Thursday, December 1, 2022

WHAT ARE FISH FOR?

 

One of my favorite conservation-related quotes was written by pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold, who noted,

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’  If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.  If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts.  To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

I was first struck by its relevance to fisheries management two decades ago, when I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.  Spiny dogfish management was a big issue back then, with quotas being cut back in response to an apparent decline in dogfish abundance.  One of the other Council members, who otherwise seemed to be a very bright and perceptive person, made a comment that could be summed up as “Who cares?  They’re not good for anything, and if they disappear, maybe something more useful will take their place.”

It struck me as an amazingly ignorant comment when it was made, particularly given the context.  Here we were, sitting on a panel created for the very purpose of conserving and managing the region’s marine resources and maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem, yet we had members who were not only indifferent to, but mildly supportive of, the possible demise of a significant ecosystem component.

I’ll admit that I curse dogfish as much as the next guy, when they swarm baits meant for cod, bluefish, or fluke, or when they climb all over jigs intended for black sea bass, and then try to wrap around my arm and poke a spine through my skin as I do my best to unhook them without causing any significant harm.  

I don’t particularly like them, but that doesn’t mean that I wish their kind ill.

Yet, as I look back, that sort of live-and-let-live attitude had to be learned.

When I encountered my first spiny dogfish, I was maybe ten years old, fishing for cod on a party boat out of Plymouth, Massachusetts (I’d caught dogfish before, in Long Island Sound, but they were all of the smooth variety, fish with no spines and flat, dull teeth, which usually don’t come in swarms and are far less trouble to handle).  Quite a few were caught by the boat’s anglers that day, and without exception, once they were unhooked by one of the mates, that mate would bend back their snout, break their spine, and toss them back into the water where, their ability to swim lost, they would flip onto their backs and drift into the depths, to eventually die.

At the time, I thought that’s just how things were done.  And now that I think of it, a lot of the smooth dogfish that we caught in the Sound didn’t survive the encounter, either.

It’s just how folks dealt with “trash fish” back then.  If you caught an ocean pout while fishing for cod, you stomped on its back just behind its head, and tossed it back into the sea.  The skate or sea robin that was unfortunate enough to take a bait meant for flounder or fluke was quickly reeled to shore and tossed into the rocks, while the cunner hooked while fishing for blackfish was quickly unhooked, slammed against the boat’s rail, and fed to the gulls.  Windowpane flounder caught off the docks while fishing for smelt were tossed into the local lobsterman’s boat, destined to be bait.

When I went south, I noted that fishermen inevitably cut the tails off stingrays before trying to remove the hook, while the cutlassfish that hit snook baits at night were always left to die on the bridge catwalks.

That was just 1960s thinking, when the term “ecosystem” was not yet in common use and a fish that wasn’t somehow useful for people was considered “trash.”  The irony is that, sixty years later, most of the fish that I mentioned above—the skates and sea robins, the cunners and windowpanes, and even the dogfish—actually provide a good meal, if one knows how to clean and prepare them, but in our ignorance, we left them to rot.  

Because they weren’t “any good.”

Today, most anglers know better, although some skates and sea robins still meet their ends gasping for oxygen between jetty rocks.  But the question of what a fish “is for”—do they exist merely to satisfy human wants and needs (and if so, whose wants and needs)?—still remains.

That question often arises in allocation fights, when advocates from the recreational sector argue that fishing for sport provides the greatest social and economic benefits, and fish should be reserved for that purpose, while those supporting the commercial sector, and sometimes the for-hire fishery as well, maintain that fish should be utilized for food, and not treated like playthings.  Some will even suggest that catch-and-release fishing, a game in which fish and angler participate, but only the angler truly consents to join, is a cruel and somewhat sadistic enterprise.

And, of course, the lines between sport, food, and commercial fishing aren’t all that cut and dried.

I love to cast plugs and bucktails around western Connecticut’s sod banks and boulders, searching for striped bass.  Although I no longer live along those shores, they’re where I grew up and where I learned to fish, and I still enjoy fishing with friends there.  I catch my share of legal-sized fish, but haven’t brought a striped bass home in over 30 years.

On the other hand, when I’m headed offshore, there’s always ice in the fish box.  I might be fishing for sharks, which will all be released, but if a dolphin (the mahi-mahi kind, not the mammal) comes into my chum slick, I’ll do my best to invite it into the boat for dinner.  When I’m trolling, the first tuna to hit (provided that it’s of legal size) comes aboard, while subsequent fish will probably be released.

So don’t ask me to decide whether a yellowfin is a “sport” or a “food” fish; it can be either or both, depending on who catches it, and their inclination at the time.

We see the same sort of thing when we try to draw a sharp line between “recreational” and “commercial” fisheries.  In theory, it’s easy.  As the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act tells us,

“The term ‘commercial fishing’ means fishing in which the fish harvested, either in whole or in part, are intended to enter commerce or enter commerce through sale, barter, or trade,”

while

“The term ‘recreational fishing’ means fishing for sport or pleasure.”

But are the two mutually exclusive?  Years ago, I used to fish in a tournament sponsored by a local club, which encouraged all entrants to donate their fish to the sponsors, who would then sell them, in a live auction, to people watching the weigh-in.  Fish that weren’t sold on the dock were shipped to market, and all proceeds from the sales were donated to a well-respected charity.  The anglers received nothing for their catch.

