Sunday, July 7, 2019
NORTH CAROLINA BILL RAISES IMPORTANT FISHERY MANAGEMENT QUESTION
There is a bill making its way through the North Carolina legislature that would require big changes to fishery management programs in that state and, if passed, could be a bellwether for fishery management in other states with troubled fisheries.
North Carolina House Bill 483, titled the “Let Them Spawn Act,” would require state fishery managers to establish size limits and other regulations on six troubled species of fish—southern flounder, spot, Atlantic croaker, striped mullet, southern kingfish and bluefish—that would assure that at least 75% of the fish in each stock would be able to spawn at least once before being caught and landed.
According to the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, which contributed to an article published on the website Reflector.com, a twenty-year decline in landings by the state’s commercial fishery demonstrate how low populations of such species have fallen, which is why such law is needed.
“The depletion of Atlantic croaker (85 percent commercial decline), kingfish (54 percent), striped mullet (47 percent), spot (94 percent), southern flounder (88 percent) and bluefish (78 percent) combine to create a 79 percent total decline in that time.”
Commercially and recreationally important fish species in North Carolina, including the species mentioned above, are already managed by the state pursuant to the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997, which generally requires state managers to end overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks and manage for a sustainable harvest. In addition, both Atlantic croaker and spot are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which notes, for both species, that their status, with respect to overfishing and whether the stocks are overfished is “unknown” but that, despite declining landings, “no management action triggered,” while bluefish are jointly managed by ASMFC and the federal Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which will be releasing a stock assessment update, that might or might not lead to management actions, in August.
Yet despite those ongoing management efforts—and North Carolina is planning to impose very strict new restrictions on southern flounder later this year—it does appear that all six species could use a little additional help.
Recorder.com quotes Joe Albea, host of the local outdoor television series Carolina Outdoor Journal, as saying
“It’s to allow these fish to get to a certain size to reproduce and restock the population. The population is down to the point that it’s necessary. Will it affect people in the short term? Yes, but in the long term it will be better for all of us.
“It’s a shame that it’s gotten to this point, but [recovery] is going to be up to the fish and we can’t control that. Ten years ago it was known that [the fish populations were declining], and they didn’t do anything about it. If they had done it then, we wouldn’t be facing what we are [with southern flounder], which is a closure.”
“The bedrock policy that assures that fish stocks have the opportunity to spawn at least once will significantly—and quickly—add to the populations of declining and collapsing fish stocks. A healthy spawning class of adult fishes will increase yield and subsequent resiliency and growth of the fishery to the benefit of all user groups.”
At the same time, not everyone supports the proposed law.
“We don’t believe a blanket approach to multiple species is the way to manage them. It would impact both commercial and recreational fishing. The restrictions would be harder on the recreational fishermen, since they catch smaller fish.”
Yet, despite its opposition to the Let Them Spawn Act, the Fisheries Association has not offered any comprehensive, alternative plan for returning the depleted fish stocks to health.
And then there are the people that, despite copious evidence to the contrary, just reject the entire concept that fishermen can do harm to fish stocks. WWAY, a television station serving the Cape Fear area of the state, quotes recreational angler Skyler Gable as making the remarkable statement that
“I think overfishing is just more of overpopulation in general.
“Pretty frustrating. I definitely would say that, there shouldn’t really be rules on fishing. The ocean is massive.”
WWAY also quotes commercial fisherman Joe Romano, who opined that
“We’re the scapegoats, and this is the scapegoat bill.
“It will hurt recreational fishermen just as bad, if not worse. In terms of commercial fishermen, you can’t, top-down, come up with this one-size-fits-all management structure.”
Romano, too, denies that fishermen are causing declines in fish abundance.
“It has to do with environmental conditions or the weather conditions that particular season or year. Now, they’re trying to make it such that now we have to watch every one of these fish that are typically thousands and thousands schooled together.”
While such objections are easy to dismiss, those that come from professional fishery managers deserve a lot more serious consideration, and the Director of North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries has expressed reservations about the bill. He admits that the legislation’s length at maturity requirement could have value, but notes that it could lead to increased discard mortality. He also suggests that the bill leans too heavily on size limits, and so gives too little consideration to other possible management approaches.
There is a lot of merit in the North Carolina DMF’s position. At the same time, it is clear that whatever more varied management approaches have been used to date did not successfully restore the stocks in question.
In the end, everyone probably ought to admit that the Let Them Spawn Act is not, in itself, a panacea, and that setting size limits at or slightly above a species’ age at maturity will not solve all fishery management ills.
At the same time, when historic fishery management efforts have not successfully halted population declines, ended overfishing and/or rebuilt overfished stocks, something like the Let Them Spawn Act is probably needed to upset the existing paradigm and force fishery managers to investigate new, previously untried and perhaps politically unpopular management approaches.
That’s what we saw in 1985, when Amendment 3 to ASMFC’s striped bass management plan established steadily increasing size limits that assured that the relatively healthy 1982 year class, and all subsequent year classes, would survive to enter the spawning stock and rebuild the collapsed striped bass population.
And it looks like we’re going to need a 35-inch minimum size length imposed on the striped bass population today, to allow just about all of the females to spawn at least once and rebuild a stock that has become overfished once again.
If the bluefish stock assessment update contains bad news when it is released next month, perhaps it will also be time to implement a size limit of at least 12 inches, the length at which about 50% of the fish are sexually mature, on that species, in addition to whatever bag limits, quotas and season are also already in place or deemed to be appropriate once the results of the assessment are out.
On the other hand, if nothing but size limits set at or just above age at maturity were used for other popular commercial and recreational fish species, such as tautog, black sea bass, weakfish or summer flounder were used to regulate such fisheries, overfishing and quick depletion would be the inevitable result, because such size limits would still cause too many fish to be removed from the water and lead the spawning potential of the stock to fall unacceptably low.
Bag limits, seasons and annual catch limits are essential tools that must be used in conjunction with size limits to acheive the required result of healthy and sustainable stocks.
Thus, while laws like the Let Them Spawn Act can provide a valuable minimum standard for regulating fisheries, and while the concept of setting minimum sizes high enough to let fish spawn at least once is a very sensible general rule, we should view such laws more as a first step, rather than as a final target, in achieving a conservative fisheries management regime.
That said, it’s a concept that should be incorporated in most fishery management plans, and one that more states should examine.
The next step for North Carolina’s Let Them Spawn Act will come when the bill is considered by the state Senate. If the Senate approves, it will go to the Governor’s desk to either be signed into law or vetoed.
I, for one, wish it a safe passage.