Sunday, July 23, 2017

FEDERAL FISHERIES: ULTIMATELY ACCOUNTABLE

The best fisheries management ideas are essentially worthless if they aren’t enforced.

Thus, when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was reauthorized a decade ago, it included the provision that

“establish a mechanism for establishing annual catch limits in the plan (including a multiyear plan), implementing regulations, or annual specifications, at a level such that overfishing does not occur in the fishery, including measures to ensure accountability.  [emphasis added]”
Prior to the adoption of such provision, there was often a real incentive for fishermen to fight against the sort of restrictive fishery management measures that were sometimes needed to constrain harvest within biologically appropriate levels.  

While some commercial fisheries, managed on a hard-quota basis even before such reauthorization took place, did require paybacks of harvest overages in previous years, fisheries without hard quotas faced few consequences, other than an increasing shortage of fish, for chronically overfishing target stocks.

The groundfish stocks managed by the New England Fishery Management Council, which eschewed hard-poundage quotas for such so-called “input controls” such as limiting days at sea, probably provides the best example of unaccountable fisheries.  Overfishing such stocks was not subject to any sort of meaningful penalties.  As a result, a 2008 assessment of groundfish stocks found important fish such as cod and various flounder to be badly overfished.

Recreational fisheries, too, were historically immune to any sort of meaningful payback program; overages might result in tightened regulations, but the annual recreational catch limit was not reduced as a result.  The recreational red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico was a prime example of anglers not being held accountable for overfishing; even though they chronically exceeded their annual catch limit, they did not face any sort of payback until a framework amendment to the fishery management plan was adopted in 2014.


Such accountability measures help to assure that NMFS’ conservation and stock rebuilding measures remain on track, and that United States citizens can enjoy the benefits that flow from healthy, fully-restored fish stocks.

However, while it is important to hold fishermen accountable in order to properly manage fish stocks, it is even more important to keep fishery managers accountable to the public for their obligation to restore and properly manage fish stocks.  It is in this realm of accountability that Magnuson-Stevens shines particularly bright, and where it is far superior to any state’s fishery management laws.

Much of that superiority arises out of Magnuson-Stevens' clear guidelines.  Overfishing must be ended.  Stocks must be rebuilt as quickly as possible, within a time certain that is very clearly set out in the law.  Annual catch limits must be established, and the best available science must be used to establish management measures.

Those clear standards make it relatively easy for aggrieved parties to put federal fisheries managers back on their proper course should they veer astray for any reason.  

As early as 2000, a federal appellate court decided the case of Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, where such court found that

“’to assure’…achievement of the target [fishing mortality rate], to ‘prevent overfishing,’ and ‘to be consistent with’ the fishery management plan, the [total allowable landings] must have had at least a 50% chance of attaining a [fishing mortality rate] of 0.24 or lower…
“The disputed 1999 [total allowable landings] had at most an 18% likelihood of achieving the target [fishing mortality rate].  Viewed differently, it had at least an 82% chance of resulting in [a fishing mortality rate] greater than the target [fishing mortality rate].  Only in Superman Comics’ Bizarro world, where reality is turned upside down, could the [National Marine Fisheries] Service reasonably conclude that a measure that is at least four times as likely to fail as to succeed offers a ‘fairly high level of confidence.”
With those words, the court in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley established a legal standard for federal fisheries managers, requiring that any federal fishery management plan had to have at least a 50-50 chance of achieving its goals, including the goal of preventing overfishing.  

Such a standard could never have been established without the clear guidelines established by Magnuson-Stevens.

Recently, the United States Department of Commerce, acting through its subsidiary agency, NMFS, has taken an action that should qualify the people involved as permanent residents of Bizarro world comics.  

Magnuson-Stevens includes, in its National Standard One, a crystal-clear requirement that

“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing,”

“The stock is still overfished,”
and

“the approach will necessarily mean that the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit, which was designed to prevent overfishing the stock.  [emphasis added]”
And once again, the private sector is rallying to put the public-sector fisheries managers back on course, challenging the patently illegal agency action in court.  

The matter, Ocean Conservancy v. Ross, has been brought in federal district court in Washington, D.C.; the Ocean Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Earthjustice, which provides litigators skilled in conservation advocacy, are collaborating in the effort.


“The Commerce Department decision puts red snapper recovery at risk, jeopardizing fishing businesses and recreational fishing for the species.  It also violates several provisions of federal law.  No scientific analysis accompanied the decision, but publicly available data and conservative assumptions show the extended season will result in private anglers catching three times their science-based limit.  The lawsuit does not seek to change the length of the 2017 season, but instead seeks to prohibit the Department of Commerce from taking future similar actions that continue to jeopardize the species.”
An Ocean Conservancy blog relates a similar message, saying

“The department has set a dangerous precedent by deliberately undercutting the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), which requires science-based limits to prevent overfishing and rebuilding plans to return vulnerable fish stocks back to healthy levels.    It is ignoring the proven success of the science-based strategies that have put America at the forefront of sustainable and economically productive fisheries.  Made behind closed doors, the public was not given the usual opportunities to weigh-in on this decision.  And it benefits only one sector of a fishery used by many, turning a blind eye to years of hard sacrifices made by fishermen and coastal communities.”

