Sunday, November 12, 2017
RUN THE NUMBERS--ABUNDANCE MATTERS
One of the more nonsensical arguments that has been going on in the Mid-Atlantic fishing community is the one about “abundance.”
On one side, there are anglers who acknowledge the fact that fishing is a lot more enjoyable when there are enough fish in the water to provide relatively dependable action.
They tend to support regulations needed to rebuild and conserve fish stock, although even some of the anglers’ rights and industry trade groups trying that are currently trying to weaken federal fisheries laws are honest enough to admit that, if you’re an angler, abundance is a good thing.
On the other side, there are a handful of loud, aggressive, anti-regulation ideologues who seem to view the concept of “abundance” as an environmentalists’ plot to keep anglers from killing as many fish as they’d like to. Located primarily in New Jersey, where anglers' hunger never seems to be sated, the anti-abundance crowd generally tries to ridicule the concept of abundance, rather than provide a reasoned and rational explanation of why the opposite of an “abundance” of fish—which Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary suggests would be a “deficiency,” “inadequacy” or “undersupply” of the same—would make things better for anglers.
Such folks tend to actively support management approaches—such as ignoring objective scientific advice in order to adopt bag limits that are too high, size limits that are too low and seasons that are too long—that are likely to make such deficiency a reality.
Since federal fisheries law tends to favor abundance, and has led to a number of successfully rebuilt stocks in the Mid-Atlantic region, the “abundance” argument has largely been conducted on a theoretical level. However, during the 2017 season, a number of factors came together in the upper Mid-Atlantic and southern New England, which rendered a number of popular species somewhat scarce and gave anglers and fishery managers a look at what a lack of abundance looks like, and how it impacts fishing effort.
The short answer, which shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone, is that when fish get scarce, fishermen tend to become scarce as well.
The 2017 season played out differently in different places, although there were a lot of common themes.
Here on the South Shore of Long Island, spring was cold and wet. Then, the typical summer weather pattern—calm, hazy mornings, mostly dry days and a southwest breeze that begins to blow early in the afternoon—never established itself. Instead, the prevalent winds came from the northwest, north and northeast, and brought more clouds and rain than we usually see.
In addition, the wind pushed warm surface water farther offshore, allowing cooler water to well up from below. Warmed by the heat of the sun, the nutrient-loaded bottom water fed an extensive phytoplankton bloom that turned ocean waters green from the beach all the way out to the edge of the continental shelf, and made tuna fishing difficult. In Great South Bay, the worst brown tide event ever recorded turned the water the color of maple syrup and shut down inshore fisheries.
Fish were generally not abundant.
The summer flounder population had suffered through six consecutive years of below-average spawns; the years of poor recruitment began to have a real impact on the number of fish available to anglers. Although the remnants of healthy year classes were still available, allowing some very large fish to be caught, the barely-legal fluke that normally account for most of the landings were difficult to come by. Many fluke fishermen began targeting black sea bass, which were extremely abundant. However, most of the sea bass were small; few fish exceeded the 15-inch minimum size.
Striped bass which, along with summer flounder, are one of New York’s most important recreational species, were also hard to find in most places. The population has declined over the past decade, and currently hovers just above the biomass threshold that defines an overfished stock. There was a good late-spring bite off western Long Island, and a steady pick of fish off Montauk during the summer, but for the most part, the fish were scarce. The marina where I dock my boat hosted a tournament in early July, when bass are usually abundant. About 50 boats and 150 anglers participated, but they barely caught enough fish to claim all of the prizes. Bluefish, which usually take up the slack when striped bass fishing is slow, were also scarce inshore.
I took a look at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s estimates of anglers’ landings and angling effort for the first eight months of 2017, to see how the lack of fish affected angling activity. The results were instructive.
It turns out that New York’s salt water anglers took about 1.586 million trips between March 1 and August 31, 2017, compared to 2.958 million trips during the same period in 2016—a reduction of about 46%. During the first eight months of 2017, New York anglers harvested 73% fewer summer flounder, 77% fewer striped bass, 78% fewer black sea bass and 59% fewer bluefish.
