Thursday, November 29, 2018


We’re at that point in the year where fishing has dwindled down to some wreck fishing trips for blackfish, black sea bass and cod, whenever anglers are lucky enough to get chance to sneak out between winter storms and speeding cold fronts.  Most of the time, though, fishermen will start looking forward to next year, or back to what happened last season. 

The December meeting is when the Mid-Atlantic Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board get together to set recreational specifications for three of the most important recreational species in southern New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic.  What particularly caught my eye in the meeting agenda was an hour and a half set aside for a “Discussion of Potential 2019 Mid-Year Revisions for Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass.”

Folks who don’t pay much attention to the management process might have glossed over it, but “mid-year revisions” are a big deal. 

Typically, the Mid-Atlantic Council and the Management Board meet in August to set the annual catch limits for the three species in the following year, and meet again in December, when more information is available, to set the recreational specifications, which will then form the basis for state summer flounder, black sea bass and scup regulations.  Then, around the middle of February, after receiving recreational catch data for the last two months of they year, states begin the process of adopting the regulations that will apply for the next twelve months.

It’s important to know what the regulations will be as early as possible in the year, because anglers plan their days off and vacations, for-hire boats book trips, and tackle shops make business decisions based on what the coming year’s rules will be. 

Changing regulations in the middle of the year can severely disrupt both anglers’ plans and business’ income, so it’s something that fishery managers try to avoid if they can.
But this year, a lot of different factors are converging that make mid-year changes in at least one or two fisheries a real possibility.

One of the most significant factors is a change in the methodology that the National Marine Fisheries Service uses to calculate recreational fishing effort, and thus recreational catch.  NMFS has determined that the old household telephone survey, which depended on random calls to homes in coastal counties, was not creating an accurate picture of the fishing activity taking place, and so replaced it with a more accurate mail survey, and based on a relationship between the two, recalculated catch and effort estimates back to 1981.

It turned out that anglers are catching a lot more fish than managers previously believed, and managers are still trying to figure out what that means for the health of fish stocks.  Intuitively, anglers might think that such higher catch figures will inevitably lead to claims of overfishing, but that isn’t necessarily true.  While more fish were being removed from fish populations, most of those population still managed to remain at today’s levels, which means, in many cases, that the fish populations are probably larger than previously believed.  They may also be able to tolerate higher levels of fishing.  Either way, there is a good chance that, in the case of most stocks, overfishing will not be a problem.

The only way to find out for sure is to conduct a stock assessment, and that’s what’s happening right now with summer flounder.  The assessment itself has been completed, and as I write this, is undergoing peer review.  Assuming the assessment makes it through the review process, it should be released four to six weeks from now.  By that time, recreational specifications for the species will already have been adopted, but they may not be compatible with the new information that the assessment provides.

If the assessment confirms fishery managers’ current assumptions about the health of the summer flounder stock, no mid-season adjustments will be necessary, and the specification and rulemaking process can go on in the same way as it has in other years.

If the assessment shows that there are more summer flounder around than previously believed, and that the fishing mortality rate was lower than had been thought, it is likely that both the recreational and commercial fishing industries will seek an increased annual catch limit; NMFS and the ASMFC could then opt to revisit the regulations and increase the 2019, harvest, but they would not be compelled to do so.

The only time that a mid-season revision might be required is if the assessment determines that the summer flounder stock is in worse shape than previously believed.  In that case, recreational and commercial landings might have to be released to prevent overfishing, and it isn’t impossible that the stock could have become overfished, in which case managers would have to begin preparing a rebuilding plan. 

That possibility isn’t completely out of the question.  In 2016, the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee found that

“the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken.”
Efforts to reduce fishing mortality were implemented for the 2017 season, but the stock assessment has not been updated since 2016.  If fishing mortality have been higher than predicted over the past two seasons, and/or if the biomass was lower than previously believed, it is possible that the stock might has become overfished.

We don’t yet know what the assessment will say, but there are some signs that abundance is fairly low.  

For the months March through August 2018, which accounts for most of the summer flounder season, recreational landings all along the coast were about 1.96 million fish, 32% lower than the 2.9 million fish caught in 2017, despite the fact that the 2018 recreational catch limit was higher, and the 2018 regulations, less restrictive, than they were the year before. 

In New York, which hosts one of the largest recreational summer flounder fisheries on the coast, the difference was even greater, with 2018 landings 56% less than they were in 2017.