“Of course they sued, that’s what the environmental groups do…They hate it when Americans enjoy America’s plentiful public resources.”
In that e-mail, Mr. Cresson seems to have carefully avoided the legal or biological implications of the season reopening, both of which might have proved difficult for his organization to defend. 


State management appears attractive to groups such as CCA because states are not bound by Magnuson-Stevens, and thus are under no legal requirement to end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks. 

While they are arguably subject to litigation if they act irresponsibly, state law does not contain the clear management standards included in the federal statute.  Instead, state litigation would be governed by the general principles of administrative law, in which agency decisions would stand if they are not arbitrary, capricious or contrary to existing law. 

Whether a state agency action is arbitrary or capricious is governed by a principle known as the “substantial evidence rule.”  Although its particulars differ in every jurisdiction, the rule stands for the principle that courts will not second-guess agency decisions if there is any evidence at all on the record that would support the agency action, even if such evidence is contradicted by other evidence that the court might deem far more convincing.

Thus, a substantial body of scientific data could be ignored by an agency that prefers to believe a few fishermen or tackle dealers who tell them that “there are plenty of fish out there; you just need to know where to find them.”

The fact that CCA and allied organizations are supporting H.R. 2023, and its language

“facilitating greater incorporation of data, analysis, stock assessments, and surveys from State agencies and nongovernmental sources,”
including fishermen, is another clue as to what such groups are trying to achieve and why they oppose current federal fisheries law.

And that’s why it’s so important to keep the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens intact.  

They provide objective standards that managers must employ when setting regulations.  They require that the best science available be used.

And on those rare occasions when fishery managers act contrary to the public interest in maintaining healthy, fully restored fish stocks, they provide a way for the courts, acting on behalf of that public interest, to provide the ultimate accountability measure, a legal decision that compels federal fishery managers to maintain healthy and sustainable stocks.




Thursday, July 20, 2017

WEDNESDAY IN WASHINGTON

In case no one ever mentioned it to you, Washington, D.C. is hot in July.

Really hot.

It’s the kind of heat that makes sweat bead up into half-inch-wide pools on the back of your hands, and turns the knot in your necktie into a wet, spongy mass by the time you’ve walked from the railroad station into a waiting cab.

But it’s Washington, after all, the crowded, bustling, confusing city that, more than anywhere else, truly sits at the center of the world.

To me, as I’ve written before, it’s a sacred place, arcane and almost mystical, where someone like myself—not one of the power brokers, not an industry leader or the head of some powerful clique—can still sit down in a room with some of the handful of folks who decide the destiny of nations, and expect to be heard.

I’ve been coming down to Washington at least once each year for a while now, to speak to Congressional staff about fisheries issues, mostly about the importance of maintaining the conservation and management provisions that have made the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Act the most comprehensive and more effective law of its kind in the world.

Yesterday, though, was a little different.

I wouldn’t just be meeting with staff.  Instead, I would be one of four witnesses appearing before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, at an oversight hearing called to look into the successes achieved and challenges posed by Magnuson-Stevens, held as an early step in the process of reauthorizing that federal fisheries law.

I had never done that before.

I had been invited to speak by the minority party’s staff; the other three witnesses were invited by the majority, which meant that I was probably going to be the only one at the table who would speak in support of the law.  That was OK, although I had to admit that I watch a lot of CNN, had seen my share of various committee hearings, and knew that the guy with the disfavored position does, on occasion, get worked over pretty hard.

So while I was pretty confident about what I knew, I’ll admit to a kind of pre-battle jitters, and it didn’t help when the hearing was delayed for a half-hour to accommodate a vote on the floor.  That’s when you stop and start thinking about what could go wrong.

But the nice thing about pre-battle jitters is that they quickly disperse when the first shot is fired, and action takes over your mind.  Although the truth is that there were no real shots and nothing much to be jittery about; the Congressmen in the room were all respectful of everyone (although they sparred a bit among themselves), a couple of those who disagreed with me asked pointed, but reasonable questions (one revealing that he has read this blog), and everything ended on a handshake and kind words in the hall with one of the legislators who had disagreed with at least one of my positions.

To be honest, the whole thing had been fun.

It had also been a learning experience, because it was clear where some of the folks who want to change Magnuson-Stevens are going astray.  One of the big misconceptions was that proponents of federal fisheries management doubt the competence of state fishery biologists and state fishery managers.

In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.  

Readers of this blog know that I’ll often thank fishery managers here in New York for standing up and trying to do the right thing; I know a number of our state biologists, and they are, without exception a dedicated, hard-working bunch of professionals.  I have told people on a number of occasions that I’m proud of our folks in New York’s Marine Division, and I’ll say the same thing here and now.

For the most part, it’s not the state fisheries managers that are flawed, but the state fishery management process

In the federal fisheries management process, there are strict legal guidelines.  Overfishing must not be permitted.  Stocks must be rebuilt promptly, by a strictly defined deadline.  The best available science must guide management.  

If a federal bureaucrat decides to permit overfishing, or to unnecessarily extend a rebuilding period, that bureaucrat is likely to get sued.  Anyone who has any doubts about that just needs to look at Commerce Secretary Ross’ patently illegal extension of the private-boat red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, and then at the conservation community’s quick and appropriate response.

