Sunday, March 31, 2019
A few days ago, a story came out about Andrew Wheeler, the former coal industry lobbyist whom the United States Senate recently confirmed as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
It doesn’t seem that he’s really a climate change “denier,” because he admits that the phenomenon poses a future threat. He just doesn’t think that the future is all that important, and would rather live in the “now,”—presumably a “now” in which his former clients in the coal industry can sell their product largely free of government regulation, even if such sales will worsen the coming crisis.
The unspoken truth, of course, is that Wheeler will be little more than a pile of moldering bones 50 or 75 years from now, and thus will escape the worst consequences of the crisis that he acknowledged was coming, but did nothing to avert.
He will pay no price for the role that he played in the coming tragedy; that price will be paid, in full, by future generations, many not yet born, who will be forced to live—or, very possibly, die—as a result of the events that Wheeler helped to put into motion.
It’s an old story, and one not limited to the coal fields. As I read it, the whole, sad history of fishery management immediately came to mind.
It’s not just the annoying inaction that you see at times, such as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped bass Management Board failing to rein in harvest, after learning that the stock was on a trajectory toward becoming overfished, because it wasn’t overfished, or subject to overfishing, yet.
That sort of bureaucratic inertia, and defense of the status quo, is just a fact of life. And in that case, the consequences of managers’ inaction would--and did--become manifest in only six years, so most of the management members expected to be around at the point when they'd have to fix the problem that they're now confronting.
So no, I’m not talking about times when people have to clean up their own mess.
Instead, it’s the times folks leave the mess for others that annoys me.
Winter flounder might be the best example. I write about them a lot, because they’re probably the best example of fishery management gone wrong.
Here in New York, anglers took home as many as 14 million winter flounder in a single year, as recently as 1984. It wasn’t long after that, though, that state fishery managers started noticing things sliding downhill.
To their credit, they tried to react, and put in regulations to protect the fish, but those regulations weren’t very popular in certain circles. The recreational fishing industry as a whole didn’t support them; the party boat fleet, in particular, was strongly opposed. It argued that customers needed to have the “perception” that they might still enjoy a “big day,” when they filled a bucket with fish, even though such “big days” might be very few and far between in the real world. If regulations destroyed that perception, they argued, many customers wouldn’t come out at all.
So the state backed off on their plans, and instead of adopting regulations likely to conserve the stock, they took an incremental approach, setting the first size limit at a mere 8 inches (pull out a ruler to get an idea of just how small that is) and the first bag limit at no less than 15 fish (it may have been more, but this was so long ago that not even the Internet remembers).
That was more than thirty years ago, but the pattern never changed. As the flounder declined, managers would try to adopt rules to protect them, and the industry would fight back, opposing any regulation that might have been strict enough to do some real good.
Today, the flounder are pretty well gone. There aren’t even enough being caught to get a realistic estimate of recreational landings; last year’s supposed number was just 25. That’s certainly an undercount, but the fact that surveyors couldn’t find a single private boat with a flounder on board, over the course of the entire 60-day season, is mute testimony to the fact that the real number was also obscenely low.
Today, the recreational flounder fishery is pretty well gone, too.
I live about 15 minutes away from Captree State Park, on the South Shore of Long Island. There’s a big party boat fleet there, which once billed itself, back in the halcyon days whey fish were abundant, as the “Captree Flounder Fleet,” because they caught plenty throughout the season—which ran from the beginning of March through mid-December back then, although fishing slowed down quite a bit during the summer.
Like their counterparts on every coast of Long Island, the folks who owned the boats back then fought against regulations that might have kept the flounder stock from collapsing. Instead, they made their money while the making was good, squeezing the last drops of blood from a dry and quickly crumbling stone, then got out of the business, to leave the people who own the boats today with the consequences: A bay so empty that no one in the entire fleet is even advertising trips for April 1, the opening day of the season, this year, and some of the top boats—perhaps most of the top boats—aren’t planning to sail for flounders at all.
Today’s boat owners are paying the price for those who refused to address the coming crisis three decades ago.