Reduced effort accounts for some of the difference.  Coastwide, fishing effort for the months of March through August fell about 18% between 2017 and 2018; in New York, the decline was 43%, more than twice as high.  But the decline in fluke landings was even higher.

The hard question to answer is whether summer flounder landings were lower, in part, because effort declined, or whether effort declined because summer flounder were scarce.  Either way, given how closely effort and landings are tied, when landings fall off more quickly than effort does, a decline in the number of fish available to anglers is the most likely reason why.

Again, that doesn’t mean that the summer flounder stock is overfished, but it’s certainly not a sign that the stock is robust.  If the assessment determines that the stock has fallen below the biomass threshold, a mid-season revision of the regulations will probably be in the cards.

Bluefish, black sea bass and scup have recently been subject to benchmark assessments, so they won’t be fully assessed this year.  However, all three species will be subject to stock assessment updates early in 2019.

Hopefully, that won’t create any issues for either black sea bass or scup.  Both species seem to be very abundant, so the chance of a mid-season adjustment affecting either of them is probably extremely low.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case for bluefish.  Anglers along most of the coast, from New England down to North Carolina, have been commenting on how few bluefish they’ve caught this year.  Recreational bluefish landings in the first eight months of 2018 were 44% lower than they were in 2017, a drop that can’t be explained by the 18% reduction in effort during that period this year.

Thus, there’s a chance that we’ll be seeing changes in bluefish management, too.

Of course, there’s always a chance that we won’t see any changes at all.  

Everything depends on what the assessments, and assessment updates, eventually say.

But it’s pretty sure that, should cutbacks be required, there will be a lot of folks in the angling press, on the Internet, and elsewhere who will be acting very surprised, and trying to stir up outrage in the angling community.

If that happens, it’s best to stay calm, ignore the hyperbole, and listen to what the numbers say.  Because numbers—those in the stock assessments and elsewhere—tell the stories that we need to know.

Now, we just have to wait and see what those stories will be.

Sunday, November 25, 2018


Early 2019 is going to be a momentous time for fishermen, and fisheries managers, in the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England.  Benchmark stock assessments for striped bass and summer flounder have been completed, and will be evaluated by a peer review panel later this week.  Later in the spring, the 2015 benchmark assessment for bluefish, and the 2016 benchmark assessment for black sea bass, will be updated.  The results of those updates should be released before the end of April.

The question is:  What happens then?

We’d all like to think that the results of the assessments and assessment updates will dictate the course of fisheries management, and that everyone will get behind what the science tells us is best for fish stocks.  Unfortunately, real-world experience tells us that usually does not occur.

Instead, we’ll hear a lot of talk about the science being wrong.  In the case of striped bass, which are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, so the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act do not apply, we’ll probably hear more than one member of ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management arguing against accepting the conclusions in the stock assessment at all, if that assessment suggests that the stock has some problems.

Some of the folks who rail against the science will just be making noise, trying to fend off new regulations that might cut into their bottom line.  But a large percentage of those questioning the stock assessments will be absolutely sincere in their disbelief, and will be able to cite real-world observations, and probably sections of the assessments themselves, that seem to prove that they’re right.

That would be a very human thing to do.

Psychologists have long described a phenomenon called “confirmation bias,” which one source describes as

“the direct influence of desire on beliefs.”
That source goes on to explain

“When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true.  They are motivated by wishful thinking…
“Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.  Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively.  We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices.  Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions…
“Wishful thinking is a form of self-deception…
“Self-deception can be like a drug, numbing you from harsh reality, or turning a blind eye to the tough matter for gathering evidence and thinking…
“In sum, people are prone to believe what they want to believe.  Seeking to confirm our beliefs comes naturally, while it feels strong and counterintuitive to look for evidence that contradicts our beliefs…
“The take-home lesson here is to set your hypothesis and look for instances to prove that you are wrong…”
To anyone who has spent any time at the table, taking part in fishery management discussions, such self-deception scenario is going to sound extremely familiar.  It’s hard to think of any contentious fishery management debate in which confirmation bias didn’t demand, and take, center stage.

“We don’t care about your science.  Your science is bullcrap.”
Because, after all, that science contradicted everything that the captain wished to believe.  

If he had accepted the validity of the science, he would logically also have had to accept the validity of the management decision that flowed from such science:  that the tautog harvest had to be substantially reduced.  And since reduced regulations would likely result in a reduction in his own short-term earnings, it was far better to convince himself that the science was wrong than to accept it as right and live with the consequences.

