Monday, January 1, 2018


For advocates of salt water fish conservation, 2017 was not a good year.

It marked the first year of an administration that appears to have no connection with the natural world, on either land or water, and perhaps for that reason, has a seeming contempt for conservation issues.  Such administration serves as the perfect partner for a Congress heavily biased toward extractive users of all stripes, and equally hostile to the concept of conserving natural resources of all sorts.

That decision was followed up, in July, by the Secretary of Commerce overruling the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s finding that New Jersey had gone out of compliance with ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan.  It was the first time in more than 23 years that such an ASMFC determination was overturned.  The consequences were much more far-ranging than merely allowing New Jersey anglers to enjoy too-lax rules; other states, which formerly feared having fisheries shut down if they defied ASMFC, are now more willing to push the boundaries of fishery management plans, knowing that there is a good chance that Commerce will ultimately reward their noncompliance.

That sort of thinking, and the resulting fear that ASMFC’s remaining authority to manage coastal fisheries might be effectively erased, may have played a role at a November meeting of the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, when that board surprised and dismayed the conservation community by not adopting interim ecological reference points that would have required managers to consider the species’ role as a forage fish when setting annual catch limits for the menhaden stock.  Faced with the threat of Virginia going out of compliance with an adverse Management Board decision, and the possibility that Omega Protein, the largest harvester of menhaden, might bring suit, ASMFC voted 16-2 against adopting such ecological reference points, when well-informed vote-counters predicted, ahead of the meeting, that the reference points would, instead, be approved 11-7.

On the West Coast, the Environmental Protection Agency, immediately after speaking to representatives of the mining industry, reversed the previous administration’s decision to stop development of the so-called Pebble Mine, which threatens the watershed of Bristol Bay, Alaska.  While the mine hasn’t yet been approved—the EPA decision merely allows the permitting process to move forward—given that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is, and long has been, a lapdog for various extractive industries, there is scant reason to hope that the permit will be withheld; the odds have gotten good enough that Northern Dynasty Minerals, the primary developer of the proposed Pebble Mine, has just received new funding from a new business partner.  Thus, one of the last healthy natural salmon runs in the United States, which includes all five Pacific species—kings, coho, pinks, chums and the world’s largest run of sockeye—are likely to be threatened by pollution caused by mine tailings and runoff, and a near-pristine watershed badly degraded.

Finally, to close the year off on a sour note, in December the House Committee on Natural Resources, on what were essentially party-line votes, marked up and favorably recommended H.R. 200, a bill that will badly weaken federal fisheries laws, and H.R. 3588, the so-called “RED SNAPPER Act,” which will permit recreational fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, with the connivance of state fishery managers, to effectively evade the impacts of whatever federal fisheries laws may remain, whether or not H.R. 200 is passed.

Now, as we look ahead to 2018, it is clear that some of the old battles will continue into the new year, and that even more, new battles loom on the horizon.

In Congress, it is probably impossible to prevent the House from passing H.R. 200, as it is exactly the sort of bill the majority prefers, placing short-term economic gains ahead of the long-term health of America’s natural resources.  It’s likely that the RED SNAPPER Act, which also weakens conservation measures, will also win House support.

The real fight for the health of our fisheries will take place in the Senate, where the outlook not quite as dim.  On the whole, the Senate has a more reasoned and deliberative approach toward legislation than does the House, and the key senators don’t exhibit the same sort of slash-and-burn mentality toward both marine and terrestrial resources that is enthusiastically displayed by the majority on the House Natural Resources Committee.  Thus, there is reason to hope that the Senate bill reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act will look substantially better than H.R. 200.

S. 1686, the Senate version of the RED SNAPPER Act, is also unlikely to sail smoothly through that chamber, although it may ultimately pass in some form.

The House version of the Modern Fish Act, H.R. 2023, was bad enough that many of its provisions could be seamlessly incorporated into H.R. 200, a bill so bad that it is being called “another ‘Empty Oceans Act,’” a sobriquet first given to a predecessor bill in an earlier session of Congress.  S. 1520, which remains a stand-alone bill, doesn’t sink quite so low, but it does contain provisions that threaten the quality of the data used to manage federal fisheries, and others that could undercut current provisions that prohibit overfishing and require the timely rebuilding of overfished stocks.  The real danger of S. 1520 is that it could be folded into whatever Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill finally emerges from the Senate, and that a lot of the bad provisions of H.R. 200 are included in whatever compromise legislation results from a House/Senate conference.

At the regional level, East Coast anglers are looking at two pending threats.

The first affects the striped bass.

“To perpetuate, through cooperative interstate fishery management, migratory stocks of striped bass; to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock; and also to provide for the restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat.  [emphasis added]”
Management “consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure” requires regulations which maintain harvest at relatively modest levels, and allow fish to survive to reach older age, larger sizes and, particularly in the case of striped bass, greater fecundity.  But there is currently an effort taking place at ASMFC, supported by some members of the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, to change the biological reference points that ultimately decide what striped bass regulations will be

Instead of regulations that provide for a greater abundance and a broad and more stable age and size structure of the striped bass stock, they are seeking reference points that will maximize yield, significantly reduce the number of older, larger females in the spawning stock, and so make the striped bass more vulnerable to consecutive years of poor spawning success.