We saw a similar thing happen with cod, as the New England Fishery Management Council, peopled largely by folks who profited from the fishery, refused for years to bring overfishing under control. As Discover magazine reported back in 1995,
“After 1977…the New England fishing industry experienced the same euphoria as Newfoundland. Fishermen had lobbied Congress hard to have the foreign trawlers kicked out, and they expected a bonanza. Between 1977 and 1983, the number of boats fishing out of New England increased from 825 to 1,423. The new boats were bigger and equipped with the latest electronic fish-finding equipment. The fish never had a chance. The cod catch on Georges Bank alone peaked in 1982 at more than 53,000 tons. Then it started to decline. As the stock declined, the mortality inflicted by fishing rose, just as it did in Newfoundland. The difference is that in New England, fisheries biologists knew it was happening all along, and said so…
“During the 1980s the New England council proved itself unwilling to control fishing. Indeed, one of its early actions in 1982, was to eliminate catch quotas. Its goal, it said, was a simpler system that allowed the fishery to operate in response to its own internal forces. As the decade progressed, the fishery did just that—and as NMFS scientists warned of declining stocks of cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder, the council dithered…”
Once again, the older generation of fishermen, who owned the boats back then, made their money while depleting the cod population, and nothing really ever changed until the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act compelled all of the regional fishery management councils to adopt catch limits for all managed stocks.
Maybe, one day, such limits will restore the cod stocks. But today, thanks to fishermen—and the New England Fishery Management Council—who failed to even try to prevent a future crisis, and concerned themselves only with current cash flows, the spawning stock is badly overfished, and constitutes only a very small fraction of its real spawning potential.
Regulations belatedly adopted to conserve what remains are so restrictive that they deter younger people from entering the fishery. Once again a generation who might not even have been alive when their elders plundered the stocks must pay the bill for a previous generation’s excesses.
More recently, we saw the same thing happen with blackfish—more formally known as “tautog”—in Long Island Sound.
Tautog are managed by the states through ASMFC, but they’re atypical for ASMFC-managed species in that tautog don’t engage in long coastwise migrations. Instead, populations tend to be local, and move between deeper and shallower waters as the seasons change. Thus, ASMFC broke the coastwide population into four separate sub-stocks, assessed each one independently, and established different sets management measures for each one.
The Long Island Sound population was found to be badly overfished, and subject to significant overfishing. Fishing mortality needed to be cut by 47% in order to end overfishing by 2021 (assuming that the regulations were first put into place for the 2018 fishing season). For New York anglers, that would mean a 16-inch minimum size, a somewhat shortened fishing season, and dropping the bag limit from four fish to just one.
Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well with the fishing industry. Back in 2017, I described the raucous and inappropriate behavior of the crowd at the meeting that ASMFC called to discuss tautog management here in New York. But there was something else besides their disrespect for the people and process that was shared by that crowd. Not only were they generally unshaven and shaggy; they were also generally gray.
There weren’t a lot of young folks in the audience. Just a lot of aging fishermen and boatmen, looking at a depleted blackfish stock and, as was the case with the flounder and cod, probably figuring that if they could hold on to what they had for a few more years, they could cash out of the fishery and let someone else clean up their problem.
The result was a fishery management plan that failed to adopt the scientists’ recommendations. Instead, it imposed watered-down regulations that would allow overfishing to continue not just until 2021, but all the way through 2029, and only had a 50-50 chance of ending it even by then.
It didn’t even try to predict when, if ever, the stock would be rebuilt.
That, too, is just another issue that might be addressed in the future--if there are still enough tautog around to make the remaining fishermen care.
I still fish for blackfish in Long Island Sound, and maybe I should listen to the white in my hair and the creak in my bones, and be happy that I can still kill some fish--and will be able to keep on killing fish for much of what likely remains of my lifetime.
But unlike Andrew Wheeler, and some folks involved in fisheries debates, I can’t bring myself to think that way.
I still remember when I was a boy, and caught winter flounder at will from shore, and from the docks in local harbors.
I still remember going out party boats with my father during the summer, when catching a few cod was hardly a noteworthy event—although not catching a few definitely was.
I still remember fishing from the riprap at the town beach when I was barely in my teens, and catching more decent blackfish standing on the rocks than most people now catch from boats—when they have a good day.
And given those memories, I’m not willing to say that the current sad state of so many fish stocks is somebody else’s problem, that they can start worrying about when I’m done catching mine.
I see new generations of anglers, left with so many fisheries that have been degraded, or have just disappeared, and I see their loss as my problem, too. Because I remember the good days, and believe that generations yet to be born are entitled to have their good days, too.
So I’ll do what I can to help make that happen—hopefully, while I’m still alive.
Thursday, March 28, 2019
Five years ago, when this blog was still new, I wrote a series criticizing “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” the report that kicked off the campaign to pass the so-called “Modern Fish Act.”
That report, like the Modern Fish Act itself, mostly got things wrong, as it recommended weakening the conservation and management measures of federal fishery law in order to provide what it called “more access,” which really meant more landings, for recreational fishermen. Yet, as I noted back then, the report was a strangely schizophrenic document which, at the same time that it tried to increase anglers’ kill, recognized that an abundance of fish, which can only come from conservation-oriented management, is what the recreational fishery really needs if it is to thrive.