There are plenty of other examples.

Any time that someone suggests that the striped bass population has been in a decline, someone else will inevitably pop up to say that there as many bass around as there ever were, but that now, they’re just farther offshore.  

It doesn’t matter that research conducted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts seems to demonstrate that bass tagged offshore will inevitably return to inshore waters, or that the seeming lack of fish finds confirmation in many elow-average spawns recorded in the Maryland young-of-the-year index, which has arguably been the most accurate predictor of striped bass abundance for decades.  A decline in the striped bass population is unthinkable, as it could lead to reduced landing limits.

Thus, if striped bass are less available inshore, the only acceptable explanation is that the bulk of the fish are offshore, where some have been caught and seen, because any other explanation would have unacceptable consequences.

The same sort of thing manifested itself last summer, at a bluefish meeting convened in New York by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.  

The meeting was only indirectly related to bluefish regulations; the main issue at hand were a possible reallocation of fish from anglers to commercial fishermen, and adjustments of the commercial bluefish quotas granted to the various states.  But anglers from Massachusetts to North Carolina have begun expressing some concern over a troubling absence of bluefish, and it was always possible that such concern could eventually lead to more restrictive bluefish quotas.

Perhaps for that reason, a group of for-hire vessel operators, at least a few of whom also sold blues on the commercial market, struck an aggressively defensive position on bluefish abundance at the hearing, arguing that there was nothing wrong with the stock, which had either 1) moved farther offshore, 2) moved north into cooler waters, or 3) was somewhere in mid-ocean between North America and Africa, because bluefish are found off Africa, too (the person making that pitch was apparently unaware of the fact that the North American and African populations are genetically isolated, and do not intermix).  There was even a suggestion that if bluefish were less abundant, such decline was due to increased regulation on the harvest of mako sharks, which were now eating too many bluefish.

They were willing to accept any of those possibilities as true.  The only possibility that those folks would not entertain was that the population was, in fact, in decline, because if they could believe that, well, they might have to believe in more regulation, too, and they were not going to accept any belief that might head them down that sort of road…

At any rate, striped bass and bluefish, as well as summer flounder and black sea bass, are a very important part of New York’s recreational fishery.  In 2017, those four fish accounted for nearly 40% of all recreationally-harvested fish in the state (nearly 50%, when landings are measured in pounds rather than individual fish), and any reduction in the permitted landings isn’t going to be readily accepted by the fishing industry.

Thus, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when the stock assessments and updates come out.  

Bluefish, summer flounder and black sea bass are all federally-managed species, so if the science goes the “wrong” way, and calls for harvest reductions, there’s not too much that people can do.  They can yell and curse and write nasty editorials in the local fishing rags, but in the end, the law will require that fishery managers follow the best available science, whether or not fishermen—or the fishing industry—choose to believe that it’s true.

But striped bass could turn interesting for a few reasons.

First, because the species is managed by ASMFC, the conclusions in the benchmark stock assessment don’t have to be adopted for management purposes.  That very issue was debated when the last stock assessment came out in 2013.  It called for a 25% reduction in harvest, but it took ASMFC until the October 2014 meeting of its Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board to accept the assessment, and that recommendation, for management purposes, and even then there were four votes against.

So it’s pretty clear that there will be some people who will choose not to believe the conclusions contained in the stock assessment.  And if the assessment reveals that more restrictions are needed, it’s pretty clear who those people will be—the same members of the commercial and recreational fishing industries who typically choose to disbelieve objective science if it might affect their bottom line, the same people who, regardless of the species involved, elect to challenge scientific conclusions with whatever casual observations and stories  seem to support their position (while ignoring any information that tends to support the scientists’ side of things).

But if the stock assessment reveals that the bass population is in fairly good shape, some people are also likely to reject that conclusion.  

There are a lot of anglers—and I’ll admit, I’m one of them—who aren’t happy with what they’re seeing on the water right now.  They have real concern that striped bass abundance is far lower than it ought to be.  There are even some anglers who have convinced themselves that things are so bad that a imposing a 1980s-style ban on striped bass landings could be the right thing to do.

So if the assessment comes out and says that the health of the bass population is more-or-less OK, it’s likely that some of those folks will not believe it, and will replace the scientists’ determinations with their own bad experiences (but with none of their good ones), and insist that regulations be made more restrictive, despite what the assessment says.

