Sunday, June 30, 2019
A lot of the fish that, in one way or another, are important to anglers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic are what biologists call “diadromous,”fish that must travel between salt and fresh waters as part of theirreproductive strategy.
Striped bass are the first such fish that comes to mind, for as we all know, while they spend most of their lives in salt water, every spring they run up certain rivers, including the Hudson, Delaware and various tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, in order to spawn.
If the bass are to spawn successfully, the water that they spawn in must have certain characteristics. The most recent benchmark stock assessment states that
“Striped bass spawning areas are characteristically turbid and fresh, with significant current velocities due to normal fluvial transport or tidal action…
“Striped bass spawn at temperatures between 10 and 23oC, but seldom at temperatures below 13 to 14oC. Peak spawning activity occurs at about 18oC and declines rapidly thereafter…
“Newly hatched bass larvae remain in fresh or slightly brackish water until they are about 12 to 15 mm long. At that time, they move in small schools toward shallow protected shorelines, where they remain until fall. Over the winter, the young concentrate in deep water of rivers. Those nursery grounds appear to include that part of the estuarine zone with salinities less than 3.2o/oo.”
A river that lacks such characteristics won’t be able to support striped bass reproduction.
Yet even if a river contains suitable striped bass spawning grounds, the bass might not be able to reach them. Ever since European settlers arrived in North America, they have been building dams and creating impoundments for various purposes, often to power grist mills or, later, other industrial enterprises. Such dams alter the basic characteristics of rivers, and deny fish access to spawning grounds.
However, dams can be removed, and dams fail. The removal of failing, no longer needed dams can, in the end, be the most cost-effective solution to both fishery and watershed issues.
Maine’s Kennebec River historically supported a small spawning population of striped bass. Construction of the Edwards Dam in the 1837, and the resultant industrial activity, degraded the river and ultimately destroyed its native striped bass spawning population. Striped bass from New York were later reintroduced in the river, and a spawning population, that struggled to survive below the dam, was restored. However, that population’s future wasn’t assured until 1999, after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission refused to renew the dam’s hydropower license due to its negative impact on fisheries, and the dam was removed.
Striped bass are not the only fish that benefit from dam removal, and not the only diadromous fish important to striped bass anglers.
Not too many years ago, the run of river herring—a collective term that includes both alewives and river herring—into northeastern rivers heralded the first good striped bass bite of the year. Whether you just called them “herring,” as we did in Connecticut, or “buckeyes” up in Massachusetts, the silver shoals of river herring running upstream brought stripers with them. Anglers fishing from sod banks and shorelines, and boaters in the estuaries, caught more than their share of striped bass either livelining herring or fishing herring-imitating lures.
As dams clogged the herring’s natal streams, the runsdeclined, and in most places, river herring can no longer be caught for use as bait, and bass no longer clog river mouths in pursuit of a baitfish that is no longer there.
Yet, once again, there is hope. On many rivers, old, obsolete dams are being removed, and when dams must, for whatever reason, remain in place, more and more state and municipal governments are installing fishways that allow herring to get around the dams and continue their swim upstream.
Again, one of the greatest examples comes from the State of Maine, where a combination of dams, closed fishways (ironically, closed to protect the river’s population of invasive smallmouth bass) and past pollution had caused the St. Croix River’s alewife run to drop to a mere 900 fish as recently as 2002.
The state allowed the fishways to reopen in 2013, and in just the few years since, the river’s alewife run has swollen from just 900 returning fish to about half a million. That’s a big increase, but is still just 5% of the river’s possible carrying capacity, so there’s still a long way to go.
And then there are eels. Eels don’t trigger striped bass blitzes, but they are one of the striped bass fishermen’s favorite baits. And they are in trouble, with dams and loss of access to upstream habitat one of the factors in their decline. While the American eel population is suffering from a number of causes, there is little doubt that better access to upstream waters, where females spend almost all of their adult lives (males tend to remain in estuaries and the rivers’ lower reaches) would alleviate one stress on the population, and so impact eel abundance.
