Sunday, December 28, 2014


Actor Woody Allen allegedly said “Showing up is 80 percent of life.”

In the fisheries management arena, it might be more accurate to say “Sticking around is 80 percent of succeeding.”

Because in our world, things usually don’t happen overnight.

Consider the striped bass. 

When the stock began to collapse in the mid-1970s, it took a very long time before concerned anglers could even convince fisheries managers that there was a problem.  Here in New York, an organization called Save our Stripers toiled long and hard to convince state authorities that the 16-inch size limit that had prevailed for years needed to be raised in order to better protect the fish. 

It took them until 1983 to get a bill to the governor’s desk, and there was a very real fear that Mario Cuomo would veto the legislation out of misguided concern for the health of the Fulton Fish Market and the commercial fishing fleet.  Fred Schwab, who was a hardcore striped bass angler and an inspiring advocate for striped bass conservation, spent much of the year up in Albany, trying to get the bill signed into law.  He had just about given up when he learned that Cuomo had decided to sign the legislation, giving New York a 24-inch size limit, which was then one of the biggest on he coast.

But Fred Schwab’s long grind was only beginning.

A complete moratorium on striped bass harvest still lay in the future, as did the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s adoption of Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which was the management measure generally credited with kick-starting the striper’s recovery.

I didn’t meet Fred until 1995, after ASMFC had declared the striped bass stock “recovered” and adopted Amendment 5 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which would allow significantly increased levels of exploitation.  He was still right in the middle of the fight, trying to convince New York regulators to take a conservative approach to striped bass harvest, and not to allow anglers to kill two 28-inch fish every time they go out.  Party boats, charter boats and tackle shops all supported the bigger kill, and in the end New York adopted a cut-the-baby-in-half sort of approach, giving the for-hires two 28-inch fish, while everyone else could only land one.

Striped bass anglers were generally outraged, but after a couple of years that outrage turned to acceptance, and only a few of us continued to work for the striper.  Any hope of making a difference was pretty well done, because anglers attention spans had run out, and no one attended the hearings any more.

Half a dozen years later, ASMFC came out with yet another Amendment to the Management Plan, and the anglers returned—for a while.  This time, they came together under the slogan “Bring back the BIG bass,” a response to the decline in the size of the stripers since Amendment 5’s 2 @ 28” was adopted by most of the states.  

It was probably a Quixotic effort; there was no question that the striped bass population was still at healthy levels of abundance, and to ask that target fishing mortality levels be reduced from Ftarget=0.31 to something below 0.25—perhaps even below 0.20—in order to improve the age and size structure of the stock was just a couple of steps too far for managers more used to dealing with collapsed stocks and delayed rebuilding to take.

So once again there was a bustle of angler activity, and once again, everyone went away, disappointed and disillusioned, when ASMFC failed to heed their call.

Once again, there was insufficient angler infrastructure in place in most of the states to get anything meaningful done, and anglers were too impatient to build such infrastructure in preparation for the next chance to do good.

That chance came over a decade later—in this year that has almost reached its end—after a benchmark stock assessment informed managers that Ftarget should be reduced to 0.180.

The assessment vindicated our position on Amendment 6, that Ftarget=0.30 was far too high (in fact, it lead to overfishing the stock, as we now know that the overfishing occurs when F>0.219).  And once again, anglers came together from up and down the coast to fight for the health of the striped bass stock.

This time, armed with good science, they made progress.  

New, lower fishing mortality reference points were adopted, as was a 25% cut in landings.  But the foes of striped bass conservation never give up, and so fought a retrograde battle in which they argued that for-hire vessels—and maybe all anglers—should not be bound by the one 28-inch fish allowed by ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, but rather should be granted “conservation equivalent” regulations that would permit each angler to kill two bass.

There is a very good chance that the for-hires are going to get their way, and there is a real possibility that some states—including New York—might adopt a 2-fish bag for everyone.

That will surely make anglers angry.  They did everything right this time, turning out at public hearings and making it clear that the public overwhelmingly prefers a one-fish bag limit.

So the big question is, if the regulators effectively slap the anglers in the face, ignore their testimony and allow a two-fish bag, how will anglers react?