Although such folks may be altruistic, they would also be victims of confirmation bias, who believe what they choose to believe and are unwilling to give due consideration to contrary data.

The bottom line is that the stock assessments and updates are coming, and it’s important that we all know what they say.  But it’s equally important that, whatever we want to  believe, we don’t allow our own beliefs and suppositions to take the place of real science, particularly if we have a peer-reviewed assessment, which is as close to a gold standard as real science gets.

Everyone is biased, whether we want to admit that or not.  

Some of us tend to be conservative, and would resolve any uncertainty in favor of the fish.  Some of us lean the other way, and would give fishermen the benefit of the doubt.  Whichever way each of us leans, our desires, and our experiences, give us all a prejudiced view of what we think of as truth.

The beauty of science is that, while it can't eliminate all sorts of bias, it can identify the fact that bias exists, and account for it in its final conclusions.  Conclusions based on hard data, collected in a statistically valid manner and compiled by persons with no personal interest in the final result, are a lot more reliable than impressions based on personal observations that are not carefully measured, but merely compared to our views on how things ought to be.

Thus, when a stock assessment seems to clash with our view of the world, the first thing we should do is take a step back and try to find a good reason why we, and not the assessment, are wrong.


Friday, November 23, 2018


To anyone who has been fishing offshore for a long time—in my case, since the late 1970s—one of the most striking trends has to be been the shrinking, and overall decline, of the canyon tunas.

By “canyon tunas,” I mean the fish that are also called the “tropical” or “BAYS Complex” tunas, including the Bigeye, Albacore, Yellowfin and Skipjack.  We still catch a few here on Long Island, very occasionally in good numbers, but if you weren’t on the water three decades ago, you really don’t know how good fishing for those tunas could be.

I’m calling them “canyon tunas” here, but back in the ‘80s, you didn’t have to run all the way to the canyons to find them.  

Skipjack, the smallest of the four, were frequently caught within sight of the beach, on and inside the 15-fathom line.  Mostly, we caught them by accident, when  they jumped on lures we were trolling for something else, but sometimes, when things were quiet inshore, we’d put out a spread of feathers, cedar jigs and small plastic lures, and catch plenty of skipjack on light trolling gear without spending much money on fuel.

Even when you weren’t targeting them, they were hard to avoid, and that wasn’t always a bad thing, because the spotting the splashes from feeding skipjack schools were often the key to finding larger tuna that were chasing the same baitfish farther below the surface.  Back in ’94, we won one of Long Island’s larger fishing tournaments with a bluefin that we put in the box before 8:00 in the morning on the first day of the event—a fish that was twice the size of anything else put on the scales that weekend—because we stopped short of our original destination and dropped in on a school of skipjack that was betraying the presence of larger fish below.

Today, there are still a few skipjack around, but they are nowhere near as common as they were years ago.  While they’re still fairly abundant out near the canyons, you can troll for a very long time inside the 30-fathom line without seeing one.  Although I spent most of my offshore time shark fishing this season, I did spend a few days trolling inshore for mahi during late August and early September—typically prime skipjack time--and never had any of those little tunas strike one of my lures.

The story of yellowfin tuna is largely the same.  

Back in the ‘80s, they were common inshore.  A 67-pound yellowfin was actually the first tuna that I ever caught from my own boat, a 20-foot Sea Ox powered by a single 115 horesepower outboard--which certainly wasn’t a canyon boat, and provides a pretty good idea of how close to shore the yellowfin were.  The next year, I landed one of nearly 100 pounds right on the 20-fathom line; there was no need to run far for quality fish.

But the quality fish were there.  As I was writing this, I pulled a copy of the Babylon [Long Island, New York] Tuna Club’s 1985 Journal from my bookcase.  It listed the three largest yellowfin caught by club members in the previous year; the fish weighed 199, 160 and 144 pounds.  Compared to those fish, my 67-pounder, caught in the same year, was a runt.  

Today, it would have been a giant.  The club that I belong to now, South Shore Marlin and Tuna, fishes the same waters that the Babylon Tuna Club did, and it also keeps records of its members' three largest yellowfin of the year.  The 2018 results:  57 pounds was the largest, followed by a 51.3 and a 48. 

When fish are trending that much smaller, and fishermen have to run farther and try a lot harder to catch them, it’s clear that the stock is not doing too well.

