Thursday, June 22, 2017


The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is preparing a new amendment for its tautog management plan.  Last Tuesday, an ASMFC staffer came to New York to take public comment on the new amendment.

Things did not go well.

For some reason, at least here in New York, tautog hearings seem to bring out the worst in those who attend.  I’m not sure that I ever went to one that ran smoothly; ill-mannered people, profanity and a lack of respect for both the forum and the management process are endemic at such events.

Even so, last Tuesday’s hearing hit a new low.  The room was filled to standing-room-only with a crowd of for-hire fishing boat operators, along with a number of commercial and recreational fishermen.  From the start, the room was filled with a low murmur of discontent.

And, to be honest, such discontent was understandable. 

That reduction never occurred.  Instead of focusing on the needs of the stressed tautog stock, ASMFC’s Tautog Management Board worried about the short-term social and economic impacts of the needed harvest reductions.  First, they tried to phase in the reductions, but never reduced landings enough.  Then they sought alternate management measures and management targets, none of which where adequate to restore tautog abundance.

Regulations that could best be characterized as “too little, too late” increasingly turned the screws down on fishermen, making it more and more difficult for them to participate in the fishery, while never turning the screws down enough to successfully rebuild tautog populations.

Things have gotten so bad up in Long Island Sound, where the fish are badly overfished and overfishing is still occurring, that the fishermen could be looking at a one-fish bag limit.  As a practical matter, that isn’t much different from a completely closed season if you’re in the business of taking people out on tautog trips.

The result is an angry bunch of fishermen, and a depleted tautog stock, a combination that isn’t likely to do make anyone happy or do anyone any good.

That became pretty clear early Tuesday night.  The ASMFC representative who was supposed to run the meeting was running about 45 minutes late, due to three separate airline delays and the usual rush-hour traffic out of JFK.  Normally, the delay wouldn’t have caused any comment, as a member of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Division was stepping up to run things until the ASMFC rep arrived. 

But this time, foreshadowing how the entire night would go, someone already stood up to complain that “We’re not getting paid to be here,” as if the attendees were somehow being inconvenienced from having the presentation made by someone else.

So John Manascalco, the top finfish biologist in the Marine Division, began explaining the details of the management plan amendment—the issues that everyone had supposedly come to comment on—to the folks in the room.  He didn’t get very far when someone asked why he was bothering to show all of that information on the screen.

It seems that the folks in the room didn’t come to listen to anyone speak about tautog management, or to politely discuss the proposed amendment.

As one of the attendees, a Montauk party boat captain, said during that first hiatus,

“We don’t care about your science.  Your science is bullcrap.”
And things headed more or less downhill from there.

John Manascalco made a few more efforts to explain the amendment before Ashton Harp, ASMFC’s Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for tautog, managed to navigate her way through the after-work traffic.  He was interrupted several times, and when she took over the presentation, she was treated, if anything, worse.

The interruptions were varied and often contradictory.  One Huntington party boat captain arrived with a lawyer in tow, threatening to sue the DEC (or maybe ASMFC, or maybe both) for earnings losses due to any additional harvest restrictions. 

After claiming that

“Fraud was committed”
in the preparation of something—presumably the draft amendment, but possibly the underlying stock assessment—and complaining about “fraudulent data,” tried to create an issue over the DEC providing meeting attendees with a 40-page summary of the draft amendment, instead of the entire 142-page document, which was easily available on the ASMFC website,  

Apparently he thought that everyone would speed-read the 142 pages in the minutes before the meeting began...

Shortly after that, other attendees asked where the information being presented by Ms. Harp had come from, not realizing that it was the same information that they held in their hands, in the form of the summary that DEC had provided. 

Many of the people in the room obviously hadn’t read the draft amendment, and really didn’t care to because, as expressed by the Huntington party boat guy,

“My knowledge and everything else is worth a million times more”
than any data that the scientists could develop.

Virtually all of the attendees seemed to agree with the speaker who said that

“We all believe that there’s plenty of blackfish”
and another who proclaimed that

 “We don’t have a problem with blackfish,”
before asking

“Why are we here?”
By then, It had become very clear that the assembled mob—for that’s what it had become by that time—had no interest in working with the DEC, ASMFC or anyone else to manage the tautog stock.  

They had no interest in any data being presented, and no interest in possibly hearing a fact that contradicted what they thought that they “knew.”

They were a lynch mob, pure and simple, snug in their own beliefs and determined that, before things were done, the proposed amendment would die.  

