Thursday, December 28, 2017


A decade or so ago, black sea bass weren’t on most anglers’ minds, at least not in New York and New England.

There were a few hard-core wreck fishermen who targeted them during the summer, and a few party boats that made winter trips out to deep-water wrecks where the big knot-headed males could be found in abundance, but for most of us, black sea bass were something that we caught by accident while drifting for fluke, or that came up on mixed-bag for-hire trips, along with the fluke, maybe blackfish, and porgies.

Like a lot of our local species, black sea bass were badly overfished by the late ‘80s, but thanks to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, with its prohibitions on overfishing and its rebuilding deadlines, the stock bounced back in a big way.  

As the 20th Century drew to a close, the Mid-Atlantic black sea bass fishery was dominated by New Jersey, where the fish were actively targeted by the party boat fleet, and mostly prosecuted in the states between New Jersey and Virginia.  

At that time, the fishery was still largely unregulated.  Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, the lawsuit that first gave real legal teeth to the conservation and stock rebuilding mandates of Magnuson-Stevens, wasn’t decided until 2000, and it took a while for the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to adopt management measures that complied with the Court’s decision.  However, once such measures were put in place—somewhat reluctantly, on the part of some Council members, and not without a lot of bitter debate—the stock began to rebuild.

That rebuilding was helped by something that, in most other respects, is viewed as bad news—the gradually warming climate, and its impacts on ocean temperatures.

And the northern states achieved that dominance with a significant handicap, as states between New York and Massachusetts adopted smaller bag limits and a 15-inch minimum size in 2016, while states from Delaware south were allowed to maintain a 15-fish bag and 12 ½-inch size limit and New Jersey was allowed to adopt regulations that varied throughout the year, but featured a 12 ½- or 13-inch size limit throughout.

At the same time that the black sea bass fishery was improving, biologists’ knowledge about the species was improving as well.

For many years, black sea bass were considered a “data poor” species; a 2012 benchmark stock assessment failed to pass peer review because the underlying data was deemed inadequate for management purposes.  So for a while, fishery managers were flying blind, and were forced to adopt very restrictive management measures to avoid accidentally overfishing the stock.

But knowledge was slowly being developed.  A cooperative tagging study conducted by National Marine Fisheries Service biologists between 2002 and 2004 determined that there were three substocks of black sea bass in the New England/Mid-Atlantic region, which remained isolated from each other during the summer, but mixed to some extent on the wintering grounds.

The study found that the northern stock summers between Massachusetts and, roughly, Moriches Inlet, New York; in winter, most migrate to the edge of the continental shelf near Hudson Canyon (about equidistant between New York and New Jersey), although some travel as far as North Carolina.  The central stock summers between Moriches Inlet and the Eastern Cape of Virginia, and migrates in a generally southeasterly direction to winter at the edge of the continental shelf.  The southern stock, summers between southern Virginia and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and moves into deeper waters during the winter, but most fish stop before reaching the edge of the shelf.

Additional biological information, which cast more light on how the black sea bass functions as a protogynous hermaphrodite (which begins life as a female, and at some point changes over to become male), was also developed, and all of the new data was incorporated into a new benchmark stock assessment that, in early 2017, was judged suitable for management purposes.

It found that the black sea bass stock was not only healthy, but that spawning stock biomass was at 240% of the target level.  It also, for the first time, refined the assessment to a regional level, dividing it into a northern and southern component, using Hudson Canyon as the dividing line.

Although the assessment did not precisely conform its analysis to the substocks identified in the tagging study, for practical purposes, it divided the population into the northern stock on one hand, and the central and southern stocks on the other.

That sort of separation made some kind of sense, since the huge 2011 year class that we observed off New York and Connecticut (and others observed farther north in New England) didn’t seem to appear to be nearly as large in the southern region.  And, while the southern population was doing OK, the northern population was far more robust.

The trick, then, was to bring black sea bass management into the 21st Century, so that it reflects both the new knowledge and realities on the water.

The ASMFC and the Mid-Atlantic Council are trying.  In 2016, they allowed the southern states to enjoy relatively liberal regulations, while states between Massachusetts and New Jersey, which enjoyed the larger population of fish and accounted for most of the landings, were forced to bear a correspondingly larger responsibility for conserving the stock.

Now, ASMFC has produced a Draft Addendum XXX to the Summer Flounder, Scup, Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan for Public Comment, which has the potential to significantly improve the black sea bass management process.  Its two key proposals would 1) see black sea bass managed on a regional basis, and 2) allow annual regulations to be based on a more nuanced, science-dependent approach, rather than the current rote exercise of comparing the previous year’s estimated landings to the current catch limit, and making adjustments that look good on paper, but often fail in the real world.

