Thursday, July 18, 2024

GOVERNEMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE WEIGHS IN ON BYCATCH

 

Bycatch, defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act as

“fish which are harvested in a fishery, but which are not sold or kept for personal use, and includes economic discards and regulatory discards,”

has long been a problem in commercial and a handful of recreational fisheries. 

Although one of the National Standards for Fishery Conservation and Management created by Magnuson-Stevens states that

“Conservation and management measures shall, to the extent practicable, (A) minimize bycatch and (B) to the extent that bycatch cannot be avoided, minimize the mortality of such bycatch,”

meaningful efforts to reduce bycatch have been few and far between; efforts to do so are generally stymied by the lobbying efforts of industrial-scale fishing industries, which wield significant political influence.

Today, the epicenter of the debate is Alaska, where large trawlers targeting pollock or other groundfish have been accused of killing large numbers of salmon and halibut, at the same time that restrictions on those intentionally targeting such fishes have become more and more onerous.

For the most part, the bycatch debate has flown under the radar of the popular press; it is an issue largely championed by conservation groups and by smaller-scale fishermen who feel victimized by an industrial fleet that is permitted to incidentally kill species of fish now denied, in whole or in part, to fishermen who once directly targeted them and depend on them for their livelihoods.

However, that may be changing.Last month, the United States Government Accountability Office, which was created to be

“an independent, non-partisan agency that works for Congress [and] examines how taxpayer dollars are spent and provides Congress and federal agencies with objective, non-partisan, fact-based information to help the government save money and work more efficiently,”

issued a report titled FEDERAL FISHERIES MANAGEMENT Efforts to Reduce and Monitor Unintentional Catch and Harm Need Better Tracking, and so turned the government spotlight onto the bycatch issue.

The GAO found that

“[The National Marine Fisheries Service’s] efforts to track its performance in reducing and monitoring bycatch do not align with key elements of evidence-based policymaking related to performance management.  Specifically, the agency’s bycatch reduction implementation plan lacks measurable performance goals.  Having an updated plan with measurable goals and a tracking process could help inform agency decision-making.

“Additionally, NMFS has enhanced its database to compile bycatch estimates but does not have a comprehensive written plan for how it will report the estimates.  Developing such a plan could help the agency better monitor bycatch levels, trends, and information gaps, and demonstrate progress over time to internal and external stakeholders.”

To develop the report, the GAO focused on five specific fisheries, selected to include a diversity of fishing areas and fishing gear.  Those fisheries were the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery, the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery, the Hawaii deep-set tuna longline fishery, the New England scallop dredge fishery, and the West Coast groundfish fixed-gear fishery.  No fisheries within the Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, or Caribbean regions were examined.

In compiling the report, the GAO noted that bycatch, and bycatch reduction measures, were very specific to a fishery and to the species sought, as well as to the composition of the bycatch that the measures seek to reduce.  Overall, modifications to fishing gear, which allow fishermen to continue to operate while reducing encounters with bycatch species, are preferred over measures that close fishing areas either permanently or for defined periods of time, and so seriously impair fishing operations.  Similarly, the GAO found that measures developed independently of the fishing community, which have or are perceived to have a significant impact on the harvest of target species, will be less acceptable to fishermen, who may not comply with gear modification requirements.

Another issue is the availability of observers, who NMFS considers “essential” if the bycatch issue is to be properly addressed.  Such observers confirm the existence and level of bycatch caught in existing gear, and can monitor the effectiveness of bycatch reduction efforts.  However, observer levels vary from fishery to fishery, and coverage can be anywhere between 0% to 100% of trips made.  The level of funding can depend on a number of factors, including the availability of federal or industry funding, whether protected (i.e. Endangered Species Act-listed or protected under the Marine Mammals Act) species are involved, and the size and geographic scope of the fishery.

The low level of observers present in many fisheries (out of the five fisheries examined by the GAO, there was 100% coverage in the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery, while coverage in the other four ranged between 2 and 41 percent) can lead to significant uncertainty in the bycatch data.

After speaking with NMFS administrators, scientists, members of regional fishery management councils, and stakeholders, the GAO included four recommendations in its report.  It advised that

“The Assistant Administrator for NMFS should gather information from across the regions to identify any additional resources needed to support fisheries observers, and communicate these needs to relevant stakeholders, including Congress.  (Recommendation 1)

“The Assistant Administrator for NMFS should develop an updated National Bycatch Reduction Strategy Implementation Plan with measurable performance goals tied to specific time frames.  (Recommendation 2)

“The Assistant Administrator for NMFS should develop a process for tracking progress toward the performance goals in the National Bycatch Reduction Strategy Implementation Plan and use the information to guide agency decision-making.  (Recommendation 3)

“The Assistant Administrator for NMFS should develop a comprehensive written plan for reporting on bycatch estimates from the enhanced Fisheries One Stop Shop database, including how the agency will communicate over time on bycatch levels, trends, and information gaps.  (Recommendation 4)”

In a letter dated June 3, 2024, a NMFS representative said that the agency agrees with the GAOs recommendations.

So do we have reason to believe that progress will soon be made on the bycatch issue?

Probably not.  Politics will get in the way.

First, we should note that the report was addressed to, and requested by,

“the Ranking Member Committee on Natural Resources, House of Representatives,”

Raul M. Grijalva.

The Ranking Member of a House committee is the highest-ranking member of the minority party sitting on such committee.  Given the high degree of partisanship in the House, along with the majority party’s general hostility to any legislation that promotes conservation and/or might place any restrictions on business, the likelihood of the report giving birth to changes in federal fisheries law is remote, at best, in 2024; future success would depend on a change in the party controlling the House, with no such change taking place in the Senate or, probably, in the White House. 

Given the current state of electoral politics, that’s not the most likely outcome of the November elections.

