Sunday, October 8, 2017

I SUPPOSE THE TRUTH HURTS (AND IS BETTER AVOIDED)

Last week, I wrote about the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the good work that it has done on inland issues, and its strangely misguided position on saltwater fisheries matters, most particularly the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

It seems that I wasn't alone in my thinking, because just as I was finishing up last Sunday’s blog, I came across Mark Eustis’ piece in The Hill, which trod the same ground; our thinking was alike enough that I stole a few of his words to sum up what I had been trying to say.

Of course, no one likes to be criticized, so I wasn’t particularly surprised when I saw that Whit Fosburgh, the president and chief executive officer of TRCP, published his own op-ed in The Hill, trying to rebut and belittle Eustis’ comments.

I also wasn’t surprised to note that Fosburgh started right out with a red herring that dodged the main issue, titling his piece “Roosevelt wouldn’t stand for privatizing a public resource, and neither will we.”

While that title—and statement—may or may not be true, it’s completely beside the point.  The critical issue in the Magnuson-Stevens debate is conservation—whether we will be able to pass down healthy fish stocks to the next generation—and not merely who’s going to get to kill the fish or how they’re going to do it.

Now, I understand why Forsburgh decided to change the subject, because if he tries to stand and defend TRCP’s Magnuson-Stevens position from a conservation standpoint, he’s fighting from a very weak position—a position so weak that it’s just about impossible for him not to lose.  He’s just looking for a rhetorical terrain that might give him a fighting chance.

But that’s not where this battle has to be fought, so let’s take a look at where he, and TRCP, have again gone wrong.

The biggest problem seems to be that they keep avoiding the truth, leaving a lot of important facts out of their arguments, and interpreting the facts that they do present in what might charitably called “creative” ways.

Let’s start with their central talking point, that the current federal fishery management system is

“designed for commercial fishing into which recreational anglers are shoehorned.”

Exactly what does that mean?

If we believe TRCP’s first report on the topic, A Vision for Managing America’s Recreational Saltwater Fisheries, Magnuson-Stevens emphasizes commercial fisheries because

“While the [original version of the] act was successful in keeping foreign fleets out of U.S. waters, many marine fish stocks were at low levels, prompting legislative changes to better ensure the fisheries’ sustainability.  Led by Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, in 1996 the act was amended with provisions to end overfishing and protect important fish habitats.  This became the 1996 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act).  [AUTHOR’S  NOTE:  The 1996 law was actually called “The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996”, which merely amended Magnuson-Stevens; it’s surprising that the report got the name of such an important bill wrong, but when it comes to salt water, TRCP always does seem to have just a little bit of a problem with facts.]   The Magnuson-Stevens Act was again reauthorized in 2006, which added strict deadlines to end overfishing and called for annual catch limits to be put in place for all fisheries by a certain date.
“…Because it is a fundamentally different activity than commercial fishing, recreational fishing requires different management approaches.”
Taking TRCP’s words at face value, it would appear that the current version of Magnuson-Stevens is intended to end overfishing by a strict deadline, and limit the amount of fish that can be removed from the stock in any given year, and that TRCP believes that “recreational fishing requires different management approaches” that don’t emphasize such seemingly basic conservation measures.

And that impression is apparently correct, for a press release issued by the Coastal Conservation Association, one of TRCP’s “partners" in marine fisheries advocacy, praises pending legislation that would amend Magnuson-Stevens because, among other things, it would support “smartly rebuilding fishery stocks” and permit “establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit.”  

The release quoted a number of TRCP’s other “partners” that also supported the changes.

For those who don’t understand the euphemisms, “smartly” rebuilding fish stocks means doing so very slowly, if ever, so that anglers can keep killing more fish than science, and the current legal requirement to rebuild stocks as quickly as possible, would allow.  

And “annual catch limits don’t fit” when such science-based restrictions, designed to prevent overfishing, restrict anglers’ ability to kill as many fish as they want to over the course of an over-extended season.

Forsburgh might try to deny those truths.  But I spent 17 years sitting on the National Executive Board of one of TRCP’s “partners,” including a long stint as Vice Chairman of its National Government Relations Committee.  

