Sunday, November 17, 2019

THE MAGNUSON-STEVENS FISHERY CONSERVATION AND MANAGEMENT ACT: PEOPLE ARE TALKING (AND REP. HUFFMAN IS LISTENING)


Last Friday, I had the privilege of participating in a “listening session” arranged by Rep. Jarred Huffman (D-CA), the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee.  Eleven persons, not including the Congressman, sat at the front table.  All were drawn from the academic, fisheries management, angling, commercial fishing, and conservation communities, and all were good representatives of their respective communities.

Our session, intended to address Mid-Atlantic concerns, was held at the National Aquarium’s Animal Care and Rescue Center in Baltimore.  Two similar sessions have already been held in California, and more will be held in other coastal venues.  Seattle is next on the agenda; fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast, will also have a chance to be  heard.

The purpose of all of the sessions was to examine issues related to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and perhaps other, related legislation, in order to provide Rep. Huffman with the background information that he needs to move forward with a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill at some point during the next year.

Given the diversity of the invitees, with respect to experience, formal education and their relationship to Mid-Atlantic fisheries, it would have been reasonable to expect that each of us would have presented a very different set of comments.  Yet, while all of us emphasized a slightly different aspect of fisheries management, there were a few common themes that united all of the speakers.

Everyone at the table who spoke on the issue generally endorsed Magnuson-Stevens as a successful fishery management law, even if some of the speakers questioned whether the law was overly rigid and precautionary, and so prevented some healthy stocks from being fully--but safely—exploited.

The need for the best possible scientific information, including but not limited to landings data, was certainly one of the dominant themes.  Whether the comments were made by Dr. John Wiedenmann, a professor at Rutgers University who focuses on sustainable fisheries issues, by Michael Waine, the American Sportfishing Association’s Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director, or by Robert Beal, the Executive Director of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, all agreed that good fisheries management depends on good fisheries data.

Of course, while there was broad consensus that fisheries managers require good data, there was less agreement on how to improve the data-gathering process, and how to deal with the uncertainty that will never be completely eliminated from the final product.

In recent years, largely in connection with the so-called “ModernFish Act” and the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, members of therecreational fishing industry have been calling for things such as anglers providingcatch data via a smart phone application, or providing data that can be includedin stock assessments and other research efforts.  Those suggestions were made at the listening session as well, but other members of the panel, including Richard Robins, former Chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, noted that there is still a long way to go before data provided by anglers can be adequately scrubbed of bias, and so rendered reliable enough to be suitable for use by fisheries managers.

As far as the uncertainty issue went, I pointed out that Magnuson-Stevens already includes a provision which states that

“annual catch limits for each of [a regional fishery management council’s] managed fisheries…may not exceed the fishing level recommendations of [that council’s] scientific and statistical committee or the peer review process established under [another provision of the law],”

“When specifying limits and accountability measures, Councils must take an approach that considers uncertainty in scientific information and management control of the fishery.”
While I didn’t quote that language word-for-word, I cited the general concepts, and suggested that because some level of uncertainty will always be inherent in fisheries data, it might make sense to amend the language of Magnuson-Stevens to require that each regional fishery management council’s scientific and statistical committee, when setting the acceptable biological catch used to develop annual catch limits, specifically include scientific and management uncertainty in its calculations, and thus create a buffer that would probably prevent overfishing despite whatever problems persisted in the data.

I still like the idea, but Rep. Huffman correctly noted that such a change probably wouldn’t go over too well with those who shared the views of Greg DiDomenico, Executive Director of the Garden State Seafood Association, who had earlier argued that Magnuson-Stevens already caused federal fisheries managers to be overly precautionary, and thus led to the “underfishing” of healthy stocks.

And, despite my preference for precautionary management,  I can’t say that Mr. DiDomenico’s comment was wrong, for there is no reason not to fully exploit fish stocks, so long as that exploitation doesn’t threaten such stocks’ long-term health.

It’s clear that Rep. Huffman is facing a difficult job, trying to sort this issue out in a way that addresses all of the public’s concerns.

Adding to the problems with uncertain data is the certainty of climate change, and its impact on coastal waters.  Dr. Wiedenmann has been doing a lot of work with New England groundfish, and noted that because of warming waters, and the related effects of that warming, in our northeastern sea, there is a lot of question as to whether past estimates of stock biomass, and rebuilding plans that are based on such estimates, are still realistic today.  