Politics will also continue to dominate the bycatch issue in the regional fishery management councils.  Nothing demonstrates that fact better than the delays in 2024 appointments to the Pacific and North Pacific fishery management councils, where conservation-minded nominees are being challenged by the bycatch-prone trawler fleet.  As noted in a recent article appearing in the National Fisherman,

“The State of Washington (WA) nominees by Governor Jay Inslee to both the North Pacific and Pacific Councils are  strong advocates of management policies that prioritize ecosystem protections over ‘optimum yields’ from fisheries extractions, as currently defined in fisheries laws.

“Many fishery stakeholders have long believed that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (“NPFMC”) ‘family’ has become too top-heavy with large trawl interests who are vested directly or indirectly in the Bering Sea pollock and groundfish fisheries.

“WA holds two of eleven voting seats on the 15-member NPFMC, and both are up for grabs.

“How the Council votes directly impact the Seattle trawl companies’ bottom lines and Inslee’s ‘eco-candidate’ choices for the NPFMC, have prompted a full-court press by powerful Senate trawl lobbyists to sway opinions at US Commerce in Washington, DC…

“Governor Inslee’s choice of one seat on the Pacific Fishery Management Council (“PFMC”) has also raised the hackles of Seattle’s trawl sector…”

Having observed fisheries issues for many years, I suspect that the lobbyists may still prevail, and that the trawlers will get one—or more—of their own on the two regional fishery management councils, which will make effective bycatch reduction that much more difficult to achieve.

Still, it is good to see the issue get some attention.

Although, as we go into an election that will probably put an administration that was demonstrably hostile to fisheries conservation back in power, a little attention and no results may be all that we get for the next four—or more—years.

 

 

Sunday, July 14, 2024

FEDERAL COURTS (UNLIKE NEW YORK'S) TAKE FISHERIES OFFENCES SERIOUSLY

 

Last Thursday, a federal judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York sentenced a Montauk commercial fisherman, convicted of multiple charges after landing illegal summer flounder ("fluke") and black sea bass on many different occasions, to 30 months in federal prison.

According to the New York Times,

“The man, Chris Winkler, 64, who helms a 45-foot trawler called the New Age, was convicted by a Long Island jury in October on federal charges of hauling too many fish from the sea.  The jury also found him guilty of falsifying records and selling his illegal catch to partners at Gosman’s Dock, a waterfront mall and restaurant complex in Montauk, and to dealers at the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx…

“Mr. Winkler’s case concerns fishing trips between 2014 and 2017 during which he harvested at least 200,000 pounds of fluke and 20,000 pounds of black sea bass beyond the limit, prosecutors said.  Mr. Winkler then fudged records to conceal the excess catch, they said.

“…Prosecutors said the over-quota fish was worth nearly $900,000 on the wholesale market.”

It was not the first time that federal prosecutors on Long Island came down hard on commercial poachers.  The Times noted that

“The federal government has increasingly used criminal prosecution to enforce fishing regulations, and Mr. Winkler’s case was among several similar cases brought by the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources division in the past decade.  Two such cases, against other Long Island fishermen charged with overfishing fluke, ended with prison sentences.”

Nor is federal fisheries enforcement limited to the commercial sector.  In November 2012, the Justice Department shook up Virginia's salt water angling community when it brought charges against five local charter boat captains who were routinely violating federal law by targeting striped bass in federal waters more than three miles from shore.

At the time, both private and charter boats chronically violated the prohibition on striped bass fishing in the EEZ off Virginia, and the charter boats seemed to feel entitled to do so.  The local fishing website Tidal Fish often featured threads discussing the issue, and when one participant on the site’s chat boards chose to warn others about the regulation back in 2010—about the time when the indicted charter boat operators were committing their violations—he received a hostile and vaguely threatening response:

“Messin with Livelyhoods is Not recommended.. I don’t turn my back to Law Breakers. If I see a Violation Off Water that requires a Call to the Law then I do so.  Out on the Big Pond however holding a Video Camera pointing it at Boats that have Crossed the line.. 1st Not sure how you can Prove where you are on Film, 2nd you have Numbers on your Boat that pretty much identifies you.. All Im saying is Be careful …..Your Messin with things You may Not Comprehend.. It’s a Hard Life making a Living as a Charter Boat Capt.. Don’t make it that Much harder when there are Enforcements out there already… You Ready to be the Star Witness..  Not me Brother..”

Clearly, things had gotten far out of hand.

However, the Justice Department quickly put them back in order, with a substantial assist from the courts, which came down hard on the habitually poaching captains. 

All five were found guilty, and the punishments fit the crimes.

One captain was fined $5,600, plus another $1,900 in restitution payments.  He

“was also sentenced to three years’ probation with special conditions prohibiting [him] from engaging in either the charter or commercial fishing industries, anywhere in the world, in any capacity, during the term of his probation.  [He] is prohibited not only from captaining a vessel, but also rendering any assistance, support, or other services, with or without compensation, for other charter or commercial fishermen.”

Another was sentenced to 30 days’ in jail and 12 months supervised probation, during which time he was not permitted to engage in the charter boat fishery in any capacity.  In addition, he was required to surrender his captain’s license to the Coast Guard, under the condition that he never be reinstated as a licensed captain.

The other three captains received fines, were placed on three years’ probation, and were required to install vessel monitoring systems on any vessel that they might operate during the probation period.

Violating the prohibition on bass fishing in the EEZ no longer seen as merely a risk one took when doing business.  From everything that I’ve heard since, there are far fewer EEZ violations taking place off Virginia these days.

That demonstrates why federal judges who are willing to pass down tough sentences are one of the keys to successful fisheries management.  According to the New York Times, the judge in the Winkler case appreciated the negative impact that poaching has on fish stocks.

“’I consider this a serious crime,’ said Judge Azrack, who called the trial ‘illuminating, educational and disturbing.’  Mr. Winkler, she said, ‘undermined then integrity of the whole fisheries management program.’”

Unfortunately, if the matter had been tried in a state, rather than a federal, court, the outcome would probably have been very different.  It is extremely likely that the poacher would have escaped with a trivial fine that could easily be written off as just another cost of doing business, for most of New York's state and local judges, unlike Judge Azrack, seem to consider fisheries violations as of no meaningful importanc.  It is a situation that continues to frustrate the Department of Environmental Conservation’s law enforcement officers.