I was a part of the discussion when the “white paper,” that eventually morphed into the “Vision” report, was circulated, and ultimately resigned my leadership roles when I saw that the people who mattered were hell-bent to adopt that ethically bankrupt policy and that no argument I could make would convince them to change. 

So yes, I know all of the unpleasant truths that euphemisms such as “smart” and “don’t fit” and “access” are trying to mask, because I was an unwilling part of the team when the effort to weaken Magnuson-Stevens took wing.

I was also around when the striped bass crashed, and when managers brought it back. I still fish for striped bass today.  So I know that Forsburgh got a lot wrong about that issue, too.

Because the plan that restored the striped bass population after it collapsed looked nothing like the “alternative management measures” that TRCP and its partners are proposing today; it was, in fact, far stricter than any federal management plan, including Gulf of Mexico red snapper, that they are currently criticizing. 

Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass was only 3 pages long.  It recognized that the 1982 year class was critical to the species’ recovery, and put in measures designed to prevent more than 5% of the females of that year class, and every year class that followed, from being harvested. 

That’s a pretty strict approach.  If the same standards were applied to Gulf of Mexico red snapper, the stock that Forsburgh nominated as “the poster child for why federal managers need to look at new management approaches,” the maximum fishing mortality threshold would have to be reduced from the current 0.078 to 0.051, to keep such mortality under 5%.  That would reduce fishing mortality—and the recreational catch limit, by roughly one-third. 

Given their current complaints about the length of the red snapper season, it wouldn’t seem likely that Forsburgh, TRCP or its partners would really like to see the recovering red snapper stock managed like striped bass was during its recovery period, if that sort of cutback was in the cards.

On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that they would like to see red snapper managed the same way that striped bass are managed today, either. 

These days, striped bass are managed with a “soft” target based on a fishing mortality rate rather than by a hard-poundage quota.  That approach hasn’t served the bass very well.  

Themost recent update to the striped bass stock assessment reveals that such “alternative” management measure has allowed the female spawning stock biomass to fall from 77,000 metric tons in 2003 to 58,853 metric tons in 2015—roughly a 25% reduction.  The spawning stock biomass is now well below the target of 72,032 mt, and barely above the 57,626 metric ton threshold that defines an overfished stock.

That hardly sounds like an effective management approach.

TRCP and its partners might well object that the decline was primarily attributable to poor recruitment, rather than fishing pressure, but the two factors aren’t that easily separated.  

Fish stocks aren’t really very different from checking accounts—if you remove fish from the stock, or money from an account, faster than it can be replaced, you’re headed for serious trouble.



“If we take action now of the magnitude that was recommended in this addendum [to reduce landings], we are overmanaging this fishery and that’s one of the things that we’ve got to get away from.  From anything that I’ve seen or read in the reports, I think the fishery is in good shape and we really need to do nothing at this point.”
The consensus was that it was better to let the stock become overfished before taking action, rather than trying to halt the decline before greater damage was done.

So if red snapper were managed the way striped bass are managed today, rather than under Magnuson-Stevens, there’s a pretty good chance that the stock would begin to decline, and that nothing would be done to help it.

I would hope that Forsburgh, TRCP and the rest wouldn’t want to see that happen, either, but given their attacks on federal management, it’s hard to be sure.

And the fact is that it’s not clear that alternative management is doing that well with the other species that Forsburgh mentioned in his op-ed.  Sure, he said that

“almost all recreational stocks are in very good shape.  In addition to striped bass, important recreational stocks like snook, speckled trout, redfish, Alaskan salmon and bluefish are all thriving.”
We’ll leave out bluefish for now, as they're actually managed under Magnuson-Stevens—as I said before, TRCP does have this problem with facts—and take a look at the other species. 

First, we’ll ask the big question—JUST WHO SAYS that those species are “thriving”—other than Forsburgh and TRCP?

In the case of fish managed under Magnuson-Stevens, there are standards that can be used to gauge the health of a stock, which are based on actual science, rather than laymen’s opinions.  Sustainable biomass levels and sustainable removal rates must be established, and regulations imposed to make sure that things don’t get out of hand.