That much (and a few other things, like greater protection for forage fish), the report got right. It’s hard to argue with its statement that
“federal fishery managers set catch limits for recreational and commercial fishing at or near maximum sustainable yield. While this may be an ideal management strategy for commercial fishing, where harvesting the maximum biomass is desired, it is not an effective management tool for saltwater recreational fishing. Recreational anglers are more focused on abundance and size, structure of the fisheries, and opportunities to get out on the water…”
Recently, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published a paper that sets forth that concept in more formal terms. It argues that
“policymakers and managers need to acknowledge the overriding recreational nature of most recreational fishing—fish are part of a multifaceted leisure experience, not primarily a source of food or personal income as in commercial fisheries. There is a need to move beyond dated paradigms, such as [maximum sustainable yield], to manage recreational fisheries. Countries such as the United States, however, continue to manage federal marine fisheries involving large recreational fishing sectors for [maximum sustainable yield]. A focus on bioeconomic management targets and models that measure the impact of policies on fishing opportunities and their quality as valued by the anglers themselves provide a much-needed step in the right direction.”
The paper also notes that
“Beyond nutritional benefits, recreational fisheries provide a range of psychological, social, educational, and economic benefits to fishers and society that are not associated with commercial fisheries.”
At the same time, the paper’s authors acknowledge that
“Despite high release rates, fishing for food is a strong motive and justification for recreational fisheries,”
and recognize that
“in many localities recreational landings now rival or even exceed the biomass removals by commercial fishermen.”
Thus, fishery managers must try to balance the tension between the many anglers who fish for reasons largely unconnected to harvest, and those anglers who fish mostly for food and place significant stress on fish populations. As the paper notes,
“a single fishery typically cannot satisfy the often-conflicting objectives of a heterogeneous group of recreational fishers.”
It then goes on to explain how, in freshwater fisheries, the fact that discreet populations of fish reside in different water bodies allows each body of water to be managed to suit a particular subset of the angling community.
That works well for inland fishery managers, but on the ocean, where a diverse array of anglers often target the same stock of fish, such an approach isn't an option.
At that point, it becomes necessary to change the formula a bit. Instead of managing a particular body of water to best suit a particular group of anglers, salt water managers must manage fish stocks to accord with how they are used.
With some species, that’s easy.
Fish such as silver hake, better known as “whiting,” yellowtail flounder and Atlantic herring are primarily commercial targets. Yes, anglers catch a few, but recreational landings are so low, and the recreational fishery so small, that such species can safely be managed for yield.
Other fish, such as tarpon, little tunny (“false albacore”) and marlin, are recreational species. They might support small commercial fisheries and/or fall victim to commercial discard mortality, but both their social and their economic value is skewed so far toward the recreational sector that managing for anything less than abundance would be absurd.
The problem comes with all of those stocks that lie somewhere in the middle, those that support both commercial and recreational fisheries, and are sought by anglers for both food and for sport. In such cases, managers need to take a deeper look, to see where the real balance of uses might be.
Scup, a small demersal fish caught off the southern New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic coasts, exemplify one extreme of such “mixed-use” fisheries. They are an important commercial species, and most of the harvest is allocated to the commercial sector. However, scup are also a very popular recreational target, particularly among party boat patrons—so popular that, last year here in New York, scup comprised more than 70% of all fish landed on such for-hire vessels.
The recreational fishermen who catch scup often keep them; nearly half of those landed were harvested. Thus, it is clear that scup should be managed as “food fish,” and that managers should place their greatest emphasis on maintaining yield.
“Sport fish,” such as striped bass and bluefish, anchor the other extreme of the mixed-use spectrum. Both support small commercial fisheries, and both are eaten by some of the anglers who catch them. However, the data amply demonstrates that neither support fisheries dominated by “meat” fishermen; instead, most anglers who seek striped bass and/or bluefish—which frequently share the same waters and are caught by the same recreational fishermen—release much of their catch.
That is particularly true in the case of striped bass. During the years 2014 through 2108, anglers caught a total of about 167 million striped bass. Of those fish, approximately 155 million, or about 92%, were released.
Release rates varied by “mode” of catch. Surfcasters and other shore-based fishermen had the highest release rate, 96%, while party boat fishermen released only 65% of their striped bass, the lowest figure reported. Charter boat and private boat fishermen fell in between those extremes, respectively releasing 77% and 91% of all striped bass caught.
Because private boat anglers dominate the fishery, and accounted for about 69% of all recreational striped bass caught during the period in question (shore based anglers came in a distant second, catching a little more than 28%), they skewed the overall release percentage to a very respectable 92%.