In a slightly different riff on the “underfishing” theme, he noted that the measures required to rebuild some groundfish stocks to the target level (he mentioned yellowtail flounder as an example) within Magnuson-Stevens’ default 10-year timeline could force fishermen to land smaller amounts of other species that remain at or near healthy levels of abundance, in order to avoid excessive bycatch that leads to overfishing the depleted populations.  The remedy for that problem, he suggested, might be more liberal rebuilding timelines.

But such extended timelines could lead to their own set of problems.

Robert Beal mentioned two ASMFC-managed stocks, northern shrimp and the southern New England stock of American lobster, which have been so badly impacted by warming waters and climate change that they may never recover, regardless of what managers do.

A solution to that problem remains elusive.

Even the seemingly obvious issues turn out to be harder than they seem. 

Pam Lyons Gromen, Executive Director for Wild Oceans, was the second panelist to speak, and the first to mention the forage fish issue.  She spoke of the need to manage forage fish not just for human harvest, but for their role in marine ecosystems, where they serve as prey for fish, a plethora of seabirds and marine mammals.  Comments along the same theme were made by Michael Waine and by Capt. Paul Eidmann who, besides being the owner/operator of Reel Therapy Fly & Light Tackle Fishing Charters, heads the organization Menhaden Defenders which, as its name suggests, is dedicated to forage fish conservation.

Protecting key elements of the marine food web might, at first glance, seem to be a no-brainer, but as is often the case with fisheries matters, the reality is much more nuanced.  

Dr. Michelle Duval, an experienced fisheries scientist who operates Mellivora Consulting, noted that the definition of “forage fish” is not as clean-cut as people might believe, and pointed out that marine ecosystems hold a number of key species, and that all need to be adequately conserved.  Dr. Wiedenmann also recommended giving some real thought to the forage fish issue, because different predators require different forage species, and many forage species are subject to wide swings in abundance due to natural circumstances, which are completely unrelated to fishing effort.

Mr. DiDomenico objected to placing forage fish-specific provisions in Magnuson-Stevens, arguing that the current law is already protecting marine resources, including forage species, well as it is currently worded, and that there is no need to add an additional layer of legislation and regulation that might unnecessarily burden fishermen.

Thus, it became obvious that in the fisheries arena, even an idea that is a “no-brainer” will require considerable thought.

As the last three panel members had their turn to speak, a final topic was brought to the floor.  All three speakers were recreational fishermen, and all three had decided to speak not just about how well Magnuson-Stevens was working to manage federal fisheries, but how inshore fisheries, which not managed pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens, but instead by the states, acting cooperatively through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, were not doing nearly as well.

We hadn’t discussed what we would say among ourselves.  None of us had seen the other persons’ comments before they were made.  But all of us, on our own, had decided that it was time to ask Congress, in the form of Rep. Huffman, for its help in transforming the ASMFC into a truly effective management body that, in its own sphere, might finally claim the same sort of successes that federal fisheries managers have long achieved.

Capt. Eidmann was the first to raise the issue, focusing on the ASMFC’s failure to properly manage striped bass, and pointing out the need for it to do more to protect Atlantic menhaden.  Tony Friedrich, Vice President and  Policy Director for the American Saltwater Guides Association, then picked up on the theme, noting that we must find a way to compel the ASMFC to do better and to concentrate on what fishermen really need—rebuilding and maintaining healthy fish stocks.  I was the last panel member to speak.

Magnuson-Stevens works.  Other speakers more than adequately covered the other topics I had thought to address--forage fish and ocean warming.So my comments focused solely on the need for changes to the law that governs ASMFC.  

They weren’t easy comments to write, because I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t attacking the ASMFC’s staff, who in their competence and dedication are at least the equal of federal fisheries managers.  What I decried, and asked Rep. Huffman to help change, was an ASMFC structure and management system that seems built to guarantee failure.