Of course, as always, the Devil is in the details.

If regional management is adopted, it can be done in one of two ways.  Allocation can be done based on numbers of fish, caught within either the past 5 years (2011-2015) or the past 10 years (2006-2015), with either two regions (Massachusetts-New Jersey and Delaware-North Carolina), three regions (Massachusetts-New York, New Jersey standing alone, and Delaware-North Carolina) or four (Massachusetts-Rhode Island, Connecticut-New York, New Jersey standing alone, and Delaware-North Carolina).  Or it can be based on both the number of fish caught during a 5- or 10-year period and the available biomass, in which case the states would be split into a northern region consisting of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York, and a southern region consisting of all the other states, with New Jersey getting some additional consideration because it straddles the Hudson Canyon dividing line between the northern and southern populations.

Once ASMFC decides what it wants to do there, it must decide whether all states within a region must adopt the same regulations, or whether conservation equivalency should remain an option.

There’s little doubt that the discussions are going to be contentious.  New Jersey is already trying to gain the best of both worlds.  Paul Haertel of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association is advising anglers to support

“options that would allow New Jersey to become its own region or to be placed in the southern region as opposed to remaining in the region with states to our north…JCAA supports the quotas being established based on the historical percentage of the harvest over at least the last ten years.”
He then begins whining that

“In 2011 draconian regulations were forced upon us that resulted in New Jersey harvesting their fewest sea bass during this entire century.  It would be wrong to use this year as part of the basis for developing quotas.  There was relaxation of the regulations in 2012 at which time New Jersey was placed in the northern region.  Then for 2013, New Jersey was forced to establish harsh regulations that resulted in us harvesting only 61% of our target quota…Those stringent regulations that NJ set in 2012 have hurt us every year since.  Further, NJ’s historical share of the harvest was 47.7% for the period from 2001 to 2010 and probably even more than that previous to those years.”
Of course, he never explained how such regulations were any more "draconian" or more "harsh" than those adopted by New York, Massachusetts or any of the other states with large sea bass harvests.  Then he made what, if he wasn’t dead serious, would sound like intentional irony:

“We believe it would be very unfair to base quotas on years when New Jersey’s share of the harvest was at or near its lowest and other states were at or neat their highest levels,”
because all the while, he was arguing that the base years should include the times when New Jersey was at its highest levels and other states at their lowest because, well, you know that it’s only really fair when New Jersey kills most of the fish.

But that’s why “fairness,” and historical arguments, although so often heard, are so often useless in fisheries management.  Because allocations and regulations should be based on today’s, and more importantly, tomorrow’s realities, reflecting where the fish are and are expected to be.  They should not reflect conditions that occurred in the past and, given current trends, are unlikely to be happen again. 

In fact, the center of black sea bass abundance has moved to the north over the past decade or so, and any allocation of the black sea bass resource needs to reflect that reality.

Thus, instead of listening to the folks down in New Jersey kick their feet and threaten to hold their collective breaths until they turn blue, ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board should endeavor to resolve the black sea bass issue by using the same approach that they have already used very effectively in the scup fishery since 2004—combine the states responsible for the vast majority of the landings into a single region, with a single recreational catch limit, and require all of those states to adopt the same regulations in order to constrain landings at or below a commonly-applied catch limit.

Such consistency suggests that New Jersey should be placed in the 5-state region, despite the fact that it straddles the northern and southern populations; low landings in Delaware, Maryland and  Virginia further suggest that the southern population probably contributes little to New Jersey’s recreational harvest, reinforcing the conclusion that New Jersey should be grouped with the northern states.

Furthermore, allowing New Jersey to become its own region, or allowing it to be treated as a southern state would allow it to exploit the northern population of sea bass while not being subject to the same rules that apply to the northern bloc of states, a situation which would truly not be equitable.

All states in the five-state region, like those in the four-state region responsible for most of the scup landings, should then be required to adopt the same set of regulations, with no conservation equivalency allowed.  In that way, both the catch limits and the harvest estimates could be applied over the entire five-state region, leading to greater overall accuracy and more consistent year-to-year regulations.

Such regulatory consistency would be further enhanced, and unneeded changes avoided, if a final option of Addendum XXX was adopted,

“a performance evaluation process that better incorporates biological information and efforts to reduce discard mortality into the metrics used for evaluation and management response by evaluating fishery performance against the [annual catch limit].  This option seeks to integrate information from the 2016 assessment into the management process, enhance the angling experience of the recreational community, improve the reporting of recreational information, and achieve meaningful reductions in discard mortality to better inform management responses to changes in the condition of this resource.”
In Addendum XXX, fishery managers have a chance to make meaningful improvements in the way black sea bass are managed.  By regionalizing management and insisting on consistent regulations across each region, and by incorporating more and better information into the annual regulatory process, managers can create a system that provides better landings estimates, results in more effective regulation and incorporates the best available science.