Thus, as fishery managers begin to look at the overfished striped bass population, and start to craft measures intended to end overfishing and rebuild the overfished stock, they must always keep in mind that the majority of striped bass fishermen are not primarily fishing for food, but rather for sport, and that a great majority of the striped bass caught are released.
That means that mangers’ primary goal should be increasing striped bass abundance, not maintaining current yield. For in the recreational striped bass fishery (and in similar fisheries for bluefish, king mackerel and other species), it’s the fish in the ocean, and not the fish in the cooler, that matter most.
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Around that time is when many fishermen take the next step, and start becoming advocates for conservation.
And when that happens, it seems that advocates move through phases, too.
At first, they tend to be enraptured by their own point of view, and evoke memories of the old Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.”
“What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hurray for our side”
Ideologically driven, and largely unfettered by data or any other sort of objective truth, early-stage advocates tend to say “Hurray for our side” too, and rush into attack mode. They have little desire to work with anyone, for everyone—regulators, management bodies, legislators and, most particularly, anyone who doesn’t share their point of view—is either an enemy to be defeated or an obstacle to be overrun.
When anglers first take on the advocacy role, their preferred foe is usually the commercial fishing industry.
While it’s impossible to deny that the commercial industry has, in many cases, done real harm to fish stocks—it certainly wasn’t anglers who overfished Newfoundland cod—it’s also impossible to deny that anglers also play a role in depleting fish stocks. That was the point of a recent paper that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; anyone who wants to see a real world example need only look at the currently overfished striped bass stock, where anglers are responsible for 90% of the fishing mortality.
Now, anglers are calling for the stock to be rebuilt. And quite a few of those anglers are saying that the best way to rebuild the stock is to first completely shut down the commercial striped bass fishery, even though it’s only responsible for 10% of fishing mortality. Some of those so-called “gamefish” advocates are even suggesting that if the commercial fishery was closed, the recreational size limit might be lowered so that more anglers might have “a bass for dinner.”
Calling for regulators to completely shut down one sector, in order to reduce mortality, while seeking to increase your own sector’s kill, is a logically inconsistent and indefensible position, but it’s the sort of thing that you see inexperienced advocates (and many experienced advocates, too) call for quite often.
Because, in the end, it’s always easier to conserve someone else’s fish, instead of your own.
Such finger-pointing doesn’t just go on between major sectors. Intra-sector squabbling goes on, too. Hook-and-line commercial fishermen look askance at gillnetters and trawlers. Harpooners don’t care for longliners. In the recreational fishery, I’ve heard anglers from Pacific islands, where subsistence fishing is still embedded in the culture, implicitly criticize catch-and-release fishermen, saying “We don’t play with our food…”
But the plain truth is that all of those fishermen, whether recreational or commercial, need healthy fish stocks if they want to keep fishing. It’s also true that all of the intra- and inter-sector bickering doesn’t help the fish stocks at all.
So the second phase of an advocate’s life comes about in that instant when such advocate comes to the realization that it’s better to seek allies than enemies.
Because enemies will always find you, but allies aren’t always around.
Thus, I was pleased to read a recent article by Hannah Heimbuch, a young, Alaskan commercial fisherman, which appeared in the National Fisherman. It was a call to stop fighting against each other, and start fighting for the fish.
Ms. Heimbuch wrote
“…From local fishery to national stage, in varying degrees across the country, fishermen are willing to fight their opposing sector into oblivion convinced of a certain righteousness.
“If there is anything I hope my generation can improve on and off the water, it’s that.
“We’ve seen major community schisms at the End of the Road…Every few years a new issue re-ups the ante on old bitterness and fingers start pointing…What to me seem like natural companions—Alaska’s community-based commercial and sport fishermen—have long stayed at loggerheads, at the expense of their common interests and the ability to problem solve the large-scale issues that impact all of us: habitat protection, sustainable harvest, ocean policy and substantial upheaval in the ecosystem.”
For a while, I’ve been thinking about the same thing.
Everyone is fighting over the fish, trying to wrest a bigger piece of an oft-shrinking pie for themselves, instead working together to fight for the fish, and thus create a larger pie that all might better share.
That was a big point that groups like the Center for Sportfishing Policy failed to comprehend while pushing their so-called “Modern Fish Act” in the last Congress, a bill that, as originally written (but, fortunately, not as passed) would have impaired conservation efforts while driving a deeper wedge between the recreational and commercial sectors.