But for the state-managed species that Forsburgh mentioned, "healthy" is in the eye of the behoder.  It’s mostly a matter of opinion, with no objective measure at all.

Mostly—but not completely.  There is a little information out there, and what there is doesn’t support Forsburgh—or TRCP—very well.

Start with speckled trout.  

In the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission did put a management plan together, which determined that a healthy speckled trout stock will have a spawning potential of at least 18%--that is, a spawning potential equal to at least 18% of the spawning potential of an unfished stock.  

But that’s not what’s going on.  

In Mississippi, the spawning potential ratio of the stock has fallen to 10.2%, and the harvest had to be cut in half to get fishing mortality back to sustainable levels.  Mississippi recently raised its size limit from 13 to 15 inches in an effort to do just that, which is good, but the question is why the state allowed the population to fall so low in the first place.

In Louisiana, speckled trout are in slightly worse shape, and there is no evidence that the state is even thinking about fixing the problem.  There, the population stands at about 10% of its spawning potential; over the 32 years between 1981 and 2013, it averaged only marginally higher, at 11%.  

Yet state fishery managers seem unconcerned, with one saying that

“The current limits, biologically speaking, are designed to maximize angler yield while not putting the stock into a condition where we may see recruitment overfishing.”
"Recruitment overfishing" occurs when there are not enough fish in the population to maintain the size of the stock; that may not yet be occurring in Louisiana, but it appears that “growth overfishing,” which occurs when fish are being caught so fast that they have no chance to grow large, is already an issue. 


“On an average day, we’re throwing back between 50 and 150 fish.
“…the fish aren’t getting a chance to grow up.  The minute they hit 12 inches, they’re getting killed.”
The guide noted that he used to be able to find some fish between 6 and 8 pounds, and that 5-pounders were once relatively common, but

“You don’t see them anymore.  You just don’t.  The fish get killed before they have a chance to grow up.”
Despite Whit Forsburgh’s assertions, when anglers are killing speckled seatrout so quickly that the population structure is truncated, and there are very few older, larger fish availabl, the stock isn’t healthy, and management isn’t very good.

Red drum are also hardly an example of good fishery management.

Anglers on the west coast of Florida are experiencing a real decline in red drum numbers.  An article in the Bradenton Herald noted 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…
“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 of legal size.”
And western Florida isn’t alone.



In Texas, anglers put so much pressure on the red drum population that fish raised in hatcheries are now an important contributor to redfish landings.  As Forsburgh should have learned in his 15 years with Trout Unlimited, when anglers put such a strain on natural populations that hatcheries are needed to sustain angling effort, management has gone badly off course.

And when it comes to Alaskan salmon, the facts are, at best, mixed; some runs appear healthy, others do not.  

Forsburgh’s simplistic and overbroad claim that Alaska salmon are "thriving" falls very wide of the mark.


“Since 2007, Alaskans have suffered from the effects of low runs of Chinook salmon…
“Chinook salmon runs across the state since 2007, for the most part, have been well below average.”

“Alaska seeks relief for grim pink salmon harvest.

“Alaska’s pink salmon harvest for 2016 is over and was well below the preseason forecast.”


So at least two of five Alaskan salmon runs were nowhere near "thriving," one saw spotty abundance, and another two of the five runs were strong.

Thus, when all is said and done, Forsburgh and TRCP have few facts to support their assertions that amendments to Magnuson-Stevens’ fishery management approach would benefit fish stocks.  

Forsburgh’s supposed rebuttal of Mark Eustis’ op-ed was supported only by heated rhetoric, and not by hard data.

Which is the same problem with the legislation that Forsburgh and TRCP supports.  People have been making all sorts of unsubstantiated claims about how amending Magnuson would promote conservation.  But they can’t point to any part of their favored bills and provide hard data to demonstrate how such bills might increase the abundance of fish stocks, and provide more fish for anglers to pursue.

And that’s because such bills have a very different purpose.  
They are intended to allow overfishing—what the TRCP partners call “access”—and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks in order to increase harvest in the short term.

And that doesn’t lead to abundance.

It leads to far emptier seas.



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