The final words of my comments read

“The failure to rebuild and maintain healthy inshore fish stocks is not the fault of Commission staff, who are good people, and do a good job, but of its species-specific management boards, which are dominated by individuals who have close ties to fishermen and the fishing industry, and tend to elevate fishermen’s short-term wants above the long-term needs of the fish stocks that they manage.
“After the regional fishery management councils proved themselves unwilling and unable to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, for much the same reasons, Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 which, for the first time, required that federal fishery managers end overfishing, promptly rebuild overfished stocks, and base their management actions on the best available science.  Actions which failed to meet those basic standards could be challenged in court.
“Now, for the Commission to live up to its potential, we need what might be called the ‘Sustainable Atlantic Coast Fisheries Act,’ which amends the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, that governs the Commission, in a similar way.
I have often pointed out that, if you want to have a fishingindustry, it helps to have fish.  That’s particularly true in recreational fisheries, where abundance clearly drives effort, and effort drives revenues.  A strong Magnuson-Stevens helps to create and maintain such abundance; requiring the Commission to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks would provide the same benefits for our inshore fish stocks.
“Thank you.”
I know that Rep. Huffman was listening to the comments that all of us made.

His listening sessions are just the opening rounds in a discussion, and then a debate, that will take a year, and probably years, to resolve.  How many of our suggestions make it into the eventual draft of whatever bill results, and then survive the political process in both houses of Congress, is impossible to predict at this point.

Right now, all we can do is thank Rep. Huffman for reaching out to stakeholders on every coast, stay involved with the political process as it evolves, and keep striving to convince legislators in both the House and Senate that a strong Magnuson-Stevens—and, on the East Coast, ASMFC reform—is in the best long term interests of both fish and fisherman.


Thursday, November 14, 2019

SHORTFIN MAKOS IN CRISIS


If you spend much time fishing offshore, you know that shortfin mako sharks—that’s the species of mako that typically swims through our slicks—isn’t doing very well. 

Today, we’re catching smaller, and quite a bit fewer, makos than we did twenty-five years ago.

The fishing club that I belong to has about 100 members, most of them very competent anglers.  None of them weighed in a mako this year.  I haven't killed one--by choice--since 1997.


I’ve done a fair amount of shark fishing since ICCAT first warned that makos were in trouble, and I’ve seen nothing to make me feel good.  A 20-fathom spot where I once had a 6-mako day, and frequently caught three or four on a trip, reluctantly yielded a handful of fish on a handful of late-season trips.  The summer mako fishery, which used to be good there, has completely dried up.

Another spot, further away and in deeper water, was about as close to a sure thing as you can find during the last week in June.  The last time I went there, the ocean held enough bait that bluefin tuna smashed the surface all through the day, but the only shark that we saw in a full day of fishing was one good-sized sandbar; the makos, and even the blue sharks, were gone.


“All three models projected that spawning stock fecundity, defined as the number of pups produced each year, will continue to decline until approximately 2035 even with no fishing, because the cohorts that have been depleted in the past will age into the mature population over the next few decades (the median age at maturity is 21 years).”  
The assessment scientists ran the model three different times, including somewhat different assumptions about stock behavior in each run.  Again, no matter how they looked at things, it was all bad news.

“For runs 1 and 2, a [total allowable catch] of between 800-900 [metric tons], including dead discards, resulted in >50% probability of…the joint probability of [a fishing mortality rate that is below the rate that results in maximum sustainable yield] and [spawning stock fecundity that is above the spawning stock fecundity necessary for the biomass to produce maximum sustainable yield] by 2070.  Run 3, which assumed a low productivity stock-recruitment relationship, showed that only [a total allowable catch] of between 0 and 100 [metric tons] (including dead discards) resulted in a >50% probability of [achieving that desired result] by 2070.  The Group emphasized that fishing mortality rates had to be well below [the fishing mortality rate that would achieve maximum sustainable yield] to see any rebuilding.  [emphasis added]”
Since the pelagic longline fleet catches a lot of shortfin makos, and about a quarter of those will die before or shortly after release (assuming that the longliner opts to release them at all which, despite any laws mandating retention, is not a foregone conclusion, particularly in non-United States fleets, where most of the damage is done), restricting landings to just 800 or 900 metric tons is going to be difficult, and restricting landings to 100 metric tons or less is probably going to be a practical impossibility.

But even if such reductions could be achieved, it will take about 50 years to return the shortfin mako stock to something resembling a healthy level of abundance.

Which, in turn, means that I, and probably most of the people reading this blog, will never see a healthy mako population in our lifetimes.