On the other hand, state bureaucrats are subject to no such guidelines.  After the last peer-reviewed striped bass benchmark stock assessment was released, which required fishing mortality to be reduced by 25%, there was actually a nearly year-long debate as to whether to accept it as the best available science.  

At the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board’s October 2014 meeting, some state managers actually voted against doing so.  And the same states then made a concerted effort to convince the Management Board to ignore the explicit language of the striped bass management plan, which required fishing mortality to be reduced to target levels within one year, instead arguing that a 3-year phase-in was OK (another trigger in the management plan was tripped, which required the Management Board to prepare a plan to rebuild the stock within 10 years, but that requirement was completely ignored by everyone).  

Although such states ultimately lost both votes, they clearly illustrate what can happen when state bureaucrats are allowed to interfere with decisions that should be based purely on science.

Other state actions, of course, can be even less benign.  

Without firm and legally-enforceable guidelines, various industry organizations, or just well-connected individuals who have an interest in the management of a species, can reach out to state officials, and convince them to adopt a fishery management policy contrary to scientific advice, solely for economic or political reasons.  

The resource can only suffer when such events occur, yet there is no legal bar to prevent the states from taking such actions.

That point was repeatedly overlooked at yesterday’s hearing.  While state science can be very good; state policy is a very different matter, and it can change with the political winds.  That makes such policy a significant threat to healthy fish stocks.

Funding was also an issue that came up yesterday.  

Critics of federal management often point to what they consider to be bad harvest data and inadequate scientific information being used to manage the fish, and no one should argue with the fact that better data would lead to better management actions.  

Logically, the focus such critics should be seeking higher levels of funding for the National Marine Fisheries Service and its regional science centers, not amending the current rebuilding provisions to weaken the law.  Thus, it wasn’t surprising that the questions about higher levels of funding came not from the majority members, who support H.R. 200, but from Ranking Member on the minority side.

What was surprising is that not every witness endorsed the idea.  One, a fishery manager from the State of Florida who was supporting an agenda remarkably similar to the one being pushed by the Coastal Conservation Association and other members of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, expressed only limited support on additional funding, making his support contingent on what issues such funding addressed.  I found that somewhat curious, as resolving any of the many pending issues would provide at least some additional clarity to fisheries managers, and could not do any harm.

Some other issues were addressed at some point in the day—marine monuments, climate change, the National Environmental Policy Act, among others—but the recreational issues tended to dominate the conversation.

And then it was over. 

Although the hearing lasted for close to two hours, it seemed to last for less than half of that time.  As I stepped away from the witness table, I felt as if I accomplished my job as an advocate for the proper conservation and management of fish stocks.  I walked away with respect for the members present, who discharged their responsibilities in a decorous and professional way, even when they disagreed with a particular witness (which was, at times, me).

In short, it was an honor to be there, presenting my opinions and beliefs to the people who, in the end, will make the call on whether our fisheries managers are allowed to look forward, into the future, or be dragged back toward the bad old days before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 was signed into law.

It was also a deeply appreciated privilege, and I thank the members and staff who invited me there.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

THE CON IN ASMFC'S CONSERVATION EQUIVALENCY

Over the past couple of seasons, no fish has frustrated Mid-Atlantic fishery managers—and Mid-Atlantic recreational fishermen—as much as the black sea bass.
There are a lot of them out there. A benchmark stock assessment completed late in 2016 estimated that the spawning stock biomass (SSB) at the close of 2015 was 22,176 metric tons (mt), more than twice the SSB target of 9,667 mt. In response to the new stock assessment, NOAA Fisheries (NOAA) increased the 2017 recreational harvest limit by 52%.

At first, such proposed harvest increase excited anglers, who were certain that it would lead to relaxed regulations. However, as more information became available, such excitement turned to dismay, as NOAA revealed that anglers killed an estimated 4.67 million pounds of black sea bass in 2016, exceeding the proposed 4.29 million pound recreational harvest limit for 2017 by about 8%. Although that overage could have triggered more restrictive 2017 regulations, NOAA decided to keep 2016 regulations in place for another year.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. In February, estimated landings for Wave 6 (November/December) of 2016 finally became available. Wave 6 usually sees relatively few black sea bass caught north of Delaware Bay, but 2016 was an exception. In a number of states, particularly New York, landings were so high that they raised the annual harvest estimate to 5.18 million pounds. Status quo regulations were no longer an option; a 17.3% harvest reduction was proposed.

At that point, some anglers’ dismay turned to anger, and they unleashed their vitriol on the Marine Recreational Information Program(MRIP).

It was the wrong target. The problem wasn’t the MRIP data, but how that data was used.
The National Academy of Sciences recently found that NOAA has made “impressive progress” in implementing MRIP, which included “major improvements in the statistical soundness of its survey designs.”