Then there are the species that anglers don’t even think about anymore.
During the Colonial period, Atlantic salmon were present in most, if not all, major New England rivers, until dams and pollution denied them access to upstream spawning grounds. Now, they only maintain a tenuous hold in a few Maine rivers, and all of Maine’s salmon runs are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet there are signs that even the salmon will respond to improved upstream access.
On Maine’s Penobscot River, dams have been removed, making Milford Dam the first obstacle to the salmon’s upstream passage. And a fish lift installed at Milford Dam helps keep the salmon swimming upstream. Just a few days ago, on June 20, 107 salmon, an all-time record number, were captured at the fish lift and helped on their travels upstream. Given that only about 750 fish migrated up the Penobscot in all of 2018, seeing 107 salmon in a single day was very good news.
While biologists believe that it will take 75 years to get Maine’s Atlantic salmon off the Endangered Species List, this year’s run at Milford, at the least, gives reason to hope that delisting might, one day, occur.
A number of other species, ranging from tiny rainbow smelt and sea-run “salter” brook trout to the huge Atlantic sturgeon, have been hurt by dammed rivers, and benefit when dams are removed.
So far, I’ve written about good things happening with fish passage in Maine, but readers should rest assured that opportunities for dam removal and other fish passage improvements exist in just about every coastal state.
Anyone who cares about maintaining and increasing native populations of diadromous fish need only do a little research, perhaps contacting organizations such as Trout Unlimited, American Rivers or local conservation groups, and see what they can do to help out their home waters.
Having said that, I’ll close with a message to my fellow Long Islanders.
Sometimes, opportunities for improving fish passage don’t involve years of work and planning.
Sometimes, they drop into your lap.
That has just happened out in Oakdale, where some old, watersoaked boards in a weir on West Brook have recently rotted through and collapsed, draining the impoundment behind the low dam and allowing the river to resume something resembling its natural course. If you ever drive east on Sunrise Highway you know the place; West Brook drains out of Connetquot State Park just west of the park entrance and, until the weir collapsed, backed up into the shallow, warm, weed-choked swan pond that spread out just south of the road.
The State Parks is considering rebuilding the weir, and flooding the pond’s basin again; a fish ladder might be a part of any such rebuild, but no fish ladder functions as well as a free-flowing stream.
Undammed, West Brook could again host spawning runs of river herring, and would be more attractive to eels. If the flow could be effectively maintained, and water temperatures kept appropriately cool, there is even a chance--perhaps remote, but a chance--that it might again host a small population of native brook trout.
Dammed, it will again be a warm, weedy, shallow pond that might host a few eels, and whatever alewives manage to get around the new weir, but it will not be anything resembling a healthy river, and will not provide habitat for the same species that require a cooler waters and steadier flow.
Thus, I’m asking that you take a few minutes to contact
George Gorman, Long Island Regional Director
New York State Office of Parks and Recreation
625 Belmont Avenue
West Babylon, NY 11704
and tell him that the best way to save taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on dam and pond maintenance, and more importantly, to preserve native habitat and native species, is to let West Brook run free.
Thursday, June 27, 2019
Fishery management takes place in a larger world. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that ideas and opinions that arise outside the fisheries context are relevant to management issues.
I was reminded of that the other day, when I was reading an excerpt from The Harvard Gazette, in which a professor reminded readers about the difference between anecdote and data, and noted that
“Too many leaders and influencers, including politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and academics, surrender to the cognitive bias of assessing the world through anecdotes and images rather than data and facts.”
Anyone who has ever attended a fisheries meeting understands why that sentence rang a bell, because there is probably no other venue where so many people try to pass off so many anecdotes—mere stories—as facts.
Such anecdotes take many forms. Some are stories told by people who oppose further restrictions on harvest, and are trying to grasp onto any tale that might stave off additional regulations. Some are observations told by fishermen who don’t understand fisheries science, and are merely reporting what they think that they see. And others reflect honest and accurate observations of local abundance and local catchability, which might not reflect the overall condition of the stock.