I’m not sure just how that makes me feel.  Am I angry?  Or am I just sad?  Or do I feel a little of both?

At least I was around for the good times, three decades ago and more, when makos were far more abundant, fishing for them was still an exciting and exhilarating sport, and the cobalt and silver beauty of a mako cruising through your chum slick was nearly an every-trip thing, so routine that we took it for granted and never really thought about how wonderful it all was.

But someone born at the turn of the century will themselves be older than I am today when—and, mostly, IF—the mako stock is restored, will have never experienced the joys of a healthy stock and, thanks to years of mismanagement, never will.

That sort of thought does, in fact, make me sad.

But when I think of the very good chance that fishing mortality won’t be brought low enough to rebuild the population, and that there’s a chance that the shortfin mako will, in time, just face away, that makes me angry.

Very much so.

Because that sort of beauty should never be scrubbed from the sea, just because not doing so might hurt someone’s business.

This fall, there is a chance that things might go the mako’s way.

ICCAT will be again be debating the shortfin mako’s fate when it meets next week in Mallorca, Spain. 


The biggest question is what the European Union will do. 


“Spanish fleets have consistently, year in and year out, taken more makos than any other country.  All the while, the EU has ignored countless warnings about overfishing and has failed to even limit the amount of makos that can be landed…It is time to finally put an end to reckless mako fishing policies and begin leading ICCAT toward adopting the clear and urgent scientific advice.”
While we can only hope that the European Union will act to protect makos, there’s no guarantee that the United States will protect the shark, either, even though it has a relatively small commercial mako fishery.  

The U.S. has an active recreational fishery, and its current recreational delegate to ICCAT is a very strong advocate for the recreational fishing industry.  In addition to that, the United States has a decidedly checkered history when it comes to shortfin mako conservation; when the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species decided to include the shortfin mako on its appendix of protected species last August, the United States was one of the few nations that opposed the move.

Thus, the shortfin mako’s future remains very much in doubt.  
We can only hope that fisheries managers, both here and at ICCAT, extend appropriate protections before the fastest, and arguably the most beautiful, shark in the sea disappears.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

STRIPED BASS ADDENDUM VI--WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE



Addendum VI includes four major provisions.  It requires both the recreational and commercial sectors to reduce fishing mortality by 18 percent.  To achieve such reduction, it requires all coastal states to adopt recreational regulations that include a 1-fish bag limit and a 28 to 35-inch slot limit, and requires all Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions to adopt recreational regulations that include the same 1-fish bag and an 18-inch minimum size.  And to reduce release mortality, it requires all states to adopt regulations that would mandate circle hooks for all anglers fishing with bait for striped bass.

That seems pretty cut-and-dried.  

But then the Management Board did one other thing:  It adopted a provision that allows every member state to ignore the size and bag limits included in Addendum VI in favor of regulations of such state’s choosing, provided that in doing so, the state managed to achieve an 18 percent reduction in its own striped bass fishing mortality, compared to what such mortality was in 2017.

By adopting that conservation equivalency provision, the Management Board didn’t exactly take everything back to Square One, as an 18 percent reduction is still required.  But it did compromise Addendum VI’s effectiveness, and it assured that today, less than six months from the effective date of the Addendum, anglers all along the striper coast still have no idea of what regulations will look like in the upcoming year.

Having said that, I know what I’d like to see. 


Since I’ve always made my opinion on slots very clear, it might surprise folks to learn that I now believe that the best thing that could happen would be for every coastal state to adopt the same 28 to 35-inch slot that the Management Board adopted in Addendum VI.

That belief doesn’t mean that I’ve experienced some sudden enlightenment, and have now become an acolyte worshipping at the slot limit’s altar.  In fact, it means nothing of the sort. I still believe that a 35-inch minimum was the right way to go.

But the Management Board felt otherwise, and there is now no chance at all that a 35-inch minimum will be adopted coastwide.  And it’s that truth that drives my current belief.

I still think that a slot limit will focus fishing pressure, and harvest, on the very year classes that we need to rebuild the spawning stock.  I still believe that it will result in fewer fish surviving to reach older ages, and that the stock will be in greater jeopardy, and recover more slowly, as a result.