Albacore seem to be on the same sort of downward trend.  

They used to be the day-savers, the fish that you caught in the canyons when the more interesting fish—the yellowfin, bigeyes and billfish—had lockjaw, and they used to be the fish that you cursed when the others were around but the “longfins,” a name they earned with their oversized pectorals, hit four, five or more lures at a time, leading to chaos in undermanned cockpits and causing tangles that halted efforts to chase larger game until all of the snarls were cleared.

That sort of thing happened quite often, even in the early days of this 21st Century, but it rarely occurs today.  Back in ’84, the Babylon Tuna Club’s the top three albacore weighed between 50 and 55 pounds.  But this year, the folks at South Shore Marlin, despite their faster, long-ranged boats, caught no longfin albacore at all

But the fate of the bigeye tuna may be the biggest tragedy of all.  They’re the largest of all BAYS tunas, reaching a maximum weight of at least 400 pounds.  They have always been a primary target of canyon anglers, big enough and tough enough to pose a physical challenge, scarce enough to be prized and--at least in the past--available enough to be a real possibility on every trip out to “The Edge.”  

When I first fished the canyons in the 1980s, most boats refused to fish anything lighter than 50-pound gear, lest a bigeye hooked on a lighter outfit prove impossible to bring to the boat.

Stories abounded of “wolf packs” of bigeye coming up and hitting multiple lures behind the boat—they often struck in that fashion—and captains bragged about going “four for four” or “five for six” after successfully fighting and landing most, if not all, of the bigeye that hit at the same time.  

A 166-pound bigeye earned our first first-place tournament win, and the last check we cashed, before we quit competitive fishing, was for a 144 that finished in second place behind a 175. None of those were big bigeye.  The New York State record is a 355 pound fish caught in 1981, while the International Game Fish Association lists a 392 pound, 6 ounce tuna as the largest Atlantic bigeye ever caught on rod and reel.  

But bigeye, like the other BAYS tunas, are getting scarcer and shrinking.

Again going back to the Babylon Tuna Club's records, in 1994, members landed bigeye of 243.5, 190 and 161 pounds.  In the 2018 season, South Shore Marlin and Tuna Club members, fishing the same waters that the Babylon anglers—and the New York State record holder—did, couldn’t do any better than fish of 112, 108.5 and 102.7.

Unfortunately, the decline in the Atlantic bigeye isn’t just happening off Long Island, and it isn’t likely to get any better at any time soon.  

The problem, which should come as a surprise to no one, is overfishing.  Although bigeye aren’t as well-known as the iconic Atlantic bluefin tuna, they actually support a more valuable commercial fishery, one which larger fish are caught for high-value sushi and retail tuna markets, while smaller fish are netted in bulk and prosaically canned. 

“This species is in the red.”
There is no doubt why that is the case.  Paulus Tak, an officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts who serves as an advisor at ICCAT, concisely described the problem when he said that

“Bottom line, there are simply too many boats in the water chasing too few fish.”
That is going to be a continuing problem.

In 2015, ICCAT established a 65,000 metric ton annual quota for Atlantic bigeye, and closed certain areas to bigeye tuna fishing.  However, that quota only applied to the seven largest bigeye harvesting nations; additional landings by other countries pushed the total landings to at least 80,000 metric tons, an unsustainable amount. 

But even the more generous, more drawn-out rebuilding proposal failed to gain ICCAT’s approval. 

Despite the fact that the bigeye population has declined to just 20% of its historic abundance, ICCAT ultimately decided to extend the current 65,000 metric ton quota, applicable to only seven nations, for another year, although it did place some restrictions on the use of FADs.

“The industry wants to make money and in the quickest way it can.”

“the industry was willing to accept, inter alia, a reduction in the total allowable catch for bigeye tuna, a reduction in the number of active fish aggregating devices (FADs) per vessel, and an extension of the fishing moratorium on FADs to the entire convention area for two months.”
At the same time, Europeche’s statement also reflected the sort of infighting that apparently subordinated the fate of the bigeye to local interests, and prevented an accord.

“However, we regret that some ICCAT contracting parties, particularly the Asian countries, have opposed the adoption of such measures aimed at the quick recovery of the stock.  Those states advocated unfair measures solely affecting European purse seiners which only represent 33% of bigeye catches in the Atlantic, while rejecting the adoption of the slightest measure to restrict the activity of Asian longliners which account for nearly 50% of the catches.”

