Thursday, March 29, 2018
Everybody wants more fish.
Commercial fishermen make more money when they can harvest more product, while recreational fishermen have long cast envious glances at the commercial harvest, and tried, by various means, to into their own.
It’s not just an inter-sector conflict. In both commercial and recreational fisheries, there are sub-allocations that divide up the harvest between fishermen in various states, or those fishing from private versus for-hire vessels, or those using different types of gear.
At the same time, deciding who catches the fish, rather than how many are ultimately caught, isn’t a conservation issue. A dead fish is a dead fish, no matter who lands it, so as long as the overall annual harvest doesn’t exceed sustainable levels, allocation has no impact on stock health.
Allocation of harvest to the various sectors and sub-sectors is the responsibility of the various regional fishery management councils, and of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). In making allocation decisions, fishery managers rely heavily upon “catch history”—historical patterns of harvest—but also give some consideration to various social and economic factors, as well as to the distribution of fish stocks.
Once allocations are set, they very seldom change, despite often significant changes in markets, in the fishery, and in fish distribution.
There are a number of reasons for that, but the biggest one is that fisheries managers just don’t like to get bogged down in allocation debates. Such debates tend to be long, bitter and filled with rancor, because allocation is usually a zero-sum game. Unless some portion of the annual catch limit typically remains unused, the only way to give someone more fish is to take fish away from someone else.
Thus, no matter what fishery managers do, they’re going to get someone upset. Most managers, given a choice, would rather avoid the issue.
Some of the recent allocation debates demonstrate why that is so.
On the East Coast, water temperatures are rising, and . For fish such as summer flounder and black sea bass, that has created a situation where southern states hold most of the quota, but northern states host most of the fish. As a result, southern fishermen are forced to steam hundreds of miles from port in an effort to catch all of their quota, while northern fishermen are forced to dump hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds of dead fish back into the ocean because of the very small quotas assigned to the New England and upper Mid-Atlantic states.
The . Throughout those years, the commercial fishery was largely unregulated, and badly overfished; the spawning stock . Most of the fish, and so most of the harvest was concentrated at the lower end of the species’ range. As a result, the southernmost states of North Carolina and Virginia were awarded 27.4% and 21.3%, respectively, of .
Today, the situation has changed. that “the [summer flounder’s] range may be extending farther north. In addition, warmer water temperatures have resulted in the fish moving to the North and the East. These changes may also be driven by a stronger population now that the stock is rebuilt…The population itself is likely distributed with about 50 percent North of Hudson Canyon and the other 50 percent to the South. Approximately 70% of the allocation is to the states from New Jersey to North Carolina, which sets up a bit of an overfishing situation in the southern areas.”
Such circumstances seem to demand a reallocation of summer flounder quota among the states. But reallocation, no matter how compelling the circumstances, in never a quick nor an easy process.
At its December 2013 meeting, the MAFMC decided to to its Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan. Such amendment was to , including the states’ commercial allocations. However, despite the clear changes in the fishery, by commercial participants on the MAFMC’s Summer Flounder Advisory Panel.
One advisor argued that “some states (especially New York) have been left out of the current system,” and that as a result, “this system went against ,” which is intended to protect fishing communities. Most of the comments supported the status quo even though conditions had changed.
Advisors argued that “the industry…had been built on this system over the last 25 years,” and that “changes to this system will present significant economic and management losses.”
Not surprisingly, the greatest resistance came from fishermen enjoying the largest shares of the quota, who said that “The summer flounder commercial fishery is very important to Virginia and North Carolina; it is their bread and butter fishery since they do not have much else to target…Now interest in landing summer flounder in New England is increasing because there is no groundfish. Virginia and North Carolina should not be punished because of that.”
Things are no smoother on the recreational side.
In 2003, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decided to allocate recreational summer flounder landings among the states, , a year when the stock was still overfished, overfishing was still occurring, and the recreational sector exceeded its landings target . Such allocation gave New Jersey anglers 39.09% of the recreational quota; neighboring New York, allocated 17.63%, received the next-largest share.