But I also think that a situation in which some states adopt the Addendum VI slot, some states adopt a 35-inch minimum, and some states adopt some other set of supposedly “conservation equivalent” regulations represents the worst of all worlds.

Think about it.

The supposed virtue of a slot limit is that it protects the oldest, largest and most fecund females in the spawning stock, although perhaps at the cost of higher removals of recently matured females.  And the virtue of a high minimum size is that it allows bass recruited into the spawning stock to reproduce at least two or three times before they become subject to harvest.

But if we end up in a situation where some states adopt a 28 to 35-inch slot, while others adopt a 35-inch minimum size, both of those benefits disappear.  The states with the slot will be allowed to hammer the newly-mature females as they run the 28 to 35-inch gauntlet.  And just as those fish grow large enough to be immune to harvest in the slot-limit states, they grow large enough to be killed in wholesale numbers as they swim into the waters of those states that adopted a 35-inch minimum.

For the bass, it’s a lose-lose proposition, as fish over 28 inches long will always remain unprotected somewhere along the course of their coastwide migration.

Given that situation, the priority is no longer putting in a 35-inch minimum somewhere, to protect striped bass in a particular state, but to adopt uniform regulations everywhere so that some portion of the spawning stock bass actually is protected wherever they happen to swim, throughout the course of the year.

Unfortunately, conservation equivalency makes even that modest aim a goal that is unlikely to be achieved.

I discussed the reason for that a little over a week ago, too.  The 18 percent reduction is based on a coastwide standard.  However, the slot limit adopted in Addendum VI will have different impacts in different states.  Some states, which see a lot of smaller fish, but few large ones, might experience a very small real-world reduction.  On the other hand, there are estimates that New Jersey, which lands more recreationally-caught striped bass than any other state on the coast, would experience about a 40 percent reduction if the slot was adopted.

Thus, it seems likely that New Jersey will adopt some other regulatory scheme that will allow it to reduce fishting mortality by only 18 percent—less than half the reduction that New Jersey needs to make if Addendum VI is to successfully reduce fishing mortality to the target level. 

Addendum VI started out with only a 50 percent probability of success; that’s not as bad as it sounds, because what it means is that there is about an even chance that the actual fishing mortality will end up either above or below the target level. 

But if the largest striped bass harvester on the coast intentionally refuses to make the cuts needed to achieve Addendum VI’s goals, and instead adopts regulations that cut mortality by less than half of the amount needed, then Addendum VI will no longer have a 50% probability of success.  At that point, the probability curve will be skewed toward failure, with a much greater chance that the actual reduction will fall short of 18 percent.

So, once again, the need is for uniformity.  Unless every state accepts its responsibility to reduce fishing mortality to the level needed to cut coastwide fishing mortality by 18%, Addendum VI is likely to fail.

At that point, the failure of the striped bass stock might not be far behind.

So what are the chances for such coastwide uniformity?  

Probably, pretty low.  There is a good chance that New York and the New England states will stick together, as they did in 2015, and adopt consistent regulations—almost certainly the 28 to 35-inch slot.  After that, the prospects begin looking worse.

Historically, New Jersey has played the conservation equivalency game like a master, always managing to find ways for its anglers to kill more and smaller fish than its neighbors, regardless of the impact on the stock. 

But there have been big changes in the New Jersey governor’s mansion since the state defied the ASMFC to adopt noncompliant recreational summer flounder regulations in 2017, and destroyed once and for all the regional management structure that was showing real promise to stabilize summer flounder regulations in the New Jersey/New York/Connecticut region.  

Those changes allow for at least a scintilla of hope that the new administration, and a new salt water fisheries chief, will lead New Jersey to a more enlightened and more cooperative approach to fisheries management.  However, that hope must be balanced against the reality that many of New Jersey’s recreational fishing organizations will fight tooth and claw to keep that from happening.

It's impossible to say which side will win.



“…if it were going to be the cast at some point that we were considering perhaps removing the commercial fishery from being part of this addendum, due to its, I guess size in comparison to the recreational fishery.  Would it be possible then to calculate reductions solely based on a recreational fishery; if that were going to be what was going to take the reductions?  [emphasis added]”
Regulations that would place the entire onus of conservation on the backs of private recreational fishermen would look quite a bit different from the 1 fish at 18 inches adopted by the Management Board for the Chesapeake Bay. 

