Sunday, January 1, 2017


Remember The X-Files?

It was a science fiction show from two decades ago (briefly revived early last year), in which two FBI agents, from a special unit, followed up on reports of alien abductions, UFOs and similar unexplained phenomena.

The tagline of the show was “The truth is out there.”

Sometimes, when you read pieces about fisheries management, particularly in the local angling press, it often seems that truth is more elusive there than it was in The X-Files’ world.

The current debate over summer flounder management provides some good examples.

Such reductions will impose the lowest annual catch limitsin the history of summer flounder management, and will impose some real short-term economic distress on commercial and recreational fishing businesses.  People associated with such businesses are naturally unhappy with NMFS’ decision.

However, the landings reductions are necessary because recruitment—the number of young fish entering the population—has been well below average for six consecutive years.  

As a result, the population has been declining; currently, the spawning stock biomass is at only 58% of the abundance needed to produce maximum sustainable yield.  The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee has noted that, if such reductions are not imposed, the biomass is going to shrink further, and might fall below 50% of the level needed to produce maximum sustainable yield—and thus meet the definition of an “overfished” stock—by the end of this year.

All of that information is readily available on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s website.  However, it seems to have escaped the notice of reporters in the popular press and of writers who appear in various angling publications.

“Fishing advocates are seeking to head off what they described as ‘devastating’ reductions in the New York State quota for fluke next year are calling on regulators to forestall planned 2017 cuts until a more current assessment of the fish population is completed.”
The article quotes United States Senator Charles Schumer, who criticized federal fisheries managers for using a benchmark stock assessment completed in 2013 to manage the stock.

What the article doesn’t do is mention why the harvest reductions are necessary.  There is no mention of the six consecutive years of poor recruitment, or of the steady and steep decline in summer flounder abundance.  There's also no discussion of what will happen to the fishery if overfishing continues and summer flounder become less and less abundant.

And while the article quotes Sen. Schumer’s criticism of NMFS for using a stock assessment completed in 2013 to manage summer flounder, it completely fails to mention the fact that such assessment has been updated in every year since, and that the data underlying the harvestreductions came from an update to the assessment made in July 2016, only about one month before the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s August meeting,when the decision to impose the reductions was made.

The public was left with the impression that the harvest cuts were, to again quote Sen. Schumer, an “ideological” decision, rather than one made on recent and compelling data that showed a clear problem with the summer flounder stock. 

Newsday, already having committed sins of omission by not reporting on the biological basis for the harvest reductions, then compounded their error with sins of commission, ending the article with a box that laid out the supposed consequences of the reduced catch for anglers.  According to Newsday

“Planned federal limits on fluke fishing next year include
·         Reducing the number of fluke that can be taken from a current five per day to two.
·         Increasing the minimum size limit to 19 inches from the current 18 inches.
·         Reducing the season to 80 days from the current 128, starting in June rather than May.”
The problem is that no one has proposed such a suite of regulations.

No one at all…

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council decided that the states should be free to select any regulations that they choose, so long as such regulations reduce landings by a sufficient amount; all of the state proposals would be evaluated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  The Council, in a press release, stated that it

“recommended continued use of conservation equivalency to achieve, but not exceed, the 2017 summer flounder recreational harvest limit (RHL) of 3.77 million pounds.  Conservation equivalency allows individual states or multi-state regions to develop customized measures that, in combination, will achieve the coastwide RHL.  The combination of those measures should be equivalent to the non-preferred coastwide alternative approved by the Council and [ASMFC Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management] Board (i.e., a 4-fish possession limit, a 19-inch total length minimum size, and an open season of June 1-September 15).”
Those are the real “planned federal limits.”

I don’t see any 2-fish bag limit or 80-day season.

Do you?

The Mid-Atlantic Council and ASMFC also adopted “precautionary default measures,” to be imposed on states that do not adopt the required conservation equivalent regulations.  Such default measures are intended to scare fish into compliance, and are in fact scary—a 2-fish bag, 20-inch minimum size and a season comprised only of July and August.

But while such default measures are harsh, they don’t look much like the measures described by Newsday either…

To figure out what the conservation-equivalent measures might look like, one would have to go to ASMFC’s website, and take a look at the Draft Addendum XXVIII to the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan for Public Comment

Dealing only with the possible management options for New York (along with Connecticut and New Jersey, which share New York-s 3-state region), since those are what Newsday addressed, there are five possibilities.