Will they do what they’ve done in the past and retreat, grumbling, to their lairs, to emerge a five or a dozen years later, when a new issue captures their attention?  Or will they channel their anger to start preparing for the next fight now, when there is time to pull together the contacts and the resources needed to actually win?

Because more fights are coming, perhaps sooner than we expect.

If we can convince the Striped Bass Management Board to order an interim stock assessment after the 2015 season, that assessment will likely find that the stock is overfished.  If that is the case, it will trip one of the Management Triggers in Amendment 6 and require the stock to be rebuilt to target levels in no more than 10 years.

Even if that effort fails, a new benchmark assessment will be done in 2018, and we need to be ready to respond to its findings.

Losing a management battle is discouraging.  I know that.  I’ve been there plenty of times.

But the key to winning such battles isn’t just “showing up.”  

You win by sticking around, learning from your losses and figuring out how to win the next time.

You can be sure that the party boats and the six-pack charters aren’t going anywhere.  They’ll be at every meeting and hearing, doing everything they can to maintain their kill.

We’re making a very big mistake if we’re not also there, to speak for the striper.

Friday, December 26, 2014


One of the continuing themes in fisheries management this year was the notion of a “Recreational Fishing Policy”.

It’s another one of those ideas given birth down in the Gulf of Mexico, where anglers keep feeling picked on, that risks creating “collateral damage” among anglers everywhere else on the coast.

The basic premise of the push for a recreational policy is that the National Marine Fisheries Service manages fish for the benefit of commercial fishermen (I think we might find more than a couple of folks up in New England who disagree with that, but…) and doesn’t understand how to manage recreational fisheries. 

As evidence, they point to the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico where the big, bad federal government won’t allow anglers to overfish the red snapper stock or, as an alternative, turn the entire fishery over to the recreational anglers so that they can kill every red snapper that the biologists will allow.

Bill Bird, Chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association’s national Government Relations Committee, noted in public comment to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council that

“…we question the timing of an effort that represents such a significant shift in recreational fisheries management in the middle of NMFS’ attempt to craft the nation’s first Recreational Saltwater Fisheries Policy.  It is highly ironic that passage of Amendment 40 will severely limit the ability of the Council or NMFS to meaningfully implement any such policy for the Gulf recreational red snapper fishery, which is virtually the sole impetus for the creation of the policy in the first place  [emphasis added].”
The fact that most of America’s anglers probably don’t catch a single red snapper in any given year—and don’t particularly want to—doesn’t matter to these folks.  They’re using red snapper to inform a policy that will impact all of us, whether we prefer to fish for striped bass, scup, summer flounder, king mackerel, kelp bass or king salmon. 

Thus, it’s probably in our interest to take one last look at what is being proposed and perhaps make some comments that might help to clean up some of the rough spots.

Let’s start out with the fact that the policy includes good things which, if put into effect, will benefit both anglers and the fish we pursue.  However, we also have to be cognizant of the fact that the recreational fishing industry has worked pretty hard to get what it wants into the policy, and as a result, a few things got in there that are based on a questionable premise.

The trick then, for anglers, is to separate those policy elements that will benefit both fish and fishermen from the padding that the industry put in there to benefit themselves.

For example, we should first insist on the truth.

That gets stretched quite a bit by a couple of statements, one of which notes that

“Saltwater recreational fishing is a traditional, important and expanding thread in the social, cultural, and economic fabric of coastal communities in the United States.  [emphasis added]”
I’ll grant NMFS the “traditional” and “important” parts, but as to “expanding”, well, that just isn’t so, no matter how many folks were crawling over the rocks out at Montauk last fall, or how many stood shoulder to shoulder down at Hatteras when the red drum came in.

That means that the statement that

“…an increasing number of people are pursuing recreational opportunities afforded by this nation’s expansive coastal and ocean resources”
is equally untrue, if “recreational opportunities” is defined to mean “recreational fishing.”

The data on recreational fishing effort over the last ten years pretty much say it all.

Back in 2004, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, anglers throughout the United States made about 79 million individual fishing trips (note that such number is actually low, as it does not include trips made in Alaska, California, Oregon, Texas or Washington, which do not participate in NMFS’ data collection program; however, since information from those states will be consistently absent from this discussion, the trends discussed remain valid).

