Thursday, August 10, 2017


The current effort to weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was launched by a coalition of fishing tackle industry, boatbuilding and anglers’ rights groups in early 2014.  That assault was supported by a report entitled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” which was used to generate buzz in the press and outlined a number of alleged flaws in the federal fisheries management system.

The “Vision” report was produced by what its sponsors called a “blue-ribbon panel” that, although a completely private enterprise, was given the grandiose and official-sounding name of “The Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management,” which was co-chaired by Johnny Morris, Chief Executive Officer of the Bass Pro Shops sporting goods chain, and by Scott Deal, the President and co-founder of Maverick Boats. 

The report was issued under the aegis of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, an organization who has usually been on the right side of conservation issues, but found itself out of its depth when it entered the salt water fisheries arena, and somehow ended up trying to upend what is arguably the most successful and effective marine fisheries management program in the world.

The key message of the “Vision” report is that the current federal fishery management system is not optimized to serve recreational anglers, and that the federal management system should be amended to more closely resemble the systems that currently exist in several states.  The report claims that

“The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)…is the federal agency responsible for fisheries management in federal waters.  Given its mandated commercial focus, the fact that NMFS has not embraced fisheries management practices that also meet the unique goals, needs and motivations of recreational anglers should come as no surprise.  While the NMFS has made great strides in recent years in improving communications and interaction with the recreational fishing community, much work remains to be done to effectively integrate recreational fishing into its policies and procedures.
“Many state natural resource agencies, especially those in the South, recognize the benefits of a vibrant recreational fishing community and have managed to promote it while conserving their saltwater resources…
“Many coastal states have adopted management models that are well tuned for their particular saltwater fisheries.  These models conserve fishery resources, provide multi-year consistency in regulations and allow for ample public access.  However, these approaches have not yet been embraced by the NMFS, which is a significant contributing factor to the current dilemma in saltwater recreational fisheries management.”
Among the recommendations made in the report was one that Magnuson-Stevens’ current requirement that

“the timeline for ending overfishing and rebuilding fisheries ‘be as short as possible’ and ‘not exceed 10s years’”
be weakened, to give

“the regional councils and fisheries managers greater latitude to rebuild fish stocks in a timely and reasonable manner.”
They argue that states don’t have rebuilding deadlines, and manage their fish better than the federal managers do.

They say that.  But then, some people say that the world is flat, or that they have been “taken” by UFOs; it’s pretty clear that just saying something does not make it so.

Over the last few years, I’ve provided a number of examples where state fishery managers, including “those in the South” that are praosed in the “Vision” report, have failed to properly manage local fisheries.  

Both Mississippi and Louisiana have mismanaged speckled trout, with the latter state seeming to believe that growth overfishing is perfectly fine.  Last month, I wrote about an Internet gag that ended up revealing a truth about a dearth of red drum on the west coast of Florida.

Recent state efforts to manage striped bass and winter flounder hardly provide grounds for confidence, while New Jersey state managers’ successful effort to overturn the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s summer flounder management efforts represent a new milestone in the annals of bad fisheries actions.

However, the biggest failure of state managers at ASMFC may be its failed effort to rebuild a depleted tautog population.  ASMFC knew what to do as early as 1996, but never had the will to impose needed measures.  According to a recent document,

“Since the Tautog [Fishery Management Plan] was implemented, in 1996, the resource has experienced changes in stock status, as well as management measures used to control harvest.  Based on the 2015 Benchmark Stock Assessment and Peer Review Report…tautog is overfished and overfishing is occurring on a coastwide scale.”
The state managers that make up ASMFC had plenty of opportunity to correct both problems.  As the same document notes,

Fishery Management Plan (FMP) (March 1996)
The FMP established a 14” minimum size limit and a target fishing mortality of F=M=0.15.  The target F was a significant decrease from the 1995 stock assessment terminal year fishing mortality rate in excess of F=0.70, so a phased-in approach of implementing these regulations was established…
Addendum I (May 1997)
In response to northern states’ difficulty in achieving the interim F by their deadline, Addendum I delayed implementation of the interim F and target F for all states until April 1998 or April 2000 depending on the state…
Addendum II (November 1999)
…Addendum II further extended the deadline to achieve the F=0.15 target until April 2002…”
I could go on, but it would serve no purpose other than to further illustrate the 21-year pattern of delay, and ASMFC’s endorsement of state regulations insufficient to rebuild the stock.  