But as the stock recovered, waters warmed and summer flounder moved north, the old allocation stopped making sense. New York anglers started encountering, and landing, a far larger number of summer flounder than they had before. In 2009, in order to shoehorn the state’s anglers into their decade-old allocation, New York was forced to adopt the ever seen on the coast: two fish per day, a 21-inch minimum size and a short 78-day season.
During the same year, New Jersey anglers, who sometimes fished within shouting distance of their New York counterparts, were governed by a six-fish daily limit, an 18-inch minimum size and a 103-day season, all because their state retained their large allocation even though it no longer hosted the greatest abundance of fish.
Although the ASMFC was already talking about replacing the outdated allocation with a new and more equitable approach, nothing was done for years; the states that benefitted from the old way of doing things didn’t want to cede fish to the other states.
When the , that both reallocated some unused recreational quota from the southern states and grouped the states into regions that shared the same regulations and a single allocation of fish, .
ASMFC’s temporary plan worked. Even so, after the ASMFC , New Jersey refused to comply, adopted its own set of regulations, and appealed to the Secretary of Commerce for relief. The
51% of red snapper landings to the commercial sector and 49% to anglers, based on historical landings. For many years, even though, because they chronically overfish their quota, . Finally, late in 2015, the (Amendment 28), which reallocated 51.5% of the red snapper to anglers, leaving 48.5% for the commercial sector.
Commercial fishermen sued. that the reallocation violated of the (Magnuson-Stevens), which requires, in part, that any allocation be “fair and equitable to all…fishermen.” The violation occurred because “Amendment 28 enables the recreational sector to catch more fish in the future because they caught more fish in the past, . [emphasis added]” The court observed that Amendment 28 “created a system in which one sector must demonstrate an increase in landings in excess of its quota in order to obtain an increase in their allocation.”
Rewarding a sector for repeatedly overfishing was clearly not acceptable policy, so the years of work that the GMFMC spent preparing Amendment 28 ultimately accomplished nothing.
That’s not an uncommon outcome for allocation debates, which is another reason why regional fishery management councils usually avoid revisiting allocations unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Even when compelling reasons exist, and years of work is invested in reallocation efforts, such efforts often fail. Thus, it’s difficult not to be skeptical of legislation known as the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (Modern Fish Act), , which among other things would require the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regional fishery management councils to revisit allocations of all managed species two years after such bill was enacted, and every five years thereafter.
Given that , and that , repeatedly revisiting all of the species’ allocations would be a daunting task, one likely to devour much of such councils’ time and resources, leaving little remaining for the councils’ primary task of conserving and managing fish stocks.
Certainly, changing conditions in the ocean and in our fisheries justify taking a new look at some allocations, but creating arbitrary deadlines for allocation review guarantees neither a good result nor any result at all.
When, and whether, allocations should be reviewed is a matter best left up to those who know their fisheries and their local waters best, the people who sit on the regional fishery management councils.
This post first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/
Sunday, March 25, 2018
It doesn’t matter what species we’re talking about, or what fisheries are involved. Once all of the available fish are fully utilized, and landings approach optimum yield, fishery management becomes a zero-sum game.
In order to give more fish to one sector, managers have to take fish away from someone else.
There’s just no getting around it, because if you let someone take more, and don’t cut back elsewhere, overfishing will result. Let that happen, and everyone will end up with less whatever the allocations may be.
I was reminded of that last week, after New York’s fishery managers set up a public meeting to discuss this year’s recreational black sea bass rules.
For those not familiar with the black sea bass fishery, it’s one of those confounding situations where what should have been a great success story—black sea bass abundance is close to twice the target level, and fish have become available to anglers in numbers and places that are unique in the memory of most fishermen now alive—is turning into something that looks like disaster, as various factors converge to complicate the management process.
