because harvests that had been perfectly safe and sustainable became too much for a declining stock.

Even so, is it realistic to assert that regulations, and not an increasing lack of fish, is most likely to kill the summer flounder fishery?

The impending regulations would result in anglers being able to keep fewer summer flounder than they could in 2016.  Yet without such restrictions, the stock will continue to shrink, and a shrinking stock will obviously make summer flounder that much more difficult to catch.  

Since recreational fishing isn’t very entertaining when you can’t catch anything, and in view of the poor recruitment and shrinking spawning stock, would greater restrictions on harvest really “kill” summer flounder fishing, or save it?

Ask a fisherman, and he’ll probably say "kill."  

As one fisherman quoted by the Press of Atlantic City complained,

“What they’re doing is taking away our ability to fish.  They’re just making it harder and harder for the average guy to catch fish.”
He didn’t seem to consider the possibility that it’s “harder and harder for the average guy to catch fish” simply because there are fewer fish around.

And that’s a problem, because the anti-regulatory beliefs of the incoming administration, which are shared by the incoming Congress, will probably make regulatory agencies far more willing to accept fishermen’s arguments that, even in the face of declining, perhaps collapsing, populations, it is regulations that cause of fishermen the most distress.

And given that anti-regulatory environment, we are likely to see regulations that, like those adopted in New England for so many years, don’t adequately conserve, and do nothing to restore, fish populations.

Fish populations are likely to shrink.

And that brings us back to the Boston Globe article mentioned at the beginning of this essay.

It reported

“Hoffman says that, although it’s still early in the research, the study so far has revealed smaller and fewer cod, the opposite of what the fishing industry is hoping.”
Even so, it’s a good bet that the fishing industry will still blame the regulations for all of their woes.

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