Take, for example, a situation that I reported on a little over two years ago.

It seems that, on November 7, 2021, the crew of a DEC police boat

“observed a vessel in the Atlantic Ocean south of Montauk.  On board, 2 persons were hauling up a gill net, both commercially permitted fishermen.  On board, in a cooler, were 11 tagged striped bass, all using allocation tags issued to another fisherman, who was not on board.  They had, also, and additional 82 unused striped bass tags.  An additional 5 untagged striped bass were found, hidden, on board, which were all under the 26” minimum size for commercially harvested striped bass.

“The captain admitted that he was out of striped bass tags for the year, and knew that it was illegal to fish using someone else’s tags…The fishermen were each charged with a misdemeanor, for the illegal commercialization of fish, plus a separate violation for possessing undersized fish and illegal use of tags.  In total, each fisherman faced penalties of up to $800 for the 16 illegal fish and an additional penalty of $5,000, based on the current market value of the fish.  The current market value for the fish illegally aboard the vessel was $388.02.”

While such violation might not have been in the same league as illegally taking 200,000 pounds of summer flounder and 20,000 pounds of black sea bass, it was still a misdemeanor-level transgression, committed by fishermen who admitted that they knew very well that they would be engaged in illegal activity even before they set out for the day.  Yet in this case, the punishment definitely did not fit the crime.

Instead of facing fines that might have deterred future illegal activities—fines at least greater than the value of the illegal fish they had landed—it turned out that

“On 1/5, in East Hampton Town Court, the captain pled to a violation, with a $100 fine and $75 surcharge; all other charges were dismissed.”

Having to pay just $175—less than half the value of the illegally-take fish—with no other penalties imposed, is hardly a deterrent to either the captain who poached the fish or to anyone following the outcome of the matter.  Such fines really are just a cost of doing business to those involved.

Of course, over the years, East Hampton Town Court has proven to be a poacher’s paradise, allowing those taking illegal fish to escape with a slap on the wrist.  That’s the sort of thing that happens when poachers are part of the fabric of the local community that elects the town justices and is home to the attorney prosecuting the crimes.

Still, the state courts rarely provide better results.  Many judges view fisheries violations as minor issues compared to the larcenies, assaults, rapes, and murders that they deal with on a regular basis, and are all too fast to let poachers go home essentially unpunished; similarly, members of the district attorneys’ staffs always have more work than they do time, and so have a tendency to put fisheries violations at or near the bottom of their priority lists.

It's an unfortunate situation, and one that makes it extremely difficult to properly enforce, and build respect for, state fisheries laws.

Yet the federal courts, including those here on Long Island, have already blazed a trail toward effective fisheries enforcement.  It is now up to New York’s courts and New York’s prosecutors to follow the path that they’ve made.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

STRIPED BASS: TO REBUILD THE RIGHT WAY, AND ON TIME

 

When the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board meets in October, one thing will be foremost in everyone’s mind—the results of the latest stock assessment update, which will be released ahead of the meeting.

If the update finds that there is at least a 50% probability that the striped bass stock will rebuild by 2029, without any additional management measures being taken, everyone will breathe a little easier and move on to the next item of business.  But if the assessment finds that the stock is unlikely to rebuild by that deadline, the Management Board will face a politically difficult decision.  It will have to decide how to further restrict striped bass fishing mortality, in order to allow timely rebuilding to occur.

A lot of that will depend on how much damage the 2022 spike in recreational landings impaired the recovery, and how successful the emergency measure adopted in May 2023 was in reducing fishing mortality and putting the recovery back on track (since 2023 will be the assessment update’s terminal year, the impacts of Addendum II to Amendment 7 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, adopted last January, will not be reflected in its findings).

The last stock assessment, which considered the health of the stock at the end of 2021, predicted that the stock would very probably be rebuilt by the 2029 deadline, but excessive recreational landings in 2022 quickly changed that forecast.  Marine Recreational Information Program landings data suggests that, as a result of the emergency measure, 2023 recreational landings were about halfway between 2021 and 2022 levels (we’ll get a better understanding of that at the August Management Board meeting).

So, realistically, additional action will probably be needed to rebuild the stock on time.

The big question is what those additional management measures will look like.  In that regard, the Management Board will have to make two big decisions.  One is the form such measures will take.  The other is how such measures will be adopted.

Typically, when new management measures are proposed, the Management Board will ask the Plan Development Team to put together a draft addendum, containing multiple management options, which will be sent out for public comment.  Public hearings are held and, informed by the comments received, the Management Board will finalize the management document.  However, the Management Board will have another option to choose from in October.

Addendum II provides that

“If an upcoming stock assessment prior to the rebuilding deadline (currently 2029) indicates that the stock is not projected to rebuild by 2029 with a probability greater than or equal to 50%, the Board could respond via Board action where the Board could change management measures by voting to pass a motion at a Board meeting instead of developing an addendum or amendment (and different from the emergency action process).  [emphasis added]”

Thus, the Management Board could, if it chose to, adopt new management measures at the October meeting, or at a subsequent meeting (perhaps a special meeting called for solely that purpose).  By fast-tracking the new management measures, the Board could have them in place for the 2025 season, thus eliminating some of the debate that swirled around Amendment II, which was not adopted until after some states had already issued commercial tags.  Getting the new management measures in place for 2025 will also make it more likely that the bass will be rebuilt on time; engaging in the full addendum process would probably see new measures adopted in 2026, allowing landings to remain too high for an additional year, and reducing the chances of a timely recovery.

On the other hand, there will certainly be those on the Management Board who will seek delay, trying to eke out another year of higher landings for their commercial and for-hire fleets.  They will argue that action should not be taken before stakeholders have a full opportunity to provide comments on the proposed management measures, using a feigned concern for stakeholder input—feigned because, after multiple rounds of comment on Amendment 7, the emergency action, and Addendum II, there is little doubt where the various stakeholders stand—to maintain excessive levels of harvest for at least an additional year.