Of course, there was little chance that Luisi was going to accept the 1 at 18 inch standard anyway.  He always makes a big fuss over reducing release mortality, saying at the April meeting that

“There is a problem that exists; which was discussed in depth back in February, and for us that problem is the dead discard issue in the recreational fishery…

“I’m a little disappointed and slightly discouraged that we’re sitting here talking about options to increase minimum size limits across the board; only knowing that it’s going to exacerbate the situation that we are currently in with dead discards being as high as they are.  I really hope that those examples are just examples of what things we could put forth in this addendum to try to be creative in an approach to solving a problem.”

But when the Management Board handed Maryland exactly what Luisi seemed to be looking for, an 18-inch minimum size and single-fish bag limit that should sharply reduce release mortality, that solution wasn’t welcomed with open arms.  

Instead, Maryland has been contemplating a combination of “conservation equivalency tools” that appears to have been crafted either in a fever dream or during a bad acid trip, that not would not only make anglers responsible for the entirety of the conservation effort, but do it in a matter almost certain to fail, with measures that can’t be easily or accurately quantified, such as prohibiting fishing for striped bass after 10:00 during August.

But, as bizarre as the proposed measures were, they would allow Maryland anglers to kill two striped bass--at an increased size limit, of course, throughout most of the season.

The entire list, presented at a Maryland Sport Fishing Advisory Commission meeting on October 22, is depicted here.



Hopefully, if such a hodgepodge was ever presented to the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee for approval, it would be shot down in flames.  It was heartening to hear Katie Drew, one of the ASMFC’s technical experts, say at the August Management Board meeting that

“I would say I think the [Technical Committee] is going to be hesitant to endorse things that are difficult to quantify.  Things like educational programs or using circle hooks, or things like that where its harder for us to say what is the actual effect of these measures this educational approach on actually reducing release mortality.
“Something like season limits or closed days, if you actually close the fishery during days when temperature is too high, as opposed to just saying, maybe don’t go fishing.  That I think the [Technical Committee] and [Plan Development Team] would be much more open to.  I think we’re focused on things that will have a concrete, demonstrable quantitative benefit to reducing how many fish you’re throwing back alive.”
Still, the fact that conservation equivalency makes such piecemeal proposals even possible, and the possibility that even Maryland’s mess might be accepted as conservationally equivalent, demonstrates why states must strive for uniform management measures.

If states succeed in unifying behind a set of reasonable rules, what comes next for striped bass will probably be a slow rebuilding that, assuming average recruitment, might eventually rebuild the population.

But if the states think only of their own short-term benefits, and not the overall health of the spawning stock, what comes next will be more of the same:  A stock that languishes at low abundance levels, always flirting with the point where depletion, coupled with consecutive years of below-average recruitment, could push it over the edge from merely overfished to something far worse, full collapse.
  



Thursday, November 7, 2019

MID-ATLANTIC FISHERY MANAGEMENT COUNCIL, ASMFC ADDRESS RECREATIONAL FISHERIES ISSUES

When the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Bluefish and Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Boards (Management Boards) held a series of joint meetings early in October 2019, they addressed a number of recreational fisheries issues that, in their range and scope, probably hasn’t been equaled since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 first required the federal fishery management councils to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks.

Revised recreational catch estimates drive the discussion
As was true two decades ago, the current issues have arisen out of a single event, although this time, that event wasn’t new legislation, but instead was the revision of recreational catch and effort estimates, as reported by the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).

For many years, the number of fishing trips that anglers took each year was estimated through the use of a telephone survey, but such survey proved unreliable, particularly as the use of cell phones became more widespread. To improve the effort estimates, MRIP now relies on a mail survey, which has proven to be far more accurate. In January 2017, the National Academy of Science released a report, Review of the Marine Recreational Information Program, in which it noted that “The methodologies associated with the current Fishing Effort Survey, including the address-based sampling mail survey design, are major improvements from the original Coastal Household Telephone Survey that employed random-digit dialing to contact anglers.”

The improved effort survey unexpectedly determined that recreational fishermen fish much more, and catch many more fish, than fisheries managers had previously believed. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, although some members of the recreational community initially panicked when they heard the new numbers, believing that they meant that anglers were engaged in wholesale overfishing of just about every stock.