Gulf of Maine cod provide an example of one such situation.
A few years ago, it became apparent to most that the cod were in serious trouble. A new, peer-reviewed stock assessment revealed the stock was badly overfished, and that abundance had fallen to well below 10% of the target level. Yet, as reported in the blog TalkingFish.org, fishermen argued that
“Cod are everywhere.”
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts agreed to conduct its own statistically-valid survey, to see whether it could develop data that would support the fishermen’s claims. Just the opposite happened. The survey results effectively confirmed the findings in the stock assessment: the cod stock was in bad shape.
Yet the fishermen rejected the survey’s data. According to TalkingFish, one outspoken industry representative told the Boston Globe that
“The state survey literally does zero to improve our confidence. You can’t just sample anywhere. You have to go where the cod are supposed to be.”
Such statement says a lot about too many fishermen’s chronic misunderstanding of survey and assessment techniques. As fishermen, their job is catching fish, and if they are in the business for any length of time, they get pretty good at it. They learn where fish will be under various conditions, and know how to chase down and find even small concentrations of fish, located in very specific areas, in order to bring home a good catch.
They ignore all of the places where they don’t expect fish to be, because it’s pointless to fish there.
Thus, when they drop down their hooks, deploy their gill nets or tow their trawls, they usually end up catching a fair amount of fish. They tend to discount the fact that the places that the fish still inhabit are surrounded by vast expanses of once-productive, and now largely empty, bottom.
They know other fishermen who are catching fish, too. All of their success stories, considered together, provide a very selective, and very distorted, overall view of fish abundance, composed of individual anecdotes, and not of data. But to a fishermen who wants to believe that all is well with the stock, they serve as “proof” that the science is wrong.
Although that example is drawn from the commercial fishery, we frequently see similar examples emerge from the recreational fleet. They are very common when dealing with migratory species such as striped bass and bluefish, which can be very abundant at certain times and places as they move along the coast.
This spring, for example, many fishermen who targeted the big, pre-spawn female striped bass that were staging in Raritan Bay and lower New York Harbor before moving into the Hudson River to breed rejected a recent stock assessment’s conclusion that the striped bass was both overfished and subject to overfishing.
After all, how could they be filling coolers with bass (often legally, sometimes not) if there weren’t many bass to be found? Suggestions that striped bass need further protection are often met with scorn and outright hostility, as anglers focused on local, transient abundance fail to see the bigger picture that was captured by the stock assessment. Few ever stopped to question whether, in a time of relative scarcity, it made any sense to kill large, fecund females on their way to the spawning grounds.
Once again, too many fishermen took reports out of context, and allowed tales of abundance in one particular place, at one particular time, to trump a detailed, data-driven and peer-reviewed assessment of the health of the striped bass stock.
Similarly, stories of striped bass abundance in federal waters more than three miles from shore, where fishing for bass is illegal, are being used by some folks who are trying to impeach the findings of the latest stock assessment.
The stories all take about the same format. Someone will get up at a meeting and declare something like “My pals Frankie and Joey were out in the canyon fishing for tuna, and on their way back to the market they ran across acres—acres, they said—of striped bass maybe 20 miles from shore. They told me that there were so many bass that when they ran through the school, their depthfinder lit up and showed the bottom 20 feet under the boat, when they were still in 150 feet of water.”
That story gets repeated by a few people a few times in a few different forms, and maybe Frankie and Joey themselves are at the meeting to tell it themselves, and everybody looks at one another with satisfied expressions on their faces, nodding and fully convinced that they just “proved” that the science is wrong and that there are plenty of striped bass offshore—something all real fishermen know is the truth—but that the scientists who count fish, again, just don’t know where to find them.
Such stories can even convince legislators who are weak on the details of fisheries science.
