Sunday, July 2, 2017


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]”

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…”

“put our recreational summer flounder industry in serious jeopardy,”
and that

“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.”

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.


  1. As obvious as it is to any non-biased observer, the current fisheries management system is not working for the average American fisherman. Mr. Witek thinks that the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery is overfished? Of course, he is citing the same failed fisheries management propaganda stating as such, but the reality of the situation says otherwise. The EDF-corrupted fisheries management process has created a serious imbalance in four fisheries ecosystems - rather than being overfished, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper is seriously UNDERFISHED. They are EVERYWHERE. They are eating everything in sight, and are found now in areas they have never been before - such as in depths as deep as 600'. It's time for Sector Separation to go away, and fisheries management be returned to fisheries science/managers instead of enviro scripted "crisies" where none exist. How much did you charge for this "work" you are doing Mr. Witek?

    1. Actually, what I base my views on is peer-reviewed SCIENCE. The propaganda is what's coming out of groups such as the Center for Sportfishing Policy, made up of groups such as the American Sportfishing Association, which wants to sell more tackle, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which wants to sell more boats, electronics and such, and the Coastal Conservation Association, which wants to sell more memberships and keep attendance at banquets and STAR tournaments high, and are willing to trade the future of the fishery for future dollars. I sat on CCA's National Executive Board for 17 years, and was Vice-Chairman of their national Government Relations Committee for so long as the position existed, so I saw this whole thing from the inside. It is nothing more than greed and a sense of entitlement on the part of the trade groups and the private-boat recreational community, coupled with a lack of moral courage and a fear of bad publicity on the part of groups such as CCA, which led to this problem. As I said, I saw it from the inside, and watched the policy being make. It was pathetic, and the reason why I resigned from my CCA leadership positions. CCA used to put the fish first; now, it is the lapdog of ASA and the boating industry, and selling its members a bill of goods on red snapper, on Magnuson-Stevens and on other, similar issues.

  2. Everything is an EDF conspiracy with Tom Hilton. Nothing will ever change. He's right about the snapper in the western gulf though. It's the other half of the gulf that is not seeing successful rebuilding. The Spawing Potential Rate in the science proves that. Unless you split the gulf for ARS management which won't ever happen as CCA and ASA would
    Never get behind that we are where we are. Also the science is good not perfect but it's getting better especially as the states get a better handle
    Charter boat and recreational accountability. Sector separation has really helped this. MSA is working and our national reliance on foreign imported seafood has to be shrunk. It's a matter of national security that we can produce our food right here at home. Let's make America Great again and a
    Vibrant sustainable American fishery is part of the President's plan! Happy 4th and God Bless America!

  3. Mr. Witek, I grew up in a commercial fishing family, and did not follow in to the footsteps of the family business. I have payed attention to the ways things changed, from the angle of a recreational fisherman. One of the most corrupt policies I have seen put in to play is the IFQ system as it exists today. There is nothing fair about letting a few "old timers" control the PUBLIC fishery. 3 fishermen control a majority of the American Red Snapper IFQ in the Gulf of Mexico. Since a commercial fisherman can not exceed his alloted IFQ, he has to lease it from another fisherman that has more. If the catch limit of American Red Snappers is X but the controlling catch is owned by Y (the commercial fishery) the left overs are given to Z (the recreational fishery) This just is not fair! Its not fair on many levels. If a young captain wanted to start a fishing business, he cant because he can not afford to buy a boat, then buy or lease IFQ from the "old timers". From the angle of a recreational fisherman, the unfairness is staggering. When we found out we had 3 whole days to snapper fish in the Gulf, that was the "straw that broke the Camels back". The recreational fishermen protested and were heard. Lets talk about a 3 day limit on the recreational fisherman: It promotes an unsafe environment for the fool-hearty that will go regardless of the weather, and completely excludes a safe boating angler. If it gets rough for a few days, the conservative angler gets the short end of the stick. Thomas Hilton mentioned a surplus of Reds, saying that they are eating everything, and showing up in places they never were. I agree with him, they are showing up in Tampa Bay, and in shallower waters than before. I was recently visiting my home in Clearwater FL, and caught Reds in 60' of water. I cant remember the last time we saw them in 60'. In addition, my uncle, whom still commercial fishes, complains that he cant get a bait passed the snappers to get to the grouper. How is that happening if your facts are correct?
    Lets touch on another point you make; That the boat builders, tackle makers etc influence the decision making of the conservatories who say that the "fishery is still over fished". First of all it is over fished by the commercial guys that are out fishing every day of the year, not the guy who goes out once or twice a month, taking a paltry bag limit. The commercial guys can meet their aggregate IFQ for American Reds very very quickly, once again benefiting a small handful of the "old timers". I know that my uncle meets his REd IFQ very quickly, then has to go lease it from others that DONT EVEN FISH! Once again, very unfair to my uncle who has to "lease IFQ to make a living" and me that gets 3 days to keep 2 fish a day! So Mr. Witek, what type of impact does my 6 fish have on the fishery? Take in to consideration, that I know how to fish; Now think of the one million guys out there that dont really know how to. Those million people buy boats, tackle, bait, dockage, gas, repairs, etc. and they pay State Sales Tax on all of it, and provide a lot more jobs than a few "old timers." These folks are providing a greater benefit for all, not just a few.
    I know you will say that if we further limit the commercial fisherman, the price of seafood at the table will skyrocket. Hogwash I say, because you can not buy locally sourced fresh seafood at Publix, a family owned, Florida based company. Why you ask... Because the fish they sell is mostly farm raised or sourced from outside the USA. Here is a concept; restrict the commercial limit and allow people to source the seafood themselves.
    Remember it was a snot nosed attorney that started "Save our Sealife" and wiped out the the mullet fishermen and their unsustainable methods that were ruining the bays and estuaries.