Thus, MRIP offers fishery managers a valuable tool that will enable them to estimate recreational landings with a reasonable degree of precision. However, like any tool, MRIP will only prove useful when it is used in the proper manner.
In the case of black sea bass, it has not been used properly at all.
The problem lies in the fact that, for the states lying between Massachusetts and New Jersey, regulations are not set by NOAA, but by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which incorporates the concept of “conservation equivalency.”
ASMFC’s Interstate Fishery Management Program Charter (ASMFC Charter) defines “conservation equivalency” as “Actions taken by a state which differ from the requirements of the [fishery management plan], but which achieve the same quantified level of conservation for the resource under management. For example, various combinations of size limits, gear restrictions, and season length can be demonstrated to achieve the same targeted level of fishing mortality…”

The “quantified level of conservation” is, in recreational fisheries, derived solely from MRIP data. That creates a serious flaw in the “conservation equivalency” concept.
According to NOAA’s Marine Recreational Information Program Data User Handbook (Handbook), “Sampling error is inherent in all sample statistics and is a result of random variation among samples. The size of sampling error depends upon the sample size, the sample design and the natural variability within the population. As a general rule, increasing the sample size reduces the sampling error. [emphasis added]”

ASMFC, through the concept of conservation equivalency, allows each state between Massachusetts and New Jersey to set its own unique regulations for black sea bass. In practice, no two states have the same regulations, and even within a state, different regulations are in force at different times of the year, or for different sectors of the recreational fishery.
Such fragmentation by place, time and/or sector assures that the sample size depended upon to both set and to evaluate each state’s regulations will be too small to assure a reasonable level of accuracy.
Thus, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee has repeatedly advised against such extreme variation in regulations. Its most recent warning, issued on January 27, 2017, notes that “Complex sets of measures, including splits by mode, season, and sector, continue to be implemented, contrary to previous recommendations of the Monitoring and Technical Committees. A new approach that prioritizes consistency, from both an analytical and regulatory perspective, is recommended.”

To date, such advice has not been heeded. As a result, substantial error plagues the MRIP estimates, which in turn affects the regulation-setting process and makes it nearly impossible for fishery managers to effectively limit recreational black sea bass landings.
The Handbook explains that “In MRIP, sampling error is reported as percent standard error or PSE which expresses the standard error as a percentage of an estimate. The lower the PSE the greater the confidence that the estimate is close to the true population value.”
NOAA estimates that, throughout all of 2016, anglers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions harvested slightly more than 2.5 million black sea bass; the PSE for that estimate was 8.2, which is good and certainly makes the estimate adequate for management purposes.

When estimates are broken out for each of the five northern states, which account for most of the recreational black sea bass landings, the PSE doubles, ranging from 15.7 for New York to 19.4 for Massachusetts. Such data remains useful, but each estimate includes a substantial margin of error.
When state landings are broken down further into industry sectors or two-month waves, the PSE increases again, and the estimates become far less useful. The 2016 regulations that did such a poor job of controlling recreational landings were based on MRIP estimates of 2015 landings. PSEs as high as 79.9, 83.3 and 95.2 made such single-wave estimates effectively worthless, yet ASMFC allowed those very imprecise estimates to be used to calculate the conservation equivalency of even very complex management measures.

For example, New Jersey’s 2016 black sea bass rules allowed anglers to retain 10 fish at least 12 ½ inches long from May 23-June 19, then closed the season for ten days, reopened it from July 1-August 31 with the same 12 1/2-inch minimum size but just a 2-fish bag limit, closed it for another 51 days and finally reopened it for the rest of the year with a 15-fish bag limit and larger, 13-inch minimum size. Such an intricate set of regulations were based on 2015 estimates with PSEs of 15.9 in Wave 3, 26.9 in Wave 4, 55.5 in Wave 5 and 79.9 in Wave 6, levels of imprecision that virtually assured that real-world landings would have little resemblance to the “quantified level of conservation” calculated on paper.

High single-wave PSEs in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York helped to assure that real-world landings in those states were also far from the predictions made with pen and paper. Connecticut chose to split its black sea bass regulations by sector rather than by two-month wave, which resulted in PSEs that ranged between 21.2 and 31.9 in 2015, but soared as high as 70.2 and 101.9 in 2016, suggesting that sector-specific regulations may notresult in any more precise estimates than regulations that change from wave to wave.

Such imprecision underlies the problem with conservation equivalency. While the ASMFC publication, Conservation Equivalency: Policy and Technical Guidance Document, advises that “The [Plan Development Team] should consider stock status, stock structure,data availability, range of the species, socio-economic information, and the potential for more conservative management when stocks are overfished or overfishing is occurring when making a decision on conservation equivalency [emphasis added],” in practice states’ requests for conservation equivalency are rarely denied if a state can demonstrate, by using even very imprecise MRIP data, that its proposed regulations will achieve ASMFC’s conservation goals.

As a result, states commonly game the system, using data that they know, or at least should know, is highly suspect in order to justify regulations that, on paper, seem to meet ASMFC’s objectives, even if such regulations are unlikely to adequately restrict harvest in the real world.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) mandates that “To the extent practicable, an individual stock of fish shall be managed as a unit throughout its range.”

Although ASMFC is not bound by Magnuson-Stevens, it would do well to take that provision to heart, applying a single set of regulations to a stock of fish wherever they may be caught and employing conservation equivalency only under extraordinary and compelling circumstances. Such a broad-based approach would best assure the accuracy of harvest estimates and the effectiveness of whatever rules are adopted.
While conservation equivalency sounds like a good idea, experience has shown that it works far better in theory than in practice.
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This post first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/

Thursday, July 13, 2017

BECAUSE YES, SCIENCE MATTERS

If you follow the hunting media at all, or perhaps if you just flip through the outdoor channels from time to time, you’re probably familiar with Steven Rinella, creator of the series MeatEater, which presents the hunting and fishing experience in its traditional role, as a way to provide food for the hunter/angler and his/her family.