I got some of the tournament workers upset with me when I refused to donate my fish, because I didn’t hold a commercial tuna permit.  They kept telling me that my permit didn’t matter, because I wasn’t selling the fish directly and, after all, the proceeds were going to charity.  The argument went on for a few years, but in the end, the enforcement folks from the National Marine Fisheries Service learned about the sales, and politely informed the club that, if they continued, there would be legal consequences.

NMFS had no doubt about what commercial fishing was, but there were plenty of folks at the club who disagreed.

Things get even foggier when you think about the anglers who charter a boat and fish for bluefin tuna.  Bluefin less than 73 inches long may not be sold; bluefin over 73 inches may be sent to market, provided that the boat from which they’re caught have a commercial permit.  Many charter boats opt for a commercial endorsement so that they may sell their customers’ catch.

If the first fish landed is less than 73 inches in length, and the customers decide to keep it, the boat is deemed to be fishing recreationally, and no fish caught on that trip may be sold.  If the first fish is over 73 inches and is retained, the boat is deemed to be fishing commercially, and no fish under 73 inches may be kept.  Under such circumstances, are the anglers who chartered the boat, but may or may not receive some of the proceeds from any fish sold, commercial fishermen?

And, from a regulatory standpoint, does being a “commercial fisherman” mean more than just selling an occasional fish?  

In Massachusetts, anyone who opts to pay the commerciallicense fee may sell striped bass; in New York, commercial striped bass permits are only issued to people who can prove that they earn a significant amountof their income from fishing, and even so, no new fishermen are currentlyallowed to enter the commercial bass fishery.  

To the extent that a portion of the annual striped bass landings are set aside and labelled “commercial quota,” should those fish go to those who support themselves and their families, in whole or in part, through fishing, or should so-called “recremercial fishermen,” who hold down good-paying jobs, fish strictly “for sport and pleasure,” but sell a handful of fish each year to cover the cost of gas, bait, and beer, be allowed to compete with professional fishermen for a part of the commercial quota?

Again, we confront the question, what are fish—in this case, fish designated for the commercial sector—really for?

Finally, we get to one of the more difficult philosophical end ethical questions:  What is a particular fish for—that is, what is its highest and best use—not only when human and ecological considerations clash, but when different human needs and uses clash as well?

Consider the alewife.

In parts of eastern Canada, they call the fish “gaspereau.”  An article in Hakai magazine reports that, with the decline of Atlantic herring and mackerel, alewives are drawing more attention as an alternative lobster bait.  But alewives are an important forage fish, both for larger ocean denizens and for creatures such as bald eagles once the gaspereau ascent coastal rivers to spawn.  Alewife runs are often vulnerable to overfishing; many in the eastern United States have all but disappeared, while others are struggling.  Canadian runs, including some that are healthy today, have also been overfished in the past.

Aside for the growing interest in alewives as lobster bait, the fish have long been targeted in a commercial food fishery that sent inexpensive, salted gaspereau to Haiti, where it provides affordable protein in one of the poorest nations in the world.

There is concern that Canadian alewife runs won’t be able to fully support all those uses without going into decline.

That raises the question of what an alewife is for.

Is the highest and best use of an alewife to fulfill its ecosystem role as a forage fish?  To feed desperately poor people in Haiti?  Or to provide bait in a fishery targeting a luxury food that no one must eat to survive, but also supports the fishermen who catch the lobster?

If one takes the hopefully dying view that the worth of a fish, or any other resource, is only gauged by the value that it provides for people, then the ecosystem role is discounted, but the ethical dilemma of using gaspereau to feed the poor, or using them for bait for the lobster which occasionally feed the at least semi-wealthy (while providing support for others who might be less well off) remains.

It’s a completely subjective decision.  I suggest that the right answer is none of the above.

Alewives—and every other fish—are not for anything or anyone.  Like any other form of life on Earth—whether a sumac tree, a box turtle, a blue whale, or a human—fish merely are.  They are among the current survivors of an evolutionary process that has been ongoing for more than 3.5 billion years, and will continue for another billion years into the future.  To assume that they evolved with a purpose, much less the purpose of serving a particularly prolific, tool-making primate that first walked the earth a mere 300,000 years ago, represents folly at best, and at worst a reprehensible arrogance.

Instead of trying to figure out what fish are for, and devaluing those that have no perceptible use, we should be caught up in wonder at their variety, their beauty, and their ubiquity, and thankful that they can satisfy some of our needs, so long as we remain mindful of their needs as well.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

STRIPED BASS: ASMFC CONSIDERS COMMERCIAL QUOTA TRANSFERS

 

Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission formally released Draft Addendum I to Amendment 7 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan, along with a schedule of hearings on such draft addendum.

Addendum I addresses a single issue:  Should coastal states be allowed to transfer unused and unneeded commercial striped bass quota to other states that wish to land more fish than they would otherwise be allowed under the management plan?

That question has been around for a long time.  

In October 2014, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board considered such transfers in connection with its approval of Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management  Plan.  It noted that such transfers were almost universally opposed in the public hearings leading up to the Management Board meeting, and when a vote on the issue was finally taken, Board members opposed quota transfers by a margin of 15 to 1. 

It is probably significant, for the purposes of the current discussion, that Delaware was among the majority of states which voted against quota transfers.

The issue next arose in the Public Information Document for Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, released in February 2021, which asked the public to comment on whether such transfers should be considered in the contemplated amendment.  

In her summary of stakeholder comments, Emile Franke, the ASMFC’s Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for Atlantic Striped Bass, noted that

“this issue had fewer comments overall.  The majority of commenters on this issue support updating the commercial quota allocation to a more recent timeframe to better align with current fishery conditions.  A small number of commenters noted this issue should not be addressed in Amendment 7 or that commercial allocation should not be changed at this time.”

