Thursday, January 30, 2014


Stripers Forever is one of those organizations that leaves me a little conflicted.

On one hand, I have to admire the dedication of its leadership, and can only agree with its goal of ensuring the long-term health of the striped bass stock.  On the other hand, its emphasis on a single, politically unrealistic approach to striped bass management—eliminating the commercial fishery—and its mixed message of support for both conservation measures and relaxed recreational regulations (“the minimum legal size for anglers is 28”, which puts a bass for dinner out of reach for the great majority of rod and reel fishermen”) tends to turn me off.
However, Stripers Forever’s recent comments on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Five-Year Strategic Plan ( were right on the money and demonstrate that the organization “gets it” when it comes to the big-picture issue.
The “Executive Summary” of Stripers’ Forever’s comments includes a number of points.  However, the first point really says it all, and captures ASMFC’s core failing:
“There is no statement endorsing the health and abundance of our marine resources as the most important management priority.  The current management decisions reflect a risky bias toward Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) to the exclusion of a true conservation ethic.”
The remainder of the comments merely flesh out a truth that is all too clear to anyone who has spent much time following the decision-making process at ASMFC—that the restoration and conservation of living marine resources takes a second seat to economic exploitation.
I have little doubt that those who attempt to discredit Stripers Forever’s comments will quibble with the details.  For example, there are some ASMFC management plans—including the plan for striped bass—which adopt a target mortality rate thought to be well below MSY.  But there are other cases—tautog is one which immediately comes to mind—in which harvest was permitted to exceed MSY for well over a decade.
Others might take issue with Stripers Forever’s anti-commercial fishing bias, and its repeated claims that ASMFC doesn’t give adequate regard to the economic importance of recreational fisheries.  Such objections would be justified, for most ASMFC commissioners clearly want both the commercial and recreational industries to be profitable.  They care so much about the health and profitability of industry that they justify Stripers Forever’s key contentions:  The health and abundance of marine resources is not ASMFC’s most important management priority, and the Commission does not demonstrate anything resembling a true conservation ethic.
Stripers Forever is also correct when it notes that the typical ASMFC management plan has “no provision for risk reduction in the face of incomplete data.”  Instead of sharply restricting, or even prohibiting, harvest of troubled stocks such as American shad, river herring, southern New England lobster or northern shrimp (or American eel, southern New England winter flounder, weakfish or, for fully 15 years, tautog) to prevent further decline, ASMFC used uncertain or incomplete data as an excuse for delay and continued exploitation, and in doing so rendered the recovery of such stocks a far more difficult task than it might otherwise have been.
The Commission can get away with that because, as Stripers Forever also notes,
“…it isn’t apparent that ASMFC is ever accountable for anything.  Members may be accountable to their home jurisdictions, but, as a regulatory body…there appears to be no level at which ASMFC is accountable.  Are there penalties or sanctions of some sort if a stock collapses under ASMFC management?  No…”
ASMFC’s lack of institutional  accountability was confirmed in the federal Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit) decision in New York v. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 609 F.3d 524 (2010), in which the court found that ASMFC was neither a federal agency nor a “quasi-agency,” and that its decisions were thus not subject to court review pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act.  And commissioners’ accountability to constituents in their home states assures that such commissioners will elevate parochial interests—most particularly near-term economic interests—above the common good and the long-term health of the stock.
Thus, even though ASMFC’s staff includes a host of very competent fisheries scientists—I have known many of them over the years, and can say without reservation that all of them had a sincere desire to do the right thing—the Commission’s efforts to restore depleted stocks has largely been a dismal failure.  The recovery of the striped bass was the Commission’s singular success, and that occurred nearly twenty years ago (even there, success may be slipping away, as a shrinking biomass hovers just above the overfishing threshold).
That is because the biologists on ASMFC’s staff do not make the decisions.  As is usually the case in salt water fisheries management, the actual decisions are made by a combination of state managers and the people who actually harvest the resource.
That means that salt water fisheries are managed very differently from deer or ducks, squirrel or sunfish—or, in fact, any other sort of living resource.  In those cases, with some limited exceptions in a few states, decisions on how many animals can be harvested are made by trained biologists, who may receive advice from various user groups but ultimately have the sole responsibility for setting seasons, bag limits and caps on harvest.
Giving state fisheries managers and representatives of the fishing community significant control over salt water fisheries management works at the federal level, because the Magnuson Act makes “the health and abundance of our marine resources…the most important management priority,” and legislatively creates a “conservation ethic” that the economic interests of the fishermen sitting on the various regional fishery management councils cannot override.
But as Stripers Forever observes, no such emphasis on the conservation of healthy and abundant marine resources is seen at ASMFC.  There, the staff scientists have no say in the ultimate management decisions, and the 17 professionals on the various management boards are outnumbered nearly two to one by the 30 legislative and governors’ appointees, thbe majority of whom profit in one way or another from the harvest of the same fish that they manage.
Letting the foxes guard the henhouse is never a good idea.  The declines of so many important fish populations managed by ASMFC show us why. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014