The worst would actually impose more severe regulations than those cited by Newsday—a 2-fish bag, 18-inch minimum size, and 59-day season.  From there, depending on the methodology used to distribute the summer flounder among the states, they range from a 3-fish bag, 19-inch minimum size and 96-day season to the same size and bag with either a 99-day or the current 128-day season.  

Again, the combination of 2 fish, a 19-inch minimum size and an 80-day season is nowhere to be found (although such combination was discussed at one point, it did not make it into the draft Addendum).

At this point, I should make it clear that I’m not trying to single out Newsday for this sort of inaccuracy.  Similar information was circulated by CBS News, which said that

“Fluke season could now be cut nearly in half, and each person will only be allowed two fluke instead of five,”
while also failing to mention the six years of poor recruitment or the steadily declining stock size.  

A host of other newspaper articles, from a number of states, contained similar, misleading information.

Even Sen. Schumer apparently hasn’t seen some of the most current information on the state of the stock.  

“The limits that are put in four or five years ago that have produced more fish now—it’s not taken into account that we have more fish now.  So they can actually raise the limits.  Instead, they’ve lowered them dramatically, and that’s very, very bad.”
But as we know from the 2016 stock assessment update, there aren’t more summer flounder now than there were four or five years ago; because of poor recruitment, the stock is in decline.

So where are reporters, and legislators such as Sen. Schumer, getting such bad information about the summer flounder situation?

It’s clearly not from the Mid-Atlantic Council or ASMFC websites, but perhaps an article that recently ran in The Fisherman magazine provides an answer.  It was supposedly a feature intended to inform anglers about current summer flounder management, but it began

“I’m about to really tick you off,”
and soon after told readers

“I told you that you’d be pissed!”
so it’s fair to assume that the author never intended to provide a balanced account of the process.

The Fisherman article contains the same misleading comments about a 2-fish bag limit, and casts aspersions on the accuracy of the science used to manage the fishery, although to be fair it, unlike the articles quoted above, at least makes (very) brief reference to the declining spawning stock and below-par recruitment.

But that’s not the telling language.  The article also says

“Imagine of course when summer visitors see the ‘Two Fish at 19-Inch’ size limit on the sign at the party boat dock—alongside the already anemic seasonal black sea bass regulations which are also set to get cut back again in 2017.  Makes you wonder if this 40% hit will actually result in something more in line with a 70% to 80% reduction by way of lost business stemming from decreased angler interest and effort.
“Not to mention the cost and expense to the private angler, paying $50 for a tank of gas, bait, ice, and the tackle required for the opportunity to bring home just two fish (three if you’re lucky enough to get your weakfish bag limit too) –the American public is essentially being denied access to a natural public resource based on trawl surveys, mesh sizes, historic trends and sometimes arbitrary reference points.”
Now, I’m not sure what regulations should be based on if not scientific surveys, etc., although perhaps the answer is industry whims and short-term profits, for the article goes on a bit later to say

“The angler advocates at the American Sportfishing Association [the fishing tackle industry’s trade association] and Recreational Fishing Alliance say an act of Congress or response from the incoming Trump administration will ultimately offer the only salvation…the fact is the incoming administration and Secretary of Commerce are the only ones who can make a final legal and regulatory decision to help stave off dire socioeconomic impacts from these massive cuts to the fluke fishery.  [emphasis added]”
And there we have it.

Elements of the recreational fishing industry have long been trying to weaken federal fisheries law, in order to permit larger harvests—and anticipated larger economic returns—in the near term, despite long-term impacts on the health of fish stocks.

It’s easy to picture the same sort of folks providing reporters and legislators—and, directly or indirectly, anglers and the general public—with information that is more likely to ignite angler than provide  enlightenment, in order to further their anti-regulation, anti-management cause.

Anglers shouldn’t look for the truth in anything that passes through their hands.

Instead, anyone concerned or curious about fisheries issues should go to the source.  In the case of summer flounder, that’s the website of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission,, where accurate information—probably more than most people really want to read—is readily available.

Because yes, when it comes to fisheries issues, the truth is out there.

But like The X-Files Agents Fox and Mulder, if you want to know that truth, you’ll have to hunt it down for yourself.

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