Ms. Franke did not directly address the question of quota transfers in her memo to the Management Board, as that point was raised by very few stakeholders.  A review of the written comments received shows that out of more than 3,000 comments, only three appeared to directly address the quota transfer issue.  One, from the Long Island [New York] Commercial Fishermen’s Association supported such transfers.  Two others, from individual anglers, seemed to oppose them.  On the whole, there were few strong sentiments either way.

The Atlantic Striped Bass Advisory Panel exhibited a similar indifference, with one member supporting quota transfers, one member opposing them, and the others voicing no opinion.  When the Management Board considered a motion to include the issue in the Draft Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass For Public Comment, the motion failed to attract a majority, with six in favor, six opposed, two abstentions, and a null vote.

However, prior to the August 2021 Management Board meeting, Toni Kearns, the ASMFC’s Interstate Fishery Management Program Director, presented a memo that began

“At the May 2021 Board meeting, the motion to include the commercial allocation issue in Draft Amendment 7 failed for lack of a majority.  Many Board members recognized that Delaware has raised this issue for several years now and Delaware asserts their current allocation is not equitable…

“The Board Chair requested staff from the Commission and the State of Delaware prepare options and timelines for how this issue could be addressed moving forward.  In response to the request, Commission staff and Commissioners from the State of Delaware prepared this memorandum for discussion at the August meeting.”

Four different options were presented, including no action, commercial quota transfers, a reallocation of commercial quotas based on various historical factors, and a reallocation based on the contributions of each spawning estuary to the spawning stock.

At the meeting, John Clark, the Administrative Proxy for Delaware, supported the transfer option, saying

“…Tried to keep it very simple, and tried to look for a option [sic]…the first option is for voluntary transfers.  We are not trying to do a full reallocation everywhere, because we now how fraught that process would be.  Just looking to get more in the simplest way possible here.

“We also understand that there might be some concern with just voluntary transfers, because it could end up with more questions of states asking for transfers that they maybe don’t really need, or what have you.  We added some criteria…to at least make sure that transfer would only go to states that had filled their quota the previous year…I’m sure if anybody who has read through it saw that really the only state that would qualify under all three criteria would be Delaware…”

Eventually, Mr. Clark put a motion on the table, to initiate an addendum to the management plan that would permit voluntary transfers of state striped bass quota.  Such motion passed by on a vote of eight in favor, seven opposed.  Thus, work began on what was originally Addendum VII to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass and, after Amendment 7 was adopted, was redesignated as Addendum I to that amendment.

Unfortunately, Addendum I has expanded far beyond the original intent of the document, which was to provide a few more fish for the State of Delaware.  It now contemplates transfers among any coastal states, transfers which could lead to a meaningful increase in fishing mortality.

That would be problematic at any time, but becomes a particular issue as managers are attempting to rebuild the overfished striped bass stock.  As noted at the start of this essay, the quota transfer issue is nothing new.  It has been periodically visited by the Management Board, and to date, the Management Board has always decided that such transfers were a bad idea. 

During the debate over transfers at the August 2021 Management Board meeting, someone asked why quota transfers are not allowed in the striped bass fishery, when they are routinely accepted in fisheries for other species.  In response to that question, Robert Beal, the ASMFC’s Executive Director, said that

“my recollection is that they were not allowed while we were, even before my time the Board was trying to rebuild the striped bass stock.  Then once it was rebuilt, the Board sort of felt comfortable with not allowing transfers.  Part of it had to do with where those fish came from.

“If you move fish from North Carolina to Maine, well North Carolina to Massachusetts, that’s probably the farthest commercial quotas.  You know with that impact differentially, where those fish came from and the spawning populations and that sort of thing.  But again, most of it is a holdover from the rebuilding days of the early ‘90s.”

Roy Miller, Delaware’s Governor's Appointee, reinforced Mr. Beal’s recollection, saying

“I just wanted to agree with what Bob said regarding the history of this process.  We were in a rebuilding mode from the 1980s until the mid-1990s.  This is from someone who was there during that time.  It carried over into the restoration of the coastwide stock, and even the Delaware stock in the mid-1990s.  It’s just something that we haven’t dealt with since then, so those transfers when we were in a rebuilding mode, no one wanted to consider transfers.  Once the stock was declared restored, the subject hadn’t come up again until very recently.

Such comments are probably accurate, as far as they go.  But they’re missing one very, very important point:  We are in rebuilding mode once again.  Managers aren’t dealing with a rebuilding stock, but rather with a still overfished stock, which remains at early 1990s abundance levels.  Thus, the same arguments against quota transfers that applied during the earlier rebuilding period are equally valid today.

But that isn’t the only argument against coastwide quota transfers.

Transfer supporters often argue that striped bass are the only ASMFC-managed species that are not subject to quota transfers.  And that seems to be true.

However, striped bass are also one of the few ASMFC-managed species that sees annual landings fall far below the annual quota.  For example, 2021 commercial bluefish landings were 2.38 million pounds, about 86% of the 2.77 million pound quota.  In the same year, commercial summer flounder landings equaled about 82% of the overall quota. 

Striped bass don’t see such a high level of quota utilization.  Between 2012 and 2021, commercial striped bass fishermen caught between 51% and 76% of their annual quotas, with an average utilization rate of just 66.6%. 