By 2013, the number of annual trips had dropped to roughly 64 million, a reduction of 19%.  The drop was even sharper in many regions.  For ten years between 2004 and 2013, effort dropped by 29% in the North Atlantic, 24% in the Mid-Atlantic, 22% in the South Atlantic, 48% in Hawaii and 51% in the Caribbean. 

In all of those places, angling effort has been steadily trending down over the years.

Only the Gulf of Mexico seemed to buck the trend somewhat (remember what I wrote about the Gulf fishermen trying to shape this policy to reflect their reality, rather than that of the rest of us?).  There, anglers made about 26 million trips in 2004 and 25 million trips in 2013, which also appears to reflect a small decline, but this is one of those cases where two terminal years don’t really tell the right story or reflect dominant trends.

Both 2004 and 2013 appear to be outliers, in which Gulf effort was higher than the norm.  

Over the entire 10-year period, anglers averaged about 23.67 million trips, not very different from the 23.66 million trips that they averaged in most recent three years, 2010-2013.  So, unless you believe that 2013 was the start of a new upward trend, angler effort in the Gulf of Mexico over the past decade was flat.

Saying that angling is “expanding” or “increasing” is a factual error that needs to be fixed, but there are true policy problems that need fixing, too.

The first appears in the statement that

“the goals of this policy are to promote recreational fishing for the cultural, social and economic benefit of the nation…  [emphasis added]”
If it said, to “manage recreational fishing” for the greatest national benefit, I’d be the first one on board, but “promote” is a very different thing.

It’s just not NMFS’ job to spend taxpayer dollars to “promote” any particular industry, including those that cater to saltwater anglers.  The American Sportfishing Association does that job just fine.

It’s also dangerous to put NMFS in a position where it is responsible for both regulating anglers and promoting angling.  

It’s a no-win position for the agency, which could easily get whipsawed between its obligation to prevent overfishing and recover fish stocks (although we don’t like to admit it, anglers can overfish and, at times, be an obstacle to recovery) and its proposed job of promoting recreational fishing (even, presumably, when stocks are down).

We’ve seen that happen when NMFS tries to both promote and regulate the commercial fishing folks, and there’s really no reason to go down such a bad road again…

The policy reassures us that

“..the goals of this policy are to promote recreational fishing…through science-based conservation and management…”
and includes a statement that

“NMFS will…support ecosystem conservation and enhancement…”
both of which are good.

But the Devil is always in the details, and as you read through the policy, you realize that they guy in the red suit, with horns on his head and pitchfork in hand, has authored some of the details here.

For example, the Policy describes recreational fishing as fishing “for sport or pleasure,” with the anglers

“…retaining, consuming, sharing or releasing their catches…  [emphasis added]”
Yet it’s hard to understand why the word “retaining” is necessary, since “consuming” and “sharing” pretty well describe the only things that one can do with a dead fish, outside of selling it (which recreational fishermen, by definition, can’t do) or using it as fertilizer, which is something that the Policy certainly shouldn’t encourage.

The Policy’s specific inclusion of “tournaments” within the definition of recreational fishing just enhances that concern, because we all know that there are still a lot of big-money “dumpster tournaments” out there, in which fish—usually big apex predators such as sharks and marlin—are killed and weighed in for prizes; after such events are over, the winners drive away with their checks and the fish are driven away to a landfill, if they’re not just dumped back at sea.

Such wasteful events are a relic of the last century, and have no place in this one; no rational national recreational fishing policy should even suggest that such waste is justified.

So, as far as I’m concerned, the references to “retaining” and “tournaments” should both go away.  “[C]onsuming, sharing or releasing” pretty well cover the universe of acceptable use.  If you can conduct a tournament within those parameters, fine.  If you can't...

NMFS should also rethink the notion that the

“easing of regulatory fishery restrictions when conservation goals are achieved”
is a worthwhile Policy goal.

Sure, it’s nice if it can be done, and the measures needed to maintain a fishery at sustainable levels are usually not as strict as those needed to rebuild it, but that’s not always the case.  