“…Do we want to maximize yield, which…is a historical traditional reference point for a commercial fishery is [maximum sustainable yield].  Do we want to maximize catch rates, so that you can go out and have a high chance of catching a fish?
“Is that what we want?  Do we want to maximize trophy-sized fish?  Do we want regional reference points or do we want a coastwide reference point?  Do we want a less conservative threshold?  Do we want a threshold to really represent a threshold that is a danger zone, or do we want it to represent something different?”
Most serious recreational striped bass fishermen would like to see the species managed for abundance; those of us who lived through the collapse of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as younger anglers who know their striped bass history, would like to see it managed for a resilient spawning stock structure as well.  On the other hand, some commercial fishermen, who see the world through the lens of maximum yield, as well as many members of and spokesmen for the recreational fishing industry, who equate bigger kills with bigger profits, would love to see harvests increased, even if that puts the stock in greater jeopardy in the long term.

ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will discuss, but probably not make a final decision, on the question at their February meeting.  However, one issue they will decide, and which will have an impact on how much of the big 2015 year class survives to enter the coastal migratory population and, eventually, the female spawning stock, is whether Maryland should be granted a “conservation equivalency” exception that would permit the state to lower its minimum size for striped bass.

Right now, Maryland does not allow fishermen to retain striped bass smaller than 20 inches in length under any circumstances.  Although the details of the state’s conservation equivalency proposal have not yet been published by ASMFC, it’s widely expected that it will seek to decrease the minimum size to 18 inches.  That’s the size of a typical three-year-old bass, and it’s no coincidence that the 2015 year class will be three years old this spring, just as any such conservation equivalency proposal becomes effective.

So the effort to emphasize yield instead of abundance has, in a way, already begun.

The second thread addresses the striped bass’ frequent companion in the northeast, the bluefish.  As ASMFC announced in its latest edition of its newsletter, Fisheries Focus,

“In December, the Commission and [the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council] initiated a new amendment to the Bluefish [fishery management plan].  The intent of the Draft Amendment is to review and possibly revise recreational/commercial allocation of the resource…A Scoping Document will be released sometime in 2018.”

A strict reading of the Magnuson-Stevens Act casts some doubt on the legitimacy of such reallocation.  One of the stated purposes of the Act is

“to promote domestic commercial and recreational fishing under sound conservation and management principles, including the promotion of catch and release programs in recreational fishing.  [emphasis added]”
The recreational bluefish fishery is a perfect example of a fishery that has been embracing such catch and release, with release rates increasing from 18% in the early 1980s to 62% in recent years.  However, transfer of recreational allocation to the commercial sector, far from promoting catch and release programs, does exactly the opposite:  It teaches anglers that catch and release accomplishes very little, for rather than increasing the abundance of bluefish, allowing more encounters and better recreational opportunity, it merely provides additional quota for the commercial sector to kill.

Furthermore, although part of the law’s definition of “optimum” yield is

“the amount of fish which will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities…”
which language places “food production” and “recreational opportunities” on an equal footing, the reallocation of unharvested—but not unused, as caught-and-released fish can be “used” by multiple anglers on multiple occasions—elevates food production above recreation, contrary to the language of the law.

Now, managers are considering going one step further, and permanently reallocating bluefish not regularly harvested by anglers to the commercial sector.

Given the contribution that catch and release fishing, as opposed to harvest, makes to the maintenance of healthy stocks, such reallocation would not benefit conservation goals, and certainly violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Magnuson-Stevens provisions quoted above.  Anglers should be ready to oppose any such reallocation when the scoping documents become available.

Finally, up in Alaska, opponents of the Pebble Mine and the destruction that it will bring will be fighting a very difficult battle.  

Last year, despite receiving well over 200,000 comments in opposition to reopening the permitting process, the Environmental Protection Agency, at the behest of its chief administrator, Scott Pruitt, is allowing that permitting effort to move forward.  The process will hopefully be long, complicated and, with any luck, further delayed and complicated by litigation brought by champions of the salmon, clean waters and wilderness.  

But this is an administration that only values land that can be drilled, logged, mined or paved over, with no regard for the beauty of pristine open spaces, so we can expect it to fight as hard as it can, and with the benefit of its new court appointees at every level, to put the Bristol Bay watershed at 

Right now, given the current Congress, individuals will  not have too many ways to defend the watershed and its salmon.  But there will certainly be opportunities to donate to organizations opposing the mine, who will carry on the fight in the courts and in Congress and perhaps can delay the destruction long enough for the political landscape to change.  At the least, merely raising public awareness about what we could lose is a step in the right direction.

It would be nice to say that those are the only threats we will face next year, but that wouldn’t be true.  I’m winding down now only because I’ve already run on too long for one blog, not because I'm running out of problems.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine Monument off New England, created to protect unique deep-water ecosystems, is under siege, just as other monuments were besieged on land, and for the same reasons—short term gain from resource extraction trumps, in this administration’s mind, any other values.

Regulations governing mako shark harvest are likely to be revised; shortfin makos are declining badly, and though ICCAT’s recent actions weren’t enough to ensure a recovery, we need to be sure that whatever actions the National Marine Fisheries Service takes in response to ICCAT will maximize benefits to the resource.

Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agriculture, septic systems and other sources is causing harmful algae blooms in our bays, while beds of eelgrass and other aquatic plants decline.  

So yes, those who support the conservation and restoration of our marine fish stocks have a lot of battles ahead.

They will be difficult fights.  There will be losses.

Nevertheless, if we are to have healthy fish stocks in our future, they are fights that we cannot avoid.

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