About a month ago, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1), apparently taken in by such tales, issued a press release that, in part, impugned the benchmark assessment, saying that the assessment
“used flawed data that measures the Atlantic Striped Bass stock based on the entire eastern seaboard, yet failed to account for the Atlantic Striped Bass outside of the 3-mile fishing area, assuming that fish abide by arbitrary bureaucratic boundaries. Alternative data that shows the Striped Bass stock is in a better place outside of the 3-mile was…thrown out by the [Atlantic States Marine Fisheries] Commission… [emphasis added]”
Thus, we see exactly the problem that the piece in The Harvard Gazette alluded to, which arises when a politician falls victim to anecdotes, and confuses such anecdotes for data and for facts. For the stories told about striped bass being encountered offshore does not rise to the level of data—not even to the level of “alternative data” which, like “alternative facts,” tend to distort what is true.
That doesn’t mean that the fishermen’s observations can’t lead to real, statistically-valid data. But to do that, a scientifically rigorous investigation must take place. Saying “Frankie and Joey know what they saw,” just isn’t good enough.
If someone wanted to prove that there are striped bass offshore that were never included in any of the surveys considered in the stock assessment, they wouldn’t do that merely by providing an accounting of times that such fish were seen more than three miles from shore—even if such list was fairly detailed, and contained dates, defensible estimates of the number of fish seen each time, etc. In the end, all that such list would contain are stories. A lot of stories, to be sure, but still nothing more than anecdotal reports.
To truly prove the assertion that there are uncounted bass offshore, supporters of such claims would first have to create a “null hypothesis” that, in this case, would assume that there are no such striped bass in federal waters, and then collect valid data to prove that the null hypothesis is wrong.
They might, for example, get an exempted fishery permit that allows them to catch and tag bass in federal waters, then see how many of those tagged fish show up in the inshore surveys used to prepare the striped bass stock assessment. If it turns out that none of the tagged fish show up in inshore surveys after a reasonable period of time has passed, then there would be at least some data that tends to contradict the null hypothesis, and so supports their claim.
It turns out that Massachusetts recently did something very much like that, placing acoustic tags in 125 striped bass, then waiting to see whether such fish were detected in inshore waters (although by acoustic gates, and not in the surveys used for stock assessment purposes). As it turns out, fully 95% of the tagged fish returned to Massachusetts state waters, and fully 77% of them returned seasonally for up to 2 years (as the tagging program ended in 2011 and the results of the study were published in 2014, it is possible that bass continued to return seasonally for longer than that, but were not reported due to the study’s conclusion).
That real data, which shows the vast majority of “offshore” fish tagged soon returned inshore, is not completely dispositive of the question, but it tends to strongly support the null hypothesis, and thus does not support any “alternative data”—that is, fishermen’s stories—suggesting that there are uncounted bass swimming somewhere in federal waters.
And that’s how fisheries management—and any science-based issue—is supposed to work: Driven by facts, not by anecdotes and compelling images. As The Harvard Gazette’s piece concluded
“We need to make ‘factfulness’ an inherent part of the culture of education, journalism, commentary, and politics. An awareness of the infirmity of unaided human intuition should be part of the conventional wisdom of every educated person. Guiding policy or activism by conspicuous events, without reference to data, should come to be seen as risible as guiding them by omens, dreams, or whether Jupiter is rising in Sagittarius.”
Because fish stories can be entertaining, but they are not data.
And they shouldn’t drive fisheries policy.
Sunday, June 23, 2019
On the morning of Thursday, August 8, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will meet to decide the fate of the striper.
Three topics are on the agenda: "Consider Approval of Draft Addendum VI for Public Comment", "Consider Postponed Motion from the April 2019 Meeting", and "Review and Consider Approval of February 2019 Fishery Management Plan Review and State Compliance Reports". All are important matters, but it is the first two items that will decide the fish’s foreseeable future.
As everyone should know by now, the most recent benchmarkstock assessment, completed late last year, found that the striped bass stockis both overfished and subject to overfishing. Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass requires that, under such circumstances,
“the 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”
“the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [no more than ten years].”
