Sunday, April 9, 2017


Last week, national “anglers’ rights” organizations, aligned with the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries, heralded the introduction of new legislation in the House of Representatives which, if signed into law, would benefit—anglers rights organizations, along with the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries, at least in the short term.

The bill is called the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017,” which its proponents have shortened, for everyday use, into the media-friendly “Modern Fish Act.”  

It is sponsored by Congressman Garret Graves (R-Louisiana), who last session sponsored the infamous “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act” which would have taken away federal managers’ authority to manage red snapper in the Gulf, and handed it over to state managers who, not bound by federal law, would have no obligation to end overfishing, rebuild the stock or base their management decisions on the best available science.

That, in itself, is probably enough to suggest what the new bill would look like.

The language of the bill is not yet readily available to the public; however, I had the opportunity to view a preliminary draft that, with few if any changes, probably reflects the language of the bill that will be introduced.  Based on that draft, I was initially tempted to call the proposed legislation just another red snapper bill, and the players driving the process, both in Congress and on the advocacy side, suggest that red snapper issues contributed to its introduction.

However, the bill has implications for fisheries on every coast of the nation.  In what it proposes and in what it fails to propose, it could harm anglers and the fish that they pursue in my home waters of the northeast just as readily as it could undo years of progress and damage fish stocks in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

Like so much of the legislation inspired and promoted by the Center for Sportfishing Policy (formerly, the Center for Coastal Conservation), the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 is shockingly parochial, with a strong bias toward fishermen in the southeastern states.  That is particularly clear in its approach to allocation.

In many fisheries, on every coast, recreational and commercial fishermen have clashed over the issue of allocation.  The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Fisheries,” addressed the issue by saying

“The Magnuson-Stevens act should require the NMFS, in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences, to develop guidelines and criteria that the regional fishery management councils must consider for allocation of all mixed sector fisheries.  The allocation decisions must conservation and socioeconomic output.  To help provide necessary information for managers to consider, the NMFS must enhance its existing economic programs for mixed sector fisheries.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act also should require that the regional fishery management councils develop procedures for allocation reviews and adjustments based on those guidelines to occur at regular intervals.”
However, the bill’s language is nowhere near as expansive.  It only requires

“the Secretary of Commerce [to] enter into an arrangement with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico mixed-use fisheries…to provide guidance to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council on criteria that could be used for allocating fishing privileges…and to develop procedures for allocation reviews and potential adjustments in allocations based on guidelines and requirements based on this section  [emphasis added]”
and directs that

the South Atlantic and Gulf Councils shall perform an initial review within 2 years of the day of enactment of this Act of the allocations of all mixed-use fisheries in the Councils respective jurisdictions and a periodic review every three years thereafter.  [emphasis added]”
That’s all very well if you fish recreationally for red snapper, grouper, king mackerel or such down in the southeast, and you want to snatch a piece of the commercial allocation (which southern anglers often want to do).  

However, if you fish recreationally for summer flounder (allocation 40% recreational, 60% commercial) or scup (allocation 22% recreational, 78% commercial), and think that anglers deserve a bigger piece of the pie, you’re pretty well out of luck, as the folks supporting this bill don’t seem to concern themselves with anyone living north of Cape Hatteras.

Of course, a lot of the rest of the bill will affect anglers here in the northeast, and given what the proposed changes could do to our fisheries, we might be happier if the folks behind the bill just stuck to screwing up the red snapper stock…

The bill provides its greatest threat when it carves out exceptions to the requirement that annual catch limits be established for each species.  For example, a regional fishery management council would not be required to set an annual catch limit for

“a stock for which—
(i)                  fishing mortality is below the fishing mortality target; and
(ii)                a peer reviewed stock survey and stock assessment have not been performed during the five-year period that ends on the date of enactment of this Act.”

Let’s apply that to a real-world situation—the southern New England/mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder.

The last peer-reviewed stock assessment occurred in 2011, well outside of the five-year time window that would be created by the proposed legislation.  And according to a non-peer-reviewed stock assessment update released in 2015, the stock is not subject to overfishing.  Thus, should the proposed legislation become law, the New England Fishery Management Council would not have to set an annual catch limit for the SNE/MA stock of winter flounder.

Now, let’s look a bit more closely.

The SNE/MA stock of winter flounder is badly overfished.  

Spawning stock biomass in 2015 was estimated to be 6,151 metric tons, less than one-quarter of the biomass target.  And recruitment is heading downhill, from an estimate of more than 13 million age-1 flounder in 2005—already a small fraction of what it was in the 1980s—to just under 5 million in 2014.  In New York, according to  Newsday,

“Overfishing and habitat loss due to pollution have contributed to the decline of winter flounder in the region, but the new findings point to inbreeding as a contributing factor.
“Researchers found that as the population of winter flounder has declined, the likelihood that fish with similar genetic compositions will mate has increased.
“That’s troubling, scientists say, because inbred fish tend to be weaker and less able to survive.”
And yet the sponsors and proponents of the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act would allow recreational fishermen to exploit such an imperiled stock without being constrained by any annual catch limit at all.

It’s probably safe to say that such folk didn’t intend such a result, but it’s also probably at least as safe to say that, in drafting the bill, they never thought about such possibilities at all.  They should have, because the situation is not that unusual.  Once a stock becomes badly overfished, fish become so scarce that many fishermen no longer pursue them, so overfishing no longer occurs. 

That doesn’t mean that the stock isn’t still in very deep trouble.

But the most pernicious provision would allow annual catch limits to be eliminated

“for a sector of a fishery that is not monitored by a data collection system determined by the Secretary to be adequate for the development, implementation and enforcement of annual catch limits specific to that sector, based on the evaluation recommended by the National Academy of Sciences in its report Review of the Marine Recreational Information Program (2017) of whether the design of MRIP for the purposes of stock assessment and the determination of stock management reference points is compatible with the needs of in-season management of annual catch limits.”
The referenced report, which I discussed in a blog post last February, didn’t definitively opine on whether MRIP was an adequate tool for such purposes, and left that for managers, and perhaps a later analysis, to decide.  But what matters here is that, should the Secretary of Commerce be convinced that managers need more than MRIP to manage recreational harvest, there could be no recreational catch limit at all!

There would still be an annual commercial harvest limit, but recreational fishermen could be given carte blanche to overfish the resource without worrying about accountability measures tripped by exceeding the annual quota.
(That’s another reason why this proposed legislation deserves being called “another red snapper bill…”)

While MRIP may still need some tweaking, using MRIP is far better than being completely without a means of estimating recreational landings.

Of course, the bill does purport to seek additional information that could be considered when making fisheries management decisions.  The problem is that such information could only be sourced from

“(A)  Fishermen
  (B)  Fishing communities
  (C)  Universities
  (D)  Research Institutions”
and from no other sources.

That’s not just a case of the fox watching the henhouse, but one of the fox locking the henhouse door once he got inside; while fish are a public resource, belonging equally to every citizen of this nation,  the Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act would deny the great majority of the public—including SCUBA divers and dive operators, underwater photographers and conservation advocates—from providing information to help manage such public resource.

That’s wrong.  That’s the Modern Fish Act.

For the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 isn’t truly “modern” at all.  Instead, it’s a step backward, away from science-based management, away from responsible stewardship, away from the concept of public management of public resources.

It’s a return to the bad old days when it was expected that private persons would exploit public resources for private profit.

And in the end, just like in the old days, it will be the public who suffers when those resources are gone.

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