The black sea bass fishery in the Mid-Atlantic is a prime case in point.  The stock is fully rebuilt and the fish are very abundant; in fact, they’re so abundant that anglers aren’t having any trouble catching them, and as a result are overfishing badly.  Next year, it appears that regulations will actually have to be tightened

And such overfishing leads to the next concern, the promotion

“…of sustainable, safe aquaculture to support recreational fisheries…”
In plain English, that means hatcheries, and that’s not a good thing.

I touched on them in detail in an earlier blog, entitled “Seductive—but not Satisfactory.”

The bottom line is that hatcheries are, for the most part, a sign of failed fishery management policies.  They give managers an opportunity to let people overfish stocks with a clear conscience, as they know that an endless supply of “rubber fish” produced in a tank will be provided to replace what the anglers remove.  

However, there is a good body of research which suggests that hatchery fish are not as fit to survive as their naturally spawned counterparts, and if enough such fish are dumped into the water, can harm the genetic makeup of the natural population. 

Reducing our fish’s fitness to survive isn’t something that the Policy should support.

The final problems with the Policy lie in its call for

“innovative solutions to evolving science, management and environmental challenges through partnerships by supporting investigation and development of new …data collection techniques (e.g., electronic catch reporting)…”
as well as

“public-private collaboration (e.g., cooperative research and citizen science activities)…”
That’s just asking for trouble.

So far, NMFS’ efforts in the direction of “electronic catch reporting” have been notably unimpressive.

For example, anglers are supposed to report every Atlantic bluefin tuna that they land within 24 hours.  However, when I spoke with an employee of NMFS’ Highly Migratory Fisheries unit at the Recreational Fishing Summit down in Alexandria, Virginia last April, he lamented that reporting rates languished at around 20%--anglers who landed 4 out of 5 bluefin tuna fail to comply with the law.  That doesn’t bode well for electronic reporting by anglers.

It’s not clear that for-hire vessels will do any better.

Right now, federally-permitted for-hire vessels in the Mid-Atlantic summer flounder, scup and black sea bass fishery are required to file vessel trip reports, but there is reason to question the information provided.

For example, when passengers of a New Jersey party boat landed over 800 out-of-season black sea bass a few years ago, the captain told a reporter that

“I didn’t think it was that many.  And I’m not getting paid by the State of New Jersey to take fish out of people’s buckets.”
With comments such as those, it’s easy to guess that his vessel trip reports might be lacking in accuracy.

And while those passengers were taking illegal fish, the captain appears to have acted within the law.  When you consider the number of for-hire boats that don’t do everything by the book, such as those out in Montauk, New York who conducted “sushi cruises,” allowing their fares to kill and eat undersized summer flounder right on the boat, or a Sheepshead Bay boat that allows its passengers

 (and please note that these are only two examples of blatant violations; I could have bored you with plenty more if I thought that it would have served any purpose), it’s a pretty fair bet that many vessel trip reports don’t bear much resemblance to reality, and will not improve the fisheries management process.

Similar concerns surround the concepts of “cooperative research” and “citizen science”.

Any time that someone offers to “help” NMFS conduct research, our first reaction should be to question why.  

Maybe they are merely scientists, seeking to further their professional reputations by conducting research that will expand our knowledge about the fish stocks that swim off our shores.

But there is a good chance that they have more selfish motives.

Perhaps they are state employees seeking to impeach NMFS’ data, in order to get a few more fish for local residents, as we have seen happen in Alabama’s red snapper fishery.  

Maybe they will be members of the fishing industry trying to find ways for their customers to increase their kill, as we’ve seen with summer flounder.

But we can be pretty sure that what we’ll be seeing is agenda-driven research, and not the sort of objective research that should be used to manage America’s fisheries.

That shouldn’t be part of the Policy, either.

So what should be a part of a recreational fishing policy?

In my view, recognition that salt water fish are a public resource, which should be managed in a way that benefits the public as a whole, and not just particular industries.  

That should be coupled with recognition of the fact that recreational fishing is just that—recreation—and that the best recreational experiences occur when fish are abundant and fishing is fun.  Recreational fishing is not and should never be a grim grind aimed at filling the fish box—although eating some of one’s catch is a pleasure that should never be denied.