At its May meeting, the Management Board began the process of reducing fishing mortality, by instructing the Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team to put together a draft addendum to the management plan that would have a 50-50 chance of reducing fishing mortality by 17%, the minimum amount needed to return fishing mortality to the target level. The proposed draft addendum would consider measures such as a 35-inch minimum size on the coast, a 2-inch increase in the size limit in Chesapeake Bay, a slot limit with a 40-inch maximum size, seasons, the mandatory use of circle hooks when bait fishing and reductions in commercial landings.
What the proposed draft addendum doesn’t seem to do is include provisions that would rebuild the stock within 10 years, as required by the current management plan.
Unfortunately, because the ASMFC is not legally required to rebuild overfished stocks, and is not legally accountable for its management actions, it can ignore such explicit provisions of its management plans with seeming impunity.
Thus, anglers were left with a comment by an Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee member, who said at the May Management Board meeting that, if fishing mortality was reduced to target, biomass would “theoretically” increase to target at some point, although the timeframe for that to happen was not clear.
The benchmark stock assessment did make it clear that even with the strong 2011 and 2015 year classes in the population, merely ending overfishing would probably leave the stock still overfished in the year 2023.
However, it is not even certain that the Management Board will act to reduce fishing mortality to the target level. Ever since the Management Board adopted Addendum IV to the management plan in 2014, which was intended to reduce fishing mortality by 25%, the State of Maryland, in particular, has been fiercely opposed to further reductions in landings, and has made several efforts to increase the striped bass kill. Representatives from New Jersey and Delaware have also expressed opposition to needed management measures.
In addition, there have been some people in other states, often associated with the for-hire fishery, who are opposing any reduction in landings. Here in New York, much of that opposition is taking the form of unfounded challenges to the benchmark stock assessment, based on casual observations of striped bass offshore, that claim that biologists failed to consider large numbers of fish that remain offshore, where they cannot be legally fished. Although even a cursory reading of the peer-reviewed stock assessment would show that such claims are invalid, opponents of effective striped bass management have been loud and persistent enough to get the ear of one local congressman, who has taken up their cause.
Thus, anglers concerned with the striped bass’ future would do well to contact their states’ representatives to the ASMFC who can be found on the ASMFC’s web page (go to tab “About Us” and then click on “Commissioners”), and tell them that fishing mortality must be returned to target in 2020, as the current management plan requires.
This isn’t something that responsible anglers should ignore, because we can be sure that those opposed to striped bass conservation will be contacting their representatives early and often.
And anglers shouldn’t stop there. They should also tell their ASMFC representatives that they expect the Management Board to stay true to their word, and rebuild the striped bass stock to target within 10 years, as they promised to do when they adopted Amendment 6 to the management plan.
During the Amendment 6 debate, which dragged out for years, there were many striped bass fishermen who thought that the amendment should be more restrictive, to allow more big female bass to survive and create a resilient spawning stock that will help assure the future of the bass population should it experience multiple years of poor spawning success, as seems to occur from time to time.
The Management Board told those anglers not to worry, because there were management triggers in the Amendment that would require remedial action should the stock run into problems. Back in 2011, when the Management Board was first faced with a stock assessment update informing them that the stock would be overfished by 2017, they took no action, because a management trigger hadn’t been tripped—yet—a rationale that certainly implied that action would be taken once such trigger was tripped.
Now, the overfishing trigger has been activated, and the Management Board’s duty—as set out in Amendment 6—is crystal clear.
Whether the Management Board will demonstrate the integrity and moral courage to step up and do their duty is not clear at all.
Thus, anglers need to encourage them to do the right thing, and take action to rebuild the stock within the 10-year timeframe, as they have previously promised that they would do. Again, there will certainly be other folks out there telling them to ignore the clear language of Amendment 6, and leave the rebuilding issue alone.