Hopefully, that will happen.

Unfortunately, there will be plenty of people, including those down in New Jersey, who will try to throw it off the rails in order to gain some parochial advantage.  If they succeed in undercutting the most effective provisions, both the fish and the larger angling community will pay the price.

The ASMFC will be holding meetings in all of the affected states to obtain angler input on the Addendum.  A schedule of when and where those meetings will be held can be found at

All black sea bass anglers should try to attend, and urge ASMFC to stay on track, bring black sea bass management out of the past, and propel it toward a new and far better future.

Sunday, December 24, 2017


About twenty minutes from my house, there’s a spring creek that’s very popular with the flyfishing crowd.
It flows through a state park, and is loaded with trout. In the river’s heyday, the park’s phone lines were flooded by calls from anglers trying to reserve fishing time. February and March were catch-and-release months. I remember spending nights in my truck, as my breath iced the windshield, so that I would be near the front of the line when the “beats” were handed out; everyone’s goal was to get a choice beat where big and supposedly “sea run” rainbow trout might be caught on a fly.

The only “sea run” that I ever caught there was, at best, ten inches long, but it was indeed bright and silver, signs that it had spent at least part of the winter close to Great South Bay.

I’m not sure that the river held any true “sea runs.” It did have a hatchery that pumped out plenty of trout, more than the river could have produced on its own, and some of them did drop down into the tidal section of the stream. If the folks who tossed worms and killifish into the culvert that flowed under Sunrise Highway didn’t get them, a few of those wandering trout returned to the freshwater part of the river, but calling them “sea runs,” in the way a Pacific steelhead is “sea run,” was probably pushing the point.

In any event, a few years ago everything changed. Infectious pancreatic necrosis, a disease which often occurs in hatchery situations, was found on the premises, and the state shut the fishery down. Anglers were encouraged to take all of the fish from the stream, to prevent the disease from spreading. The big “sea runs” didn’t run anymore.

In time, the hatchery was updated, fish were put back into the stream. The fishermen returned, and are again writing rapturous prose about the river on websites and in local magazines. But things have changed. Now, the fishing season never closes. Anglers still need to reserve their beats, but there is a lot less competition than there had been before. And you don’t hear as much about “sea runs” these days, although there are plenty of good-sized rainbows up in the hatchery that, when their breeding days are done, will be released into the river and, if they travel into salt water, may get their 15 minutes of “sea run” fame.
But one thing remains the same as it was years ago. If you walk up the river to the hatchery pools, you can still find vending machines full of fish food that you can buy and feed to the trout, just like feeding goldfish, before they’re let loose in the stream.
And that’s why I rarely fish in that river these days. I imagine some poor trout in the hatchery pool. One day, it’s swimming around under nets that shelter it from herons and circling ospreys, getting fat on handfuls of food pellets purchased and tossed into its tank by passing children. Then, the next day, that once-coddled fish is forced out of its safe and cozy home and into the stream, where the same sort of people who once fed it tasty pellets are now poking holes in its face and dragging it into the hostile air, the same air where the ospreys and eagles and great blue herons fly, searching for innocent, domestic trout in the river below.
It’s not that I’m concerned for the rainbows themselves. They’re the epitome of what angler/author Ted Williams calls “rubber trout,”fish that are “tame, sallow, inbred imitations mass-produced in hatcheries;” they are what another author, Anders Halverson, described as “an entirely synthetic fish” that various government agencies have spread across the world, often to the great detriment of native fish populations. Their deaths would probably improve the river, if not the park’s revenues.

What I’m most concerned with is the impact of such fish on myself as an angler, and on my relationship with the real and natural world.
I’m a saltwater fisherman, and I’m not particularly interested in catching rubber trout or rubber anything else. Since I caught my first fish at the age of two, I’ve pursued creatures spawned in the wild, survivors that always caught their own food while avoiding becoming food for one of the myriad of predators that shared the same sea. The fish that I seek have been strengthened by current, waves and tide, and tempered by the changing seasons.
They are strong, beautiful, wild animals that are worth seeking and, in this increasingly perilous world, worth conserving and protecting.

But in some places, salt water fish aren’t as wild as they used to be. Some states are turning to hatcheries to artificially maintain the abundance of fish in coastal waters, rather than imposing the more restrictive management measures needed to maintain naturally-reproducing populations.
It’s probably no coincidence that the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the organizations leading the fight to weaken the conservation and management provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), is a strong supporter of saltwater fish hatcheries, or that most of the support for such hatcheries comes from the Gulf of Mexico region, where Magnuson-Stevens and its science-based management measures are generally held in disdain.