Having said that, there is one reason that stakeholder comment—both past and present—may turn out to be very important, and that is the Management Board’s apparent obsession with reducing recreational release mortality.

To put things in the simplest terms possible, the key to rebuilding striped bass—or any other fish stock—is to get to a place where the number of new fish entering the stock (“recruitment”) is greater than the total mortality experienced by such stock.  It’s not much different than your personal checking account:  If your deposits exceed your withdrawals, your balance grows; if withdrawals exceed deposits, it’s not too long before your checks start to bounce.

So lowering total mortality is a good thing.

Total mortality—often represented by the symbol “Z”—has two components, fishing  mortality (“F”), which is just what it sounds like, fish removed from the stock by fishing activities, and natural mortality ("M”), which are removals due to natural processes such as disease, predation, etc.  Unfortunately, there is usually little that managers can do to reduce natural mortality, so when total mortality is too high, the answer is always to somehow reduce F.

Fishing mortality also has two components, one being landings, and the other deemed “discard mortality” (commercial) or “release mortality” (recreational).  Some  make no distinction between commercial discards and recreational releases, listing them both under the catch-all of “discards,” but that is a very critical mistake, because it ignores the dual nature of recreational fishing.

Some recreational fishermen fish, to a greater or lesser degree, for food.  They plan to bring their catch home.  And some recreational fishermen fish—as the term “recreational fisherman” suggests,”--primarily for recreation, and release most or all of their catch.  The great majority of anglers fall somewhere in-between, keeping some fish, and releasing others, depending on their needs, their mood, and the fish involved.

Fishing for food obviously kills fish, but catch-and-release kills some fish, too; it is not a bloodless sport. 

In what might be deemed recreational “food” fisheries, harvest makes up the biggest component of fishing mortality.  In the summer flounder fishery, for example, the average recreational catch for the years 2020 through 2022 was 11.06 million pounds; that total included 8.51 million pounds of fish landed, and 2.55 million pounds of fish that died after being released.

But sport fisheries display a very different pattern.  Atlantic tarpon in the South Atlantic region may be the most extreme example, with 2023 data showing zero fish landed, and 133,264 fish released.  

Clearly, sport fishermen don’t have to kill fish to have a successful day, yet some of those 133,000 tarpon undoubtedly died from the effects of being caught.  Based on one Florida study, which estimated a release mortality rate of somewhere between 7.3 and 17.1 percent, as many as 22,788 tarpon might have been killed by anglers last year.  Yet such losses are accepted as the inevitable result of a catch-and-release fishery, even though release mortality accounts for 100 percent of all fishing mortality.

Striped bass fall somewhat in-between.  

Many striped bass anglers see the bass as a sport fish, and rarely if ever take one home.  The ASMFC estimates that about 90 percent of the bass caught are released, and also estimates that about 9 percent of the released bass die after being caught.  Other fishermen like to take striped bass home and, of course, 100 percent of those fish fail to survive.  

In 2023, recreational fishermen in New England and the mid-Atlantic landed slightly over 2.6 million striped bass, while releasing about 26 million; if we apply the presumed 9% release mortality rate, about 2.34 million of those released fish subsequently died, meaning that, in 2023, release mortality accounted for about 47 percent of all fishing mortality.  In other years, it accounted for a few percentage points more.

Yet it appears that, should the Management Board decide to adopt additional management measures, they’re going to concentrate on less than half of the fishing mortality picture—recreational releases—rather than on the whole of the issue.

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries recently issued a press release in which it noted,

“If action is needed, the Board has signaled that it will be focusing, at least in part, on recreational release mortality.”

If anyone has their finger on the pulse of the Management Board, it is Massachusetts DMP, which has been at the forefront of the striped bass debate for the past five years or so.  And if anyone had any doubt about the Board’s fixation on striped bass release mortality, the first item on the agenda for its August meeting calls for it to

“Consider Initial Recommendations from Recreational Release Mortality Work Group.”

It will be a couple of weeks before we know what those initial recommendations will be, but in truth, there aren’t too many options.  It can try to adopt gear restrictions, mandating things like prohibiting the use of treble hooks in lures, or perhaps allowing only a single hook (which might be a treble) on plugs, and perhaps banning the use of bait in the striped bass fishery.  All of those suggestions would find some support in the preliminary findings of the ongoing Massachusetts release mortality study.

The Management Board could also attempt to regulate angler behavior, perhaps by requiring that all bass over a certain size—say, 35 or 40 inches—be released without being removed from the water.  Florida has long had a similar rule in place for tarpon, and they believe that it is doing some good.

The problem is that the benefits of any of those rules are very difficult to quantify.  No model existing today can tell managers, with anything like an acceptable degree of certainty, how much they might reduce release mortality by outlawing the use of bait, or mandating single hooks.  

Such rules are also practically unenforceable.  Should they be imposed, an angler caught casting out a fresh chunk of bunker or a plug armed with three sets of trebles can easily say, “I’m fishing for bluefish,” and it would be impossible for law enforcement to prove that such wasn’t the case.

Thus, while all such initiatives would seem worthwhile, managers won’t be able to prove that they would lead to a reduction in fishing mortality.

Given Addendum II’s narrow slot limit and single-fish bag, if the stock assessment update tells managers that they must further reduce recreational fishing mortality in order to timely rebuild the stock, they have only one effective tool left in their toolbox, and that’s to adopt closed seasons.  And that’s where the Board’s fixation with release mortality rubs up against the harsh realities of human behavior and enforcing fisheries laws.

Closing the striped bass fishery to harvest for some defined length of time would certainly cut recreational fishing mortality.  The magnitude of the reduction could be predicted with reasonable precision, based on the length of the closure.  But that’s where the rub comes in:  While a no-harvest closure would reduce recreational landings, it arguably do nothing to reduce recreational releases, and so release mortality (I actually disagree with that conclusion, believing that some “meat fishermen” would choose not to spend time, money, and effort fishing for bass that they couldn’t legally take home, and that release mortality would decline as a result).