Looking at those numbers, it seems clear that a lack of fish—whether due to depressed populations, mere local scarcity or regulations that restricted harvest—impacted angler activity. If the percentage declines for both effort and landings were close to the same, it would be easy to argue that there was no direct link between abundance and angler effort; instead, one might contend, landings were lower solely because people fished less, and not because fish were harder to catch (to oversimplify, landings estimates are devised by multiplying the average number of fish counted in the coolers of people interviewed by NMFS’ surveyors by the average number of trips taken by people contacted in a telephone survey of households in coastal counties; thus, if landings varied in direct proportion to effort, abundance would probably not play a decisive role).
However, the decline in effort coupled with a much greater decline in the number of fish landed is exactly what you would expect to see if abundance had a meaningful influence on angling activity. Fishermen would still go fishing, because that’s what they enjoy doing in their spare time. However, when fish are scarce, anglers will grow tired of catching little or nothing, and will go fishing less often, because fishing in a sparsely-populated ocean isn’t all that much fun.
The estimates of effort and landings for particular species further supports the idea that abundance impacts effort.
Both summer flounder and striped bass support very popular directed fisheries, and both saw similar declines in directed trips, 46% and 42% respectively, as well as similar, 75%-ish declines in landings. Both species also suffered from relatively low population levels, which means that anglers caught relatively few fish, of any size, during the course of a day.
Black sea bass, on the other hand, exhibited a different pattern. Although black sea bass landings for the first eight months of 2017 were 78% lower than they were for the same period in 2016, the number of directed black sea bass trips fell by only 20%. That’s easily explained by black sea bass’ abundance. While the 15-inch minimum size kept anglers from keeping many fish, smaller black sea bass were very abundant; I frequently came across stacks of them rising 30 or 40 feet above offshore wrecks. Thus, anglers could catch and release a lot of small fish while waiting to land a few big enough to take home; that made black sea bass fishing a lot more entertaining than fishing for much scarcer fluke, striped bass and bluefish.
In New Jersey, the decline in summer flounder effort almost paralleled the decline in summer flounder landings, 32% and 34% respectively, leaving the door open to the argument that effort and abundance were not closely related. However, further analysis shows something else: substantial evidence of effort shift.
While, in New York, the decline in overall effort and the decline in directed summer flounder trips was almost the same, both about 46%, in New Jersey overall effort only declined by 17%, roughly half of the decline seen in trips targeting summer flounder. That difference appears to be attributable largely to black sea bass; New Jersey’s 12 ½-inch size limit is fully 2 ½-inches less than any other northeastern state with a significant black sea bass fishery, and allows New Jersey anglers to harvest fish that have to be released in neighboring New York. As a result, New Jersey black sea bass landings were nearly 200% higher in 2017, and the number of directed black sea bass trips was nearly 150% higher as well. (Again, there is not a linear relationship between landings and effort, as the ability to harvest more fish isn’t the only thing motivating anglers to go fishing.)
The anti-regulation crowd might use New Jersey black sea bass as an example of why laxer rules, rather than abundance, drives angling effort. However, it is important to note that what New Jersey gains in a lower size limit, it gives up in a shorter fishing season, so that its regulations will have “conservation equivalency”with the other northeastern states. As a result, its overall set of regulations is no less stringent than those in other states. It’s also important to note that absent regulations adequate to conserve the stock at current levels, the ability to harvest even 12 ½-inch fish would quickly become impaired.
If a fisherman is honest with himself, he’ll admit that he’ll want to fish more often when he’s catching fish, and that he’ll test the waters less frequently when fish are scarce. The numbers from New York merely provide some objective confirmation of that obvious truth.
But they should provide something else, as well: A warning to a regulation-averse angling industry that, without abundant fish, they’re not likely to see abundant fishermen—or abundant customers—for very long.