But Ms. Heimbuch gets it right when she says
“I won’t say I want us to stop fighting. That isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and I’m concerned that if it does, it means that we’ve chosen a winner and a list of losers, and one type of fisherman is sitting at the peaceful, lonesome top…
“But I would like to see us fight harder and first for the fish. For leaders and policies that are committed to growing the resource for everyone…
“None of this is new. But it’s becoming drastically more important. Our differences have prevented us from asking smart questions about the resources we share, and the biggest threats facing them in a modern era.
“While we’re fighting about whether rod or net is more deserving of the salmon, whether that halibut should land on a charter boat or longline vessel, let us not forget to fight first for the fish. For science-based ocean and habitat policies that leave us something to fight for, for community access for this and future generations, for diverse working waterfronts that understand how their businesses complement one another, and the ability to evolve our fisheries side by side rather than in opposition, for the greater good of the resource and those who depend upon it.”
It’s an eloquent argument that gets to the heart of the matter.
The fish come first. Without them, fishermen, whether recreational or commercial, become obsolete.
And that’s something that advocates, from every sector, must grow wise enough to understand.
Thursday, March 21, 2019
Earlier this month, I wrote a piece questioning whether the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had the political will to rebuild the striped bass population. We still don’t know the answer to that question—although we might start to get an idea in May—and I believe that there is still a significant chance that ASMFC will decide to end overfishing, but duck the rebuilding issue, just as they did when they drafted Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Management Plan five years ago.
There has also been some concern over an effort that arose at ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board a little over a year ago, which saw some states suggesting that the biological reference points used to determine when overfishing occurs and a stock is overfished be changed. As originally contemplated, such new reference points would permit the female spawning stock biomass to fall to lower levels, and the fishing mortality to increase, before any management action was taken.
But that effort predated the new benchmark stock assessment, and its finding that the striped bass stock was both overfished and subject to continued overfishing.
Before that assessment came out, managers could still choose to believe that the stock wasn’t having serious problems; while spawning stock biomass was well below the target level, they could find comfort in data saying that the stock was not overfished, that overfishing wasn’t occurring, and that no management action was needed.
The benchmark assessment completely fractured that narrative.
As I listened in on the Management Board’s February 2019 meeting, the main impression I got was that everyone was somewhat shocked at the news, and were somewhat at a loss about what to do. The usual gadflies who, in the past, consistently tried to increase landings didn't say very much, while the staunchest conservation advocates on the Management Board were very reserved when they made comments.
Management Board Chairman Michael Armstrong, a state fishery manager from Massachusetts, probably summed up the prevailing sentiment when he observed
“It’s clear we need to do something,”
but added no further details.
Lacking both a final version of the stock assessment—which, everyone admitted, was unlikely to change—and any sort of recommendation from the technical folks, the February meeting wasn’t a time for action. Instead, it was a time for managers to sit back for a minute, think deeply about the data, and try to figure out what to do.
As a practical matter, there was probably little reason for haste, as both the ASMFC's management process, and the regulatory process in the various states, tends to move slowly, and it seemed unlikely that any measures adopted in response to the benchmark assessment would be effective in 2019. Even so, it now appears that some states are beginning to move forward, on their own, with measures intended to reduce fishing mortality, and it’s not impossible that more states will still follow suit.
Massachusetts seems poised to be the first state out of the box. It is liikely to adopt modest restrictions that would require the use of circle hooks for all bait fishing and prohibit the use of gaffs to land striped bass. While such regulations wouldn’t, by themselves, be enough to end overfishing, they would go a long way to reduce the number of bass that die after being released, and thus would help to reduce overall fishing mortality.
Virginia seems willing to go a step farther. The Virginia Finfish Management Advisory Committee is going to meet on March 25, and when it does, it will consider a number of possible management measures. Those possible measures include a circle-hook requirement, which would bring Virginia into alignment with a rule already in place on Maryland’s side of Chesapeake Bay. But other proposed measures include allowing anglers to take only one striped bass measuring 36 inches or more in each year, a 3- or 4-fish boat limit, increasing the Chesapeake Bay size limit to 28 inches (the current size limit in Chesapeake Bay is 20 inches), along with other measures that would substantially limit Virginia anglers’ striped bass landings.
It’s not clear whether Virginia will actually adopt any such rules, or whether any other states are planning to change their 2019 striped bass regulations. However, it is clear that state regulators are concerned with the condition of the striped bass stock.
A recent article in the Bay Journal, a publication that reports on news related to Chesapeake Bay, quotes Maryland fisheries manager Michael Luisi as saying
“We had all hoped that the results of the assessment would be a little better. It is clear that we need to do something.”
That’s an important statement since, over the past four or five years, Luisi has been one of the more consistent proponents of an increased striped bass harvest.