As the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department notes, hatchery fish are stocked along the coast to “ensure that harvest levels are sustained.” Without the expedient of stocking, managers would have to reduce harvest levels in order to maintain the abundance of naturally-spawned fish; that would make anglers unhappy.

Thus, throughout the Gulf, hatchery programs are being viewed as an alternative that alleviates the need for controversial harvest restrictions. Karl Wickstrom, editor of Florida Sportsman magazine and a harsh critic of federal fisheries management, has argued that “a well-run hatchery program can provide additional fish for recreational angling, bringing important socio-economic returns for the public…Researchers say it’s no coincidence that Texas has a red drum bag limit (3) that’s triple the number in Florida. In fact, the late Texas science director Larry McEachron said there’s no doubt in his mind that if Texas didn’t have its hatcheries, it would need to have a one-fish limit as in Florida.”

In Mississippi, state officials have already taken the first steps toward what could be the ultimate end run around unpopular fishery rules—stocking hatchery-reared red snapper.

Still, the notion of salt water hatcheries has its critics. Alec D. MacCall, a senior scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, observed that there is no evidence that hatcheries have ever helped any saltwater fish population rebuild. He noted, “The real fundamental problem is fishery reform…If a hatchery effectively stops management reform for the natural stock, I’d be hesitant to call anything successful.”

That’s a key point, for the existence of hatcheries evidences nothing more than the failure of fisheries management. We can see evidence of that failure across the country. In Pennsylvania, native brook trout have been displaced by brown trout stocked in the state’s limestone streams. In Colorado and Wyoming, in turn, stocked brook trout threaten native cutthroat populations. After a century or more of hatchery dependence, freshwater fishery managers are beginning to rethink stocked trout’s role.

Montana, despite its dependence on angling-related tourism, stopped stocking trout in its rivers and streams about forty years ago, and concentrated on conserving and rebuilding its wild fish populations. 

Pennsylvania still stocks, but not in its premier rivers, the “Class A Wild Trout Water” where wild fish reproduce naturally and are protected by appropriate regulation. In Quebec, scientists found that stocking lake trout in waters that hold wild fish compromises the genetic integrity of the native lake trout populations.

Saltwater fishery managers don’t yet have to deal with such problems. That’s why Magnuson-Stevens is such an important law; it requires managers to conserve and rebuild wild fish stocks, and not fall back on the expedient of hatchery production.
Thus, salt water anglers don’t have to encounter “rubber” red snapper or “entirely synthetic” summer flounder when they’re on the water. Strong, wild fish still fill our coastal seas.
Hopefully, thanks to Magnuson-Stevens, that will always be so.
This essay, along with the photos, first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Thursday, December 21, 2017


On it’s face, that’s hardly notable.  Last August, a complex of deteriorating metal fish pens failed, releasing at least 160,000 invasive Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound.  From there, some salmon ascended coastal rivers, and have been found as much as 50 miles upstream, not far from the spawning grounds of already badly stressed native Pacific salmon species.

The natural resources director of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, which has a deep cultural association with the native salmon, has reportedly caught more Atlantic salmon than natives when sampling the river to determine the size of this year’s chum salmon run.

That has a lot of people in the region upset.

“They’re kicking, they’re swimming fine, they’re still decent-looking fish.  I guess it’s not a stretch to say that they can’t go that extra 10 miles to get to the major spawning grounds.
“Is there some sort of stress that’s put on the native fish in the spawning grounds by having these other fish present?  We just don’t know.”
Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), sponsor of one of the bills that would outlaw the farming of non-native fish, said

“Our native stocks are like a person whose immune system is already compromised.  And the introduction of the non-native species into our native waters is like a cold. 
“Where to a healthy person the cold would just be a nuisance, to a person with a compromised immune system a cold can be fatal.”
Given such fears, taking a precautionary stance against farming foreign species makes sense.
However, not everyone sees such aquaculture projects as a threat; some see opportunity, perhaps none so much as the current United States Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, who said at his confirmation hearing that

“Given the enormity of our coastlines, given the enormity of our freshwater, I would like to try to figure out how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter.”

“develop techniques and business models to grow domestic seafood production.  A priority is to consider promising but less commercially developed technologies for finfish, shellfish, seaweed, and other relative newcomers to the domestic aquaculture industry.”
There is no requirement that the farmed species be native to the region, although

“Proposals that focus on projects that relate to enhancing the mission of [ASMFC] to rebuild fish stocks and protect essential habitats will be given priority.”
NOAA Fisheries is apparently funding such projects

“to offset a $14 billion seafood trade deficit in the U.S.”
But how to efficiently aquaculture species, both traditional and new, isn’t the most important question.  That is whether the economic benefits of the proposed aquaculture projects are sufficient to justify the possible economic, environmental and social costs.