That wasn’t really the case.
It turns out that recreational catch estimates are incorporated into every assessment of recreationally important fish stocks. In particular, they are included in virtual population analyses, which use historical catch estimates to calculate the past size of fish populations; such calculations are then projected forward to assess the populations’ current state. Such analyses are rooted in the notion that, if fishermen are catching more fish than believed, then the fish populations must be larger than previously believed as well, or else they would not have been able to support such higher level of landings.

That’s exactly what was the MAFMC and the Management Boards discovered in October, when they met to consider a recent operational assessment of the bluefish, scup and black sea bass stocks and set harvest limits for the 2020 and 2021 fishing years. In every case, the operational assessment found that recreational catch and effort was higher than previously thought, and in every case, that finding led to higher estimates of population size. But that’s where the commonality stopped, for those findings had very different implications for each of the species involved.

Bluefish are overfished
The operational assessment probably had the greatest impact on the bluefish fishery, which it found to be overfished, although overfishing was not occurring in 2018, the operational assessment’s terminal year. While the operational assessment found bluefish biomass to be higher than previously believed, it also determined that the biomass target and threshold should be set at levels nearly twice as high as they were before.
The operational assessment also revealed that the recreational bluefish landings were about 3.3 times higher than former estimates. Such an increased level of removals had a very significant impact on the operational assessment, and led to the conclusion that the stock had become overfished. But there was one other interesting aspect to the higher catch estimate. It appears that recreational releases increased at a higher rate than the recreational catch itself, and as a result, release mortality, which is thought to equal about 15% of all bluefish released, also increased.
The recreational discard issue also involved another twist. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (Science Center) determined that, for many years, the total weight of the dead discards has been badly underestimated.
For many years, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) merely took the average weight of the bluefish encountered during the MRIP creel survey, and multiplied that by the presumed 15% of the released fish that do not survive. But the Science Center looked at some data from the American Littoral Society’s Fish Tagging Program and from three states’ voluntary angler surveys, and found that anglers tended to release larger bluefish, and keep the smaller ones.

That tendency to keep the smaller fish and release the large ones wasn’t reflected in the GARFO estimates, but any bluefish angler would probably believe that the Science Center’s finding was right.
Bluefish can be an oily, strong-tasting fish, which grow oilier and stronger-tasting as they grow larger and feed on forage fish such as menhaden. Thus, most recreational fishermen, if they keep any bluefish at all, usually do prefer to keep the smaller fish, which are comparatively mild-flavored. However, if the MAFMC and Bluefish Management Board accepted the Science Center’s release mortality figure, they would be compelled to reduce the recreational harvest limit from 11.62 million pounds in 2019 to just 3.62 million pounds in 2020.

While the 3.62 million pound harvest limit probably represented the best available science, it was clear that MAFMC and Bluefish Management Board members weren’t prepared to slash landings to such a low level. They chose to accept the GARFO estimate of release mortality, which then allowed them to set a recreational harvest limit of 9.48 million pounds, just 2 million pounds less than the limit in 2019.
Because of the higher, revised recreational landings estimate, which showed that anglers landed their entire bluefish allocation, there will be no transfer of supposedly unused recreational quota to the commercial sector in 2020, which will be the first year since 1998 when such transfer does not occur. The higher estimate almost certainly also means that the pending allocation amendment which, among other things, would have permanently transferred some recreational quota to the commercial sector, will not move forward in its current form.

Because the bluefish stock is overfished, conservation provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) require that the MAFMC initiate a rebuilding plan that will restore the stock to the target level within ten years. Such plan must be implemented within two years after the MAFMC is formally notified, by the Secretary of Commerce or his designee, that the stock is overfished. Such notification is expected to occur in December 2019. Once such notification is received, the MAFMC will probably expand the allocation amendment to include the rebuilding plan, at which point allocation will become a secondary consideration.

2020’s reduced recreational harvest limit will probably lead to more restrictive regulations. The fact that 2019 recreational bluefish landings through August 31 were about 50% higher than they were for the same period in 2018 makes such added restrictions even more likely, even before the depressed state of the stock is taken into consideration.

Scup anglers squeezed by small quota
It appears that larger than expected scup landings will also force scup anglers to face substantial landings reductions in 2020, even though the operational assessment found spawning stock biomass to be at about 200% of the target level at the end of 2018. Any such recreational catch reductions won’t be driven by the needs of the stock, or by Magnuson-Stevens, but rather by a fishery management plan that allocated only a 22% of the overall catch to the recreational sector.