The way to provide a quality recreational experience is through good, objective science, using data that meets the highest scientific and statistical standards, obtained through reliable and verifiable sources rather than from folks with their own ax to grind.  That science must then be used to craft regulations that place the highest priority on the long-term health of fish stocks, for everything else—all economic, social and recreational benefits—depend on the fish being there.

Fishing in an empty ocean is not very much fun.

But that’s only my view.  I’m sure you have your own.
And if you do, you should let NMFS know what it is, by going to, clicking on the links and filling out the form.

You have until December 31 to do it.

This weekend would be a good time.

Sunday, December 21, 2014


The debate over striped bass regulations in New York has taken an interesting turn.

In September, close to 200 people, including anglers, owners and operators of for-hire vessels and commercial fishermen, attended a hearing held by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to address the question of conserving striped bass by reducing the harvest.

As would be expected in a crowd of that size, opinions differed, but among recreational fishermen, who provided the bulk of the comments, the recommendation was just about unanimous:  Regulators should impose a 1-fish bag limit, and a minimum size of somewhere between 28 and 32 inches.  The majority of those anglers preferred the higher minimum size.

When comments were tallied up and down the coast, the results were much the same, with an overwhelming majority of anglers preferring a one-fish bag.

In fact, the angling community was pretty well united.  The only people to break up that unity were some members (but certainly not all) of the for-hire community, who felt that they could bring in a lot more money if their customers could kill two fish, not one.

But those for-hire folks comprised a very small portion of the recreational comments.

Yet, when New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council met in November, the debate took an interesting turn.  Most of the Council members, including most of those representing the recreational community, voted to encourage representatives of the Department of Environmental Conservation to investigate adopting the two-fish bag limit that none of the anglers who testified wanted.

And they suggested investigating such a limit not just for the for-hires, but for everyone.

When the vote came, only two of the members present voted against that 2-fish option.

That got a lot of anglers pretty upset.

Pretty soon the conversation got a little belligerent, and fingers got pointed around.

No MRAC member connected with the fishing or boating industry fought for the one-fish bag limit; some anglers, feeling disenfranchised, wrote to Governor Cuomo, complaining that the system was rigged in favor of industry and that anglers were entitled to more representation.  

A lot more anglers didn’t send letters, but felt the same way.

The issue was one as old as representative government—the question of conflict of interests, and who a person on a panel such as MRAC, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission or a federal fisheries management council actually represents. 

Do they bring only their own views to the table, do they represent their particular industry or sector or should they be representatives of the overall public interest?  What role should public comment play?  And who, if anyone, represents the fish themselves?

As the MRAC debate heated up in cyberspace, there were a lot of interesting points made. 

For example, if you’ve been an avid angler for all of your life, but also own a waterfront business, do you represent anglers or industry?  And can you be expected to separate one side of yourself from the other when those two interests collide?

One MRAC member argued that, while the public is allowed to comment on issues, MRAC members are not and should not feel bound by such comments’ direction.  Yet the same member regularly consults with the for-hire fleet to obtain their consensus on proposed regulations, etc., and lets those regulations guide his vote at the meetings, just as another member strives to poll tackle shops to determine which regulations they would prefer.

So is it right for the sentiments of the for-hire fleet and the tackle shops to influence votes, while the preferences of the public are ignored?

Looking to Section 13-0350 of New York State’s Environmental Conservation Law, which created MRAC reveals that there is language that could support both sides of the debate.  Clearly, the state was concerned with the commercial and recreational fishing industries when it created MRAC, for the statute contains a statement of legislative intent that reads

“The legislature hereby finds and declares that the finfish and shellfish industry in this state plays a vital  part  in the  economy  of  the  state  in  general  and the Long Island region in particular.  By establishing the marine resources advisory council the  legislature  publicly declares   its   support  for  the  further  development  and advancement of such industry…”

At the same time, the statute doesn’t require that MRAC members be affiliated with industry, nor does it summarily bar industry members, merely requiring NRAC be composed of

“representative of recreational users of marine resources and…representative of commercial users of marine resources.

Whether “users” is intended to mean merely fishermen—commercial or recreational—is an interesting question, since that statute requires 

“Persons designated or appointed to the advisory council shall have demonstrated a  long-standing  interest,  knowledge  and  experience  in commercial or recreational harvesting of marine resources.  [emphasis added]”

The fact that "harvest" is specified raises a big question about the appropriateness of appointing, for example, a tackle shop owner, although permitting recreational industry members to sit on the council certainly provides additional input to regulators.