That has an impact on the potential efficacy of management measures intended to reduce striped bass fishing mortality.  Because there is no hard-poundage annual catch limit imposed on the recreational striped bass fishery, recreational management measures are designed to reduce fishing mortality from its actual level.  On the other hand, fishing mortality reductions in the commercial fishery are supposedly achieved by reducing quota, not actual commercial landings. 

Thus, in a fishery where landings typically fall more than 30% of quotas, reducing such quotas by 25% (Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan) or by 18% (Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan) is not guaranteed to reduce fishing mortality by as much as a single striped bass.  2015 commercial landings of 4.82 million pounds represented only a 19% reduction from 2014 landings levels, and not the 25% targeted by Addendum IV; landings levels in subsequent years also fell short of the 25% target, yet remained well within the quota.  While the overall fishing mortality reduction of 25% was, in fact, achieved the year after Addendum IV went into effect, such reduction fell largely on the shoulders of coastal recreational fishermen.

The commercial fishery also failed to achieve the full 18% reduction contemplated by Addendum VI.  While it came close in 2020, when its landings of 3.52 million pounds were 17% less than its landings in 2019, 2021 commercial landings of 4.29 million pounds, representing an 18% increase over 2020 landings, largely negated Addendum VI’s efforts to reduce commercial fishing mortality.  Yet, despite such increase, 2021 commercial striped bass landings were only 76% of the commercial quota.

Permitting states that underfished their striped bass quota to transfer unused quotas to other states which are facing possible overages, and so allowing such states to land even greater amounts of fish, could only make it more difficult to maintain fishing mortality at a level that will conserve and rebuild the spawning stock.

Such a situation was contemplated by Charlton Goodwin, then Chair of the Technical Committee, in October 2014, when he told the Management Board,

“Relative to the commercial quota transfer, the technical committee is concerned that at a time when we’re needing to take reductions, if the percent reductions are taken from Amendment 6 quota instead of the 2013 level of harvest, allowing commercial transfers in conjunction with that could have the potential to increase harvest.  [emphasis added]”

Such concerns are equally valid today, when fishing mortality must be kept at or below the F=0.17 target if the stock is to be rebuilt by the 2029 deadline.

Commercial transfers may also undercut current conservation measures by other means.

While the efficacy of so-called “gamefish status,” which limits striped bass harvest to the recreational sector, may well be debated, such prohibitions of commercial harvest probably do result in lower state landings than would have occured if an active commercial fishery existed in "gamefish" states.  However, such gamefish states currently retain their commercial quotas, even though they don’t have commercial fisheries.  Allowing states to transfer such unused quota, perhaps in return for a previous donation of bluefish or menhaden quota, undercuts whatever conservation benefit may result from such “gamefish” provisions.

Certainly, transfers of commercial quota from gamefish states have been contemplated by representatives of the commercial fishing sector, as exemplified by the previously-referenced comment letter submitted by the Long Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association at the start of the Amendment 7 process.  Such letter said, in part, that

“Commercial allocation transfer would be particularly useful to achieve [optimum yield] for those states that, through game fish status or lack of an inshore fishery, would be unable to utilize their quota.”

So there are many reasons to believe that permitting the interstate transfer of striped bass quota is not a good idea, particularly in the face of an overfished stock.  Such reasons are not new, and are not a knee-jerk response to Addendum I, but are rather the result of multiple individuals considering the transfer issue over a period of years.

Unfortunately, Addendum I seems to have some momentum, and the hearings are nearly at hand, with New York holding the first one on the evening of December 7.  In light of that fact, how should concerned stakeholders respond?

First, before stakeholders can do anything, they need to know what Addendum I says.  To quote from the draft,

“Draft Addendum I presents options that would allow for the voluntary transfer of commercial quota in the ocean region between states that have ocean quota.  However, commercial quota that has been reallocated to a state’s recreational fishery (i.e., for a recreational bonus program) is not eligible to be used for commercial quota transfers…

“If quota transfers are permitted, quota would be transferred pound-for-pound from the donor state to the receiving state.  There would be some inherent uncertainty associated with transfers associated with states that harvest different sized striped bass.  State commercial fisheries catch different sized fish due to multiple factors, including variability in striped bass size distribution along the coast and state management programs (different size limits, gears, seasons).  Further, through [conservation equivalency], states have been able to adjust their commercial size limits from the historical standard, which results in changes to their respective commercial quotas…Stated more simply, a pound of striped bass commercial quota is not equal across all states.”

Addendum I then offers five different options for addressing the quotas transfer issue.

Option A is the status quo option, that would continue the prohibition on interstate transfers.  It is the simplest and, for the reasons set forth above, the most desirable of all the options provided.  However, given the time that has been invested in Addendum I, and Delaware’s insistence that some action be taken, the Board will probably favor one of the other four choices.

Option B would allow unrestricted transfer of quota between states.  However, if the striped bass stock is overfished at the time of transfer, a 5% transfer tax would be applied to address all related uncertainties.  Thus, for every 1,000 pounds transferred by the donor state when the stock is overfished, the receiving state would only get 950 pounds; if the stock is not overfished at the time the transfer takes place, even if it is badly depleted and on a downward trajectory, no such tax would be imposed.  Option B is clearly the riskiest and least desirable of the five options.

Option C would allow unrestricted transfer of quota between states, provided that the stock is not overfished.  While Option C is somewhat better than Option B, as it would prohibit transfers under a worst case scenario, it would still allow such transfers when the stock condition is deteriorating and the stock is on the verge of becoming overfished.  For those reasons, Option C is also undesirable.