And it’s not over yet.  Just this month, ASMFC failed to adopt measures that, according to the best available science, were needed to rebuild the tautog population in Long Island Sound.  Instead of the 43% harvest reduction that, according to biologists, are needed to rebuild the population, ASMFC delayed taking action because,

“…The states within the Long Island Sound (LIS) region needed additional time to explore other management strategies that would moderate the severe social and economic impacts and provide flexibility in achieving such a large reduction in fishing mortality.  The two states will also be exploring a more modest harvest reduction, 20-30%...”
It seems that nothing was learned by the failures of the past 21 years, and states still believe that they can overfish their way to the stock’s recovery.  And without the strict rebuilding requirements of Magnuson-Stevens, nothing will prevent them from reliving past management errors, again and again…

Now, there’s news out of the State of Florida, and it involves the same Scott Deal and the same Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership that were behind the “Vision” report.  Only now, they’re not saying positive things about inshore angling down in the Sunshine State.

According to the Miami New Times, Ed Tamson, who represents the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in Florida, said

“It’s the tipping point.  Fishing here has gone to hell in a hand basket.”
To be fair, the problem appears to be a sharp decline in water quality, caused by pollution-filled runoff from agricultural operations; attempts to abate such runoff are met with fierce opposition from the politically influential sugar industry.  And as the New Times reports,
“With little reform to water management regulations, water quality has continued to diminish, accompanied by a decline in many fish species.  Recreational anglers have been forced to contract their fishing grounds and pole closer to one another.  With more concentrated fishing, many worry the added pressure will only further decimate the fish population.” 
Scott Deal’s boat manufacturing companies were hit hard as a result, reportedly losing about 80% of their Florida business.  Fishing guides, who don’t have Deal’s option of selling their services outside the state, report losing up to 70% of their customer revenues.

Florida’s fishery managers can’t be blamed for what has proven to be an intractable political fight with the sugar industry.  Even so, how can the various organizations who want to weaken Magnuson-Stevens argue that Florida fishery managers are doing a good job “conserve[ing] fishery resources, provid[ing] multi-year consistency in regulations and allow[ing] for ample public access” when, by the words of one of their own representatives, “Fishing…has gone to hell in a hand basket”? 

And that leads to the biggest question of all.  With the threats that angling is facing from polluted runoff in Florida, a New Jersey-sized hypoxic dead zone—the largest ever seen—in the Gulf of Mexico, and another, larger-than-average dead zone predicted in Chesapeake Bay, why do groups representing the fishing tackle industry, boating industry and some anglers try to weaken Magnuson-Stevens, rather than going after the real problems that hurt anglers on a regular basis?

Magnuson-Stevens has successfully ended overfishing for most species, and has successfully rebuilt about 40 once-overfished stocks in the past twenty years—far more than have been rebuilt by either ASMFC or the states.  Yes, the law constrains recreational harvest, but only to maximize fish abundance, and given that the “Vision” report states that

“What recreational anglers want and need is wide-ranging, dependable access to healthy and abundant fish stocks,”
the report’s authors should logically be Magnuson-Stevens’ greatest supporters.

On the other hand, pollution provides no benefit to anyone but the polluters, and as the New Times article shows, do the fishing and boating industries real harm.  So why aren’t the industry folks, and their fellow travelers in the anglers’ rights community, focusing their rancor—not to mention their lobbyists, their public relations efforts and their political clout—on polluters who degrade our waters, instead of on a good law?

When poor water quality and the resultant decline in both fish stocks are threatening fish stocks, and the angling experience, on multiple coasts, it just doesn’t make sense to attack a law that made fish such as summer flounder, black sea bass and red snapper more abundant than they were in decades.

Because pollution can destroy angling’s future, but only good management, as provided by Magnuson-Stevens, can save it.

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