A warming ocean has helped to create the issue, in a number of ways. The size of a black sea bass year class is largely dependent on the conditions it encounters during its first winter at the edge of the continental shelf. Warm, saline water is conducive to the young sea bass’ survival, so when the winter of 2011-2012 produced unusually high winter water temperatures, the black sea bass responded; the 2011 year class produced off-the-charts abundance, and fish began showing up everywhere.
At the same time, beginning in 2010, summer flounder reproduction went into a tailspin, and hasn’t yet recovered. That meant that around 2014, when the 2011 black sea bass year class were entering the northeastern fishery in big numbers, fewer legal summer flounder were available to anglers.
As anglers tend to target whatever is most available, summer angling effort began to shift from summer flounder onto sea bass. Here on the South Shore of New York’s Long Island, a lot of that shift manifested itself not in what anglers were supposedly fishing for, but instead, in where they were fishing. Effort shifted from the bays, inlets and sand humps offshore to hard structure such as wrecks and artificial reefs, places where they knew they could, at least, put a few black sea bass in the cooler if the summer flounder didn’t show.
As a result, anglers started catching a lot of black sea bass, and because the stock was healthy, a lot of those sea bass were pretty big. In 2006, for example, anglers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic landed about 1.3 million black sea bass, and the average fish weighed about 1.4 pounds; ten years later, in 2016, landings had increased to 2.5 million fish, with an average weight of 2 pounds. With those sort of numbers, anglers could land their annual catch limit quickly, even as that catch limit increased in response to the abundance of fish.
At the same time, the warming oceans were seeing the center of black sea bass abundance shift north.
For many years, recreational black sea bass landings were dominated by the states between New Jersey and Virginia, with far fewer fish caught in the north. Prior to 2003, when black sea bass were still badly overfished, those states accounted for more than 80% of black sea bass landings, with states between New York and Massachusetts accounting for the rest. But the southern share began to decline in 2004; in 2009, for the first time, northern states accounted for a majority of the landings. By 2016, the situation was entirely inverted, with 83% of the recreational sea bass landings generated by states between Massachusetts and New York.
Unfortunately, regulations hadn’t kept up with the trends in abundance. They kept bag limits high and size limits low in the southern states, where the fish used to be, and were seldom caught any more (Virginia anglers, for example, landed about 450,000 black sea bass in 2000, and just 29,000—about 6.5% of 2000 landings—in 2016), and forced northern states, where the fish were present in far larger numbers, to adopt ever-larger size limits and ever-shrinking bags in a fruitless effort to constrain their harvest (landings in New York tripled, from 335,000 to over 1,000,000 million fish, during the same period).
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission tried to address that problem in 2018, grouping the states into regions that might better reflect the origins of the fish that they catch (the latest benchmark stock assessment, released late in 2016, broke the population into northern and southern components, with Hudson Canyon, located off New York and New Jersey, and the demarcation between the two).
However, things haven’t changed much since the late blues artist Billie Holliday co-wrote and sang God Bless the Child back in 1939:
“Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose…
“…Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don’t take too much…
That became clear when ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board met in February, to finalize the regions and allocate recreational black sea bass landings for 2018.
They had a few choices to make. They could have established two regions, which would have grouped New Jersey, which shares many fishing grounds with New York, with the four northern states, and required it to have similar size and bag limits. However, because New Jersey straddles Hudson Canyon, that didn’t happen; ASMFC established a northern region that only includes the states between New York and Massachusetts, which will share the northern component of the population, based on their historical landings.
And ASMFC had to decide which historical landings to use. A five-year time period, encompassing landings between 2011 and 2015, provided the “cleanest” data and would have fully captured the northern movement of the stock. But here’s where Billie Holiday, the “crust of bread” and injunction “don’t take too much” comes in.
Because, as I mentioned at the start of this piece, fishery management is a zero-sum game, and the southern states, who were definitely in the “them that’s got category,” didn’t want to base the allocations on recent landings, which would give northern states—“them that’s not”—more than a “crust of bread” out of the southern state’s larder. Instead, they favored a 10-year period that also included seasons when the south dominated the fishery, even though the fish weren’t off their shores in such abundance these days.