The commercial fishery, which is allocated 78% of the catch, has been chronically unable to catch its entire quota. Between 2015 and 2018, it only landed between 55% and 84% of its scup quota. There is just too little demand for the fish, which fishermen sell for about $0.70 per pound, far less than they receive for fish such as black sea bass or summer flounder, which can generate ex vessel prices in the $3 to $4 range.

As a result of the commercial underharvest, scup are not experiencing overfishing despite the high recreational catch. Even though the annual catch limits will be reduced slightly in 2020 and 2021 in response to poor spawning success in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the commercial underage, if transferred to the recreational fishery, should still be large enough to avoid harsh restrictions on anglers.

Unfortunately, the fishery management plan, as currently written, doesn’t allow for such transfers, and there is no time to amend the plan prior to the 2020 fishing season. GARFO staff are hoping to find a legally and procedurally viable solution to the problem before then. If they can’t, scup anglers could be facing very restrictive regulations next year, even though the scup stock continues to thrive.
Black sea bass biomass declines
Black sea bass anglers will probably also be facing more restrictions in 2020, even though the spawning stock biomass was about 240% of the target level at the end of 2018. In this case, recreational landings reductions will be driven by a trifecta of higher than expected landings, high levels of angler effort and a black sea bass spawning stock that, while still large, has been steadily declining in size since 2014.

It is clear that recent recruitment won’t maintain current black sea bass abundance. The 2015 year class, once thought to equal the huge year class of 2011, turned out to be only about half its size, while the 2017 year class was the smallest in the entire 30-year time series. While, thanks in large part to the revised recreational catch figures, the recreational harvest limit will be significantly larger in 2020 than it was in 2019, it will begin to decline after that in concert with declining black sea bass abundance.
Even with the higher 2020 catch limit, recreational landings will probably need to be reduced by about 30% to prevent overfishing. Unless angling effort declines, further restrictions on recreational black sea bass fishing are inevitable as the stock continues to decline toward the target abundance level.
Is reallocation part of the answer?
Some members of the recreational fishing community have criticized the revised recreational catch and effort estimates because they are likely to lead to additional restrictions on anglers. However, the same revised estimates could also lead to further increases in recreational harvest limits.

That’s because recreational landings data dating as far back as 1981 have been revised upwards. Those upward revisions include the so-called “base years” used to determine the recreational and commercial allocations. It now appears that such allocations were based on data that underestimated the recreational share of the landings.

If allocations were revised to reflect what are now believed to be more accurate recreational landings estimates, anglers would receive a larger share all of the recreationally-important species managed by the MAFMC. That might be particularly important in the case of scup, which would see anglers’ share of the catch increase substantially, from 22% to 35%. Such an increase might be enough to eliminate the need for potentially crippling harvest restrictions on anglers, while doing little harm to the commercial fishery, since it typically underharvests its allocation.

The increase in anglers’ share of other fisheries would be far smaller, but still significant. The recreational summer flounder allocation would increase from 40% to 45% of landings, while the recreational share of black sea bass landings would increase from 51% to 55%. In the case of bluefish, the recreational allocation could increase from 83% to 90%.

It’s impossible to predict whether any or all of those allocation changes will be made. The MAFMC and the ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board voted to initiate an amendment to consider the allocations of summer flounder, scup and black sea bass at the October meeting.

The reallocation effort will undoubtedly be opposed by commercial fishermen, although it could be argued that any allocation change based on the revised MRIP estimates is not so much a true reallocation than a correction, with the new allocation merely representing what the recreational and commercial catch actually was during the long-established base years.
In any event, the reallocation, should it be made, will not happen soon. The best estimate is that the amendment will take about two years to complete.
Anglers are thus less focused on any possible reallocation than they are on the December joint meeting of the MAFMC and the Management Boards, when the new recreational harvest limits will be compared to anglers’ estimated harvest in 2019, and regulations governing the 2020 recreational fishery will first be proposed.
It’s still too early to know what those regulations will look like, but given the discussion at the October joint meeting, it seems likely that they could be restrictive enough to incite many anglers to support the reallocation effort.
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This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/