In a perfect world, fisheries managers would have all of the scientific resources that they might possibly need to manage every species under their care.  Stock assessments would be free from uncertainty, and updated every few years.

Unfortunately, our world is not perfect.  Assessments for many species often lack needed data, contain acknowledged defects and/or are stale and outdated.  In the case of other species, no stock assessment exists at all.

Opponents of conservation efforts often point to such problems, and argue against regulations that, they contend, are not supported by “good science.”  At other times, they try to delay conservation initiatives, insisting that no regulations should be adopted until additional research is done.

Are they right?  Or can efforts to manage and conserve fish stocks succeed even when the available science is pretty sketchy?

Perhaps the best way to answer those questions is to leave theoretical arguments behind, and venture out into the real world, where we might be surprised to find that, when managing fisheries, accurate stock assessments, while nice, are not always needed.

Of all the species managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, none pose more of a challenge than black sea bass.

Fisheries managers consider black sea bass to be a “data-poor species,” and aspects of its biology are still being debated.  Lacking better information, biologists have established proxy figures that serve as the overfishing threshold and target stock size.

Black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites, which means that they begin life as females, but transform into males later on.  They form spawning aggregations in May and June (biologists believe), in which a dominant male attends (and probably defends) a harem of females.   Such dominant males tend to be very aggressive, and are normally among the first fish to be caught if anglers access an aggregation.  When that occurs, spawning is (thought to be) disrupted until the largest female transforms into a new dominant male, a process that (scientists think) occurs soon after the dominant male is removed.

All black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina are managed as a single stock, but that probably doesn’t represent reality.  In 2009, Joshua Moser and Gary Shepherd, of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, published a paper ( suggesting that there may be three distinct subgroups of black sea bass which do not mix significantly during the summer, but do mix after migrating offshore during the winter.  No one knows—or has even publicly speculated about—whether the same regulations are appropriate for all three of the subgroups, or how mixing affects management.

Because of such uncertainty, the most recent stock assessment (December 2011) was unanimously rejected by a panel of independent fisheries experts.  In doing so, it issued a report which noted that “the Review Panel suggest that development of an effective model is likely to require a considerable investment of additional effort and will not be achieved in the short term.”

In other words, there’s still a lot of missing information, and it will be a long time before it is pulled together.

But does the lack of a valid stock assessment mean that the black sea bass stock couldn’t be adequately managed?

Far from it.  In 1997, just after the Sustainable Fisheries Act became law, the biomass of the black sea bass stock—that is, the combined weighed of all black sea bass swimming north of Cape Hatteras—was thought to be about 2,700 metric tons.  By 2010, when federal managers successfully rebuilt the stock, the biomass was estimated at more than 10,800 metric tons.

In 1996 (again, before SFA was adopted), the fishing mortality rate for black sea bass was an unsustainable 0.97 (nearly 65% of the fish were killed each year); by 2010, fishing mortality was reduced to 0.18 (about 16% of the fish removed).

Thus, without a good stock assessment and lacking a lot of pertinent science, fisheries managers still managed to end overfishing and bring harvest down to sustainable levels, while fully rebuilding a once-overfished stock.

That sort of success puts the lie to statements made by folks such as John Brownlee who, a few weeks ago, authored a guest editorial which appeared in the Miami Herald and attacked the federal fisheries management system (  
Brownlee’s editorial effectively set out the manifesto of the anglers’ rights groups who want to weaken the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act.  With respect to science, he states

Catch limits based on actual science, rather than non-existent data.  Currently, catch limits are established for every fish population under management, even if there is no reason for concern about the health of a population. Science should lead the process of fishery management. A one-size-fits-all strategy is a recipe for disaster.