In November 2015, a time when the harvest reductions imposed by Addendum IV had not even been in place for one season, he moved that the Management Board reconsider such reductions, and possibly allow a bigger kill. He later moved to indefinitely postpone action on that motion, but in October 2016 again sought to increase harvest, in order to increase fishing mortality from an estimated 0.16 in 2015 to the statistically indistinguishable target of 0.18.
One year later, in October 2017, he strongly recommended that the Management Board consider changing the reference points used to evaluate the health of the stock, to allow for a smaller spawning stock biomass and a higher fishing mortality rate, a position that he reiterated in a motion made in May 2018.
Thus, his statement that something needs to be done to address the health of the stock is a very welcome event.
But, again, we don’t know what that “something” will turn out to be.
The Management Board could decide to honor the commitment it made when it adopted Amendment 6 to the management plan, and initiate a plan to rebuild the stock in no more than ten years.
Or, it could decide to ignore that obligation, and put some lesser measure in place that ends overfishing in the near term, but makes no affirmative effort to rebuild the stock.
However, the first step to resolving any problem is to acknowledge that it exists. From all of the recent news, it seems as if many state managers have now gone that far.
And that, in itself, is progress.
Now, it’s our job to convince them to go the rest of the way, and rebuild the striped bass population to levels that it has achieved, and even exceeded, in the not-very-distant past.
For it can achieve such abundance again if everyone involved is willing to take the actions needed to get it there.
Sunday, March 17, 2019
Just about every angler on the striper coast knows that the bass stock is troubled.
If we had any doubts, the 2018 benchmark stock assessment has confirmed that striped bass are overfished, and subject to overfishing. Fishery managers are now deciding how to respond.
As anglers concerned with the striped bass resource, we have the right and the obligation to provide managers with our views on rebuilding the stock to abundance. Yet, if we want to be credible and effective advocates for the resource, we need to be sure that the comments that we make are rooted in facts, and not mere perceptions.
And that means that we have to rely on the science.
That’s not always easy to do. In our efforts to assure the health of the bass, sometimes our passions carry us away.
You can often see that on Internet message boards, where bass fishermen, many too young to have experienced the bad old days of the late 1970s and 1980s, talk about the stock collapsing again, and the need for a new moratorium on striped bass harvest.
While the good intentions behind such comments are clear, they nonetheless distort the real picture.
If you didn’t fish through the striped bass collapse, you don’t really understand how bad it was. There were a few places where big fish were very abundant for part of the time—Block Island and the outer beach at Cape Cod come to mind—but the rest of the coast was a virtual dead sea, where just catching a bass, of any size, felt like an achievement.
Right now, according to the benchmark assessment, overall striped bass abundance is at the 30th percentile, measured across the entire time period for which records were kept. That means that seventy percent of the time, there were more striped bass available. But it also means that for part of the time, abundance was worse—at times far worse—than it is today.
Think of that, and you’ll have an idea what the collapse years really looked like.
Recruitment figures tell a similar story. For the past 10 years, the Maryland young-of-the-year index, which has historically been the most reliable predictor of future striped bass abundance, averaged 12.01 per year, with a high of 34.58 in 2011 and a low of 0.89, the lowest in the 60-plus years of the survey, in 2012. That 12.01 average for the last decade is actually a little above the long-term average calculated over the life of the survey.
On the other hand, for the 10 years between 1976 and 1985, which included the worst of the collapse years, the index averaged just 4.26, about one-third of the current 10-year average, with a high of 8.45 in 1978 and 1982, and a low of 1.22 in 1981.
Perhaps more telling, over the past five years, we saw two dominant year classes in 2011 (34.58) and 2015 (24.20), one well below-average year class in 2016 (2.20) and slightly above-average year classes in 2017 (13.19) and 2018 (14.78).
Thus, there are plenty of young fish entering the population that can rebuild the spawning stock—if managers cut landings enough to allow them to do so.
That wasn’t the case in 1985, the year that Amendment 3 to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s striped bass management plan was adopted. Amendment 3 was a Hail Mary pass intended to protect the better—but still below-average, by today’s standards—1982 year class, which was seen as the striper’s last, best chance at the time. And even Amendment 3 didn’t contemplate a complete closure of the striped bass fishery.
Thus, talking about completely shutting the fishery down in the near future is very premature, and any such talk won’t be taken seriously by fishery managers. Before making any concrete recommendations about measures needed to rebuild the stock, we need to learn from the technical folks just what such measures might look like.
That’s why suggestions that we’re seeing now about slot limits, various combinations of bag and size limits, etc. are largely shots in the dark. We have no idea what such measures, if put in place, would do to the population.
Slot limits are probably the best example.
