Sunday, July 2, 2017
MAYBE WE SHOULD LET IT ALL JUST GO TO HELL
This is a difficult time for fisheries managers.
From the St. Lawrence River to the Rio Grande, there are troubled fish populations and a fishing industry that, if it has its way, would leave them more troubled still.
Perhaps nothing illustrates that better than the recent extension of the private-boat recreational red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. I discussed that issue just a week ago, so I’m not going to get into too much detail again. But the bottom line is that the National Marine Fisheries Service admits that
“Both the States and the Federal government understand what is at risk with this approach. The stock is still overfished. While the stock is ahead of its rebuilding target, if employed for a short period of time, this approach may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock for as many as 6 years. This approach likely could not be continued through time without significantly delaying the rebuilding timeline. Similarly, 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]”
Some non-governmental organizations have already calculatedthat, as a result of the reopened season, the private-boat anglers will overfish their 2017 catch limit by more than seven million pounds, an amount nearly twice the catch limit itself.
I am in regular contact with snapper fishermen in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where the red snapper’s recovery has not been as robust as it has been in the western Gulf. They tell me that in the heart of the red snapper fishery, that corner of the northeastern Gulf coast that stretches from Orange Beach, Alabama across the Florida panhandle to around Panama City, red snapper are already getting smaller and harder to find; charter boats are having to run farther and farther offshore in order to find decent fish for their fares.
Even so, the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries, who depend on healthy fisheries to support their businesses, are praising the extension, as are allied anglers’ rights organizations. Jeff Angers, President of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, an umbrella organization representing a number of such groups, said that
“Today’s announcement is a fix—albeit a short-term fix—that will allow millions to enjoy one of America’s greatest pastimes and boost economies far beyond the Gulf of Mexico—including the manufacturers and retail sectors in non-coastal states.
“The federal fisheries management system is failing recreational anglers on many levels, and the red snapper is the ‘poster fish’ of the quagmire. The temporary rule directly addresses this problem, giving millions of recreational anglers in the Gulf of Mexico an opportunity to enjoy America’s natural resources and giving the Gulf economy a much-needed shot in the arm.”
The natural response to comments like that is “But for how long?”
While overfishing may provide short-term economic benefits, as anglers continue to fish through what would otherwise have been a closed season, nothing comes without cost.
When, as NMFS predicts, anglers “substantially exceed [their] annual catch limit,” it will have a negative impact on the still-overfished stock, ultimately making red snapper less available to anglers than they otherwise would have been. If the observations already coming in from ports such as Orange Beach and Destin hold true, it may not be very long before private-boat anglers have real difficulty finding many red snapper within a reasonable distance from shore. When that happens, the much-ballyhooed benefits economic benefits of the NMFS-endorsed overharvest will quickly disappear.
Here in the Mid-Atlantic, we see a very similar thing happening with summer flounder, a key species for the recreational fishing industry.
Last August, biologists on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee advised that the summer flounder stock had experienced six consecutive years of below-average spawning success, that the population had fallen to just 58% of the target level and that
“the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken.”
The Mid-Atlantic Council adopted the appropriate reductions in both the commercial and recreational catch limits, which the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission then translated into regulations appropriate for the various states and regions under its jurisdiction. For the states of Connecticut, New York and all of New Jersey except for Delaware Bay, the three contiguous states that land the lion’s share of the recreational summer flounder catch, ASMFC required the bag limit to be reduced from 5 fish to 3, increased the size limit from 18 to 19 inches, and made no change to the 128-day fishing season.
Connecticut and New York bowed to the science, and the clear need to implement more restrictive regulations. In New Jersey, however, the reaction was quite different.
The angling press lashed out against the proposed reductions. One early piece, penned before ASMFC took action and exaggerating the restrictions that would be imposed, said
“I’m about to really tick you off.
“Seriously, reading any further is just going to make you incredibly angry.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat this, the coastwide quota for summer flounder (fluke) in 2017 is expected to be but by about 40%. That means a shorter season, lower bag, an increase in size limits, or any combination of the three…
“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 about 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.
“…the American public is essentially being denied access to a natural public resource…”
After ASMFC acted, the State of New Jersey adopted similar rhetoric, with Bob Martin, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, writing to United States Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that ASMFC-imposed rules
“put our recreational summer flounder industry in serious jeopardy,”
“This action imposes a de facto moratorium on recreational summer flounder fishing in my state. This action is disproportionately damaging to New Jersey compared with other states.”
Ultimately, New Jersey adopted regulations less restrictive than those required by ASMFC, resulting in ASMFC finding the state out of compliance and referring the matter to the Commerce Secretary, who must impose a moratorium on summer flounder fishing in the state provided that he also finds the state out of compliance and finds the ASMFC-imposed rules necessary for summer flounder conservation.
The Secretary’s decision will be handed down very soon.
While it’s hard to predict with any certainty what it will be, given his decision to extend the red snapper season in the Gulf, it is not at all unlikely that he will again focus on short-term economics and find in favor of New Jersey.