In the end, the states compromised on an allocation that amounted to an average between what each region would get under each of the two allocations. I call that a “compromise,” but it was the kind of compromise that someone makes when a bayonet is just starting to pierce that soft triangle of flesh at the base of his throat. As one northern state rep noted at the meeting, “It’s 6 to 4,” favoring the south, and it was clear how things had to end.
So, in contrast to the southern states “that’s got” both the allocation and the votes, the northern states “that’s not” did lose, having to collectively surrender about 100,000 black sea bass that their anglers would have been able to land if allocations were based on the more recent five-year period.
The northern states all voted against ASMFC’s bastard averaging approach, and they did in fact lose, by the predicted 6-4 margin. They will bring a formal appeal at ASMFC’s May meeting, but their chances of success are not overwhelming.
So all of the states are going to have to set black sea bass regulations that look something like a 15-inch minimum size, 4-fish bag limit and a season that runs from mid-June through mid-October.
Which brings us back, the long way, to New York’s public meeting and the zero-sum game.
Although all of the northern states are required to adopt similar regulations, the rules don’t need to be exactly the same. They merely have to have “conservation equivalency” to the model set of rules meaning that a state may not adopt regulations that would result in a larger harvest than the model rules would. Still, state discretion isn’t unlimited; the size limit must be within one inch of the model, and the bag limit can’t vary by more than three; there is unlimited discretion on the season, so long as it won’t allow too many fish to be caught.
New York decided that it would keep the 15-inch minimum size, but proposed keeping its current 3-fish bag limit during July and August, when private-boat anglers typically dominate the catch, and allow anglers to keep 5 black sea bass (down from 8 in September and October and 10 in November and December) through the rest of the year. That would allow New York anglers the longest possible season, beginning it on July 1, while retaining the September through December fishery that’s important to the for-hire fleet.
No, the proposal isn’t perfect, but it’s a reasonable compromise that provides at least some sort of directed summer fishery, while giving the for-hires and the more serious private-boat anglers a chance to catch black sea bass when waters cool in the fall.
But a bunch of the for-hires aren’t happy with that. They’re demanding that the proposal be changed to give them more fish in the fall. They claim that they “need” those fish for their business.
The problem is, there is only one place they can get those fish from, and that’s to take them away from the private boat fleet. Because it is, in the end, a zero-sum game, and New York’s anglers are only allocated a limited number of fish. For the for-hire boats to get more, the private boats must get fewer. There is no other way.
And New York’s private boat anglers are already losers in their own right when it comes to black sea bass.
At the March 2016 meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, the Council was given a number of possible black sea bass regulations, and asked to vote for their preferred alternative. The choice ultimately came down to two proposals, which were identical in all respects, except that one alternative would open the season on June 27, and reduce the bag limit from 8 fish to 3 from then until vthe bag limit from 8 fish to 5 during July and August.
Representatives of the party boat fleet present at the meeting were split, with those from eastern Long Island preferring the later opening, while those from the rest of New York insisting on the earlier season, despite the sharp reduction in bag limit. The Marine Resources Advisory Council, on a close vote, preferred the later start and 5-fish bag; however, their advice was rejected by the Department of Environmental Conservation, which opted for the earlier start.
So the party boats on western and central Long Island got their 11 extra days of season, but effectively paid for it by taking fish out of the coolers of the private boat fleet, which normally dominates black sea bass landings before Labor Day.
It is, after all, a zero-sum game.
As a private-boat angler who is active in the black sea bass fishery—and used to be a lot more active, when the bag limit was large enough to have a directed fishery in the summer, before a lot of the wrecks and other structure was picked over by the party boat fleet—I wasn’t happy about that decision, but the folks manning the agency are paid to use their best discretion, and on the whole, they do a fine job, even if all of us can second-guess one of their calls every now and again.