The only way that the Management Board might theoretically reduce release mortality is to prohibit anglers from even targeting striped bass during some specified period.  Again, such a closure would clearly reduce striped bass landings, because if anglers can’t target them, they can’t bring them home.  However, whether it would significantly reduce release mortality is not at all clear, because one thing that fisheries scientists have not yet been able to model is regulations’ impact on anglers’ behavior.

As with the case of anglers who would, if faced with a gear prohibition, continue to target striped bass with outlawed bait and plugs while claiming to target something else, plenty of anglers would probably continue to target bass during a no-targeting season, and just claim to be fishing for bluefish, weakfish, or maybe red drum.  And other anglers, who perhaps really were fishing for blues, weaks, or redfish, would accidentally hook and subsequently release plenty of striped bass, because when different species live in the same places and eat the same things, they’re all going to be a part of an angler’s catch.

So the benefits of a no-targeting closure, as opposed to a no-harvest season, are not at all clear.

Still, there will be members of the Management Board who will support a no-target season out of a twisted sense of “fairness,” arguing that, if catch-and-kill anglers’ hopes of taking fish home are frustrated for a while, catch-and-release anglers shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy fishing, either.  It makes little sense, and would unnecessarily reduce the social and economic benefits gleaned from the recreational striped bass fishery, but some Management Board members are ideologically driven, and to them, the “fairness” claims will ring true.

Hopefully, a majority of the Board will feel differently, but once the initial recommendations of the work group are made public, which should occur about two weeks from now, we will need to take a good look at them, and begin to let our representatives on the Management Board know how we feel.

While adopting an unenforceable no-target closure would be a big mistake, it’s not the worst thing that the Management Board might do in October.

It could choose to do nothing at all.

Anglers concerned with the future of the striped bass should go back to the section of Addendum II that I quoted above, the section that empowers the Management Board to change the plan by a simple Board vote, and note one seemingly innocent parenthetical, the one that says “the rebuilding deadline (currently 2029)  [emphasis added]”

Maybe I worry too much, but I can’t help but think that the “currently 2029” language was added because someone in considering the possibility that, if rebuilding by 2029 looks a little too hard, the Management Board might just want to extend the deadline out a few years, although such extension would be contrary to the explicit provisions the management plan.

Yet history tells us that the Management Board has delayed taking action before.

I can easily argue that its November 2011 decision not to cut harvest, in the face of a stock assessment update predicting that the stock would become overfished within six years if nothing was done, was the first in a series of bad decisions that put the stock in the depleted state that it finds itself in today.  I can also argue that, when it followed the advice of then-Fishery Management Plan Coordinator Michael Waine, and so failed to follow the clear dictates of the management plan, which required it to initiate a rebuilding plan at that point, it lost its last, best chance to prevent a serious stock decline.

I hate to think that the Management Board might not have learned those lessons from its past.  In recent years—really, since the Amendment 7 process began—it seems to have grown more responsible, and more responsive to the needs of the striped bass stock and the advice provided by the great majority of stakeholders.

It would be a shame if the Board began to regress.

The Management Board must rebuild the striped bass stock by 2029, within the 10-year timeframe provided in the management plan.

But at the same time, it must do the job right, and not rely on unenforceable, unquantifiable, unjustifiable actions such as no-target closures, that might make some people feel good, but won’t do much to help the striped bass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, July 7, 2024

TO KILL A FISH: OF SPORTSMANSHIP AND EXPECIENCY

 

I started fishing when I was very young, catching a bergall (more properly, “cunner”) not much after my second birthday, and used the tip section of a cane pole to wreak havoc among the snapper blue population not too long after that.

Back then, as I noted in last Thursday’s post, salt water fishing was much different than it is today.  Not only were the boats and equipment much cruder than they were today, but anglers had a very different attitude toward the fish.  The sort of fishing my family did at the time—essentially, sinker-bouncing for winter flounder and anything else that happened to bite—was a very blue-collar affair, with most of the anglers hoping to bring home “free” fish to augment whatever they bought at the grocery store.

At the same time, recreational fishing was a lower-key effort than it is today.  People went out a little way from the harbor—or sometimes anchored up inside—picked a spot that looked good and dropped down their baits, hoping that they would be “lucky.”  Most of the anglers labored at physically challenging jobs during the week, as plumbers, carpenters, masons, and such—my father reupholstered furniture—and looked at their time on the water as a chance to relax, spend time with family and/or friends, maybe drink a couple of beers and forget about work for a while.

They didn’t work all that hard at catching fish.  It was a time before outboard fishing boats were rigged with electronics suites that would have been the envy of a Second World War destroyer captain, and it’s not at all clear that my father, or the anglers he knew at the time, would have used depthfinders, GPS and such even if it had been available.  I still remember my father getting annoyed with me when I was 12 or so years old, and had started trying to do things that I read about in the fishing magazines, because I was trying to be “too scientific” when I fished, and was taking all the fun out of his time on the water.

The magazines that I read were also much different than those of today (besides the obvious fact that they were all printed on paper and came in the mail, rather than being delivered electronically).  Back then, the writers told stories.  Sometimes, they were stories about far-away places.  Sometimes they talked about a new lure, or new way to fish, or just how to better apply the things and the knowledge you had.  And sometimes—and I have to admit that, even then, these were my favorite tales of all—they spoke of epic fights with fish that weighed hundreds of pounds, fights that lasted for hours and took place far from shore, and often ended up with the angler defeated and the fish swimming away.

Looking back, some of those stories were a little corny, crediting the fish with a craft and intelligence beyond anything that was remotely real.  But the one thing that they almost universally conveyed was a respect for the fish that we sought.  Small fish like flounder were described in familiar, almost friendly terms, while larger species—and by larger, I mean anything from a striped bass to a black marlin—were treated more heroically, as worthy foes, to be fought honorably, regardless of outcome.