They didn’t know exactly what the proposed amendment contained, but they still wanted it to die, just to maintain the status quo.

It’s not that they didn’t understand that tautog fishery.  

They were excellent fishermen and good observers, with years of time on the water.  Their problem—and it’s one that plagues fisheries managers on every coast—is that they have perspectives limited by space and time, and refuse to accept that things are, or could be, any different from what they have personally experienced.

Like most people, they also suffer from confirmation bias, accepting only information that confirms what they believe—or want to believe—is true, and rejecting anything that conflicts with such beliefs.

The Huntington captain (he talks a lot) insisted that tautog can’t be caught in Long Island Sound before October 23, and that fishery managers are wrongly attributing catch to the earlier days of the season.  

Such comment demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of how the Marine Recreational Information Program, used to estimate anglers’ landings, works, it also demonstrated a failure to acknowledge that his experience is not universal—even in Long Island Sound.

I grew up in western Connecticut, more or less directly across the Sound from Huntington.  When I was young, in the 1960s and ‘70s, tautog were far, far more abundant (the folks who say that “there’s plenty of blackfish” and “we don’t have a problem” in the Sound are either kidding themselves, being dishonest or lack enough historic context).  Back then, we caught tautog from the middle of spring until we took the boat out of the water in November—even during the height of summer.

As kids still too young to drive, my friend and I would walk barefoot to his boat, beach it on an exposed sand bar to find a few mud crabs beneath overturned rocks, then head over to some rocky bottom, where we caught blackfish beneath a high August sun.

A little later, after I had become a full-fledged striped bass addict, I caught decent blackfish—three- to five-pound fish—while trolling sandworms for stripers just after sunrise throughout the season, from May right through fall.

And while in college, I came home every Columbus Day weekend to fish for—and catch a lot of—blackfish during that early October weekend.

Now, I haven’t fished for tautog in Long Island Sound for a few years and perhaps, these days, there are so few fish around that they don’t bunch up enough to make fishing worthwhile until late October.  But to say that they won’t bite before then is just untrue.

Maybe, if the stock is rebuilt, folks would be catching plenty of fish earlier in the year, and so could find that out for themselves.

But such mistakes, even if driven by personal bias, are arguably honest errors, made when people assume that their own limited experiences represent a universal truth.  

Other comments made at the hearing were far less innocent.

One charterboat captain complained that further conservation measures shouldn’t be adopted because they would hurt his business and the business of other for-hire operations.  Saying

“We make our living on the water,”
he suggested that there should be a special set of for-hire regulations different from those affecting the general public.

Such notion, that the state should subsidize their fishing businesses, by either allocating a portion of a public resource to their private use, or allowing that public resource to be further degraded for their short-term profit, seemed to be shared by many of the people at the meeting.  It’s an age-old lament among fishermen, although none ever try to explain why other businesses similarly burdened by government regulation, such as restaurants or gas stations, should not get government subsidies while charter and party boats should…

The other dominant, self-serving theme was opposition to a proposed requirement that any tautog caught by commercial fishermen be tagged before being put into the stream of commerce.

One of the factors that contributed to the tautog’s decline is a very large illegal fishery, which sells live tautog into ethnic markets in New York City and other urban areas.  It is a very difficult market to regulate, because if poachers aren’t caught while in the act of landing or selling their catch, the illegally-caught fish, unless undersized, are impossible to detect once in a dealer’s tank.  A tagging requirement would make dealers liable to fines if they sold illegal fish, and so would sharply restrict the number of buyers willing to those willing to risk apprehension.

Tagging would also allow regulators a way to cross-check catch reports filed by fishermen who are tempted to exceed daily trip limits, claim the legal number of fish on their vessel trip reports, and sell the rest under the table.  If the state issued numbered tags to each individual fisherman, the number of such tags and the VTR reports would have to coincide, making illegal harvest easier to detect.

That wouldn’t make poachers happy, so they’re part of the lynch mob, too.

Now, it’s in the hands of ASMFC. 

ASMFC is responsible for the fate of the proposed amendment, and it has a choice.

It can hold the amendment over until August, when it can be judged on its factual merits, and its fate decided by the Tautog Management Board.

Or it can turn the amendment over to the lynch mob who will merely kill it, not based on any data, but merely because killing things is what incensed mobs do when no one is willing to take responsibility and exert some needed control.

In the past, the lynch mob has always won, and tautog stocks have never been restored. 

Let’s hope that, this time, things are different, and people of good will and courage prevail.  

The tautog can use the help. 

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