Option D would give the Management Board broad discretion to allow transfers and set conditions on any such transfers that are allowed.  Transfers would not be permitted without express Board approval, and such approval could place limits on the amount of quota transferred, require the receiving state to show a clear need for the transfer, or establish other criteria that a proposed transfer would need to meet.  If this option was selected, like Option B, it would impose a 5% transfer tax on transfers that take place when the stock is overfished.  Taken as a whole, Option D is probably somewhat better than Option B, as the Management Board would be able to halt, or place conditions on, transfers, but not as good as Option C, as transfers could still take place as an overfished stock is struggling to rebuild.

Option E is much like Option D, in that it would give the Management Board broad discretion to permit or prohibit interstate quota transfers, and would also allow the Board the authority to place conditions on any transfers that do occur.  Option E would also prohibit all transfers during times when the stock is overfished.  Because it would not allow transfers to take place when the stock is overfished, and would also allow the Board to ban or place restrictions on transfers at other times, Option E is probably the best of the bad choices, and although less desirable than Option A, is clearly better than any of Options B, C, or D.

The most sensible comment strategy will probably be to express strong support for Option A, no quota transfers, and then also indicate reluctant support for Option E as an alternative, in the event that Option A is unacceptable to the Management Board.

The ASMFC will be accepting comments on Addendum I through 11:59 p.m. on January 13, 2023.  Comments may be mailed to Emile Franke, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 1050 N. Highland Street, Suite 200 A-N, Arlington, VA  22201, or emailed to comments@asmfc.org, with the subject line “Striped Bass Draft Addendum I.”  Comments may also be made at any of the state hearings listed in the link provided in the first paragraph of this essay.

In May 2021, concerned anglers and other stakeholders successfully convinced the Management Board to take most of the bad proposals out of the Draft Amendment 7, and in May of this year, convinced the Board to adopt a final version of Amendment 7 that improved the striped bass management program.  Addendum I is the final remnant of the Amendment 7 process, a loose end that was intentionally omitted from the amendment, but that must be addressed now.

What was initially conceived as a simple effort to give a few more bass to Delaware’s commercial fishermen, and clearly intended to only impact Delaware’s fishery, has since morphed into a much more far-ranging addendum, with the potential to complicate and degrade the current striped bass recovery, and make it somewhat more difficult to effectively manage striped bass in the future. 

Everyone who came out over the last two years to fight for good striped bass management are urged to come out one more time, oppose the badly-conceived transfer program, and put the last of the draft Amendment 7’s bad ideas behind us.

 

 

 

 

Thursday, November 24, 2022

ICCAT ADOPTS IMPROVED APPROACH TO BLUEFIN TUNA MANAGEMENT

 

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas has a checkered record when it comes to marine fish conservation.

ICCAT's 48 member nations, known as “contracting parties,” have historically sought to protect their individual own economic and political interests while also attempting to protect tuna, billfish, and other highly migratory species.  Management measures for such fishes are supposedly based on scientific advice provided by ICCAT’s Standing Committee on Research and Statistics, and established by a vote of the contracting parties.  Once established, such measures must, in theory, be adopted by all of ICCAT’s member states.

Although that sounds good on paper, in practice things aren’t that cut-and-dried.  The treaty that created ICCAT allows contracting parties who disagree with the outcome of a vote to note an “objection” within six months after such vote occurs.  Such objection triggers additional procedural steps before the management measure in question becomes effective; more importantly, it exempts objecting member states from what would otherwise be their obligation to comply with the measure in question.

If one or more important fishing nations object to a particular management measure, the effectiveness of such measure will be seriously degraded; if the objecting nation plays a large enough role in the fishery, or is joined by other contracting parties that, collectively, account for a significant portion of overall landings, a management measure can easily be rendered ineffective.  For that reason, it is rare for ICCAT to adopt management measures that face significant opposition.  Instead, such measures end up being negotiated, and the outcome of such negotiations is often based more on economic than scientific outcomes, and does far too little to protect the stock in question.

ICCAT’s failure to take serious action to protect bluefin tuna in 2008 led Dr. Carl Safina, a well-known marine conservation advocate, to quip that the acronym “ICCAT” actually stood for the “International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas.”  However, ICCAT's most recent actions, taken at a meeting that concluded last week, suggest that such moniker might no longer be deserved, at least with respect to the bluefin.

That’s because, at its November 2022 Special Meeting, ICCAT agreed to adopt a science-based management strategy that would allow it to set bluefin tuna quotas without the need for further votes and negotiation.  As described in a recent NOAA Fisheries release,

“ICCAT adopted its first management procedure (MP) for both stocks of Atlantic bluefin tuna.  An MP is an approach to fisheries management decision-making that applies a pre-agreed framework for actions, such as setting catch limits, designed to achieve specific objectives.  These objectives could include meeting conservation obligations and providing stability in fisheries.  This is the second MP adopted by ICCAT following years of hard work by ICCAT scientists and managers.  This advancement will allow for more effective management of stocks in the face of identified uncertainties.  The MP establishes total allowable annual catches for the years 2023 through 2025 for western Atlantic and eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna.  It includes a stable TAC of 2,726 metric tons for the western area.”