And there are people out there—and on the Management Board—who want to do far worse than that, and take actions that would render any Management Board effort to rebuild the stock or reduce fishing mortality largely irrelevant in the long term.
That’s where the second item on the August meeting agenda kicks in. The Management Board will consider a postponed motion that reads
“Move to initiate an Addendum to the Atlantic Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan to address the needed consideration for change on the issues of fishery goals and objectives, empirical/biological/spatial reference points, management triggers, rebuilding biomass, and area-specific management. Work on this Amendment will begin upon the completion of the previously discussed Addendum to the Management Plan.”
Not surprisingly, the motion was made by Michael Luisi of Maryland, and seconded by John Clark of Delaware. Both persons are long-time advocates for a bigger striped bass kill, and have been determined opponents of needed conservation measures. Their push for a new amendment is extremely significant, for as Max Appleman, the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, noted at the February Management Board meeting,
“Almost everything is covered in the addendum process, except for management objectives and goals.”
So by pushing for an amendment, it’s pretty clear that folks such as Clark and Luisi are hoping to change the most basic parameters of the management plan: the goals and objectives of the entire striped bass management effort.
What do the current goals and objectives look like? Actually,
they look pretty good.
The management plan’s current goal is
“To perpetuate, through cooperative interstate fishery management, migratory stocks of striped bass; to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock, and also to provide for the restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat.”
That goal makes a lot of sense. It is focused on maintaining a healthy spawning stock, with an age structure adequate to include a number of the older, larger female fish that, on an individual basis, produce far more, as well as larger and healthier, eggs than do younger females.
That’s a critical consideration in a fish like striped bass, that tend to depend on occasional, large year classes to maintain their abundance.
If fishing mortality is increased, or the target and threshold biomass is reduced, the stock would lose many of the large female fish, and be more dependent on younger females.
That may work for a while, when big year classes occur, but when there are a number of consecutive years of poor recruitment, as happened in the late 1970s/early 1980s and happened again between 2005 and 2010, there may not be enough young fish recruiting into the spawning stock to replace the fish being removed. In such a situation, when there aren't enough young fish, and the stock no longer has a broad age structure that includes older females, the risk of sharp stock decline, and perhaps even collapse, is greatly increased.
Having seen the bass stock collapse once in my life, I’m in no hurry to see such a thing happen again.
On the other hand, by lowering the biomass target and allowing a bigger kill, people who make money from killing striped bass will see their income increase in the short term.
While it’s true that you can’t catch fish that aren’t there, both commercial striped bass fishermen and for-hire operators have a history of focusing on what they can catch today, and not spending very much time worrying about whether there will be any fish for them to catch tomorrow. To them, amending the goal of the plan to allow a bigger kill sounds like a good idea.
“Manage fishing mortality to maintain an age structure that provides adequate spawning potential to sustain long-term abundance of striped bass population,”
“Establish a fishing mortality target that will result in a net increase in the abundance (pounds) of age 15 and older striped bass in the population, relative to the 2000 estimate,”
will also be in the crosshairs should a new amendment be initiated.
Changing those objectives could only hurt the bass population in the long term.
Thus, when contacting your ASMFC representatives, it is of critical importance that you convey the message that the motion to begin an amendment must not pass.
Again, you can be certain that the folks who want to kill more fish will be getting the word out, contacting everyone they know in an effort to defeat conservation measures and amend the plan.
They will say that there are plenty of fish out in federal waters, and that the assessment is wrong. But they won’t be able to explain why no one but them can find those offshore striped bass.
They will argue that striped bass biomass has never achieved the target level. But they will fail to mention that striped bass fishing mortality has never been reduced to the target, either.
They will say that higher landings will provide them with higher incomes today. But they will not mention tomorrow.
It is thus incumbent upon everyone who cares about the striped bass to contact their three ASMFC representatives now, and again just before the August meeting, and insist that they reduce fishing mortality, promptly rebuild the biomass, and maintain goals and objectives that will best assure that the striped bass stock remains healthy not just today, but in the long term as well.