It can be an enjoyable show, featuring high production values and remote country, but most of all a respect for the quarry and a consistent message that while the animals killed may be trophies, we should never forget that their primary role is to provide sustenance at the end of the ages-old dance between hunter and hunted.


It also provides comment on hunting and wildlife management.  A recent op-ed that appeared there is worthy of some comment here.  Titled “Science-based Wildlife Research is a Valuable Tool for Hunters and Anglers…Let’s Treat it as Such,” and written by Brody Henderson, a writer, fly-fishing guide and part of the MeatEater franchise, it is as relevant in the salt water fishing arena as it is in the heart of the Rockies.

The op-ed supported science-based wildlife management, and emphasized the importance of such science to hunters and anglers.  But as a salt water fisherman, a few paragraphs that appeared about halfway through the piece seemed particularly relevant.  The author noted that

“whenever we share a piece of science-based research there is a predictable outcry from some hunters and anglers who’ve developed a frustrating distrust of scientific data.  The backlash from wildlife studies we share ranges from absurd conspiracy theories to secondhand anecdotal evidence that contradicts factual information.  This portion of hunters and anglers who simply don’t believe scientific data to be useful instead feel that there is a hidden agenda behind every piece of research.  But wildlife biologists aren’t in the business of cooking the books and state fish and game agencies are mandated to manage wildlife as a sustainable resource.  They really do have the best interests of their customers and fish and game in mind when they make management decisions based on the results of wildlife research studies.
”…if wildlife biologists discover that an Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) outbreak decimated a certain whitetail deer herd in Kansas then it’s likely that wildlife managers will drastically reduce doe tag numbers in that area the following hunting season.  That’s sound management, not a tricky ploy by the anti-hunting lobby to take away hunting opportunities…
“We may weigh-in on a study based on personal experience because opinions based on years of boots-on-the-ground knowledge are valuable.  But we’ll never outright ignore or refute scientific data because we feel that wildlife research only enhances our efficiency in the field…”
Such comments are notable for their common sense, and from a saltwater perspective, where all of us who have ever attended a fisheries meeting have heard the conspiracy theories, the attacks on fishery managers had the attacks on fisheries science, made so often and so loudly that they tend to do little but numb the mind.

The comments are also notable, from a salt water angler’s perspective, because they’re the sort of thing that we never read in magazines targeting the salt water angler.  Such publications rarely remind anglers of the importance of science-based fisheries management; if anything, they provide a platform to the conspiracy theorists, who are always ready and willing to attack agency decisions that lead to more restrictive regulations and reduced recreational landings.


But in response to proposed harvest reductions, an article that appeared in The Fisherman last fall complained that

“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.”
In other words, it was complaining that fishery managers were using science and data to manage fisheries! 

And as anyone who has ever read a stock assessment knows, the only ones who claim that the reference points used to manage summer flounder are “sometimes arbitrary” are those who don’t know how to read—or can’t or choose not to understand—such assessments.  Certainly, reference points may change as biologists’ knowledge evolves, but that doesn’t make the earlier reference points “arbitrary,” but rather just obsolete, as new information changes people’s understanding of a fish’s life history.

Still, that kind of writing tends to weaken fishermen’s faith in the management process, which might possibly be its intention but, as the MeatEater op-ed points out, still doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.

On the other hand, that kind of language probably makes the magazines’ advertisers very happy.

The American Sportfishing Association, a trade group representing the fishing tackle industry, created Keep America Fishing as part of its effort to reach out to anglers and convince them to support industry positions on various management issues.  With respect to summer flounder, it told anglers that

“NOAA Fisheries is considering cutting the 2017 summer flounder quotas by up to 40%.  While all anglers support conservation, this decision seems rushed and unnecessary.
“The summer flounder fishery employs up to 10,000 people and generates over $1 billion in revenue.  A forty percent reduction would be devastating to local economies.
“The last benchmark stock assessment was in 2013.  A desperately needed update, including findings from Cornell University, is in the works.  Given this new information will provide a more accurate indication of the true health of the fishery, NOAA Fisheries should delay such a drastic and potentially catastrophic reduction until the new stock assessment is complete.”
Such statement not only ignores what the biologists most familiar with the summer flounder stock recommended, but it is wrong or misleading in several respects.

First, the summer flounder “quota” (more properly, the recreational harvest limit) was not going to be cut by 40%.  It would be cut by a still-substantial 30%.  However, because anglers overfished their harvest limit in 2016 (something that ASA/Keep America Fishing never bothered to note), the 2017 recreational catch limit would be about 40% less than actual (and excessive) 2016 landings.

While ASA/Keep America Fishing called the harvest reduction “rushed and unnecessary,” the science suggested just the opposite.  As noted above, biologists at the Mid-Atlantic Council advised that the stock hovered just above the biomass threshold, and could become overfished in 2017 if no action was taken to reduce landings.  Thus, the harvest cuts were very necessary, and had to be adopted quickly to avoid a further decline in the population.

And yes, while the “benchmark” assessment was completed in 2013, it was updated every year since, and the need for harvest reductions were based on an update completed during the summer of 2016.  There is no reason to believe that such assessment update did not reflect the “true health of the fishery,” and no guarantee that any later update would prove any more accurate than the one completed in 2016.  