The answer to that is not clear.

Some aquaculture projects can certainly be beneficial.  Traditional clam, mussel and oyster beds, that are seeded and harvested by their owners, and allow the public access to the waters, but not the shellfish-strewn bottom, can add needed filter feeders to once-pristine bays and estuaries, that have become murky with phytoplankton due to nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from septic tanks, fertilized lawns and the like.

Similarly, “vertical farms” of shellfish, kelp and the like can provide filter feeders and, in the case of kelp, directly remove excess nutrients from the water, but do so at the cost of public access to sections of once-public waters.  Without a robust ocean planning process, the chance for user conflicts is high.

Once you move from kelp and shellfish into fish farms and the like, the question becomes a lot more complicated.

Fish are animals, and have the same basic needs and problems that face animals generally.  They must eat, defecate and excrete.  They can contract various diseases and parasites.  And they can escape into ecosystems where they do not belong.

Those things make estuarine, coastal and ocean aquaculture problematic, because the ocean is an open system; the farmed fish may be contained in pens, but their excess food, their bodily waste and their parasites can and do flow with the current that passes through such pens, and on into the greater marine environment.

This year’s collapse of fish pens in Washington’s Puget Sound, and the escape of many thousands of Atlantic salmon into the watershed is, unfortunately, not unique.  Pink salmon, a species native to the West Coast of North America, have been caught by anglers in 236 Norwegian rivers, after escaping from Russian fish farms and establishing a self-sustaining population in the White Sea.  Biologists fear that such invasive salmon may create spawning competition, hybridizing with native sea (brown) trout; compete for food with native salmonid species; introduce diseases into the Atlantic salmon population, while serving as a vector that transmits local diseases from the White Sea to other waters; block native salmonids from their spawning grounds; and act aggressively toward native salmonid juveniles.

Stray pink salmon from Norway and Russia are now appearing in Scots and Irish rivers, as well, although biologists hope that the waters there will be too warm to allow the invasives to gain a foothold.

In Louisiana, Asian tiger shrimp, believe to be escapees from aquaculture operations in the Dominican Republic, have also established a self-sustaining population.  The big crustaceans, which can reach lengths of over a foot and weights of over a pound, breed faster than the native shrimp and happily feed on shrimp smaller than themselves, making them a real threat to native shrimp populations.  And Louisiana isn’t the only place they’ve turned up; tiger shrimp have been caught all along the coast, from North Carolina to Texas.

The threats posed by such farmed non-native species, has caused some environmentalists to ask whether the farmed animals themselves constitute a form of pollution.  At least one court has found that they do.  However, whether or not that finding ultimately becomes settled law, there’s no question that the open-water fish farming results in a lot of pollution going into the water.

“We’ve come to the point where we view these farms as hog lots or feedlots of the ocean.  They breed disease and parasites.  Like other big animal feedlots there are lots of problems.  Some of their practices are beginning to improve, but over all the impact is not lessening.”
And that’s not only the opinion of a conservation director at a conservation organization like TU.

“Salmon farming can have a variety of effects on the marine environment, through the discharge of nutrients, solid waste, medicines and antifoulants…
“The process of fish farming releases nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from fish feed into the marine environment in a soluble form.  These nutrients can enhance the growth of marine plants and algae…
“Waste feed and faeces from fish farms can collect on the seabed under fish cages.  This increase in organic matter has an impact on the benthic environment, affecting the nature and chemistry of sediments, and can reduce the diversity of animals living there.
“…Farmed salmon are susceptible to infestations of parasitic sea lice that cause considerable stress to fish and economic losses to the industry.  Sea lice on farmed fish could potentially be transferred to wild salmon and sea trout…The fish farming industry control sea lice using chemicals that can be toxic to marine invertebrates…
And even efforts to develop a “clean” solution to parasite problems can have unexpected adverse consequences.  

In the United Kingdom, Scots fish farmers have removed a large number of wrasse—a small fish that feeds on a variety of crustaceans, including sea lice—from their native habitats off England and Scotland and introduced them into salmon pens, to control the sea lice infestations.  Both anglers—who enjoy catching, but usually release the wrasse—and conservation advocates are concerned that such large-scale removals could upset the balance in local ecosystems; the salmon farmers deny that a problem exists, despite the fact that wrasse populations off Norway, where salmon farms abound, are shrinking.

Thus, there is a tension between the need for the products produced by fish farms and the harm that such farms can cause to native ecosystems.  The solution for that conundrum may be found in a very unexpected place:  On dry land.

“Raising Atlantic salmon on the West Coast has always struck me as unbelievably stupid.  The lessons of introduced species were there way before Atlantic salmon were moved [into that ecosystem].”
But he makes an exception for salmon raised on land—the only place that he believes such salmon farms belong.