Thursday, June 20, 2019
Forage fish, the small and traditionally abundant species that larger fish, birds and marine mammals prey on, have been getting more attention over the past few years, as both academics and fishery managers recognize that without a reliable abundance of forage, there won’t be a reliable abundance of the larger predatory fish that fuel the most valuable commercial and recreational fisheries.
The first sustained effort to manage forage fish as forage, and not merely as another stock to be harvested, probably occurred at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission about 20 years ago, and culminated with the adoption of Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden in 2001.
Prior to that amendment, menhaden management at ASMFC was dominated by representatives of the industrial menhaden fishery, who controlled both the scientific bodies that assessed the health of the menhaden stock and the management board that set annual quotas and other limitations on menhaden landings. The new Amendment 1 was intended to end the foxes’ long tenure as guardians of the henhouse, and pass management responsibility to a board composed of state fishery managers and other representatives of every state throughout the Atlantic menhaden’s range, a change that substantially diluted, but did not end, the industrial fisheries’ influence over menhaden management.
Eighteen years later, the tension between conservation interests, small-scale menhaden fisheries and the industrial fleet continue, but the playing field has been leveled considerably. While the industrial fleet still has a greater than ideal influence on menhaden management, forage fish advocates have gained a lot of ground—so much ground, in fact, that scientists are now preparing an “ecological-based” stock assessment that should be completed and presented for peer review before the end of this year.
Unlike traditional single-species stock assessments, the ecological-based menhaden assessment will gauge the health of the menhaden stock, and the efficacy of management measures, based not only on the stock’s ability to sustain itself at present harvest rates, but also on its ability to fully perform its role in the ecosystem, as one of the most important forage species on the East Coast.
Assuming that such assessment passes peer review, ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board is expected to propose abundance/fecundity and fishing mortality reference points that reflect the menhaden’s important ecological role. It is very likely that, if such reference points would result in appreciably reduced landings, the industrial fleet will try to block their implementation, and it could even be successful in doing so. However, the mere fact that ecological reference points are even being considered is a sign of how far forage fish management has progressed in the past two decades.
Of course, the forage fish harvesters aren’t sitting on their haunches waiting to see their landings cut. Omega Protein, the U.S. affiliate of Cooke Inc. a large Canadian aquaculture company, is trying to buy respectability for its industrial menhaden operations by seeking Marine Stewardship Council certification that such fishery is sustainable.
The initial report from the Marine Stewardship Council’s consultant, SIA Global, was generally favorable to Omega, advising that
“the assessment team has provisionally recommended that the Atlantic menhaden purse seine fishery is eligible to be certified pursuant to the MSC Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing subject to the Conditions and related corrective actions outlined in this report. [emphasis added]”
However, it’s notable that all three of the “Conditions and related corrective actions” referred to address menhaden’s ecological roles. They require that Omega
“provide evidence of the implementation of a harvest strategy that is designed to take into consideration the ecological role of Atlantic menhaden and is responsive to the state of the stock with respect to its role in the U.S. Northwest Atlantic ecosystem,” and
“provide evidence of the implementation of well-defined harvest control rules that take into consideration the historical role of Atlantic menhaden as key low trophic role in the U.S. Northwest Atlantic…”
“There shall be a regular review of the potential effectiveness and practicality of alternative measures to minimize the [unit of assessment]-related mortality of [endangered threatened and protected] species and they are implemented as appropriate…”
Even with those conditions added to the report, a number of angling and conservation organizations are challenging the recommendation of provisional certification, because they understand that the health of forage stocks are important.
Some federal fishery managers have also acknowledged the importance of forage fish. Both the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council have adopted management measures intended to protect the health of unfished and otherwise unmanaged forage fish stocks.