To call the pending update “desperately needed” is merely an exercise in hyperbole.

But that’s how it is here on the coast.  Up in the mountains, in the lakes and the trout streams and out in the marshes where we hunt waterfowl, scientists are respected, and science-based management is generally accepted by sportsmen and in the sporting press.  

Once you get to the edge of the sea, science is held in contempt, as too many publications, endeavoring to please their advertisers, try to convince anglers that science is just a new type of voodoo, and ignorance is their best guide.

Unfortunately, to an extent, they’re succeeding.

But in the ocean, as much as on the plains, good science leads to good management.


And the best thing about science is that it remains true, whether folks believe in it or not.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

QUIETLY, IN LOUISIANA

How can rationality sneak into an irrational debate?

In the midst of proclamations and posturing, of political showmanship and back-room deals that keep everyone’s eyes trained on the show in the front of the room, can a small door opens toward the rear of the hall, and a wisp of clear thinking slip through?  Moving softly though the darkness, remaining wrapped in shadows of others’ making, can it finds a place of its own, settle in, and perhaps find a way to prevail?.

If we take a look at what’s going on in Louisiana right now, with respect to red snapper, we might just see that sort of thing going on.

Down in the Gulf of Mexico, the angling press has been breathlessly reporting about the United States Commerce Department’s decision to extend the federal red snapper season for private-boat anglers.  Local politicians haven’t been any more restrained, heralding the extra 39 weekend fishing days and extolling their purported benefits.


“This major expansion of the federal red snapper season is great news for every community along Florida’s Gulf Coast.  The red snapper season helps drive our economy and this extension will allow families and visitors to take advantage of red snapper fishing opportunities during Father’s Day and Fourth of July weekends.  This will result in a greater economic impact for our Gulf Coast communities and I appreciate President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross for their partnership with Gulf Coast states.  I encourage every Floridian and visitor to get out on the water to enjoy Florida’s world-class fishing.”

“The red snapper fishery provides a major impact to Alabama’s economy.  Every day the federal season is open helps businesses in coastal Alabama.”
But some of the news coming out of Louisiana was just a little bit different. 

Louisiana’s Wildlife and Fisheries Commission voted in favor of an extension of the federal private-boat red snapper season.  However, unlike the other states, Louisiana wasn’t ready to leap head-first into a season-extension free-for-all.  

Instead, recognizing that the Gulf of Mexico wasn’t a sort of piscine cornucopia, capable of producing as many red snapper as needed to meet angler demand, Louisiana was intent on maintaining its self-imposed annual recreational catch limit of roughly 1.04 million pounds of red snapper.


The Times-Picayune noted that, if anglers’ red snapper catch rates were the same this year as they were in 2016, the season would end around July 16.  However, because landings got off to a slower start this year, largely due to bad weather, the season will last somewhat longer.  Exactly how long that would be is impossible to predict at this time.

The important thing is that Louisiana, unlike the other Gulf states, is has chosen to walk a more responsible path, limiting harvest to a level that it deems appropriate, and not allowing anglers to keep harvesting fish until the season ends.

Given that some non-governmental organizations have predicted that recreational harvest could exceed the 2017 recreational catch limit by as much as seven million pounds, which would cause the combined recreational and commercial landings to exceed the 2017 overfishing limit by about 50%, Louisiana’s restraint is both noteworthy and commendable.

Couple that restraint with Louisiana’s recently-proposed pilot program to give anglers a set number of red snapper that they could catch at any time during the year—potentially eliminating the problem of short seasons for all time—and it becomes clear that there is a lot of real thinking going on down in the Sportsman’s Paradise these days.

Of course, such thinking isn’t prized in an environment where emotion, loud voices and alternative facts dominate the landscape, so the champions of irrationality quickly attacked that pilot program.  A representative of the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, said that the trade group was

“deeply concerned with the long term ramifications of the pilot program,”
which it saw as

“the first step toward creating a harvest tag program for red snapper.”
The ASA representative, however, never explained why, in a fishery long plagued by insufficiently constrained recreational landings and chronic recreational overharvest, such a tag program would not be a positive development.

The Louisiana chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association also opposed the plan, seeming most upset by the fact that Louisiana fishery managers were thinking for themselves and coming up with innovative ideas, rather than letting CCA lead them about by the nose.  

“While the proposed pilot program itself is full of problems, and should be immediately withdrawn, it was the way it was developed in secret and announced by surprise that is more disappointing.  CCA, the Louisiana charter industry and anglers from around Louisiana have worked in good faith to rebuild and repair our relationship with the department.  The inexplicable breach of trust, unfortunately, is an enormous step backwards.”
Despite such complaints, there is little doubt that Louisiana is the most forward-thinking Gulf state with respect to red snapper management. 


The National Academy of Sciences recognized, in its recent review of the Marine Recreational Information Program, used to estimate anglers’ landings, the need for

“survey methodologies and approaches for estimating catch and effort for Gulf red snapper, a fishery characterized by short federal fishing seasons…that is unlikely to be properly sampled by the standard MRIP protocols.”
Aware of the shortcomings of both MRIP and its predecessor, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, in such circumstances, Louisiana developed its own sampling methodology, LA Creel, which it has used since 2013 to estimate landings of red snapper and other species.  