The European Union was, if anything, even more ebullient about the new bluefin management strategy, saying

“After years of research, analysis, modelling and testing, the newly adopted management procedure for the iconic Bluefin tuna will be more transparent, inclusive and robust.  Based on the recent scientific knowledge of the stock’s reproduction and migration patterns, the new management procedure has been developed with an active engagement of EU scientists and with EU funding.  For over a decade, the EU has been contributing to the ICCAT Atlantic-Wide Research Programme for Bluefin Tuna (GBYP) through substantial voluntary financial contributions.  The new management procedure provides the basis for total allowable catches (TAC) of 40,570 tonnes for the eastern stock, [with a share of 21,503 tonnes for the EU].”

Many considerations go into the management procedure; one page on the ICCAT website lists at least twenty documents that are relevant to the calculation.  But they all lead to a final goal, a “management strategy evaluation” that will produce a management procedure that makes it more likely than not that neither stock of Atlantic bluefin tuna experiences overfishing in any fishing year.  NOAA Fisheries explains that a management strategy evaluation

“is a scientific tool that allows fishery managers, scientists, and stakeholders (e.g., industry, non-governmental organizations) to simulate the workings of a fishery system to test how well different harvest strategies (a.k.a. management procedures) achieve agreed management objectives for that fishery.”

So far, the management procedure that has emerged from the ICCAT meeting is getting favorable reviews.  Immediately after the conclusion of last week’s ICCAT meeting, the Pew Charitable Trusts announced that it

“praised the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) for adopting a modernized fisheries management plan for Atlantic bluefin tuna, one of the most valuable fishes in the world.

“ICCAT—a regional fisheries management organization responsible for the governance of Atlantic bluefin, tropical tunas and other open ocean species of the Atlantic—adopted a management procedure that will use science-based data to inform managers of how much bluefin can be caught each year and shift ICCAT from reactive decisions based on short-term needs to proactive rules designed to secure a sustainable fishery over the long term.

“By adopting the management procedure, which is also known as a harvest strategy, ICCAT is moving away from annual, and frequently politicized, catch quota negotiations that contributed to years of decline and overfishing of Atlantic bluefin tuna.  Significantly, the management procedure will allow the western Atlantic population of the species to achieve a healthy level and lock in the recent recovery of the once highly depleted eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna population.”

The World Wildlife Fund struck a similar note, issuing a release saying that

“The newly adopted harvest strategy will allow ICCAT to manage both the East and West Atlantic stocks based on pre-agreed actions including the increase or decrease of catch limits in line with the status of the stocks and relieves management decisions from short-term political pressure.  This will contribute to maintaining the stability of the fisheries and markets, while minimizing the risk of depletion for the tuna population in the future.”

When both the harvest-oriented European Union and international conservation organizations agree on the merits of a management approach, it is likely that such approach is well crafted, and will benefit both the bluefin tuna and tuna fishermen.

While that doesn’t guarantee that the new management procedure will be successful, it does suggest that it offers the bluefin a far better chance at long-term sustainability than any other management approach that has been tried so far.

We can’t ask for much more than that.

 

 

Sunday, November 20, 2022

WHAT THE 2022 MIDTERM ELECTIONS MIGHT MEAN FOR FISHERIES MANAGEMENT

 

Elections have consequences, so for as long as I’ve written this blog, I’ve taken the time, after every election, to examine the results and consider what they might mean for fisheries management.

In that context, the 2022 midterms were both somewhat surprising and somewhat consequential, whether we look at the state, regional, or federal level.

At the state level, the news is mildly positive.  

In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul, who assumed her post after Andrew Cuomo, the former governor, resigned in the face of sexual harassment charges, was elected to a full term.  She defeated the notably conservation-hostile Congressman Lee Zeldin, who earned himself a spot in the fisheries hall of shame after repeatedly trying to open up some federal waters to striped bass harvest and by supporting H.R. 200, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.  Both efforts, had they succeeded, would have weakened the conservation and management provisions of federal fisheries law.

Soon-to-be ex-Congressman Zeldin further tarnished his name in fisheries conservation circles in 2019, when he issued a press release which attacked New York’s representatives on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for failing to support the use of “alternative data” (i.e., misinformation) to manage the striped bass resource, while asserting a number of alternative facts—what most of us, if we were feeling particularly charitable, might discreetly call “inaccuracies”—in support of his own positions.

So the fact that he will soon be out of any position that might give him a chance to degrade our fisheries resources was certainly a bit of good news.

Down in Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan was forced to leave office due to term limits.  While Governor Hogan’s overall record suggests that he, unlike Congressman Zeldin, belongs to the sane wing of the Republican Party, he had an uncomfortably close relationship with the Maryland watermen and the state’s charter boat community, a relationship that often forced Maryland fisheries regulators to take unwise positions, particularly with respect to striped bass conservation, both at the state and at the ASMFC level.  Hopefully, Governor-elect Wes Moore will prove to be a better steward of Maryland's living marine resources.

Thus, we had at least two favorable election results at the statehouse level, which will probably also impact the positions taken by the affected states at the ASMFC.  There were no clearly unfavorable election results to offset those wins.

At the federal level, the news is a little harder to parse.

In the House of Representatives, the news seems to be both good and bad.

On the good news side of the ledger, it looks as if Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK), who won her seat earlier this year in a special election held to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Rep. Don Young (R-AK), will be able to keep that seat for the duration of the 118th Congress.  Although the election result isn’t yet final due to the delay in tallying votes caused by Alaska’s vast area, the need to count absentee ballots, and the state's its ranked-voting approach to elections, Rep. Peltola’s lead is currently large enough to make her victory likely.  That’s good news, because she is very informed about marine fisheries issues, and has promised to spend a significant share of her time in Washington on efforts to improve the management system.

