Sunday, July 30, 2017
THE JOKE'S ON FLORIDA'S STATE FISHERY MANAGERS
When I testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans a couple of weeks ago, one of the other witnesses at the hearing was Nick Wiley, the Executive Director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
While my testimony generally endorsed the current conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Mr. Wiley’s testimony was more critical of the law. In his written testimony, he noted that
“We are facing a number of highly controversial and divisive fishery management challenges that continue to simmer. We cannot fully address these challenges in many cases because we are boxed in by the current framework of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and we need your help to find solutions.
“…The requirement to manage fisheries under strict annual catch limits, the overly prescriptive constraints for stock rebuilding plans, and general inflexibility within the current version of the law have hindered management of fish stocks in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico…Changes to the law are needed to provide better utilization of and access to the nation’s public trust resources for the American public and the citizens of Florida.”
The general thrust of the comments was that Magnuson-Stevens should be modified in a way that would make federal fisheries management more closely resemble that of Florida and the other states, which do not have laws that require overfishing to end or that overfished stocks be promptly (or ever) rebuilt.
Comments from majority members of the Subcommittee seemed to be intended to support Mr. Wiley’s remarks. Rep. Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) came right out and asked Mr. Wiley whether he was aware of any fish stocks that had been mismanaged by the State of Florida. Not surprisingly, Mr. Wiley responded that there were none.
But facts have a way of slipping out, often in roundabout ways. There is an old saying, “In vino veritas”—“In wine there is truth”—and the monarchs of a previous age supposedly employed jesters, sometimes called “fools,” who were permitted to speak truth to the throne, often using humor or parody to carry their message, without the fear of losing their heads that afflicted the rest of the court.
According to a recent article in the Bradenton Herald, a Florida newspaper, a post on a self-described entertainment website, which warns that all such posts found there
“are humerous news, fantasy, fictional, that should not be seriously taken or as a source of information”
has now played the fool, and revealed a real problem with the way Florida manages one important species within its state waters.
“Florida FWC considers closed redfish fishing season.”
It wasn’t true. As far as anyone knew, the Florida FWC had absolutely no intention of closing the redfish season in the waters around Bradenton.
A lot of anglers who read the headline apparently didn’t realize that it was a gag. The news of a possible redfish season closure went viral in the west Florida fishing community, spreading across social media.
But the big news was not that the story was false. The big news was that a lot anglers in the Bradenton region thought that closing the redfish season for a while might be a good idea.
It seems that those anglers don’t believe that Florida’s state managers have been managing redfish very well at all.
According to the Bradenton Herald, one charter boat captain remarked that
“This is a good thing. Give the redfish a chance to recoup numbers. A lot of schools are getting worked over and harvested.
A second captain said
“I’m for it, they closed snook for four years, and look how they rebounded! Redfish are overfished.
A third noted that there were the
“Fewest reds in our region that I have experienced in my 35-year career.”
The author of the article seemed to support such observations, writing that
“About five to seven years ago the amount of redfish around Tampa and Sarasota Bay was astonishing. From the spring until the fall, it was catch as many redfish as you wanted from dozens of schools that patrolled the flats. Captains had clients saying they were getting bored of cranking on the hard fighters non-stop.
“These days you’re lucky to find a few redfish, nevertheless a school of hundreds. And when a big school is found, the boats soon follow, and the fish are targeted day after day until they leave or are kept if legal size.”
He doesn’t think that overfishing is the sole reason that redfish are scarce, but opines that redfish, along with snook and speckled trout
“have limited habitat and probably the highest “angler to fish” ratio than anything else that swims locally…
“I’ve seen many captains that refused to keep snook on their boats following the snook freeze nearly ten years ago…Perhaps it’s time we treat redfish in the same manner to see if it helps our local fisheries.”
So yes, it does seem that, contrary to Mr. Wiley’s response at the hearing, there is at least one stock of fish down in Florida that state managers aren’t handling very well.
Maybe there are more, perhaps there are not.
The problem is that, without real standards, you can’t tell.
Mr. Wiley decried the “strict annual catch limits” and “overly prescriptive constraints for stock rebuilding plans” that are a part of Magnuson-Stevens, but he failed to note is that without such provisions, it’s very easy to let stocks tumble downhill without taking any remedial action—and without having to admit that such action is needed.
Without an annual catch limit, derived from the optimum yield of the redfish stock found of the west coast of Florida, it’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, to determine whether that stock is overfished, and action needs to be taken. So when anglers find a body of redfish, those redfish are pounded “day after day until they leave or are kept if of legal size.” (It should be noted that there is no commercial fishery for redfish in Florida, so any depletion of the stock can be laid solely at the anglers’ feet, and no fingers should be pointed at the usual commercial bogeymen.)
And without a hard threshold for an overfished stock, it’s impossible to determine whether the relevant redfish stock has declined so badly that rebuilding measures, and a meaningful rebuilding deadline, need to be imposed.
Instead, Florida manages redfish by the sort of “alternative measures” that various anglers’ rights groups and industry players want to introduce into federal fisheries, and the results have been predictable—fewer fish, and fewer fishing opportunities for anglers.
Those who would weaken Magnuson-Stevens argue that recreational fishermen shouldn’t be bound by annual catch limits, and are harmed by rebuilding timelines. They say that alternative management measures should be used.
They try to tell us those things with a straight face.
But it seems that it may take a fool—or a gag on an Internet website—to tell us the things that are true.