In fact, once people make the conceptual leap to raising fish on land instead of in open-water pens, entirely new opportunities open up. 

First and foremost, the fish can’t escape and create environmental problems.  They’re grown in tanks, not in open-water enclosures, so if they escape their confinement, they’re stuck on dry land.  But that’s not the only advantage. 

The water from Desert Springs’ wells is somewhat salty—salty enough to kill most farm crops, but also salty enough to cause farmed fish to thrive even better than they would in pure fresh water.  And in an ocean or estuary environment, the fish’s waste products would become pollutants, excess nutrients that could lead to unwanted plankton blooms and other adverse effects.   In the piped-in water from the wells, the same waste becomes fertilizer, nitrogen and phosphorus compounds that allow Desert Springs to grow acres of wheat, sorghum, alfalfa and barley without the need to purchase any commercial fertilizer at all.

So it appears it’s possible to have fish farms, and good conservation outcomes, too.

But NOAA Fisheries’ current plan to hand out $450,000 grants for pilot projects along the East Coast is not the way to get that done. 

Better that such $450,000 be earmarked for stock assessments and better fisheries science, while farmers like those at Desert Springs—innovative entrepreneurs who have learned how to grow fish and plant crops in new and creative ways that work together—run their aquaculture operations hundreds of miles from the coast, where they can do no harm to natural populations, and produce only good products.

Sunday, December 17, 2017


For over the past decade or so, it has become increasingly clear that traditional single-species management, which considers the harvest of each species in a vacuum, and not in the context of entire ecosystems, is not the best way to manage fisheries, particularly fisheries for forage fish—the fish that everything else, including the most valued commercial and recreational species, feed on.

Although there may be exceptions, forage fish generally have very low value, and to be profitable, must be prosecuted on a high-volume basis.  Thus, we see the menhaden fishery land nearly 1.75 billion pounds of product, that’s worth a mere $181 million dollars—just 10 cents per pound.  That’s a lot of fish being sold for very little money, which will end up as food for farmed fish in China, instead of for striped bass, king mackerel and humpback whales in the waters of the U.S.

While menhaden are an important forage fish along the entire East Coast, but it’s easy to argue that up in New England, it’s importance is eclipsed by that of Atlantic herring.  

Herring support a fishery, too.  It’s not as big as the one for menhaden—a little less than 138 million pounds are landed—and the fish are a little more valuable—about 21 cents per pound—but still falls well within the “high volume, low value” category.

But herring aren’t low-value in the New England ecosystem.  They are critical forage for bluefin tuna, as well as for more mundane, but still valuable species such as striped bass and cod.  And when the herring aren’t around, the bigger fish that eat them, and are in turn sought by fishermen, often aren’t around either.

John Pappalardo, executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, says that

“Our guys are not fishing the way they did 12 years ago around the Cape because those fish aren’t there because the bait isn’t there.  We live in a migratory corridor here.  We depend on the bait to be there.”
The region’s fishermen, both commercial and recreational, have asked the New England Fishery Management Council to draft a regulation that would force the big herring trawlers to fish farther offshore, and prevent them from impoverishing the inshore ecosystem.

It’s a controversial request, not only because of the inevitable opposition from the big trawl operators, but because it involves the much-debated topic of “localized depletion,”

“a reduction of population size, independent of the overall status of the stock, over a relatively small spatial area as a result of intensive fishing.”
Thus, intensive forage fish harvest can result in localized depletion of a species occurring in one particular place, at one particular time, even though the overall stock of fish is extremely healthy.  That has led to the concept being challenged when brought up in a management context.  As one former member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, who has had to deal with the question at various meetings, has written

“So, some industry reps have successfully argued that it’s not ‘depletion’ or a conservation issue at all.  It’s simply a ‘gear conflict’ issue—big industrial boats impacting smaller boats.  By framing it in this way, they can argue that they have a right to be there as much as any other resource user.  I’ve heard industry reps say that no one group ‘owns the ocean.’  That may be true.  But if that’s the case, one resource user shouldn’t be able to ruin things for the rest of us…this IS a public resource.”
The good news is that on December 5, the Council responded to the Cape Codder's concerns by releasing a draft Amendment 8 to its fishery management plan for Atlantic herring for public comment.  Of the Amendment’s ten options, nine (the tenth is status quo management) would each

“establish a long-term acceptable biological catch (ABC) control rule that ‘may explicitly account for the herring’s role in the ecosystem and address the biological and ecological requirements of the stock.”
That’s a big deal.