That would be a mistake for a number of reasons. It could well be the straw that causes the stock to become overfished, and leads to even more restrictive regulations. Allowing New Jersey to avoid its responsibilities as an ASMFC state will also encourage other states to do the same, and threaten the entire interstate cooperative management system.
And, of course, the summer flounder population really is in pretty bad shape. Don’t believe me? Don’t believe the scientists? Then I suggest that you get yourself down to the coast, jump on a party boat, and do a bit of first-hand research.
If you do, you’ll find that summer flounder fishing, just about everywhere, is not good. Although the fish can be a bit more abundant in a few small places for a short time, over most of their range the number of legal fish is dismally low, and the swarms of shorts that normally assault anglers’ baits are no longer there; anglers are catching only a few during the course of most trips.
Given the state of the stock, any economic boon that New Jersey might enjoy from this year’s weak regulation is probably going to be paid back with interest—at loan shark rates—over future seasons, when the fish just aren’t there and anglers get tired of fishing in an empty sea.
The recreational fishing industry keeps fighting needed management measures, ignoring the fact that without the fish, the fishermen just aren’t going to come.
Consider the winter flounder. It was once one of the most popular fish in the bay. Three decades ago, in 1986, New Jersey anglers made about 308,000 trips targeting winter flounder, and harvested nearly 580,000 fish. In New York, the winter flounder was even more important, with anglers landing nearly 3,500,000 fish over the course of over 1,000,000 trips.
At that point, the winter flounder population was beginning to decline, but the fishing industry fought the regulations needed to conserve and rebuild the stock, claiming that they would cause too much economic harm.
As a result, the stock collapsed.
New Jersey anglers made only about 16,000 winter flounder trips last year, and harvested about 18,600 fish, a mere 3% of their landings three decades before. In New York, the decline was even more striking, with fewer than 28,000 winter flounder landed over the course of slightly more than 74,000 trips, just eight-tenths of one percent (0.8%) of what New York anglers caught in 1986.
Yes, more restrictive regulations might have caused the party boats and tackle shops to forego a little income back in the late ‘80s, but it’s hard for anyone to make the argument that the winter flounder have much economic value today.
In the long term, the recreational fishing industry would have been far better off to have taken a small hit to their bottom line back in ’86, instead of losing the revenue generated by more than 1,200,000 trips each year, as is the case today.
Yet, as illustrated by New Jersey summer flounder and Gulf red snapper, the recreational fishing industry just never seems to learn.
Right now, ASMFC is preparing a new amendment to its tautog management plan. The tautog is overfished everywhere except in Massachusetts and Rhode Island; in Long Island Sound, where much of the harvest takes place, abundance has fallen particularly low. Yet, as I noted last month, the fishing industry in Long Island Sound is vehemently, almost savagely opposed to any measures that might be imposed to rebuild the stock.
Listening to them curse and cavil, and refuse to accept that the fish need some help, I often think that the fishery managers should give them what they want. Stop regulating the fisheries, let the fishermen fish and the industry make their money, until the fish populations fall so low that anglers lose interest.
Already, here on Long Island, we lost most of the cod and winter flounder, we lost spring mackerel and most of our weakfish and fall striped bass is defined by one short run. I used to put my boat in the water sometime in March, to catch the first good run of flounder. Now, May is good enough; there’s not much to fish for before then.
Out in Montauk, even after Thanksgiving passed, anglers used to chase striped bass that were in turn chasing herring, and do it until the season closed in mid-December. Now, Montauk’s a ghost town before Halloween, with only a few bottom fishermen and die-hard surfcasters chasing the season’s last gasp.
So maybe let them kill of the tautog, so that things shut down even sooner, and let New Jersey hammer the fluke, so that season starts later each spring. If that’s what the industry wants to do, maybe they ought to end up with their boats tied to the pier because anglers won’t pay to fish for things that aren’t there (think of how it was when the striped bass stocks crashed, and how many charter boats didn't survive).
Let the folks in the tackle shops sit and drink coffee, and stare at their well-stocked walls because, with no one using their old hooks and lures, they’re not in the mood to buy new ones.
I’d like to say, “Let it all go to Hell!” because that’s what those folks deserve.
But in truth, I can’t.
The fish deserve better, because there's no way to know whether they could really bounce back, the way that striped bass did, or whether they'd fall all the way off the cliff, like winter flounder.
The kids deserve better, too--both those alive today and generations unborn. They deserve a chance to know some of the joys of the coast that we’ve known all our lives, and shouldn’t be scammed out of their heritage by fast-buck artists with political ties who are reaching the end of their runs and want to milk the resource for all that they can before shuffling off of the stage.
As much as it hurts, folks with some sense of responsibility, and a sense of obligation to the future, are going to have to save the industry from itself, not because they deserve it, but because there are a lot of innocents out there who deserve a better future than they're going to get if the industry and anglers' rights folks prevail.
So we work on.