“Everyone is to blame for this one.  Each individual member is more concerned with its own priorities than finding consensus on a real recovery plan.”

“People say that ICCAT has failed, but the commission is merely the body that reflects the will of its members.  Some members clearly don’t care about the future of this fishery because it’s not their target species.  It shows that ICCAT is completely incompetent when it comes to the effective management of tropical tunas.”
Given the decline in the tropical tunas fishery that I’ve seen in the past thirty years, I cannot disagree.

Sunday, November 18, 2018


I don’t criticize the interstate compact that created the ASMFC, nor do I have any bad words for the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which gave the ASMFC the authority to bind East Coast states to its interstate fishery management plans. Such interstate coordination is essential to the effective management of migratory fish populations.

And you will never hear me criticize the ASMFC’s staff, as they are a group of dedicated professionals who do their very best to assure that coastal fish stocks are properly managed.

Instead, my criticism is focused on an overly flexible ASMFC process, which includes no legally binding standards that compel fishery managers to end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks in anything like a timely manner. Such an excessively lenient process has too often led ASMFC commissioners, who sit on the various species management boards, to follow the least controversial and most politically expedient path and adopt management measures based on short-term socioeconomic concerns, rather than the long-term health of fish stocks.

Thus, at a time when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) prohibits the adoption of any federal fishery management plan that permits overfishing, and requires most overfished stocks to be rebuilt within ten years, the more permissive ASMFC process allowed its Tautog Management Board to dither for 21 years before taking any meaningful measures to bring overfishing under control.  And even when it finally adopted a more effective amendment to its tautog management plan, the ASMFC agreed to let fishermen continue to overfish tautog in Long Island Sound until 2029. The commission has established no rebuilding deadlines for that species at all.

Even when the ASMFC formally adopts a fishery management plan, it isn’t legally bound to adhere to its provisions. For example, Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass contains five “management triggers” that supposedly require the initiation of management action if any of them are tripped.

One of those triggers requires that “If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.”
Another trigger requires that “If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [ten years].”
The benchmark stock assessment that was completed in 2013 indicated that both of those triggers had been tripped. Yet, when Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan was drafted, it focused only on the need to reduce the fishing mortality rate. The other management trigger, which required the Management Board to rebuild the female spawning stock biomass, was completely ignored.

Concerned citizens have little recourse when an ASMFC species management board chooses to ignore an explicit provision of its own fishery management plan, or when such board decides to permit overfishing or fails to rebuild an overfished stock. In 2010, a federal appellate court decided State of New York v. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and found that the ASMFC’s decisions were not subject to judicial review pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act. That decision made it easy for ASMFC to avoid making the hard and often politically unpopular decisions that are often necessary to conserve and rebuild fish stocks.

Thus, while federal fishery managers have rebuilt 45 once-overfished stocks since this century began, and have reached a point where 87 percent of all federally managed stocks are not overfished, and 91 percent are not subject to overfishing, ASMFC has a much poorer record. It has failed to rebuild a single fish stock since the year 2000. Fewer than 40 percent of its managed stocksare considered “recovered/sustainable,” while nearly 30 percent remain “depleted”—that is, overfished—and another 17 percent are of “concern.”

But there are signs that some ASMFC commissioners are growing uncomfortable with the commission’s lackluster record. ASMFC surveys its commissioners on a regular basis in order to solicit their views on ASMFC’s performance, problems and opportunities.  A survey released in 2016 already reflected some commissioners’ unease.

In response to the question, “What is the single biggest obstacle to the Commission’s success?” such commissioners responded with comments such as, “Once a species is depleted and overfishing is no longer indicated, the Commission has had little to no success in re-building depleted stocks,” “Incomplete information about stocks coupled with reluctance to make tough decisions without high level of certainty,” and “We sometimes don’t have a good grip on the long-term socioeconomic aspects of good management, and that a little pain now can yield good fruit in the long run.”
Similar comments were repeated in 2017, when various commissioners complained, “There seems to be less concern for the biological needs of the stocks, and more concerns, among the states, with economic gains from the stocks within the last decade,” “As soon as a fishery shows signs of improvement the commercial interests immediately want amendments and motions to harvest a greater portion of the stock,” and “Management measures need to be measurable and achievable. Too often we do things that look good on paper but don’t meet the necessary conservation requirements.”