No question, the writers of the day laid it on a little thick.  Still, no sport fisherman worthy of the name would be caught dead with a harpoon.  Only the commercial boats carried those.  Particularly among the offshore fleet, there were ethics, and things that just weren’t done.

That’s no longer the case, and I’ve written about it before.  I’m only returning to the topic because of a couple of articles that recently appeared in the angling press.  One of them actively ridiculed notions of ethics and sport; what was perhaps more offensive is that both tossed jabs at anglers who maintained their own ethical code, and seemed to encourage anglers to make catching a fish, by any means necessary, the singular goal of the recreational fisherman.

The less offensive of the two pieces appeared in The Fisherman magazine about one week ago.  Titled “Surf:  Are Eels a Non-Purist Method?” it extolled the use of eels as a striped bass bait, emphasizing the bait’s long history in the surf, and seemed to cast aspersions on anglers who eschewed eels in favor of plugs and other artificial lures that are arguably more challenging, and almost certainly less productive, than a live eel cast into the right patch of water.

I don’t want to suggest that there’ anything wrong with using eels for striped bass.  I know quite a few very good surfcasters, who have taken some very large fish from the beach, and as far as I know, every one of them will toss an eel when conditions are right.  But that doesn’t mean that other anglers can’t set higher standards, intentionally sticking to artificial lures, and perhaps going fishless on nights when eels are putting bass on the sand.  The fact that the article seemed to look down on such anglers as “purists” who are somehow foolish, or otherwise flawed, for not fishing eels when their plugs go untouched was a little offensive; we’re talking about sportfishing, after all, and challenge is the essence of sport.

Mirriam-Webster goes so far as to define a “sportsman” as

“a person considered with respect to living up to the ideals of sportsmanship,”

while defining “sportsmanship” as

“conduct (such as fairness, respect for one’s opponent, and graciousness in winning or losing) becoming to one participating in a sport.”

It’s not hard to believe that an angler who intentionally handicaps themselves with artificial lures rather than choosing to use a more productive eel or other live bait is a living example of both definitions, and is, at the least, entitled to respect rather than derision.

Which takes us to the second, and more objectionable of the two essays, an article that appeared in the June 30 edition of the San Diego Reader, titled “Using the rail on big fish—yes or no?”

To put things in perspective, the “big fish” that the article is referring to are bluefin tuna that include “some well over 200 pounds.”  That might sound like a big fish to someone used to catching largemouth bass and brown trout, but in a blue-water context, a 200 pound fish is not all that large.  A 200-pound Atlantic bluefin tuna would probably fall into what the National Marine Fisheries Service has defined as a “small medium” sized fish less than 73 inches in length, which is not even large enough to be legally harvested by a commercial tuna fisherman. 

The International Game Fish Association, which is responsible for maintaining the list of world record fish of various species, recognizes a 1,496-pound bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus)  and a 907-pound, 6-ounce Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) as current all-tackle world records for those species of bluefin (there is also a third species, the southern bluefin, which rarely if ever enters the northern Pacific, and so is irrelevant to this discussion), thus, when put in an appropriate context, a 200-pound bluefin tuna is not really a “big fish” at all.

In that regard, it should also be noted that the International Game Fish Association does not merely record the largest fish caught by recreational fishermen; it also codifies what is generally considered sporting conduct amongst anglers, noting that such rules

“have been formulated…to promote ethical and sporting angling practices, to establish uniform regulations for the compilation of world game fish records, and to provide basic angling guidelines for use in fishing tournaments and any other group angling activities.

Both of the tuna world records mentioned above were caught in accordance with the IGFA’s “uniform regulations for the compilation of world game fish records,” which provide, among many other things, that

“The following acts will disqualify a catch…

“3.  Resting the rod in a rod holder, on the gunwale of the boat, or any other object while playing the fish.”

Thus, when the San Diego Reader article asks, “Using the rail on big fish—yes or no?” it was already embarking on an exploration of dubious ethical merit.  Sadly, it urged its readers to take the less ethical path, saying that

“the larger bluefin, able to dive unabated by the cold depths with their remarkable endothermic system, will often prevail.  With the heavier gear and fighting a 200-pound bluefin, it can become akin to lifting weights much heavier than a body can handle in a prolonged battle.

“This is where using the rail comes into play.  Modern standup rods typically have an extended fore grip and are tapered to handle the stress when rested on the rail.  The method is simple, squat down low with the rod fore grip on the rail and use the leverage to reduce the strain on the angler while fighting a large fish.”

In other words, instead of encouraging the angler to engage in a sporting contest with the tuna, the article encourages that angler to forego sportsmanship and cheat—even though far larger bluefin have been taken without resting a rod on the rail.

Of course, the author of the article wasn’t unaware of the sportsmanship angle, and did make a weak effort to address it, arguing that

“The physical exertion causes lactic acid to build up in the fish’s muscles.  This in turn leads to blood acidification which can disrupt the metabolism of the fish.  So using the rail is not a lack of sportsmanship, it is working smarter, not harder, and can make for better odds of survival on catch-and-release fishing while providing better food for the table.  Stand up and fight like a man may be an outdated mantra, and certainly should at least have exceptions.  Were we anglers really wanting to even up the odds, we would have to forego our modern boats, rods and reels, rod belts, harnesses, fighting chairs, and any other unnatural thing, and swim out and catch them with our teeth.”

I think that maybe the next time that I’m out in Yosemite National Park, I’m going to climb El Capitan.  Of course, I’ll hire a helicopter to take me over the steep stuff, and land me a couple yards from the summit, so I can walk the rest of the way, but that’s just climbing smarter, not harder.  And it’s good for the rock face, too, as I won’t be pulling on ropes and driving pitons, or otherwise damaging the surface.  And don’t say that I’m doing it the easy way, because if people really wanted a challenge, they wouldn’t use ropes or gloves or pitons at all; they’d toss away their carabiners, technical clothes, climbing shoes, and just scamper up the stones buck naked…

Makes just about as much sense as what the guy in the San Diego Reader was saying.

Without effort and pain, there is no such thing as a victory.

