Sunday, September 10, 2017


The reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is beginning to gain some momentum.

On July 19, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans held a hearing on the “Successes and Challenges” of Magnuson-Stevens.  I was invited to testify.

On August 23, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held its own  hearing in Soldotna, Alaska, which addressed Magnuson-Stevens, and plans to hold another in Washington, D.C. in a couple of days.

So it probably makes sense to stop and take a look at what’s going on.

Magnuson-Stevens is a comprehensive law, and a number of issues are going to be considered.  However, the heart of the debate revolves around the conservation and management of America’s salt water fish stocks, and the debaters break down into two basic camps. 

On one side, there are a host of conservation organizations and conservation-minded commercial and recreational fishermen, who want to keep the key provisions of the law, which include a strict prohibition on overfishing and require the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks, intact. 

On the other side are an array recreational fishing tackle and boatbuilding groups, anglers’ rights organizations and some less-enlightened commercial fishermen, who are willing to tolerate overfishing and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks, so that they can kill a few more fish and make a little more money in the short term, and worry about the future—at some point in the future, after they’ve sated their wants in the now.

 Granted, it doesn’t make a compelling case to say that you want to overfish a stock—or continue to hammer an overfished stock—so that you can make a few more bucks and pile a few more dead fish into the cooler.  

For some of the organizations involved, it’s also kind of embarrassing to be trying to weaken provisions of Magnuson-Stevens today, when they were fighting like demons to keep—or perhaps even strengthen—the same conservation-oriented language in the law when it was reauthorized a decade ago.

Thus, the folks trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens, so that the law is more tolerant of overfishing and less insistent that overfished stocks be quickly rebuilt, have created a whole variety of weasel-words, and spawned a whole school of red herring, to mask the start reality of what they’re really trying to do.

So, as the debate heats up, it’s probably time to cut through the fog, see what each side is saying, and then figure out what it really means.

When you look at the pro-conservation, keep Magnuson-Stevens strong side of the equation, what you see is pretty much what you get.

“From once plentiful cod and key species of rockfish to majestic sharks, species declined dramatically because we took too many fish out of the water and left too few behind to reproduce.  By the 1990s, many fisheries had collapsed or were on the brink.  Our country faced a massive dilemma:  change our behavior, or continue on the same path and face unprecedented consequences…
“Over the past four decades, we’ve made real progress toward overfishing in U.S. waters and rebuilding fish populations.  And we have a little-known law with a long name to thank:  The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).
“Since 2007, the percentage of fish populations that are facing overfishing, or that are already overfished, has decreased—even as catches are increasing.  In 2015 alone, red snapper quotas were raised by more than 20 percent because the population is rebuilding, thanks to science-based management, better incentives for conservation and accountability for management.
“This points to positive recovery for our nation’s fisheries.  It’s clear that sound science and long term management are working for America’s fish stocks as well as our economy.
“Here at Ocean Conservancy, we’re committed to defending the integrity of the MSA so we can have healthy fish populations for generations to come.”
That’s pretty straightforward.  Magnuson-Stevens works.  It is ending overfishing, rebuilding overfished stocks and making more fish available to fishermen.  Thus, the conservation and management provisions of the law should not be torn apart.   

Although a few of the smaller details might differ, that’s essentially the same argument being made by all of Magnuson’s defenders.

It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.

But if you want to be able to kill more fish than the law currently allows, you have to find a way.  That’s where the red herrings and the weasel-words come in.

They began to emerge in early 2014, when a group of fishing industry, anglers’ rights and boatbuilders groups issued a document titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” under the aegis of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.  That “Vision” report was one of the first public airings of the notion that recreational fishing is so different from commercial fishing that key provisions of Magnuson-Stevens shouldn’t apply.

It alleged that

“Because it is a fundamentally different activity than commercial fishing, recreational fishing requires different management approaches…
“From a management perspective, the Magnuson-Stevens Act relies on limited entry and catch-share programs, along with fixed quotas that can be managed in real time.  While these approaches work for the commercial sector where relatively few vessels are focused on maximum sustainable yield, recreational fisheries are enjoyed by millions of individuals with diverse goals.  Some try to catch fish for food, while others simply want to have fun catching and releasing fish and enjoying their time outdoors.  What recreational anglers want and need is wide-ranging, dependable access to healthy and abundant fish stocks.
Like all the best efforts at misdirection, that quote contains just enough truth to lend it credibility, then takes the reader astray.  Because yes, there are a lot more recreational than commercial fishermen.  Yes, anglers have different goals.  And yes, anglers’ harvests can’t yet be managed in anything close to real time.

But the mention of catch-and-release anglers are a red herring, because catch-and-release, by its very nature, isn’t affected by “fixed quotas that can be managed in real time.”  Quotas only matter when you start killing fish and bringing them home.

