Sunday, April 2, 2017
OUT OF COMPLIANCE STATE MANAGERS THREATEN ANOTHER FISHERY
No, I’m not writing about red snapper today. I said “another” fishery…
I’m not even writing about the Gulf of Mexico (although I mention the place a time or two).
But somehow, the words seem the same.
Just as state fisheries managers in the Gulf of Mexico consciously went out of compliance with federal recreational regulations, overharvested fish in state waters and forced federal regulators to impose extremely restrictive rules in the waters under their jurisdiction (with much accompanying wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of certain recreational fishing organizations, who support the state non-compliance but keep attacking the feds anyway), fisheries managers on the Atlantic coast have gone out of compliance with federal regulations on cobia.
As a result, federal regulators have been forced to impose very restrictive rules in federal waters. And yes, the some groups of anglers are wailing and gnashing again…
In the beginning, all was well.
Cobia were managed under a fishery management plan jointly administered by the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils. All fish, whether in the Gulf or the Atlantic, were managed as a single stock.
That changed in 2011, when Amendment 18 the Fishery Management Plan for the Coastal Migratory Species in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Region was drafted. Amendment 18 recognized that there were actually two separate stocks of cobia, one in the Gulf and one in the Atlantic, although the demarcation line for the two stocks was set to match the demarcation between the Gulf and South Atlantic councils, which was governed more by bureaucratic convenience than biological reality.
Amendment 18 also established catch limits for the Atlantic migratory group, but since such catch limit was set at the average landings over the past 10 years, with a fudge factor added for error, fishermen weren’t inconvenienced very much.
However, in the event that such catch limit was exceeded in any year, Amendment 18 also incorporated a strict accountability measure.
“If the recreational sector quota…is exceeded, the Regional Administrator shall publish a notice to reduce the length of the following fishing year by the amount necessary to ensure landings do not exceed the recreational sector quota for the following fishing year…”
“If the recreational [Annual Catch Limit] is exceeded, the Assistant Administrator for Fisheries shall file a notification with the Office of the Federal Register to reduce the recreational ACL in the following year by the amount of the overage.”
Again, that didn’t upset folks too much, because the Atlantic recreational quota was high enough that few foresaw a problem.
And there wasn’t a problem…for a few years.
But biological reality tends to override bureaucratic convenience in the end. In a new stock assessment performed in 2013, biologists disclosed that the Gulf and Atlantic stocks did not conveniently split at the Gulf Council/South Atlantic Council boundary. Instead,
“the Gulf of Mexico stock appeared to be genetically homogeneous and that segment of the population continued around the Florida peninsula to St. Lucie Florida, with a genetic break somewhere between St. Lucie Florida and Port Royal Sound in South Carolina. Tag recapture data suggests two stocks of fish that overlap at Brevard County Florida and corroborated the genetic findings.”
Thus, the demarcation line between the stocks had to be shifted north, to
“the FL/GA line because genetic data suggested that the split is north of the Brevard/Indian River County line and there was no tagging data to dispute this split…However, there was not enough resolution in the genetic or tagging data to suggest that a biological stock boundary exists specifically at the FL/GA line, only that a mixing zone occurs around Brevard County, FL and potentially to the north. The Atlantic stock extended northward to New York.”
Although the Atlantic migratory group of cobia was found to be neither overfished nor subject to overfishing when the most recent stock assessment was completed, spawning stock biomass had fallen to one of its lowest levels in the past 60 years, with the trajectory still headed downhill.
Thus, the trouble began in 2015, after anglers landed more than 1.5 million pounds of Atlantic migratory group cobia, three times the catch target of 520,000 pounds. As a result of such overage, the 2016 fishing season in federal waters, which otherwise might have been open year-round, was shortened, and ran only from January 1 through June 20.