    1. When you deal with natural resource management issues, the first thing that you need to worry about is the resource itself--in this case, the RED SNAPPER.

      The first question that you have to ask is "How much harvest can the stock withstand and still remain healthy?"

      Every other question is irrelevant until that one is answered.

      Now, I know that you think that there are a lot of red snapper out there, but that's only based on your own experience, and the experience of a few folks who you speak with. What is your spatial and temporal reference? Were you actively fishing 50 to 60 years ago? Because that's the last time that the red snapper stock was at the biomass target; it has been depressed since then, and often badly overfished for the past 40 years. So the fact that you see more fish now doesn't mean that the stock is healthy, merely that it's better than it was.

      Red snapper don't allow baits to be dropped down to grouper? Maybe we need more restrictions on grouper, to build them up to past levels, too.

      As far as catch shares go, that system has ended commercial overfishing, so from a conservation standpoint, it's a good thing. Groups like CCA will try to throw stones, pointing out that the rich guys are buying up all of the shares, and that the little guys aren't able to fish any more and have to lease out their quota, trying to make it sound wrong. But guess what--commercial fishing is a business, and that's how business works. There aren't many small home-town banks any more, because the big banks bought them up. Law firms merged, insurance companie smerged, Home Depot and Lowe's moved in and the local hardware store shut down. It's just a more efficient deployment of capital, and despite what CCA tries to tell you, it doesn't affect you, as an angler, at all, because you can't fish on the commercial quota anyway. How the commercials choose to fish their quota really isn't your concern, although the fact that they aren't overfishing actually helps you.

      Then we get to the seasons. Yes, the private boat recreational season in Federal waters is only 3 days, but that's because anglers only need 3 days to catch their quota, given how many anglers there are and how many fish they catch in state waters. Bring state waters into compliance with the federal season, and you'll get a longer Federal waters season--probably about 15 days.

      The for-hires get more days because it takes them longer to catch their quota--and they can't fish in state waters when the federal season is closed, so if you combine state and federal seasons, private boats can fish longer than the for-hires can. And the commercials can fish all year because they fish on hard quotas--once they catch their fish, they can't fish any more. If anglers went to red snapper tags, whether through a lottery system or some other mechanism, they could fish all season, too.

      Groups such as CCA, ASA and the Center for Sportfishing Policy like to contrast the 3 day private-boat federal season with the longer for-hire and commercial seasons, trying to whip up jealousy toward the for-hi8re and commercial sectors, but when you put it in terms of fish, and when each sector catches its quota, things look much more reasonable.

      Yes, the commercials get 51%, and I have no issues with the recreational sector trying to change the allocation, if they can find a legal basis for doing so. But that is a different issue.

      And no, you WON'T ever hear me say that clamping down on the commercials will keep people from eating fish. That's not my issue. I'm concerned with the health of the resource; I'm not the Chamber of Commerce, and all of the businesses, whether commercial fishermen, boatbuilderes, the tackle industry or anyone else have to figure out how to navigate our wonderfully capitalistic system. All I care about is that there are healthy fish stocks in the ocean, to be enjoyed by those who venture out on the waters once I'm dead and gone.,