This year, such sentiments made it into a “Strategic Planning Workshop” held during ASMFC’s Annual Meeting.  One Rhode Island commissioner attending the workshop said that, in his view, the management boards have “too much flexibility” and needed some boundaries.

Another, from North Carolina, said that management board decisions needed to be based on science, noting that if decisions were science-based, he could defend them far better than he could defend decisions based on other factors.

Such concerns were also reflected in a document prepared by a Strategic Planning Workgroup ahead of the meeting, which included “Two additional observations made by the Workgroup: Focusing only on short-term gains creates long-term problems; and without improved state cooperation there is the potential for Magnuson National Standards to be applied to the Atlantic Coastal Act.” The latter was clearly a reference to New Jersey’s 2017 decision to reject the summer flounder conservation measures adopted by all of the other members of the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board, and to seek the Secretary of Commerce’s approval of less restrictive fishing measures, a decision which caused significant harm to the cooperative fishery management process.

The fallout from New Jersey’s action, and its impact on other fisheries issues, particularly those related to Atlantic menhaden, poses such a significant threat to the viability of ASMFC’s interstate management program that the Strategic Planning Workgroup even suggested changing the commission’s vision statement from “Sustainably Managing Atlantic Coast Fisheries” to “Cooperatively Managing Atlantic Coast Fisheries,” to emphasize the need for states to work together, instead of elevating their own parochial interests.

Although the suggested change wasn’t meant to discount the need for sustainable management, it was still gratifying to see the reaction of the commissioners at the meeting; everyone who spoke on the issue was opposed to removing “sustainably” from the vision, with one commissioner noting that without the goal of sustainability, fisheries could be managed all the way to extinction. All agreed that ASMFC’s vision should reflect the fact that cooperation and sustainability were not mutually exclusive concepts, and that both had a role to play in the successful management of Atlantic Coast fisheries.
Such comments are encouraging, but even when taken as a whole, they don’t necessarily foretell a sea change at ASMFC.
There are still commissioners who oppose science-based catch limits and complain about an alleged “Failure to manage stocks of black sea bass and summer flounder for harvest by public, causing huge negative economic and quality of life issues,” or who decry “MRIP uncertainties and the binding of ASMFC to federal law and national standards guidelines drastically reducing ASMFC flexibility and the influence of individual state perspectives.”

If such commissioners have the last word, the day may come when ASMFC’s fishery management plans are made subject to the national standards set forth in Magnuson-Stevens, in order to ensure that the commission will end overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks.
On the other hand, if ASMFC heeds the more responsible voices that are now being heard, voices that call for improving, and not discarding, the current process, so that fishery management plans are based on solid science and the long-term health of fish stocks, and not on states’ short-term economic and political concerns, ASMFC can succeed without any change in the law.
But before it can succeed, ASMFC commissioners need to acknowledge the fact that healthy recreational and commercial fisheries require healthy and fully recovered fish stocks. Some commissioners already have. It is long past time for the remaining commissioners to do the same.
This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Thursday, November 15, 2018


As the 115th Congress meets for its last few days in the so-called “lame duck” session, representatives of various special interest groups are flying into a flurry of last-minute activity, trying to get their pet pieces of legislation passed before key legislators must give up their seats, or at least their positions of power on important committees, and the bills have to be introduced anew when the new Congress takes over next year.

The lame duck is a strange time when good bills can become law in the final hours, as happened with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006, which led to the conservation-oriented fishery management system that we enjoy today.  It is a time when bad bills, hopefully, will finally die.

And it is a time when strange coalitions can suddenly form, and unlikely agreements are struck, in order to get a few bad bills, bills that are desperately sought by small but politically powerful interest, across the finish line and onto the books, despite their lack of merit.

In the world of fisheries legislation, we're now seeing that sort of last-minute push to get S. 1520, the Senate version of the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017—the so-called “Modern Fish Act”—passed and signed into law.

The aggressive, well-financed public relations campaign, staged by the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries, to get S. 1520 passed has largely been a flop.  Despite all of the hype published in magazines and on websites catering to anglers and boaters, despite the op-eds written by industry leaders and the contributions made by industry PACs, Congressional support has been less than enthusiastic.  The bill only made it out of committee after being substantially amended, in a way that removed its worst provisions and added some conservation-friendly language. 

Even so, there is a big industry push to get that watered-down version of S. 1520 passed in the lame duck. 