But now, that early start apparently isn’t important to the western party boat fleet any more, because they’re demanding more fish in the fall. Once again, managers are playing a zero-sum game, so the only way that the west end boats are going to get those fish is to delay the start of the season and take fish away from the private boat fleet once again, and in doing so also take them away from their own early-season customers, who apparently don’t “need” fish at that time of year any more. (Of course, given the compliance—or lackthereof—with the rules on some of the boats, maybe they just figure that changing the early rules won’t impact customers all that much).
Hopefully, the state will stick to its guns, and implement the regulations that it originally proposed for 2018.
If the western party boats get their way, and are again allowed to snatch fish from the private boat fleet, something is very, very wrong.
Fisheries management might be a zero-sum game. But that doesn’t mean that the state should make the private boat anglers pay, again, for the party boats' hunger.
There is more than enough pain for us all to share.
Thursday, March 22, 2018
The current effort to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is built on a number of…well, to be polite, let’s call them “myths.” Perhaps the greatest of those is that the entire angling community is on the same side.
It makes for a good story, and has probably convinced a legislator or two to support a bill that wouldn’t have otherwise gotten the nod, and convinced a few more anglers to jump onto a bandwagon that they would have otherwise ignored.
The story’s a lot more attractive than the unvarnished truth, that the bill is largely the creation of a fishing-tackle trade group seeking to boost its members’ incomes, boatbuilders with similar goals, and a handful of anglers’ rights groups—the biggest of them having, by its own count, a little over 100,000 members (a very small piece of the estimated 8,300,000 saltwater fishermen in the United States)—who want to put a few more fish in their coolers, and leave a few less in the sea.
But slowly, the real story is trickling out.
This week the Center for American Progress, a Washington “think tank,” put a big, ugly crack in the industry/anglers’ rights crowd’s pretty façade when they issued a study titled “The Rise of the Recreational Fishing Lobby."
The study’s findings won’t be any surprise to folks who regularly read this blog, but the fact that a respected Washington think tank thoroughly investigated the issue, and came to the same conclusions, is significant.
People who matter are beginning to look behind the curtain, and are clearing away the smoke and mirrors generated by the critics of Magnuson-Stevens who are behind the so-called Modern Fish Act and similar bills.
The authors of the study caught the key issue in a single paragraph, when they observed that
“In the past, outdoor recreation advocates have measured the success of their policy advocacy by fishery abundance, focusing on keeping their resource plentiful. However, in recent years, some recreational equipment manufacturers have joined forces with the majority of recreational fishing organizations to support changes to the law that would provide greater recreational access to fisheries while weakening science-based safeguards that promote the health and abundance of fish stocks. This emphasis on access at the expense of abundance reflects the business model of the equipment industry: Selling more boats, tackle, and gear requires perpetual growth in the number of fishing participants not just the size of fish populations. [emphasis added]”
Undoubtedly, that statement is going to draw some outraged shrieks from the anglers’ rights crowd.
It’s likely that the same sort of folks who howl at the moon about losing “the days of freedom in our fisheries,” or who spout trite complaints about federal fisheries managers’ “harmful overregulation,” and “burdensome restrictions” will eventually claim that the report only reflects the pro-regulation bias of the progressive think tank that produced it.
Such specious arguments are destined to fail. Not only is “The Rise of the Recreational Fishing Lobby” well-researched, but it’s core message, quoted above, merely reflects statements made by Modern Fish Act supporters.
Last summer, they held what they called their “Weigh-in on the Hill,” where they met, discussed the Modern Fish Act and tried to attract congressional support. One of the speakers at that event was New Jersey tackle wholesaler Nick Cicero, of Bimini Bay Outfitters and the Folsom Corporation. According to The Fisherman magazine, Cicero told the assembled crowd that
“These amendments need to not only support the existing population of recreational anglers and fishing related businesses but also allow new entrants to come into the fishery and businesses to grow and expand. The law needs to recognize that in itsMagnuson-Stevens Act] taking away opportunity from the rest of the fishing community. [The Magnuson-Stevens Act], as it applies to recreational fishing, is a flawed law, one that stifles growth of our industry and challenges the very future of our tradition. [emphasis added]”
His statement completely corroborates the thesis of the report, and the rest of the report seems equally true.