On the bad news side, the fact that the Republican Party has taken control of the House dooms Rep. Jared Huffman’s (D-CA) efforts to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  Rep. Huffman’s Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act, H.R. 4690, would have, among other things, rendered the federal fishery management system more responsive to changing oceanic conditions, and would also have made significant improvements to the conservation provisions of federal fisheries law.  While the bill was favorably voted out of committee, other obligations of the 117th Congress make it virtually certain that the bill won’t get a vote on the House floor.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill won’t be introduced in the next session of Congress.  It is no impossible that representatives from one or more of the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, many of whom have a strong influence on Republican policy, will try to introduce an H.R. 200-like bill, intended to weaken federal fisheries management efforts, at some point during the 118th Congress. 

It is more likely that any House fisheries legislation will be more narrowly drafted, with Congressmen sympathetic to the recreational fishing industry, and to industry organizations such as the Center for Sportfishing Policy, introducing legislation similar to the original version of the so-called “Modern Fish Act,” introduced in 2017, which would relieve the recreational fishing sector from much of the burden of fisheries management, and allow anglers to harvest more fish than good science, good law, or good sense would otherwise permit.

It is also possible that any bill that emerges will be focused even more narrowly; bills intended to undercut federal management of the recreational red snapper fishery in Gulf of Mexico have been filed in other sessions of Congress, and there is no reason to believe that recreational red snapper legislation will not make another appearance in the 118th.  Zeldin-like legislation to allow striped bass fishing in federal waters could also emerge, as could legislation aimed at limiting the use of limited access privilege programs—more commonly known as “catch shares”—in commercial fisheries.

On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that a Republican-controlled House will be universally hostile to fisheries conservation bills.  In the past, some of the most important marine conservation legislation has been supported by Republican legislators and Republican presidents, most notably Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), Representatives Wayne Gilchrist (R-MD) and Don Young, and Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush.  Some fisheries issues, perhaps including improving and modernizing the recreational and commercial data collection process, could gain bipartisan support, and produce viable legislation.

In the Senate, control remains in Democratic hands, so the upper chamber is likely to prove an important check against any conservation-hostile bills that might be passed by the House.  There is also a real possibility that meaningful legislation, perhaps addressing the need to better protect forage fish or to improve the data collection process, might be introduced in the Senate.  However, even if such legislation is passed, there is no guarantee that it could avoid a Republican filibuster, nor is there any guarantee that, even if a filibuster did not occur, it could attract the votes needed for passage.

As always, the fate of fisheries legislation in the Senate or, for that matter, in the House, will depend not only on such legislation’s intrinsic merits, but on how it affects local fisheries and, perhaps more important, whether any negatively-impacted fishery lies within the state or district of a legislator influential enough to kill the bill even before it reaches the floor.

Having said that, the odds of any meaningful fisheries legislation being passed by the Senate over the next two years is not particularly good, although a particularly compelling bill—or, at least, a bill that is sufficiently compelling to garner the support of a few key senators—might still make it through.

Should legislation be passed by both houses of Congress, the White House remains the ultimate arbiter of whether such bill becomes law (yes, there is always the chance of Congress overriding a veto, but given the politics that exist at this time, that’s probably not a realistic possibility, at least in the fisheries arena).  

We can probably expect any fisheries-related bill that makes it to the President's desk to have enough bipartisan support that it will be signed into law; there is no reason to expect that such bills will be vetoed, unless important diplomatic or financial issues are somehow involved.  We can probably also expect that any bill that significantly undermines federal fishery conservation law and/or policy will be vetoed, although the Administration’s view of whether a bill “significantly undermines” the public good might be different from the views of either Congress or conservation advocates.

At this point in time, the consequences of the recent midterms do not seem to be as bad as they could have been, or as bad as many people expected them to be.  There will be no likely rollback of major provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, there will probably not be a successful legislative effort to otherwise undercut the federal fishery management system and, at the ASMFC level, we may see at least one state return to the pro-conservation side of the debate.

Federally, inaction is a far more likely scenario than any adverse action and, regrettably, far more likely than any positive action as well.  Even so, that leaves us, and the nation’s marine resources, in a far better place than they could have been in, had a few close elections gone the wrong way.

 

Thursday, November 17, 2022

REBUILDING STRIPED BASS

 

In April 2019, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (Management Board) accepted a benchmark stock assessment that found the striped bass stock to be both overfished and subject to overfishing. The Management Board acted quickly to reduce fishing mortality and end overfishing, but was much slower to initiate the 10-year rebuilding plan required by Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass.

 

Instead, the Management Board elected to first develop a new Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass (Amendment 7), a process that took it a full two years. Amendment 7 directly addresses the rebuilding issue, containing a provision that reads,

 

If the 2022 stock assessment results indicate the Amendment 7 measures have less than a 50% probability of rebuilding the stock by 2029 (as calculated using the low recruitment assumption) and if the stock assessment indicates that at least a 5% reduction in removals is needed to achieve [the fishing mortality rate needed to rebuild the stock], the Board may adjust measures to achieve [such fishing mortality rate] via Board action (change management measures by voting to pass a motion at a Board meeting).

Such provision allows the Management Board to quickly impose restrictions needed to rebuild the stock, without the need for public hearings or analysis of hearing comments, and gives it a better chance to rebuild the stock by the 10-year deadline.

At its August 2022 meeting, the Management Board discussed various ways to achieve any needed fishing mortality reduction; at the time, it appeared that the majority of its members expected such reduction to be needed. However, the magnitude of any such reduction wouldn’t be known until the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Stock Assessment Sub-Committee and Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee released the 2022 stock assessment update (Assessment Update) prior to the Management Board’s November 2022 meeting.