And I write that just four days after a friend engaged in the most intense fish fight of his life.

We were south of Fire Island, New York, drifting across a 20-fathom hump with the chum slowly leaking out of its pail, leaving a slick on the rippled sea.  A plankton bloom had tinted the ocean a strange, chalky green, and dropped visibility to almost nothing.  Still, menhaden pods painted the surface with irregular, dark brown patches, often passing close to the boat, so there were signs of life.

Even so, when noon passed without a single fish touching our baits, I wondered whether we should have fished elsewhere.

Finally, right at one o’clock, a rod went off as a fish picked up the bait that was drifting, at most, 25 feet below the chum pail.  The initial take was fast and strong, but unremarkable.  We had seen many such takes before.  But this time, the fish would not stop.

We got the angler strapped into a belt and harness, and he leaned back into the rod.  It was a 50-100 standup model, the reel loaded with 60-pound line.  With the drag set at 20 pounds, we expected the fight to end fairly soon.

It didn’t.

As line continued to peel from the spool, I lit up the boat’s diesels and began to back down, keeping the line centered over the transom.  It prevented the reel from being stripped, but the fish kept taking line for most of the time, except for the few instances when it suddenly changed direction, sometimes heading straight at the boat, when the angler could gain a little back.

Three hours into the fight, the fish showed no sign of tiring, but the angler still stood strong. 

Four hours in, the fish was just beginning to weaken, and I figured we’d have it up to the boat in another hour’s time.  The angler still stood, sipping water from time to time to avoid dehydration, leaning back against the reel’s drag, gaining line when he could and otherwise enduring whatever the fish chose to do. 

Maybe twenty minutes later, maybe a bit more, the angler began to gain line more quickly.  At one point, he claimed that the fish was shaking its head, but nonetheless he gained ground, until the fish—whatever it was—was probably fifty feet from the boat.  He leaned back against the fish’s pull.

The next thing I knew, the angler was falling backward, his line limp in the rising breeze.  After four hours and 45 minutes, the fish had broken free.

When the line was reeled to the boat, I looked at the break, and noticed that the line was scuffed and abraded in multiple places.

I can’t be sure of anything, but from the way the fish fought, I believe that it was a very large thresher shark.  We had hooked many threshers in that place before; the largest we ever brought near the boat weighed close to 400 pounds.  This one was far larger.

The fish fought deep for most of the time, suddenly changing direction from time to time the way that threshers typically do.  I think that the last time it did so, it wrapped the leader around the base of its tail, so that the “head shakes” the angler was feeling were really the tail slashing into the leader and line.  A 400 pound thresher is 14 or 15 feet long, so an even heavier fish would have been long enough to reach—and abrade—the line above the leader.

At the same time, the tail wrap forced my angler to bring the shark up backwards, slowing down the tempo of the fight, and giving the fish the opportunity to further weaken the line with its tail, because yes, the “head shakes” continued.

Under the circumstances, the end was probably inevitable; we never expected a fish that large, and the 50-pound gear we were fishing was just not enough to get the job done.  We might have had a chance to bring the fish boatside, but the tail wrap sealed our fate.

The angler, on the other hand, was more than up to the task.  He stood against the pull of the fish, and the 20 pounds of drag, for nearly five hours, never taking any sort of a break, and never even suggesting that he might give up the fight.  He plucked the rod out of the holder immediately upon the strike, and held onto it until the end.

He was exhausted and hurting—still hurting a couple days after the fight—but would have gone on if the fish had allowed.

It was his first really big fish, his first really disheartening loss, his first experience with a fish that left him completely wrung out and sore.  I fear that I might have done him a wrong, opening the door on a world that will hold him captive for the next 40  or 50 years.

I hope that I’m at the wheel, and he’s in my cockpit, when his next truly big fish comes along.  Should that scene play out, I can’t know how it might end, but I already know that one thing will be true:

He will not rest his rod on the rail.

 

 

 

 

:

 

 

 

Thursday, July 4, 2024

WHY REGULATE RECREATIONAL FISHERIES?

 



Photo: In a different era of fishing technology

When I was young, marine recreational fisheries, at least in the northeast, were virtually unregulated. There was a 16-inch (fork length) minimum size for striped bass that was in place throughout the region, but other than that, anglers could take as many fish as they wanted, regardless of size, at any time of the year.

Anglers could even sell their fish if they wanted to, without any license and without worrying about sizes or quotas. The only exception to that was, once again, striped bass, which could not be legally sold in Connecticut, although commercial bass fisheries thrived in neighboring states.

In February 1962, my parents took me to Florida for the first time, and both my father and I were surprised to see how many of that state’s saltwater fish were governed by minimum sizes.

Of course, in the early 1960s, the most common fishing boat on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound was probably a 14-foot Old Town rowboat, that was made out of wood and powered by a 5 or maybe a 7 ½ horsepower outboard. There were a few fiberglass runabouts showing up at the docks, and a fair number of somewhat larger wooden boats powered by small inboard engines, but generally speaking, anglers’ boats at that time were small, wooden, and slow. Electronics, other than the occasional “ship-to-shore” radio, were virtually unknown.

Fishing tackle was equally crude. While monofilament lines were beginning to take over the market, the monofilaments available in the early 1960s tended to be springy, thick for their strength, and prone to “backlash,” or tangle when cast, causing many anglers to stick with braided nylon “squidding line,” braided Dacron, or even the rot-prone linen lines of an earlier generation. Salt-water rods tended to be thick and unresponsive, often cheaply made from solid fiberglass. Spinning reels were becoming more and more common, but most anglers still fished with older, revolving spool models.

 Fishermen usually didn’t venture far from their moorings. Where we lived, near the western end of Long Island Sound, it was about seven miles from the Connecticut coast to the Long Island shore, and most anglers saw that as too long a voyage to take on a regular basis. Few anglers regularly traveled more than a mile or two from the mouth of their harbor.