Anglers and everyone else concerned with the health of our fisheries should also think long and hard about a very important question posed by the report:
“If the prioritization of fish abundance is now being superseded by the pursuit of opportunity to fish, precisely what is it that recreational advocates are fighting to access?”
It’s an important question, because as just about any angler can tell you, abundance matters. Fishing for spooky, selective, hard-to-fool fish is a challenge; even when you can’t catch one, you can have a good, if frustrating, day.
But it’s important to know that the fish are there. It’s tough to get excited about fishing in a largely empty sea, when you know that you can do everything right, and still come up empty, solely because the fish aren’t there. I lived through that forty years ago, when the striped bass collapsed.
But those were striped bass and I was still almost young, not yet married and stubborn enough to think that hunting unicorns might be fun. I was willing to make thousands of casts in an effort to find the handful of fish that swam along miles of otherwise empty shore.
But I was largely alone. Unicorns were not for everyone. A lot of folks chose to stay home.
The important thing to remeber, though, is that just before the collapse, people caught a lot of striped bass. The stock didn’t collapse all at once. The spawning failures began in 1975, but big fish were abundant throughout most of the 1970s. I worked in a tackle shop for much of that decade, and for a few years, saw customers bring a parade of large stripers—the sort of big females that were critically important to the future of the stock—through the door, to get their photos taken and hang their bass on the scale. Sometimes, they’d hang three or four at a time.
Yet, although it was clear that the bass was in trouble, and that a serious reckoning was on the horizon if nothing was done, the owner of the shop where I worked thought things were just fine. He didn’t support conservation efforts, and grew angry any time that I raised the topic. All he cared about was the short term.
That, I think, provides an answer to the puzzle of “What is it that recreational advocates are trying to access?”
Remember that fish stocks don’t collapse all at once.
If Magnuson-Stevens were weakened, and anglers were allowed to overfish, businesses would, at first, see a boom.
Red snapper, summer flounder, black sea bass and other fish that have been at the heart of the Modern Fish Act debate are essentially meat fish; they might be fun to catch, but fishermen catch them for meat, not for sport.
If bag limits were higher, seasons longer and size limits smaller, anglers would undoubtedly respond, fishing more often to fill up their freezers, so long as the fish were available. They would buy boats and tackle, and the industry would thrive—while the boom lasted.
Then stocks would decline, and everyone would suffer, but that wouldn’t happen all at once, either, and fishing would continue while stocks declined.
We saw that with winter flounder in the northeast. Up through the early 1980s, anglers who fished in the best spots during the peak season could literally catch them by the bushel.
In New York, recreational fishermen took home more than 7,000,000 of them in 1984. After that, things went downhill pretty quickly, falling by 95 percent—to 330,000 fish—by 1994. Yet the tackle shops and the party boats still opposed harvest restrictions, arguing that anglers needed the “perception” that they could have a “big day” and take home, if not a bushel, at least a pailful of fish, even if that almost never happened.
By 2014, landings had dropped to just 24,000 fish—one-third of one percent (0.3%) of what they were thirty years before—but the representatives of the recreational fishing industry were fighting hard to significantly lengthen the season, seeking whatever short-term benefits that might provide, instead of trying to rebuild the stock.
To use the language of the Center for American Progress report, they were still emphasizing “access over abundance,” even though the stock had collapsed and local extirpation was a real threat.
And that probably explains the current debate over the Modern Fish Act and Magnuson-Stevens.
“As a result, they’re not investing in their workers, in research, or in technology—short-term costs that would reduce profits temporarily.”