Quite a few anglers are suggesting that slot limits would represent a big step forward with respect to conservation, based on the seemingly successful use of such limits in the red drum fishery, but the facts don’t support that premise.
But when we have seen slot limits used in the striped bass fishery, the conservation impacts have always been negative.
The example that I’m most familiar with occurred in the New York commercial fishery where, in order to minimize the concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the flesh of bass sent to market, New York once implemented a 24-inch to 36-inch commercial slot limit, as PCB levels tend to be higher in older, larger fish. Because that slot allowed New York fishermen to take 24 to 28 inch fish, which fell below the ASMFC-mandated minimum size, New York’s commercial quota had to be reduced by more than 20% to account for the harm fishermen caused to the stock when they landed the undersized bass.
Something similar occurred in the Maine recreational fishery. There, regulators imposed a slot limit that allowed anglers to keep striped bass that either fell into a 20 to 26 inch slot, or were no less than 40 inches long. Again, taking the small fish was seen as harmful to the health of the stock; as a result, Maine had to cut its bag limit to only one bass, at a time when two fish at 28 inches was the standard elsewhere on the coast.
Such examples make it clear that slot limits that promote the killing of immature female bass do not benefit the population.
Whether a slot with a higher minimum size—say, something like 28 to 40 inches—designed to protect the largest, most fecund females would be good for the stock remains an open question. Such a slot would direct a lot of fishing effort on a relatively small component of the population. That in itself could cause problems, as the health of the striped bass spawning stock is notoriously dependent upon the occasional dominant year class that occurs amid a spate of average and below-average spawns.
The frequency of such dominant year classes is determined primarily by weather conditions, with a cold winter and wet spring typically producing more Year 0 bass than do warm, dry conditions (the worst Maryland young-of-the-year index ever recorded occurred in 2012, after an unusually warm winter that saw little spring precipitation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed). No one has yet determined how a slot would impact such dominant year classes, and whether it would be detrimental to the health of the spawning stock.
Until they do, and until it is clearly established that a slot would not hurt the striped bass, we should not be promoting such a measure.
We take a similar risk when we talk about any given combination of size and bag limits that are plucked from the air without scientific advice. Because, in the end, we have no real idea of whether the measures that we’re promoting are more restrictive than needed, not restrictive enough, or just right for the striper’s recovery.
What we do know, and what the science confirms, is that the striped bass stock is overfished, and that the current striped bass management plan calls on ASMFC to rebuild it.
So right now, that should be our focus.
We should be calling on our state fishery managers, and on ASMFC, to take prompt action to rebuild the striped bass population to target levels, within the 10-year time period mandated by Amendment 6 to the management plan.
That’s what the science supports, that’s what the management plan calls for, and that’s no more than the striped bass, and striped bass fishermen, deserve.
Thursday, March 14, 2019
When I was in my early teens, sandbar (“brown”) sharks were abundant. Even up in the western corner of Long Island Sound, where I lived at the time, late summer would see some big female sandbars—fish pushing 7 feet and 200 pounds—cruising the shallow shorelines. Every now and then, a breathless angler would retell the tale of the huge “striped bass” that picked up his bait and took off, stripping every inch of line from his reel without ever stopping or slowing down.
Once in a while, one of those big “bass” would get caught, at which point anglers were confronted not with the world record fish of their dreams, but with a much larger and toothier creature than they had expected.
A decade later, when I started fishing offshore, sandbars had more or less disappeared from the western Sound, but they were still very common in deeper water. It wasn’t at all unusual to have one pick up a bait almost as soon as it was put over the side. Most of those sandbars were small, often just a quarter of the size—or less—of the sharks of my youth, but they were always around.
We caught them when we went fishing for sharks, we caught them when we chunked for inshore tuna, and we caught them when we were chumming for blues. Late in the summer, when the tuna were close or the bluefish were running, the sandbars were often joined, and sometimes replaced, by dusky sharks, one of their close relatives. Most of the duskies were small, from three feet or so to maybe 150 pounds, but every once in a while, usually when fishing for cod on a deep-water ledge, we’d see one far larger.
And then, they disappeared.
I’m not sure just when that happened. Maybe late 1980s, or thereabouts. But whenever it was, there came a time, and a realization, that we weren’t catching brown sharks anymore.
The drought lasted for a couple of decades. .
Dusky sharks were found to be in far worse shape than the sandbars. A rebuilding plan was put in place for them also. It had a 70% chance of rebuilding the stock by 2400.
Yes, it would take 400 years.
The dusky shark fishery had to be completely shut down. The recreational fishery for sandbar sharks was shut down, too, as was the directed commercial fishery, although a tightly-regulated commercial “research” fishery, with 100% observer coverage, was allowed to continue. .