Like many of the statements in Brownlee’s editorial, it sounds good at first reading, but falls apart as soon as anyone stops to think about what it really says.

In our imperfect world, we are always going to lack the data needed to manage most species with anything approaching scientific certainty.  Federal managers are responsible for hundreds of separate stocks; state managers are responsible for many more.  It isn’t realistic to expect them to have either the human or the financial resources to produce frequent, peer-reviewed assessments for every stock.

And yet there is something inherently wrong with the idea of fishing a stock down, perhaps past some yet-undefined point of no return, just because biologists lack perfect data.

In a rational world, where perhaps Brownlee does not reside, it would make more sense to proceed with even greater care when data is lacking, to avoid inadvertently overfishing a vulnerable stock.

And if a population appears healthy—if there is no current reason for concern for its health—isn’t it sensible to put catch limits on now, before a problem arises, rather than having to play catch-up after that population declines?  Haven’t we learned at least that much from our past mistakes?

Isn’t it better for managers to do the best they can with whatever tools and information that they have at hand, even if it is far from perfect, rather than sit on their hands, do nothing and possibly put a stock at risk?  Isn’t it better to be a little cautious—maybe even a little overcautious—in the face of uncertainty, rather than to accidentally cause a population collapse?

Some people would clearly say no.  They would use a lack of data, of peer-reviewed assessments and of unassailable science (if there is such a thing) to stall any efforts to conserve and manage a stock, and so perpetuate their ability to harvest—and maybe to overharvest—such stock.

For if you try hard enough, you can always come up with a good reason to do the wrong thing.

But it's better to do the right thing.  In the face of uncertainty, it is better to manage a stock like black sea bass, with imperfect science, no stock assessment, no population model and no carefully derived reference—but with a measure of caution—and still end up with no overfishing and a fully recovered stock.

The black sea bass shows us that without much science, managers can still succeed.

And in the end, success is the only thing that matters.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


I’ve been involved with fisheries management issues since the striped bass collapsed back in the late ‘70s.  In that time, some things have gotten better, some have gotten worse and a lot has remained the same.

At the January meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, I was reminded of how little fishermen’s attitudes have changed. 

MRAC’s members represent a good cross-section of New York’s commercial and recreational fishing communities.  Most of the councilors derive at least some of their income from the harvest of marine resources so, human nature being what it is, MRAC decisions tend to favor profit over resource protection.  
At the January meeting, the hot topic was whelks.  Whelks aren’t high on many folks’ priority lists, but given all of the talk at the federal level about the need for “better science” in fisheries management, what went on at MRAC that day provides a pretty good look at how scientific data is actually received, understood and accepted by the folks who make the decisions as well as by the regulated fishing community itself.

Whelks are big snails native to the inshore waters of the northeast.  Historically, they were a minor commercial species in New York—often taken as bycatch in the Long Island Sound lobster fishery—that commanded a relatively low price.  Historically, many were sold to local seafood restaurants, where they were used in various pasta dishes and called “scungilli.”

Recently, a crash in New York’s lobster population, combined with increased demand in Asian countries, has led to increased whelk harvests.  In many states, biologists have noted a decline in the size and number of whelk that are available, and have begun to regulate this once unrestricted fishery.

In New York, the proposed regulation took the form of a minimum length of 5 ½ inches—the size at which whelk first begin to reproduce.

Fishermen immediately began to rebel, and the well-worn refrain that “If you do this, you’ll put me out of business” rang out at hearings, in calls to regulators and, ultimately, at the January meeting itself.

Fishermen claimed that whelk began reproducing while less than 5 ½ inches long, although there is no scientific evidence that is true (with the exception of one Rhode Island study which found that, at most, 10% might mature before reaching that size).

One fisherman waived a handout in a state biologist’s face, pointing to a graph and claiming that just a quarter of the whelks in Long Island Sound would be legal under the new rules.  She patiently explained the graph to him, which showed that about three-quarters of the whelk in the survey were 5 ½ inches long or larger.  But he kept pointing to the one bar on the graph indicating that a quarter of the whelk measured 5 ½ inches, and kept ignoring the bars for 6 inches, and 6 ½, and 7…

When the matter was brought before MRAC for formal discussion, the biologist mentioned that the new regulations should be in place by the spring of this year, which elicited the definitive comment of the discussion.

It came from a long-time councilor on the commercial side, who fished lobster in Long Island Sound and was completely conversant with the whelk fishery.  “If you put these regulations in for the spring,” he noted, “you’re not giving us time to dispute your data.”