Given that fact, it’s hardly surprising that many fishing tackle and boatbuilding businesses don’t support conservation and the abundance it brings, which in the end is essentially an investment in our fisheries’ future. Instead, because conservation has short-term costs, such businesses are investing their efforts in access, seeking the short-term profits such access may bring.
Such thinking probably isn’t in the long-term interest of the businesses, and it certainly isn’t in the long-term interest of our fish stocks.
American anglers need to take some of the findings in the Center for American Progress report to heart, because the long-term health of fish stocks is critically linked to the long-term health of American angling.
So, as the Modern Fish Act supporters fight to increase what they call “access” at the expense of abundance, and threaten the future of our fish stocks, I will leave you with a final thought, and one final question, gleaned from the late Leonard Cohen’s “Stories of the Street.”
“I know you’ve heard it’s over now and war must surely come,
the cities they are broke in half and the middlemen are gone.
But let me ask you one more time, O children of the dusk,
all these hunters who are shrieking now oh do they speak for us?”
If you believe in abundant fish stocks, when it comes to the Modern Fish Act folks, the answer is clearly no. That's something that our federal legislators need to understand.
Sunday, March 18, 2018
The sun is rising ever higher in the sky. On Tuesday, for he first time in six months, days will be longer than nights.
Just off the coast, life is stirring.
Shoals of small, silver fish, back from a year spent offshore, are making their way toward small creeks and big rivers, on their way to rivers where their kind have spawned since the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier.
The fish are “river herring,” a catch-all term that includes both the alewife and the very similar blueback herring, and there are a lot fewer of them than there used to be.
When I was growing up in the ‘60s, on the southwest corner of the Connecticut coast, river herring began to crowd into local rivers toward the end of March, and stayed through the middle of May.
In the Mianus River, close to my home, they flooded in at high tide, circling at the base of the dam that blocked their transit upstream. Even when the tide was dead low, and the riverbed was nothing but stones washed by inch-deeps trickles of water, herring turned on their sides and drove themselves over the rocks and the gravel to the deeper pool cut by water pouring over the dam.
It was a spectacle, that we often stopped by just to watch.
And it supported a unique fishery that saw men come to the river with long-handled nets and, much like herons, perch on the rock- and concrete-lined bank hoping to fill bushel baskets with herring, which they took home and pickled.
But at some point between then and now, that run just died.
A trickle of fish still came into the river, but the big run, the spectacle, and the fishery were gone. The dam cut off access to the upstream spawning grounds; bycatch in offshore fisheries for Atlantic herring (which, unlike river herring, spend their entire lives in the ocean) and Atlantic mackerel depleted the fish while at sea.
River herring runs along the entire Atlantic coast met the same fate. Streams that once “ran silver” with fish were empty at life—not only of herring, but of the striped bass, ospreys and other predators that followed the run.
A few runs remained relatively healthy, and others, including the one on the Mianus River, were partially restored after fish ladders, that allowed herring to get over the dam, were put in. But most river herring runs declined sharply, and some disappeared as the river herring population fell to just 3% of historic levels.
Things got so bad that the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition in 2011, seeking to have both species listed under the Endangered Species Act; despite the decline in river herring abundance, federal fishery managers decided that such a listing was not warranted in 2013.
However, actions are still being taken to rebuild herring runs.
Here on Long Island, the Seatuck Environmental Association and its partners have initiated what they call the “Long Island River Revival Project,” which seeks to restore river herring runs as an important step toward restoring the overall healthy of coastal waterways.
I help out Seatuck by monitoring local rivers for signs of returning herring. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing what might have been the first alewife to run the Carlls River, in Babylon, NY, in more than a century.
Over the years, I’ve caught far, far bigger fish that didn’t give me a tenth of the thrill.
That first herring didn’t make it; it seemed to have fallen from a newly-built fish ladder, and was close to death on a gravel bar when I saw it. But the mere fact that the fish was there held promise, and a camera built into the fish ladder later caught a number of herring successfully swimming past the dam and into the lake above.