The people that such quotas actually impact are those who “try to catch fish for food,” and in those fisheries, it’s much harder to argue that commercial and recreational fisheries have a fundamentally different impact on fish stocks.  While the landings of individual commercial and recreational fishermen vary in scale, they don’t differ at all with respect to the fact that both put dead fish on the dock. 

“We may agree that they have different objectives, but the end result of both sectors is really the same—it’s the harvesting of a public resource.  I would encourage this committee to assure that sound science and individual accountability are the foundation of any new proposal.”
But individual accountability—making anglers responsible for the number of fish that they harvest—is just what the folks trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens are trying to avoid.  Thus, the “Vision” report falls back on another old canard, that recreational fishing’s economic

“impact is equal to or greater than the commercial industry in terms of number of jobs provided and total economic benefits, while accounting for only a fraction of overall landings.  [emphasis added]”
Again, just enough truth to mislead…

Because yes, overall commercial landings dwarf overall recreational landings.  That’s true.  But what matters, in the context of recreational fishing, in the Magnuson-Stevens debate isn’t how many pounds of fish the commercial fishermen land over-all—let’s face it, anglers probably don’t care that nearly 3.3 billion pounds of walleye pollock were commercially landed in 2015—but how many pounds of recreationally-important fish are landed by the commercial sector.

When one looks at the relative commercial and recreational landings of fish that anglers actually care about, it becomes clear that we’re certainly killing our share.

A while ago, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council posted a blog titled “2016’s Most Wanted Fish,” which compared recreational and commercial landings for a number of federally-managed species.  It turns out that anglers in the Gulf were allocated just under half of the red snapper, and roughly 80% of the gray triggerfish, 75% of the greater amberjack, 65% of the king mackerel, 60% of the gag grouper and 55% of the Spanish mackerel.  Of the seven important species included in the blog, only one, red grouper, was dominated by the commercial fishery, which gets about 75% of the fish.

The trend is the same on other sections of coast.  Based on the commercial landings information provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as recreational landings estimates provided by the same agency for 2015, with respect to 20 Atlantic coast species, it becomes clear that recreational fishermen are responsible for a lot more than “a fraction” of the landings of many different fish. 

Anglers dominated the landings for wahoo (95%), red drum (95%), cobia (95%), dolphin (90%), mutton snapper (89%), tautog (89%), yellowtail snapper (86%), black drum (84%), spotted seatrout (83%), sheepshead (81%), striped bass (77%), black sea bass (74%), bluefish (74%)  and Florida pompano (70%).  Commercial fishermen, on the other hand, dominated the New England groundfish fishery, with 96% of the haddock landings, and 89% of both pollock and cod.  Commercial fishermen also landed a substantial majority of the scup (79%) and summer flounder (69%), and a slight majority of the weakfish (54%).

Thus, anglers don’t dominate every significant fishery, but they are responsible for most of the fishing mortality of many important stocks.  To argue that they shouldn’t be subject to annual catch limits—“fixed quotas”—as stated on more than one occasion in the “Vision” statement, is just not realistic given that unquestionable reality.

It’s just as unrealistic to suggest, as the “Vision” report does, that the anglers who seek to bring fish home aren’t concerned with maximum sustainable yield.  

“that statement alone is a game changer.”             
It certainly seems that maximum sustainable yield mattered to him.  

At heart, when it comes to killing fish, the recreational and commercial sectors aren’t really that different at all—at least not so different that anglers should be free of annual catch limits/hard-poundage quotas.

“alternative management for recreational fishing…smartly rebuilding fishery stocks, [and] establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit…”
In other words, to allow overfishing and delay rebuilding—because we can all be pretty sure that what the Center considers “smartly rebuilding” a stock would be more than a little different from how a biologist would interpret that term.

And just why are they so driven to make such changes?  

“These amendments need to not only support the existing populations of recreational anglers and fishing related businesses but also to allow for new entrants to come into the fishery and businesses to grow and expand…
“The law needs to recognize that in its current form, our tradition of fishing cannot be passed on to our children without [Magnuson-Stevens] taking away opportunity from the rest of the fishing community.”
In other words, Magnuson-Stevens, with its annual catch limits and rebuilding deadlines, currently forces anglers to share.  

Right now, if new anglers—presumably but not necessarily children—come into the fishery, their catch comes out of a common quota.  It’s a zero sum game, with clear biological limits, and every fish someone catches is a fish that becomes unavailable to someone else.

And, based on Cicero's comments, it appears that the old guys just don’t want to share.  They would rather change a good law, and put the future health of our fish stocks at risk, because the only alternative to that is for the adults—chronological adults, at least—now in the fishery to give up some fish to their kids, and that’s something that they'd rather not do.

And that, in the end, is Magnsuon-Stevens “reform” in a nutshell.

When all of the fancy talk is done, it comes down to two groups of people. 

One wants a strong law, and healthy fish stocks that we can pass down to generations yet to be born.

The other, who want to weaken the law, already have quite a bit, want to have more, and do not want to share.

I leave it for you to decide who ought to win, and who should get your support. 

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