Which pretty well says it all.

Because the sad truth is that, despite all the talk about science, most fishermen just want to hear that they can keep catching fish (or whelks).  “Good science” lets them keep catching; “bad science” restricts harvest.  “Good science” confirms what they want to believe is true; “bad science” forces them to face reality and make hard decisions about conserving the resource.

Thus, that MRAC member spoke with complete honesty.  He and his fellow fishermen had no desire to “validate” the data, or to “confirm” the data, even though the process of doing so might ultimately show that the data was wrong.  As far as the whelk fishermen were concerned, their job was to “dispute” the data, so that their harvest would not be reduced.

Almost all of the comments made to MRAC that day followed the same pattern.  The data was either declared wrong, or was completely ignored as fishermen talked about lost income, a declining lobster harvest or the rules in neighboring states.

When the vote was finally tallied, MRAC had narrowly rejected the whelk regulations.  Gruff elation erupted in the audience, with comments like “We showed ‘em” and “That’s right!” heard above the general din.  I was the target of disdain after I suggested that “eating the seed corn” by killing immature whelks probably didn’t bode well for the future of the fishery.

My friend Peg was in the audience that day.  She is an avid angler and an experienced field biologist, but relatively new to fisheries management issues.  As a scientist, she was appalled by the reaction of the crowd and their unwillingness  to consider either the data or the possibility that without regulations, their fishery might just collapse.

When she mentioned that after the meeting, I just smiled and said “Welcome to my world.”

And, unfortunately, I mean my world—not just my world as a conservation advocate, but my world as an angler.

The January MRAC meeting dealt with whelks, and with commercial fishermen, and commercial fishermen are often blamed for frustrating conservation efforts.  But anglers are often no better. 

In recent years, various spokesmen for the angling community have called for “better science” in fisheries management, then turned around and rejected the science when it said things that they didn’t want to hear. 
Perhaps the best—or the worst—example is the current effort by anglers’ rights groups to reshape the federal fishery management system, in order to avoid science-based restraints on their kill.

Just like my colleague on MRAC, they keep looking for ways to dispute the data.  But unlike MRAC’s vote on whelk, if those folks win, it will hurt us all.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Almost fourteen years ago, a federal judge writing for the District of Columbia circuit handed down what was arguably the most important fisheries management decision ever written.  The case was Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, and the decision contained the following, unforgettable words:

The disputed 1999 TAL had at most an 18% likelihood of achieving the target F. Viewed differently, it had at least an 82% chance of resulting in an F greater than the target F.  Only in Superman Comics' Bizarro world, where reality is turned upside down, could the Service reasonably conclude that a measure that is at least four times as likely to fail as to succeed offers a "fairly high level of confidence." [emphasis added]
Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley was the turning point for not only summer flounder, but for fisheries management in the United States.  Compelled by the court to draft a truly effective fisheries management plan, the National Marine Fisheries Service engineered a spectacular recovery of the stock. Today, anglers along the eastern seaboard are seeing—and catching—more and larger fish than they have in decades.  Because NRDC v. Daley was handed down by the influential D.C. circuit, it has since informed fisheries management decisions throughout the United States.

Now, it seems that the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a New Jersey-based “anglers’ rights” group, wants to take fisheries management out of the 21st Century and banish it back to Bizarro world.

That revelation emerged from an RFA press release issued last Thursday, entitled “Summer Flounder Regionalization a Shared Recipe for Disaster”.   I touched on ASMFC’s efforts to manage summer flounder on a regional basis in a previous blog (, which noted the New Jersey angling community’s rejection of the concept.  So at first glance, I assumed that the RFA release was merely one more expression of Garden State anglers’ refusal to share with their neighbors.

But after I read it, I realized that the release was less a comment on regional management and more an RFA lament over its loss of the pre-NRDC v. Daley world.  Jim Donofrio, RFA’s Executive Director, observed

"In 1998 when the summer flounder stock was rebuilding and not yet as fully robust as it is today, New Jersey had 2.7 million fluke while the state of New York had 1.2 million fish, yet here we are with a healthy, rebuilt fluke stock and we're looking at 75% of that 1998 fishery allocation under a status quo, do nothing management approach."

Summer flounder were badly overfished in 1998, and overfishing was still occurring, which is why anglers in New York and New Jersey killed so many fish that year.  Back then, summer flounder management still took place in Bizarro world.  Suggesting that 1998 harvest levels should inform the quota-setting process today is at least as bizarre. 