In other states, there have been similar efforts to rebuild the runs, and some have been effective.
In Maine, dam removal has led to a 3,000,000-fish run in the Sebasticook River, a run strong enough to allow the riverfront town of Benton to hold an annual Alewife Festival, which brings revenue into the town; the town is also spending some money to restore river herring to a tributary of the big river, hoping that
“a million more spawning alewives in the Sebasticook River may enhance our income in future years.”
That’s a worthwhile hope.
At the federal level, some actions have also been taken to help out the herring.
Although efforts to make river herring a “stock in the fishery” governed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s mackerel, squid and butterfish management plan failed a few years ago and, as a result, there is no federal fishery management plan covering the two species, the Mid-Atlantic Council did decide to impose river herring annual catch caps on the Atlantic mackerel fishery.
“The cap starts at 89 [metric tons] but increases to 155 [metric tons] if mackerel catches surpass 10,000 [metric tons] and river herring and catches [sic] up to that point have stayed below 89 [metric tons]. Catch of river herring and shad on fishing trips that land greater than 20,000 lb of mackerel count toward the cap. If [the National Marine Fisheries Service] determines that 95 percent of the river herring and shad cap has been harvested, a 20,000-lb mackerel possession limit will become effective for the remainder of the fishing year.”
The New England Fishery Management Council has also taken measures to protect river herring from incidental harvest/bycatch in the Atlantic herring fishery. Pursuant to rules initially adopted by NMFS,
“Catches of river herring and shad on fishing trips that land more than 6,000 lb of herring count toward the caps. Caps are area and gear specific. If NMFS determines that 95 percent of a river herring and shad cap has been harvested, a 2,000-lb herring possession limit for that area and gear will become effective for the remainder of the fishing year.”
Although far from a perfect solution to the incidental catch/bycatch problem, the caps represent a step forward.
From the time that its cap was first imposed in 2014, through all of 2017, the Atlantic mackerel fishery has never even reached 50% its maximum catch. Things haven’t gone quite as smoothly in the Atlantic herring fishery, as the Southern New England Bottom Trawl gear category did catch about 113% of its quota in 2015, but even with that overage, the Atlantic herring fishery did not exceed its overall catch cap in 2015 or in any other year through 2017.
Unfortunately, things seem to be changing for the worse this year; river herring appear to be suddenly vulnerable to the big mid-water trawls.
On February 23, NMFS announced that the Atlantic mackerel fishery had already exceeded its catch cap and that, as result, possession of more than 20,000 pounds of mackerel would be prohibited, beginning on February 27, for the rest of the year.
That announcement was quickly followed by another on March 12. This time, NMFS revealed that the Southern New England Mid-Water Trawl Category of the Atlantic herring fishery had exceeded its catch cap, and that effective March 14, boats in that category could not possess more than 2,000 pounds of Atlantic herring.
Those two announcements do not bode well for river herring. Although the catch caps will hopefully prevent further destruction of the river herring stocks, the 110 metric tons of river herring caught in the mackerel fishery during the first two months of 2018 amount to almost twice the river herring caught in that fishery through all of the proceeding four years.
And it’s a pretty good bet that the big mid-water trawlers will be trying to find ways around the current possession limits.
It’s not clear why so many river herring have been incidentally killed so quickly this season.
Maybe they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Or maybe the mid-water trawlers, aware that they didn’t come close to landing their caps in past years, have become more aggressive, willing to sacrifice more river herring in order to land more of their Atlantic herring and mackerel quotas.
But given the low numbers of river herring that returned to their spawning streams last season, it’s pretty certain that this year’s large incidental catches of river herring aren’t due to an increase in their numbers.
So as I get ready to begin my river herring monitoring efforts for another season, I have to question whether the measures currently in place are enough to stabilize, much less rebuild, dwindling runs of alewives and bluebacks.
And I have to wonder whether the streams that I watch will
run just a little silver once again.
Or if they’ll keep running on empty, as they already have for far too long.