The problems begin to arise when forage species, such as Atlantic herring or Atlantic mackerel, already support significant directed fisheries. At that point, as in the case of menhaden, individuals and companies have made significant investments in order to prosecute such fisheries. Shifting management of such fish from a single-species approach to one that incorporates their forage role in the ecosystem would cause at least some economic dislocation for those involved in the fisheries, and so such interests tend to aggressively oppose ecosystem-based approaches.
A few years ago, an organization known as IFFO (2012) Ltd., which calls itself “the marine ingredients organization,” even provided funding and information to a team of researchers who undertook to demonstrate that today’s industrial fisheries for forage fish do no appreciable harm to marine ecosystems.
Thus, conservation advocates have a difficult job ahead of them when they try to preserve already-fished forage fish stocks. That became obvious when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council ran into strong industry opposition to including chub mackerel in its forage fish amendment, due to a recent spike in chub mackerel landings off the U.S. East Coast. Such industry opposition also manifested itself in the four-year fight to keep large mid-water trawls, which targeted Atlantic herring, at least 12 nautical miles from shore, in order to avoid local depletion of forage fish stocks needed to attract and hold various other fish targeted by a wide array of recreational and commercial fishermen.
While both chub mackerel and Atlantic herring are targeted in directed fisheries, other forage species that are incidentally caught also suffer in the offshore trawl fisheries. River herring, a term that encompasses both the alewife and the blueback herring, American shad and hickory shad are thought to be victims—collateral damage, if you will—of such industrial fishing efforts. Populations of all four species have fallen sharply from levels typical in the mid-1900s.
During much of 2015 and 2016, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council debated managing shad and river herring as part of its Atlantic Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan. In the end, it declined to do so, but did place caps on shad and river herring bycatch in the Atlantic Mackerel fishery, that result in the directed mackerel fishery being closed once the catch cap is caught.
The New England Fishery Management Council also placed caps on the incidental catch of such species in the Atlantic herring fishery.
Despite such measures, shad and river herring populations are showing few signs of recovery, leading various conservation groups to conclude that stricter management is needed. In 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council submitted a petition to have both species of river herring listed under the Endangered Species Act. Although that original petition was denied, the lack of much important information led the National Marine Fisheries Service to schedule another review of the stocks’ status, which was just released a few days ago.
NMFS has again decided against listing either species of river herring under the Endangered Species Act, having determined that the likelihood of extinction for either species, when viewed either across their entire range or with respect to a distinct population segment, is generally low. The probability that NMFS will adopt any additional measures to protect shad and river herring in federal waters is low, as well.
However, river herring, and forage fish generally, have one additional shot at protection.
Last April, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) introduced H.R. 2236, the Forage Fish Conservation Act, in the House of Representatives. So far, the bill has attracted 14 cosponsors, which are almost equally divided between the Democratic and Republican parties, although no companion bill has yet been introduced in the Senate.
H.R. 2236 would, among other things, require federal fishery managers to consider forage species’ ecological role when determining the optimum yield from each fish stock, and require each regional fishery management council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee to make recommendations to such councils on maintaining an adequate forage fish population.
H.R. 2236 would also prevent the creation of new fisheries for unmanaged forage fish stocks unless and until the relevant regional fishery management council has determined how such new fishery would impact the forage fish stock, has decided whether such stock is in need of conservation and management and, if conservation and management is needed, has developed a fishery management plan.
In addition, H.R. 2236 would require that federal fishery management plans be created for shad and river herring.
It’s difficult to predict the bill’s fate right now. While it contains some very good and valuable provisions, it will undoubtedly be opposed by fishermen who fear that it will negatively impact existing forage fish fisheries, and so do harm to both individual fishermen and fishing communities.
On the other hand, it is likely to receive support from at least some members of the conservation community, and from recreational and commercial fishermen who believe that, by protecting forage fish stocks, the bill will have a positive impact on the larger fish that they pursue.
Whatever H.R. 2236’s ultimate fate, it’s clear that forage fish are a hot topic in fishery management right now, and there is no sign that such topic will cool off at any time soon.
And, given the importance of forage species, that is a very good thing.