In the end, it may not matter too much.  While some MRAC votes may favor the business interests of MRAC members or the industries to which they belong, and may to some people have, as they say in my profession, “an appearance of impropriety,” MRAC’s lack of rulemaking ability minimizes any impact that such conflicts might have.

But what about conflicts of interest of members of bodies that actually write the fishery management plans—the federal fishery management councils and ASMFC?

You might be distressed to learn that in the case of such bodies, the conflict of interests rules are not very restrictive.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs conflict of interests on federal fishery management councils, merely states that

“A Council decision shall be considered to have a significant and predictable effect on a financial interest if there is a close causal link between the Council decision and an expected and substantially disproportionate benefit to the financial interest of the affected individual relative to the financial interests of other participants in the same gear type or sector of the fishery.”
Thus, a council member would be prohibited from voting himself a sweetheart deal that would provide a financial benefit not shared by other fishermen.  However, there is absolutely nothing that would prevent a groundfisherman  who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council from voting for measures that provide him—and every other groundfisherman in New England—a short term economic benefit even if it imperils the health of the stock in the long term.

In fact, folks on the New England Council have been doing just that for well over three decades…

At ASMFC, its Compact and Rules & Regulations states that

“No Commissioner shall have a direct or indirect financial interest that conflicts with the fair and impartial conduct of official duties.”
That sounds pretty good.

Under such a situation, a waterman down in Chesapeake Bay seemingly couldn’t fight needed striped bass conservation measures that might decrease his income, a lobsterman up in Massachusetts couldn’t oppose a science-based moratorium on lobster harvest a charter boat captain in New Jersey couldn’t push for bag and size limits that he felt would benefit his business, but weren’t wanted by the general public.

Unfortunately, ASMFC expanded on the rule in its Policy on Commissioner Financial Disclosure and Conflict of Interest, and so rendered it pretty much useless.

Under the Policy,

“A conflict of interest exists when a Legislative Commissioner, Governor Appointee, or proxy:
1.       Has greater than10 percent interest in the total harvest of the fishery under consideration or management by the Commission;
2.       Has greater than 10 percent interest in the marketing or processing of the total harvest of the fishery under consideration or management by the Commission;
3.       Has full or partial ownership of more than 10 percent of the vessels using the same gear type within the fishery under consideration or management by the Commission; or
4.       Is an employee or representative of a harvesting entity that harvests greater than 10 percent of the fishery under consideration or management by the Commission.  This includes, but is not limited to, fishery association employees, lobbyists, and industry representatives.”
Once again, we end up with a definition that lets just about everyone, from the representative of a local party boat association to the guy pound netting menhaden in some inshore bay, try to shape fishery management plans to best fit his bank account with impunity, no matter how badly such efforts might harm the public interest in healthy fish stocks.

And that’s true because the Policy is focused on the notion that “big is bad” and views “big” on an objective basis that looks at an entire fishery.

But that approach is wrong.

If we are to see management plans designed to protect the public interest, rather than the interests of the folks drafting the plans, we need to concentrate on the fisherman instead.

Because fishermen aren’t objective.  They approach management plans from a very subjective viewpoint that grows directly out of their businesses.

Thus, a fisherman may only harvest a very small percentage of the total landings for any species.  But if that species accounts for a big percentage of that fisherman’s income, and he sits on a Council or ASMFC, you can pretty well be that he will be more interested in maintaining a healthy cash flow, rather than a healthy fish stock.

When you’re worried about paying the bills next month, you’re not too concerned about rebuilding the codfish, or the striped bass, within the next decade.

And decisions made, and votes cast, by folks with those kinds of worries have been setting back fisheries management efforts since the first such efforts were made.

It is long past time for a new paradigm.

A conflict of interests occurs any time “a direct or indirect financial interest…conflicts with the fair and impartial conduct of official duties.”

If anyone worries that a proposed conservation or management measure would, if passed, have an adverse impact on their income, they must be barred from casting a vote that reflects such concern.

If they did, such a vote would not be “impartial.”