Yet, they caught fish. Winter flounder were abundant, and could be caught throughout the year. Tautog (we called them blackfish) haunted every offshore rockpile, and were particularly abundant during the spring and fall. During those years, anglers found scup, eels, snapper (juvenile) bluefish, smelt, and tomcod in abundance. Striped bass were there too, but the smaller, saltwater panfish were so abundant that most fishermen targeted them, and usually left the bass fishing up to the small group of anglers who specialized in stripers, and haunted the rocky shores of Long Island Sound in the deepest depths of the night.

There is no reliable data on fishing effort or landings back then, so it’s impossible to accurately compare landings from sixty years ago to what anglers are catching now, but having grown up in those times, I can confidently say that with respect to the most common species, catch per unit effort was significantly higher then than what it is now.

 The first somewhat reliable data on recreational fishing was released for the 1981 fishing year. That data showed that, in 1981, recreational fishermen on the Atlantic coast of the United States made over 87 million fishing trips, caught about 457 million fish—a little over five fish per trip—and took about 319 million of those fish home. While those numbers might seem high, 1981 actually marked a low point in recreational fishing effort; such effort jumped to over 101 million trips in 1982, and hasn’t fallen significantly below 100 million trips since.

The number of fish caught per trip, on the other hand, has gone the other way.

By 1990, angler trips had increased to over 104 million on the Atlantic Coast, but the number of fish caught fell to 358 million—just a little over 3 ½ fish per trip—while the number of fish retained by the region’s recreational fishermen dropped to 199 million.

It’s probably important to note that by 1981, and certainly by 1990, fishing boat technology had made very large strides forward. Fiberglass ruled the marketplace. Fast center-console outboards rigged with LORAN (a position-finding tool used in the same way as today’s GPS), depthfinders, and other electronics allowed even less affluent anglers to run long distances in search of declining populations of fish. By 1990, I was operating a 25-foot center console that could reach the fishing grounds of Hudson Canyon, 70 miles offshore, in less than 2 ½ hours.

It’s not hard to argue that the increase in recreational fishermen and recreational fishing effort, plus improved recreational fishing technology, combined with commercial landings, led to a decline in fish abundance, and in recreational landings.

In 1996, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in federal waters, was substantially amended by the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act which, for the first time, required that federal fishery managers prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks within a time certain. The Sustainable Fisheries Act marked a turning point in federal fisheries management, and led to the recovery of many formerly overfished stocks.

 Commercial harvest was easily constrained by implementing hard quotas and the implementation of limited entry programs, which regulated the number of commercial fisherman that might participate in a given fishery. However, similar measures were hard to impose on the recreational fishery, which has far more participants, is typically not required to report its catch, and continues to grow unchecked.

 By the year 2000, Atlantic coast anglers took about 132 million individual fishing trips. That figure increased to slightly over 159 million trips in 2010, when effort peaked, before falling back to nearly 136 million in 2020 and 137 million in 2021.

At the same time, angling technology has continued to evolve. The simple depthfinders of the 1980s, which etched out a picture of the ocean bottom beneath an angler’s boat on a roll of heat-sensitive paper, have been replaced by multi-frequency machines that, in their most advanced forms, can scan not only below a boat but 360 degrees around it as well. Some units are so precise that they allow an angler to present a bait or lure to an individual fish, and watch the fish’s reaction in real time.

 Instead of the relatively slow boats of the previous era, today’s anglers can buy fast center console sportfishermen powered by three or four large outboard engines, boats capable of cruising in excess of 40 knots that make it practical to fish spots over 100 miles away, yet return to port on the same day.

 While anglers once had to take the time to learn how to anchor a boat over a deep-water wreck or piece of hard-bottom structure, so that the boat wouldn’t swing off the piece and onto unproductive soft bottom, today they may purchase electric trolling motors that combine with a Global Positioning System receiver to maintain their boats over a productive location without ever needing to drop an anchor over the side.

 Such leaps in technology have made it easier for even average anglers to find and catch fish. When fishery managers propose regulations intended to constrain recreational landings, and maintain them at levels that are sustainable in the long term, they are often attacked by members of the recreational fishing industry and various “anglers’ rights” organizations, who claim that such regulations aren’t necessary, that recreational fishing is inherently different from commercial fishing, and that recreational regulations should be less prescriptive than those governing the commercial sector.

 Recreational fishermen often argue that fishery managers should be expending most of their effort regulating the commercial sector, because it kills far more fish than anglers do. Such argument is intuitively attractive, because it’s difficult to believe that someone fishing with a rod, a reel, and a couple of hooks might compete with the vast nets of commercial fishermen. Yet, in the case of many species, the facts demonstrate that it’s not true.

While commercial fishermen dominate the fisheries for certain species, such as menhaden and walleye pollock, where their catch is measured in the billions of pounds, when it comes to species that are avidly sought by recreational fishermen, anglers are often responsible for most of the landings.

 For example, in the case of striped bass, which have remained overfished since 2009, many anglers believe that elimination of the commercial fishery would put the stock on the road to recovery. Yet commercial fishermen are responsible for only 10 percent of all fishing mortality; anglers kill the other 90 percent of the bass.

 Similarly, anglers are responsible for about 84 percent of East Coast bluefish landings, as well as most of the release mortality, 75 percent of weakfish landings, and 96 percent of the landings of Atlantic cobia. A number of other fish exhibit similar patterns.

 A comparison of commercial and recreational landings in the New England and mid-Atlantic regions shows that, even for species of bottom fish that are often thought of as commercial species, recreational fishermen account for a majority of the landings, harvesting 62 percent of the black sea bass and 59 percent of the scup, percentages that, in both cases, are far in excess of the recreational sector’s allocation.

 It is thus clear that, in the case of many popular recreational species, recreational fishermen are responsible for the greatest share of the landings. So when anglers ask, “Why do we have such restrictive regulations?” the answer is clear.

Such regulations are necessary because anglers catch, and keep, a lot of fish, and because without effective regulations, tomorrow’s recreational fishermen would find themselves with little to catch when they ventured out onto the sea.

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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/