The National Academy’s report noted that Louisiana has applied to have LA Creel certified as part of MRIP, and that

“The objective is to make sure that LA Creel data are compatible with MRIP and other regional data for stock assessment and management purposes.”
That puts Louisiana a big step ahead of other Gulf states, most particularly Texas, which does not take part in MRIP but instead relies on an archaic survey that the National Academy report viewed with a jaundiced eye, saying that,

“based on a presentation to the committee about the survey as well as discussions with regional partners and stakeholders it is questionable whether the estimates produced by Texas are comparable to MRIP.  At the very least, it is highly advisable that the Texas survey be reviewed by an independent review panel so its applicability to regional fisheries assessment and management can be objectively assessed.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Texas is also the state most out of compliance with federal red snapper management, maintaining no season at all, a bag limit of 4 fish compared to the federal 2-fish bag, and a size limit of just 15 inches, one inch less than the federal limit.

So with all things considered, it seems that Louisiana may well be responsible for opening the door and letting rationality sneak into the Gulf red snapper debate.

Even so, that rationality hasn’t played too much of a role so far.  The season extension has probably made recreational overharvest a more intractable problem than it ever has been before, and one that could bring the whole management system down on the heads of the rational and irrational alike.


But don’t count rationality out just yet.  Now that Louisiana has quietly opened the door, it still has a chance to prevail.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

THAT "OTHER' FISHERIES ISSUE

Inshore fishing on Long Island hasn’t been too exciting this year.

Some of that was expected.  The winter flounder population collapsed long ago, and fluke—summer flounder—have experienced six years of below average spawns, which has left us with a handful of big fish, some shorts, and a very slow pick of just-legal keepers.

On the other hand, the weakfish season started off pretty well, with a fair number of small-to-medium fish—1 ½ to maybe 5 or 6 pounds—being caught in the bays during May.  But that fishery suffered a premature death after an early bloom of “brown tide” that turned out to be the most intense brown tide event in the history of Great South Bay.

Brown tide is caused by the microscopic alga Aureococcus anophagefferens, an organism so small that it cannot be captured by important filter feeders such as oysters, hard clams and bay scallops.  

Because such mollusks are unable to filter out and feed on individual bits of Aureococcus, when the algae is hyperabundant, it can prevent shellfish, particularly young-of-the-year shellfish, from obtaining enough of their typical foods, leading to starvation and death.  Entire year classes of both bay scallops and hard clams have been killed off by severe brown tides.

Brown tide also limits the amount of sunlight that can penetrate bay waters, and thus prevents eelgrass, one of the key components of the bay ecosystem, from photosynthesizing.  That has, in turn, led to the death of eelgrass beds located in somewhat deeper bay waters, and has weakened other beds that receive insufficient light to thrive.

Fish avoid severe brown tide blooms.  Researchers at Stony Brook University report that Aureococcus densities greater than about 50,000 cells per milliliter will have detrimental impacts on marine life.  Already this season, scientists sampling Great South Bay waters have reported densities as high as 2,300,000 cells per milliliter.  That’s more than two million Aureococcus cells packed into a cube that measures less than a half-inch on each side. 

That sample was taken close to one of my favorite weakfish spots, and pretty much explains why the weakfishing fell apart around Memorial Day…

The thing is, brown tide blooms only began to occur in Great South Bay during the mid-1980s; before that, they were completely unknown.  Scientists have linked the blooms to heavy influxes of certain nitrates that flow into the bays, largely from septic tank runoff and high-nitrogen fertilizers, both of which are a direct result of Long Island’s high population density
.
Despite some laws limiting the use of high-nitrogen fertilizers by both farmers and homeowners (but not, for obviously political reasons, by golf courses), any efforts to correct the problem will take a long time and will have to overcome a number of hurdles.

Yet as bad as the fertilizer may be for the bay, septic tank runoff is probably worse.  Suffolk County, the largest county on Long Island and the source of most of the septic tank runoff, has initiated a program to replace over 800,000 runoff-prone septic tanks with higher-tech units that will limit the amount of nitrates that flow into the bay.  However, any such replacement will take time.  It will also take a lot of money, so much money that the ultimate completion of any replacement program remains very much in doubt.

Until such replacement takes place, anglers can probably assume that Great South Bay’s waters will remain brown and largely fishless for most of each summer.

Unfortunately, Long Island’s water problems only reflect what goes on elsewhere along the coast.

One of the worst water quality events of recent years occurred last summer down in Florida, after heavy rains raised water levels in the badly polluted Lake Okeechobee to some of the highest levels on record, and the Army Corps of Engineers chose to release those waters into various canals and rivers and, ultimately, into Florida’s coastal waters, where the pollutants triggered a massive algae bloom.


“The green, putrid sludge coating south Florida’s usually scenic coastline and waterways looks a lot like what happens to leftovers abandoned in an unreachable corner of the refrigerator.
“In some places, the water seems to be growing thick, furry mold.  The goop has been likened to the texture of chunky guacamole and compared to a festering, infected sore…
“The mysterious blooms sprang up in June and seem to be spreading.  They’ve given south Florida residents rashes and coughs and are choking the oxygen out of the region’s wildlife-rich waters, threatening fish, birds, and the once-endangered manatee.”
That only made things worse in places such as the once fish-filled waters at the south end of the Indian River Lagoon which, like Long Island, had a serious problem with brown tide.  There, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal,

“Decades of ditching, draining and pollution left the lagoon system vulnerable and tipped toward catastrophe, experts say.  Over the past three years, massive algae blooms have blocked light to the sea grasses, the foundation of the diverse ecosystem.  More than 60 percent of its sea grasses—at least 47,000 acres—are gone.  Scientists are looking into whether the algae blooms are a factor in the marine life deaths.
“Repairing the damage to the lagoon system will take years and agency wish lists for restoration projects total in the billions of dollars…”
The same discharges caused serious problems on Florida’s southwest coast, which was already suffering from a fish kill caused by red tide.