The draft Assessment Update was made public on October 25, 2022, and it contained the unexpected news that,

Under current fully-recruited fishing mortality (F=0.14), female [spawning stock biomass] is expected to reach or exceed the [spawning stock biomass] threshold by 2023 with a probability of 70.2%, and exceed or reach the [spawning stock biomass] target by 2025 with a probability of 56.1%. By the rebuilding deadline of 2029 there is a 78.6% chance the stock will be at or above the [spawning stock biomass] target and a 96.7% chance the stock will be at or above the [spawning stock biomass] threshold. Under [the fishing mortality target rate] (F=0.17), female [spawning stock biomass] is expected to reach or exceed the [spawning stock biomass] threshold by 2023 with a probability of 61.9%, and exceed or reach the [spawning stock biomass] target by 2028 with a probability of 52.0%. Under [the fishing mortality threshold rate] (F=0.20), female [spawning stock biomass] is expected to reach or exceed the [spawning stock biomass] threshold by 2023 with a probability of 53.2%, but it has less than a 50% probability of reaching the [spawning stock biomass] target in any year. [internal references omitted]

Both striped bass fishermen and fishery managers were surprised to learn that, provided that overfishing isn’t allowed to recur, it’s more likely than not that, at some point within the next year, striped bass will no longer be considered overfished. And so long as fishing mortality is kept at or below its target level, the stock is likely to rebuild before the 2029 deadline.

Still, nothing is certain, and there remains a chance that the stock will not be rebuilt by 2029.

Successful rebuilding depends upon keeping fishing mortality at or below the target rate, and that might not be easy to do. Recreational fishing effort tends to move in concert with striped bass abundance, so as the stock rebuilds, more anglers are likely to enter the fishery, and those already participating in the fishery are likely to fish more often. Such increased effort is likely to lead to increased fishing mortality, due to both an increase in the number of fish retained by anglers and, because more fish are being caught and released, an increase in release mortality as well.

If angling effort, and the resultant fishing mortality, increases at a faster rate than the striped bass population, the stock’s recovery could be threatened. Fortunately, Amendment 7 requires the Management Board to reduce fishing mortality if it exceeds its target level for two consecutive years (provided that spawning stock biomass remains below target during at least one of those years), so such threat to the stock’s recovery should be promptly abated should it arise.

Rebuilding is also contingent upon the precision of the estimates of fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass. All such estimates contain some level of uncertainty; although the Assessment Update deems its estimate of fishing mortality to be “precise” and its estimate of spawning stock biomass “very precise,” such estimates are nonetheless thought to somewhat underestimate fishing mortality and overestimate biomass. While, according to accepted scientific protocols followed by the Assessment Update, the uncertainty in the estimates was not great enough to justify any adjustment in their calculation, such uncertainty still could have some bearing on the speed of the stock’s recovery.

The one thing that shouldn’t have a significant impact on the stock’s ability to rebuild by the 2029 deadline is the number of young fish recruiting into the stock. The relatively poor spawns that occurred in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay, the single most important striped bass spawning ground, during 2019, 2020, and 2021 have already been incorporated into the Assessment Update; most striped bass mature when they are somewhere between six and eight years of age, so any fish spawned after 2023 are unlikely to affect rebuilding.

 

While the small 2022 year class could, in theory, have some effect on the rebuilding projection, such effect will be minimal, as the Assessment Update assumes that striped bass will be in a low recruitment regime throughout the recovery period. 2029 rebuilding remains on track.

Yet rebuilding the spawning stock biomass is only one milestone on the road to a sustainable striped bass fishery. Once the stock is rebuilt, spawning stock biomass must remain at or reasonably near its target level for the stock to remain healthy in the long term. Such long-term abundance is far from guaranteed.

The Maryland juvenile abundance index (JAI), arguably the best predictor of the future health of the striped bass stock, has maintained a long-term average of 11.3. The JAI for 2022, at a mere 3.6, was less than a third of the average JAI, yet was still the highest reported over the past four seasons; it marked the first time in the 65-year history of the JAI that the index remained below 4.0 for four consecutive years. The average JAI for the past four years, 3.16, matched a time series low that was first established during the period 1983-1986, when the stock was just beginning to recover from its collapse during the late 1970s.


While the Assessment Update was calculated using a low recruitment assumption, the average JAI for the striped bass year classes that define such “low recruitment,” 2007 through 2016, was still substantially higher than the average JAI for the most recent four, six, or even eight year periods. If such low recruitment continues, current regulations will probably not be restrictive enough to maintain the spawning stock biomass at its target level.

Unfortunately, there is little that managers can do to improve recruitment. Spawning success isn’t dependent on the size of the spawning stock; a very small spawning stock may produce a very large year class, while a large spawning stock biomass is no guarantee against spawning failure. Instead, spawning success is largely dependent upon environmental conditions in the spawning rivers, with cold, wet winters followed by cool, late springs leading to strong year classes, while warm winters and dry, early springs typically lead to a disappointing spawn.

 

The best that managers can hope to do is manage the stock conservatively, and maintain a high enough population of older, larger fish that, even after years of poor recruitment, there will be enough spawning stock available to take advantage of favorable spawning conditions when they again occur.

Right now, it looks like managers will fully rebuild the striped bass stock. Whether they will then be able to maintain that stock at a healthy level remains an open question.

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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/