Of course, intent is hard to quantify, so objective standards would probably be needed.  In that case, something like permitting a panel member to engage in discussions, but barring them from making any motion or voting on an matter affecting a species, if the harvest of that species provides at least 25% of their income, would be a good place to start.

At that point, the long-term health of the fish stocks, rather than short-term economic concerns, would drive the decisions.

And that would be a very good thing.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


If you go to any fisheries management meetings at all, you’ve heard the argument.

When it comes to regulations, states must make sure that their regulations, at least those governing the for-hire fleet, are no more restrictive than those in force elsewhere or. at least, in the general vicinity.

If any state dares to protect its fish stocks, and adopts regulations that are more conservative than those of its neighbors, the for-hires complain, insisting that anglers will flock to the places where bigger kills are allowed.

It sounds plausible, and it drives a lot of states’ policies.

Right now, here in New York, the for-hire fleet is demanding two striped bass, instead of the one 28-inch fish that ASMFC originally decided upon.  They argue  that Rhode Island will be giving its fleet two stripers, and if New York does not follow suit, all of their clients will flow to Rhode Island.

But is that really true?  Or is it merely an urban legend in the fishing community that has led a lot of well-meaning managers to make bad decisions?

It’s entirely possible—in fact, it’s extremely likely—that some anglers will choose to fish where the regulations allow a big kill, and eschew ports closer to home. 

But do such anglers make up a significant proportion of the fishing public, or are they the exception to a very different rule?

This year, we have an opportunity to take a look at that question.

The inquiry isn’t based on striped bass, but summer flounder, a fish that is far more of a “meat” fish than the striper, which is often sought for just the experience. Thus, if regulations do make a difference in where anglers choose to go fishing, we should see it in the fluke fishery.

For much of the recent past, summer flounder were subject to wildly divergent regulations even in adjacent states.  Probably no neighboring states’ regulations differed more than those of New York and New Jersey; in most years, New York had the most stringent regulations on the coast, and New Jersey the most liberal.

Such widely differing regulations, imposed on boats that sometimes fished within sight of one another, caused a lot of anger and bitterness among New York’s anglers, who felt that they were bearing the brunt of a conservation burden that would be better shared by all.  

They caused even more angler and bitterness among New York’s for-hire fleet, which felt that it was at a severe competitive disadvantage, losing a lot of business to boats from New Jersey.

Finally, in 2014, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted a regional management system, that lumped Connecticut, New York and New Jersey into the same region, and required them to have the same size limit, bag limit and season length (New Jersey started and ended its season a week later than the other states, but otherwise had the same regulations).

New York’s for-hire fleet was pleased, feeling that they were, at last, on common ground with their neighbors, and would win back some business as a result.  New Jersey’s fleet, on the other hand, was unhappy, and now made the same argument that New York’s made before—that they’d be losing business to neighboring Delaware, which had a size limit two inches smaller.

So, if the industry’s arguments were right, we’d expect to see some significant effort shift in 2014 fishing effort.  New York anglers would be expected to fish close to home, since there was no longer any advantage in making the drive to New Jersey, while fluke fishermen from southern New Jersey, and probably from Pennsylvania, too, would abandon the Garden State and flock to the south side of Delaware Bay, where they had a better chance of keeping a bucketful.

If that happened, the Marine Recreational Information Program’s effort data should show increased fluke trips in New York and Delaware, while fluke trips out of New Jersey declined.

That just didn’t happen.

Instead, the data showed that summer flounder trips actually increased in all three states; New York, New Jersey and Delaware anglers all made more trips targeting fluke this season than they did in 2013.  And in terms of raw numbers, New Jersey showed the greatest increase of all, a net gain of 301,370 trips (a 20% increase over 2013), as opposed to increases of 109,174 trips (10%) in New York and 39,833 trips (29%) in Delaware.

So far, there’s nothing to indicate that anglers switched their fishing areas to follow the most favorable regulations, but there’s nothing to say that they didn’t, either.  Since there were more directed summer flounder trips made in each of the three states, it’s at least possible that an increase in the number of people fishing masked a movement of anglers from state to state.

So the next thing that I looked at was the change in the percentage of trips in each state that targeted fluke.  If anglers were truly moving to follow the rules, it would be logical to expect that 2014 would see a higher percentage of anglers chasing fluke in the states with the more favorable regulations, and a lower percentage in states losing summer flounder anglers to their neighbors.