Managers had to reduce that kill to recover the stock.  Today, we take fewer fish to keep the stock at a sustainable level. 

That seems like a rational policy, and not too difficult to understand, but apparently Donofrio remains confused.  He claimed that

"Anyone with common sense, perhaps not a PHD in science or high-level marketing position at an environmental society, would be dumfounded to think that we were assigned more fish when the stock was rebuilding and 75% less once the fishery was declared rebuilt," Donofrio said, adding "and therein lays the fatal flaw in the management system."

If you read the whole press release, you’ll find that Donofrio rails against a lot of things and not just that one “fatal flaw.”  He also condemns a “status quo do nothing management approach,” “erroneous landings estimates produced by a still broken recreational data collection system,” “dangerous and arbitrary” provisions of the Magnuson Act,” and “a totally inadequate and scientifically untenable [summer flounder] quota amount.”

Nick Cicero, a member of RFA’s board of directors, also chimes in to complain about unspecified “ills of a broken management system” and “the repeated failures at NMFS during their 20 years of irresponsible stewardship.”  With respect to the latter point, it’s not clear whether Cicero used the phrase “20 years” loosely, in reference to the period since the courts evicted NMFS from Bizarro world, or whether he truly meant the period since 1994, which encompasses just about all of the summer flounder’s recovery.  It is also unclear whether he approved of NMFS management more than 20 years ago, back when the agency permitted not only the summer flounder stock, but just about every other important groundfish stock in the northeast to decline to—or beyond—the brink of collapse.
Either way, neither Cicero nor Donofrio offers a concrete solution to their perceived problems.  They talk about “efforts to fix federal fisheries law,” and request people “to get on the same page and call for Magnuson reform,” but offer no clear answers.
But if you know anything about the RFA, you know that for many years, it has dedicated itself to weakening the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act.  It has taken public positions against “rebuilding provisions and rigid overfishing language hardcoded into the federal fishing law”, and staged rallies to weaken such provisions.   
In other words, it wants to do away with the strong legal requirements that allowed managers to rebuild the summer flounder, and so many other once-depleted stocks.  

It wants to go back to 1998, when an 82% chance of failure was good enough, and fisheries managers lived in Bizarro world.

If RFA ever succeeds in gutting the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act, anglers might well get larger annual quotas.  However, without changes at ASMFC, they way such quota is distributed will not change.  New Jersey will still get 39%--more than twice the fish given to any other state—and it will not have to share with its neighbors.  Its fishing-related businesses will enjoy exactly the same competitive advantages that they enjoy today.

RFA’s press release calls ASMFC’s proposed regional management plan “a recipe for disaster” and “another ‘train wreck’ in the making.”  People who want more information about the release are directed to call Jim Hutchinson, Jr., RFA’s Managing Director.  I suspect that if anyone did, he would strongly support the RFA position and oppose the “train wreck.”

However, Hutchinson also wears a different hat.  He is President of the New York Sportfishing Federation, where he has served New York’s summer flounder anglers well.  Hutchinson sat in the chair directly in front of mine at a recent ASMFC hearing on Addendum XXV, and I couldn’t help but hear him discussing the best way to support the regionalization proposal with his Federation colleagues.

Hutchinson has also been a strong and consistent supporter of Senator Charles Schumer’s “Fluke Fairness Act,” which was introduced in the Senate last year (  If signed into law, that bill would achieve the laudable goal of voiding the current state-by-state allocation.  As part of that support, Hutchinson stood behind Sen. Schumer at a “fluke fairness” event held at Captree State Park a week ago (  Last fall, he even took a place at the podium next to the Senator, and spoke in favor of his bill (

Thus, one must wonder whether RFA’s opposition to regional management is really as strong as the press release suggests.  Hutchinson wasn’t wearing his RFA hat when he appeared at Sen. Schumer’s events, but he was still RFA’s Managing Director, with all of the duties that title entails. 

Representing one organization that supports regionalization and one that’s against it, at exactly the same time, would be a very difficult thing to do.  

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Managing East Coast fisheries was once a classic “Tragedy of the Commons” situation.  Fishermen from the various states competed among themselves for whatever fish were available, and meaningful conservation efforts were effectively unknown.