Predictably, some anglers and recreational fishing organizations were unhappy with the action. The Recreational Fishing Alliance, hewing to its tradition of opposing any regulation that might rein in recreational harvest, no matter how badly needed such regulation might be, referred to the June 2016 season closure as “the Great Cobia Fiasco,” and said that
“the data was flawed, the fishery was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring. The decision to close was due to a combination of bad recreational landings data based on a very limited number of intercepts combined with a management anomaly that did not allow for three-year averaging of the catch data.”
However, RFA produced no alternate, “accurate” data to substantiate any of those allegations. Engaging in its usual hyperbole, it declared the season closure an “emergency” and asked that the fishery remain open throughout the year.
The Coastal Conservation Association, another “anglers rights” group that has, in the past, worked with RFA to oppose federal conservation measures, made a more moderate response but, in the end, still objected to the federal action, saying
“Radical regulation changes based on a single year of data are a keen source of frustration in the recreational fishing community and further erode trust in the federal fisheries management system.”
Despite such comments, federal managers were legally bound to prevent overfishing, and enforced the scheduled season closure. However, state fisheries managers are not bound by federal fisheries laws.
Thus, they were given a choice. They could follow the historic path of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and adopt regulations that complemented and had the same conservation effect as the federal rules, or they could take the path of the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico which manage red snapper, and go rogue, adopting regulations that allowed overfishing and undercut the federal managers.
Unfortunately, in the case of cobia, states opted for the latter course.
In Virginia, which accounts for most of the Atlantic migratory group landings, managers decided to keep the season open for an additional two months and a bit more, closing it on August 30. They did decide to reduce the bag limit to one fish per person, and two fish per boat. They also raised the size limit from 37 inches to 40, and permitted only one fish per boat to exceed 50 inches in length.
Even so, Virginia’s failure to follow federal guidelines hurt the cobia. Landings increased a bit in 2016; at 919,992 pounds, they were nearly twice the sustainable harvest level for the entire stock.
As a result, recreational landings in 2016 were again far too high. At an estimated 1,336,012 pounds, they were more than twice the 500,000 pound annual catch target. In response, the National Marine Fisheries Service imposed an incredibly short season, permitting cobia harvest only from January 1 through January 24, 2017.
Again, the response from some anglers’ rights organizations was vehemently negative, with the Recreational Fishing Alliance declaring that, in setting such a short federal season, the National Marine Fisheries Service was “Defying science and logic.”
“The continuing restrictions on cobia fishing will hurt charter operators as it is going to make it difficult to get new business. Many times, it is five or six people getting together for their first charter and having to decide which four of them get to keep fish makes it tough. I think many of our regular clients will return because they already know the excitement of catching cobia and how good they are to eat, but these restrictions are going to make it tough to recruit new business.”
Even so, North Carolina has at least shortened its season a bit, not opening until May 1 and running through August 1. Virginia, too, has shortened its season, which will run from June 1 through September 15. However, Virginia also increased the vessel limit from two fish to three.
It’s not at all clear that the tightened state regulations will get the job done. When shortening the federal waters season to just 24 days, the National Marine Fisheries Service explained that it did so
“with the understanding that recreational harvest of cobia will remain open in some state waters during the federal closure. NOAA Fisheries has determined that the annual catch limit in 2017 will likely be exceeded as the majority of cobia landings come from state waters.”
Thus, because states such as Virginia choose to go out of compliance with federal rules, anglers in other states, such as my native New York, won’t get a chance at any cobia that happen to stray into their federal waters.
That’s not right.
Groups such as the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation may argue that
“Coordinated management among the states is the only solution to an unaccountable federal system of fisheries management. Faced with an untenable situation, the states have risen to the challenge and collectively identified a path to a more balanced fishery.”
However, the facts argue otherwise.
Whether we’re talking about Gulf of Mexico red snapper or Atlantic cobia, the states, unrestrained by federal law, will inevitably elevate socioeconomic considerations above scientifically-mandated management measures. The result will be overfishing that, in the long run, will benefit neither the fish nor the fishermen who pursue them.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a case where that was not true.