But that didn’t happen either.

Instead, once again, we see the percentage of trips made for summer flounder (obtained by dividing the number of trips targeting summer flounder by total number of trips made in each state from May through October) going up in all three states.  Summer flounder trips increased in New York by 3.4%, in New Jersey by 2.0% and in Delaware by 3.6%.  (It should be noted that such increases should not be taken as absolute numbers, as the Percent Standard Error in the estimate is large enough—ranging from 9.8% to 11.6%--that the most you can say is that, statistically, 2014 may have seen no change at all.)

So far, no signs of change in that calculation, either.

But maybe, we’re looking at the wrong numbers.  I keep my boat on the South Shore of New York, and am not likely to move it elsewhere just to kill a couple more fish.

Maybe we should really be looking at the for-hire anglers, who aren’t anchored to one boat or marina, but are free to take their business to whatever boat and port they happen to like at the time.

If we look at those numbers, we find—about the same thing, although the PSEs are higher (ranging from 15.9% to 30.6%), which means that the actual figures might vary by quite a bit. 

Looking only at party and charter boat trips targeting summer flounder in those three states, we see a big increase in New York, a smaller increase in New Jersey and a small decrease in Delaware.  So it’s pretty clear that, based on the numbers, the boats down in south Jersey, who want to split the state in half, so that they can fish under regulations similar to Delaware’s, don’t have a leg to stand on. 

Any argument that the south Jersey anglers might have made is further undercut by the fact that the percentage of Delaware for-hire trips targeting summer flounder seems to have dropped significantly, from 30% to less than 23%, just the opposite of what should happen if there were an influx of flujke anglers who used to fish in New Jersey waters (but remember the big PSEs; it’s possible that, when error is considered, the Delaware figures did not change at all—in which case, there would still be no sign of New Jersey anglers shifting ports).

Making the case for or against New York anglers “coming home”—or not—is quite a bit harder than arguing that New Jersey anglers never did go to Delaware.  The number of for-hire fluke trips estimated to have been taken in New York in 2014 allegedly tripled over the number taken the year before, although the overall number of for-hire trips remained, statistically, flat.  The percentage of all for-hire trips targeting fluke supposedly jumped from 20% to 55% of all trips made between May and October.

At the same time, the number of for-hire summer flounder trips down in New Jersey increased by about 67%, which is solid, but nowhere near as high as New York’s increase.  

The percentage of for-hire trips targeting summer flounder 
increased by about one-third, from 33% to 44%, while the overall number of for-hire trips also appear to have increased a bit.

So the question is whether New Jersey could have lost New York fluke anglers, who returned to home waters once the two states adopted the same bag and size limits, and still see increases in both the number of for-hire fluke trips and the percentage of for-hire trips targeting summer flounder. 

Or was the big jump in the New York directed effort figure merely an artifact of big PSEs?

I suppose that if I was crunching these numbers for the Discovery Channel’s show Mythbusters, I’d have to say this:

The argument that New York anglers never shifted effort to New Jersey to take advantage of that states liberal fluke rules, or else did go to Jersey and didn’t come back last year when both atates’ rules were the same is “PLAUSIBLE.”
And the argument that New Jersey lost for-hire anglers to Delaware because of the difference in size limits is pretty clearly “BUSTED.”
But here in the fisheries management world, we know that things are never so easy.

You can’t take just a few bits of data and draw broad conclusions, although folks try to do so all of the time.

However, the back-of-the envelope numbers that I set forth above certainly open up an important topic for further inquiry, that deserves some real statistical analysis by qualified experts, to find out what, in fact, may be true.

Of course, that means that the for-hires’ claims that states must engage in a race to the bottom, in which every state ends up letting folks to kill too many fish just to level the competitive playing field, should also be rejected unless statistics prove that it’s right.

Certainly, such claims shouldn’t form a basis for policy, no matter how loud their supporters might be.  For policy should be founded on facts, and not urban legends.

That’s true with summer flounder down in southern New Jersey.

And it’s true with striped bass here in New York as well, despite anything that Rhode Island and New Jersey might do.