Regulations—which is what would result from a control rule—that would “explicitly account” for a forage fish’s “role in the ecosystem” were exactly what folks hoped would come out of last month’s menhaden meeting.  While there’s still a chance that will happen in the future—menhaden-specific ecosystem reference points are still being developed; the rejected interim reference points were far more generic—seeing the same issue crop up in the case of Atlantic herring makes it clear that managers still see value in the concept, applied to other forage species.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that such a control rule will be adopted; the big trawl operators will be pushing hard for status quo.  They’re the folks best positioned to bring money and lobbyists and political connections to bear on this issue—and if we’ve learned anything from the Gulf recreational red snapper reopening and the New Jersey summer flounder debacle, it’s that money, lobbyists and political connections, rather than good science, is what matters with the folks currently holding the reins in Washington.

But the very fact that the New England Fishery Management Council, a council that has historically lagged all of the others when it comes to conserving fish stocks, is looking at Atlantic herring in an ecosystem  context gives some reason for hope in a year that has seen a number of U.S. fish stocks take serious body blows from a newly erratic management system.

This is an issue worth following, worth commenting on, and worth supporting, and may represent a little good news at an otherwise dismal time.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


“He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon,”
lest they fall into his grasp.

Yesterday, the various recreational fishing groups who have been trying for years to change some of the core provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, proved the truth of that adage.

Over the past year or so, we’ve heard such groups tout a piece of legislation that they call the “Modern Fish Act,” more formally known as H.R. 2023, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017

“The current federal laws have never properly addressed the importance of recreational fishing.  This has led to shortened or even cancelled seasons, reduced bag limits, and unnecessary restrictions—none of which is good news for the recreational fishing industry.
“Fortunately, a solution is on the horizon.  On April 6, 2017, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, or the ‘Modern Fish Act’ for short, was introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate…”

“The Modern Fish Act addresses many of the recreational fishing community’s priorities including allowing alternative management measures for recreational fishing, reexamining fisherie, s allocations, smartly rebuilding fish stocks, establishing exemptions where annual catch limits don’t fit and improving recreational data collection.”
For those who don’t understand all of the catchphrases, “alternative management measures” mean alternatives to the annual catch limits established to prevent overfishing; “smartly” rebuilding fish stocks means delaying such rebuilding to allow more fish to be killed each year, to diminish “socioeconomic impacts.”   And “annual catch limits don’t fit,” among other occasions, when

“fishing mortality [for a stock of fish] is below the fishing mortality target; and a peer-reviewed stock survey and stock assessment have not been performed during the preceding 5-year period,  [internal numbering deleted]”
although how one can be sure that mortality is below target without performing a stock assessment is not completely clear—particularly because another provision would exempt fisheries which, in the opinion of the Secretary of Commerce, cannot be adequately monitored by the Marine Recreational Information Program.

The joint release quotes the president of the American Sportfishing Association praising the bill, which

“addresses the core issues within federal saltwater fisheries management that are limiting the public’s ability to enjoy saltwater recreational fishing.”
It of course goes without saying that when “issues…are limiting the public’s ability to enjoy saltwater recreational fishing,” the public might be buying less fishing gear, so it’s easy to understand why removing such limits are important to ASA.

Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, an umbrella organization to which all of the entities on the release, except the Recreational Fishing Alliance, belong, said that

“For decades, the recreational fishing community has been subjected to antiquated federal policies not designed to manage recreational fishing.  The time is now to update these policies so families can fully enjoy our nation’s remarkable marine resources and continue a proud American tradition on the water.”
But just what are the “issues” and “antiquated federal policies” that are allegedly keeping anglers off the water?  From what the release itself says, not to mention the text of H.R. 2023, annual catch limits that prevent overfishing, along with regulations that allow overfished stocks to be promptly rebuilt appear to be foremost among them.

Despite that, the supporters of the Modern Fish Act purport to support conservation.

“This new bill will give federal managers the tools and data they need to both improve access and promote conservation of our natural marine resources.”

“The role that anglers play as conservationists and our dedication to having sustainable fisheries in the future is often misunderstood or even ignored.”

“America’s sportsmen are the original conservationists, and we fully recognize the importance of keeping healthy, robust stocks of fish and game.”
And at one time, with respect to some of the groups issuing the joint press release, that was even true.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act was last reauthorized in the closing days of 2006.  

Back then, there were also two competing visions of what American saltwater fishery management should look like.  On one hand, there was the bill that was ultimately adopted, sponsored by the late Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who lent his name to the law.  On the other hand was another bill, H.R. 5018, introduced by Congressman Richard Pombo (R-California).