It didn’t take long for the effects of the new rules to be felt up here on Long Island.
At first, sandbar sharks were still scarce. But on occasion each season, whether we were fishing close to the beach or out past the 30-fathom line, a few would take our baits.
Given how long the fish take to mature, those few sandbars couldn’t have been from increased reproduction. Instead, they were most likely fish that were no longer killed by bottom longlines set off Virginia and the Carolinas, and survive long enough to make their way north.
Those first fish were all small, but in time, we started to see some bigger ones, too. In 2015, fishing out near the Coimbra wreck in early July, I hooked a shark that baffled me with its fight. It was clearly a decent-sized fish, able to pull line off a 50-pound standup at will. But the fight was all wrong for a mako or thresher or blue, which is what we usually caught at that place and time. As I finally brought the fish close to the surface, we were shocked to see that it was a big sandbar shark, a fish that ultimately measured an honest 7 feet from the tip of its nose to the fork of its tail, and weighed close to 200 pounds.
It was the biggest sandbar shark I had seen in decades, and suggested that management measures were beginning to work.
And last season, for the first time since the late 1980s, I began running into swarms of smaller, four- and five-foot sandbars, that were so abundant that they would take the baits just a few minutes, and sometimes just a few seconds, after they were put into the water.
It was a good thing to see.
So yes, even though the sandbars' recovery is still in its early stages, and I'll be dead for decades before they make it all the way back, they seem to be finally headed down the right road.
Yet, there are already some people complaining.
“have expressed frustration with the perceived impunity of the actions of sharks in federal waters from North Carolina south to Florida, and the desire to do something about it to protect their ability to do their jobs to the best extent possible.”
One person apparently complained that
“As a diver, I see more sharks now than I’ve seen in 25 years of diving. And it’s just because they banned certain types of sharks.”
His observations, made off the South Atlantic coast, like my increased encounters with sandbars off Long Island, is pretty good evidence that the federal efforts to rebuild once-overfished shark population are bearing some fruit.
But to some, that’s a problem, because a shark, just like you or me, or other form animal you can think of, has to eat. And one of the things sharks tend to feed on is fish.
Thus, one southeastern fisherman complained that
“I have never seen sharks like we have now…it affects all the other fisheries. And that’s just a fact. If you walk in my shoes, you realize that there is, it is, problematic. You say ‘How can that be?’ Well, I guarantee that if you hook a fish and there’s a shark chasing it, of a shark trying to eat it, then you understand how it becomes rough…”
It’s not a surprising sentiment. If you spend much time around the water, you’ll quickly find out that there are some folks out there who believe that everything in the ocean belongs to them, and they harbor deep resentment against any animal, person or government that might stand in their way of taking all that they want.
But did anybody try looking at things from the shark’s point of view?
Here they are, an animal that, in various forms, has been swimming around in Earth’s oceans since they first evolved during the Silurian Period, more than 420 million years ago.
Throughout the succeeding hundreds of millions of years, sharks radiated into a myriad of species, most extinct, some alive today. At the same time, Osteichthyes, the bony fishes, also came into being, and radiated into a vast array of forms, ranging from the massive bluefin tuna to tiny gobies, and from the pallid, hemoglobin-free Antarctic icefish to the brightly-colored butterfly fish of tropical reefs.
All through that time, sharks posed no existential threat to fish species.
They first evolved in Africa, and as far as anyone can tell, just arrived on the South Atlantic coast within the last 15,000 years. Even then, humans weren’t numerous enough to have much of an impact on the oceans, That only happened during the past few hundred years, well within the lifespans of some Greenland sharks living today.
But in those few hundred years, humans have managed to overfish and deplete many of the species that sharks had fed on, in a sustainable manner, for millennia.
And now, according to the Brunswick Times, people are blaming the sharks for disrupting fisheries. Taking such blame to its logical conclusion, a Florida seafood company representative suggested that
“This may be a good time for the [South Atlantic Fishery Management Council] to start a discussion on how to promote the shark fishery…”
It is more than ironic.
If a humble mouse, or a tiny black ant, steals a few bits of food from some person's pantry, a panoply of traps, toxins and baits will likely be set to destroy the unwanted intruder. Yet fishermen feel free to loot the sharks’ pantry, and then suggest killing those sharks for merely try to claim a share of their traditional diet.
“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Sandbar sharks, and other protected shark species, are an integral part of the marine ecosystem, and have been for hundreds of millions of years. Restoring them to some semblance of abundance is thus undoubtedly right.
Seeking to kill them because they may cause a few fishermen some passing inconvenience is just as undoubtedly wrong.