“saltwater anglers annually support 440,000 American jobs, including thousands of manufacturing and supply jobs in non-coastal states, and pump $63.4 billion into the U.S. economy.”
While his comment seems to suggest that the current law must be doing pretty well, if saltwater angling can generate such economic benefits, Deal went on to complain that

“federal fisheries management problems facing anglers have been snowballing for decades.  Those problems are impediments to participating in sportfishing.  How can we engage the next generation of anglers when the federal rules unnecessarily stand in the way?”
It’s hard to understand exactly what problems have been “snowballing for decades,” given that, just a couple of decades ago, United States fish populations were pretty much on the ropes.  The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which required federal fishery managers to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks, was a direct response to a shortage of fish that was doing substantial harm to both commercial and recreational fishermen.

Since that law was passed, 45 once-overfished stocks of fish have been fully rebuilt; only 15% of U.S. fish stocks remain overfished, which is an all-time low.  Thanks to Magnuson-Stevens, and federal fishery managers, saltwater anglers are enjoying a greater abundance of fish than they have seen in many decades. 

It’s hard to consider that a “problem” or an “impediment” to saltwater fishing.

Unfortunately, the old truism that “the more you have, the more you want” seems to apply to some segments of the angling and boatbuilding communities.  As fish stocks increase in abundance, more fish are caught by anglers, more anglers tend to gravitate toward the healthiest and most easily caught populations, and managers have to respond to the increased pressure by imposing more restrictive regulations, something that anglers don’t always understand, given the fact that there seems to be so many fish around.

In a similar vein, Deal’s question, “How can we engage the next generation of anglers when the federal rules unnecessarily stand in the way?” is uncomfortably reminiscent of a comment made by New Jersey fishing tackle wholesaler Nick Cicero, who complained that

“The law needs to recognize that in its current form, our tradition cannot be passed onto our children without [Magnuson-Stevens] taking away opportunity from the rest of the fishing community.”
It appears that what both Deal and Cicero are looking for are changes to current law that would base recreational harvest limits, at least in part, on the demands of anglers rather than on the biological needs of the fish populations.

Both Deal and Cicero seem to view the Modern Fish Act as that sort of law.  Cicero made his comments at a 2017 Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation event supporting such legislation, but Deal just recently wrote that

“As Congress works to wrap up its legislative business before the holidays, I hope it will give anglers well-deserved acknowledgement by passing the Modern Fish Act to improve the way America’s fisheries are managed in federal waters.”
What he didn’t say, but undoubtedly knows, is that if the Modern Fish Act can’t make it through the current Congress, which isn’t particularly friendly to any sort of conservation effort, it is going to have a particularly hard time getting anywhere over the next couple of years, after a far more conservation-friendly House of Representatives is seated next January.

Thus, there is a certain desperation in the air, to get the legislation passed this year.

You can hear that desperation in one of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s recent blog posts, which claims that the bill would

“benefit fishing access [and yes, that’s the same “more dead fish” sort of access that Deal was referring to]…while placing a higher priority on the needs of anglers.”
That TRCP blog also makes the assertion that                                  
“coastal economies deserve to see us build upon bipartisan support for [the Modern Fish Act], not head back to the drawing board in January.”
While it would always be a mistake to try to separate economic benefits from conservation issues, because good conservation tends, in the long run, to also end up being good business, it is curious—if also refreshingly honest—for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to couch its argument for the Modern Fish Act in economics, rather than the good of the resource.

But then, short-term economic gains is what the Modern Fish Act is all about.

That’s undoubtedly why its proponents are so desperate to get it passed this year, while economic gains, regardless of their impact on public resources, remains Congress’ top priority.

“The Modern Fish Act has been debated for nearly two years, heard before its respective committees eight times, passed the Senate Commerce Committee and passed the House within a broader Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization bill in July.  The recreational fishing community is urging Congress not to leave this progress behind.  We must get the Modern Fish Act across the finish line in the 115th Congress.”
You can almost hear the desperation as you read those words.  For despite all of the debate and committee hearings, held in a favorable political environment, the Modern Fish Act is not yet law.

Angers, and the rest of the Center’s active members, know that they “must” get their bill passed “in the 115th Congress,” because once the 116th takes control that bill, at least in its current form, is undoubtedly toast.

That knowledge explains their desperation.

It also explains why, for the good of our fisheries, S. 1520 should not be passed this year.