“Scientists expect this year’s summer Chesapeake Bay hypoxic or ‘dead zone”—an area of low to no oxygen that can kill fish and aquatic life—will be larger than average, approximately 1.89 cubic miles, or nearly the volume of 3.2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“Measurements for the Bay’s dead zone go back to 1950, and the 30-year mean maximum dead zone volume is 1.74 cubic miles…
“The Bay’s hypoxic (low oxygen) and anoxic (oxygen-free) zones are caused by excess nitrogen pollution, primarily from human activities such as agriculture and wastewater.”
However, the dead zone in the Chesapeake pales before the one in the Gulf of Mexico, which is expected to include an expanse of water as large as the State of New Jersey this summer.  


“It’s caused mainly by nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrient pollution—largely produced by human agricultural activities—running into rivers that eventually empty into the Gulf.”
It’s pretty intuitive that “dead zones” aren’t good for either fish or for fishermen, and that nitrogen- and phosphorus-based pollution is causing fish and fishermen problems along the entire coast, from the Northeast down past New Orleans.  And it’s pretty clear that addressing that pollution problem is going to be a long, complex and expensive undertaking, one far too complex and far too expensive to be addressed on a local level.

Because water—and pollutants—cross many jurisdictional boundaries, and because the harm done to one state’s waters may result from actions taken a thousand miles away, only a comprehensive federal response can ultimately address the nitrogen pollution problem.

Unfortunately, the federal government doesn’t appear to be a reliable partner in the effort to clean up coastal waters.


“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides categorical grants to help fund State environmental program offices and activities.  Many States have been delegated authority to implement and enforce Federal environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.  The Budget proposes to reduce many of these grants and eliminate others…
 “The Budget proposes to eliminate or substantially reduce Federal involvement in State environmental activities that go beyond EPA’s statutory requirements.  States may be able to adjust to reduced funding levels by reducing or eliminating additional activities not required under Federal law, prioritizing programs, and seeking other funding sources including fees.”
Which pretty much means that brown tide, other harmful algae blooms, and polluted runoff, are here to stay, unless Congress gets off their collective butts and adopts a budget that recognizes that an investment in clean water, and the resultant healthy ecosystems and the fisheries that they support, will pay dividends over the long haul.

And while the states won’t be getting any more federal funds, they will be getting a bigger share of the responsibility for enforcing things such as clean water laws, as the Administration’s 2018 Budget

“proposes to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) environmental enforcement activities…
“The Budget allows the agency to maintain a core enforcement oversight role to ensure a consistent and effective program, but eliminates duplications of enforcement actions carried out by the States, and focuses Federal enforcement efforts on those States that do not have delegated authority.” 
So it seems that the White House is forcing the states to choose between spending what dollars they have on either adopting pollution abatement programs that they can't afford to enforce, or retaining enforcement staff that will have few any anti-pollution programs to enforce.

Either way, they get to about the same place.

But while the Administration Budget may not do much to protect clean water or preserve coastal fisheries, it is doing what it can to protect and preserve the dead zone in Chesapeake Bay, claiming that

“State and local groups are engaged and capable of taking on management and clean-up and management”
of the Chesapeake and other water bodies.

Of course, details on how Maryland and Virginia will be able to prevent Pennsylvania corn farmers from letting too much fertilizer flow off their lands and down to the bay were not forthcoming…

The Environmental Protection Agency has also recently announced that it intends to roll back the so-called “Waters of the United States” rule, which extends Clean Water Act protections to headwater streams, marshes and other smaller waters that were not previously covered by that law.  

Assuming that the agency’s rollback is successful, pig farmers in Iowa will again be perfectly free to let manure from their holding pools flow into local freshets, thence into larger waters and finally into the Gulf of Mexico, in order to nourish the dead zone there and encourage it to grow, knowing that they will be in complete compliance with federal law.

That’s not very good for fish in the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s somewhat surprising that the same folks down on the Gulf who are willing to demand that the Administration lets them kill more red snapper aren’t doing more to protect the waters that those same snapper need to spawn, feed and—let’s be honest—just breathe

Anoxia is at least as deadly to red snapper as commercial and for-hire fishermen, so it’s somewhat strange that the people willing to castigate the latter when given the slightest opportunity are willing to bathe the former in benign neglect.

The bottom line is that anglers need fish, and fish need water clean enough to support their prey, shelter their young and otherwise allow them to survive in a functioning, intact ecosystem.

I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about biology, laws and regulations, but water quality is an important issue to.
It’s probably the most important issue of all.  And yet it’s the one that receives the least attention from the recreational fishing industry, the boatbuilders and the anglers’ rights crowd.


Maybe we all ought to stop and wonder why.