H.R. 5018 promoted what had come to be called “flexible” fishery management, which essentially meant management that was more tolerant of overfishing, less insistent on rebuilding stocks and generally friendlier to short-term profit than to the long-term health of fish stocks.  For example, it would have allowed stock rebuilding to be delayed if, among other things,

“The Secretary [of Commerce] determines that such 10-year rebuilding period should be extended because the cause of the fishery decline is outside the jurisdiction of the [relevant regional fishery management] Council or the rebuilding program cannot be effective only by limiting fishing activities; the Secretary determines that such 10-year rebuilding period should be extended for one or more diminished components of a multi-species fishery; or the Secretary makes substantial changes to the rebuilding targets after the rebuilding plan has been put in place.  [internal numbering deleted]”
Back in those days, I sat on the Coastal Conservation Association’s National Executive Board, and was Vice Chair of its Government Relations Committee.  I was very proud as I watched CCA’s counsel, in conjunction with Mike Nussman of the American Sportfishing Association, lead the recreational community’s fight against the ill-considered “flexibility” provisions of H.R. 5018, and for the strong conservation and management provisions of Senator Stevens’ bill (although, in fairness, it should be noted that neither CCA nor ASA supported annual catch limits for all species, or accountability measures for recreational fisheries).

“The bill does nothing more than delay the rebuilding of depleted populations…In that way, it is largely fighting last year’s—or perhaps last decade’s—fight.  For most important recreational species, rebuilding has either been completed or is well underway, and little is gained by stretching out the last few years of recovery periods that are already well underway.  The exceptions are those complexes of slow-growing, generally deep-water species which support a mixed commercial/recreational fishery:  New England groundfish, southern snapper-grouper and Pacific rockfish.
“…The extension of the rebuilding deadlines in the Flexibility Act are simply designed to drag out recovery in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue.”
CCA did criticize requirements that all overfishing be ended by 2011, what it believed were overly precautionary provisions of Magnuson-Stevens and a lack of good recreational data.  It also questioned the National Marine Fisheries Service’s ability to carry out the demands of the law.  But its opposition to “flexibility” legislation, and its commitment to conservation, was very clear.

But after that, things changed.  CCA helped found the Center for Sportfishing Policy (formerly known as the Center for Coastal Conservation).  In doing so, it abandoned its autonomy and found conformed its legislative positions to those acceptable to the rest of the Center members, which included various industry members who were at least as concerned with current income as they were with conservation.

Early in 2014, CCA and other Center members collaborated on an industry-oriented report titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” which abandoned CCA’s long-held position and instead embraced “flexibility,” calling for

“Creating reasonable latitude in stock rebuilding timelines,”
and suggesting that

“Instead of having a fixed deadline for stocks to be rebuilt…the regional councils and fisheries managers [should] set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
The notion that “flexible” rebuilding times “are simply designed to drag out rebuilding in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue” had officially gone by the wayside, although the statement was as true in 2014—and is as true today—as it was when it was made in 2010.

With the commitment to timely rebuilding abandoned, the Center for Sportfishing Policy, its members and temporarily affiliated organizations were free to approach federal legislators who were generally seen as hostile to conservation, in their effort to have the legislation now known as the Modern Fish Act introduced. 

Such effort probably reached its apex—or its nadir, depending upon one’s point of view—when the Center for Sportfishing Policy gave its 2016 “Conservationist of the Year Award” to Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.  Although Rep. Bishop is probably best known for his efforts to transfer federal lands, which are critically important to freshwater anglers and hunters, to state and local governments, who would in turn be free to lease or sell them to private interests, the Center announced that he earned the award

“for championing policies promoting healthy fish and wildlife populations and access to America’s land and waters.”
Yesterday, Rep. Bishop’s committee marked up a number of bills, including H.R. 200, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.  The Modern Fish Act was not considered; instead, some provisions of the Modern Fish Act were included in H.R. 200.

Whether such merging of the bills was initiated by the Center for Sportfishing Policy, or whether it was a sop thrown the recreational groups by a Committee intent on passing H.R. 200 is currently unclear.  However, despite the fact that H.R. 200 contains more egregious exceptions to the stock rebuilding provision than did H.R. 5018, which was so effectively opposed by the American Sportfishing Association and Coastal Conservation Association a decade ago, the Center for Sportfishing Policy is hailing the Committee’s favorable vote on the combined bill—even though its provisions weaken federal fisheries law so badly that members of the conservation community are calling it

“The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources voted to advance two pieces of legislation (H.R. 200 and H.R. 3588) today that threaten fish populations and the people who depend on them.  Departing from the 40-year tradition of building consensus around federal fisheries laws, the bills failed to attract any meaningful bipartisan support and have faced opposition from conservationists, fishermen, chefs, scientists and other groups.”
It appears that Center for Sportfishing Policy, its member organizations and affiliates have indeed supped with the Devil.

And it appears that they’ve gone straight to Hell.