After the striped bass stock collapsed, Congress acknowledged that things had to change.  It passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984, which threatened any state that failed to comply with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s striped bass management plan with a complete closure of its fishery, imposed by the Department of Commerce.

It was a serious threat.  States, for the first time, worked together to restore the stock, and the concept of cooperative state management took root on the Atlantic seaboard.

Congress followed up by passing the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act in 1993.  That bill expanded the Commerce Department’s closure authority to all stocks managed by ASMFC.  The old days of anything-goes management were over.

However, even the Garden of Eden sheltered a malevolent serpent, and ASMFC’s cooperative management system also housed one snake in the grass.  And the name of that malignant reptile was, and remains, “conservation equivalency.”

Conservation equivalency was supposed to allow for differences between the various states, which hosted very different fisheries for the same species.  ASMFC would still develop a fisheries management plan designed to constrain fishing mortality below a set target.  States could either accept the ASMFC plan in all its particulars, or take advantage of conservation equivalency and adopt alternate regulations that, while different, would still keep landings acceptably low.

When the folks at ASMFC adopted conservation equivalency, they probably had good intentions.  But we know where a road paved with good intentions leads…

For many of us, it led to a dysfunctional summer flounder fishery.  For many years, flounder harvest had been governed by a set of coastwide regulations adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service.  But states began to complain about their effects on local fisheries, so ASMFC decided to allocate each state a discreet share of the recreational quota, based on anglers’ landings in 1989, and let them set their own “equivalent” regulations.

Unfortunately, ASMFC adopted that system just as NMFS began its spectacular recovery of the flounder population. The number and size of the fish increased quickly, the range of the species expanded, and the fishery soon looked nothing like it did in 1998.

But by then, the new allocation system was well established.  Northeastern states, particularly New York, saw their waters invaded not only by more flounder, but by larger fish than anyone had seen in years.  As a result, such states caught far more fish than ASMFC had allotted to them, and their regulations grew very restrictive in an attempt to avoid overages.  On the other hand, states from New Jersey south accounted for a smaller percentage of the harvest than they had before, yet still retained their original allocations.  As a result, they enjoyed comparatively liberal regulations.

Efforts were made to reallocate fish to match the new reality, but they were repeatedly rebuffed.  No state wanted to adopt more restrictive regulations, and none felt the need to cooperate with the few states that were shouldering most of the conservation burden.

The situation largely pitted New Jersey, which had been allocated over 39% of the recreational harvest, with its neighbor New York which, with 17.5% of the landings, had the next-highest share.  New Jersey anglers consistently enjoyed some of the smallest size limits and highest bag limits on the coast, while anglers in New York fished under the most restrictive regulations adopted by any state.

New York regulators often asked their New Jersey counterparts to share some of “their” fish, but without any success.  The spirit of cooperation just didn’t fill those Jersey boys’ hearts.

But finally, the spirit of change did fill the air.  Once NMFS restored the summer flounder, southern states actually had more fish than they could utilize.  Most became willing to share with their northern colleagues.  So last Tuesday night, I attended a hearing on Addendum XXV to ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Plan (the fact that there have been 24 previous addendums speaks volumes about what had gone before), to support a proposal that would have all the anglers between New Jersey and Rhode Island share their flounder and fish under a single set of regulations.

Right now, that proposal seems to have enough support to be adopted.  Certainly, it went over big in New York, where it won unanimous support at the hearing. 

But down in New Jersey, the flame of cooperation doesn’t burn very bright—if, in fact, it burns at all.  The New Jersey hearing was held last Monday.  Ahead of that hearing, leaders of the fishing community were haranguing anglers in an effort to shoot the regional management proposal down.

Tom Fote, a member of New Jersey’s ASMFC delegation, penned an article for the Jersey Coast Angler’ Association’s newsletter, which contained the following passage.

“New York has been pushing for mandatory regionalization with New Jersey for the last few years.  New Jersey and the Commission have rejected this course of action saying it should be voluntary.  Given the differences in the fisheries among New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, I have difficulty imagining how this would benefit New Jersey.  I have also seen this as a veiled attempt to reallocate New Jersey’s larger share of the summer flounder to the benefit of the other states… [emphasis added]”
Chris Zeeman, who holds one of New Jersey’s seats on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, also holds the similar views to Fote’s, noting that

“If regional management is approved, states will be forced to enter into regions, even if they vote against regional management.  Regional management will be similar to coastwide management and states’ allocations will be meaningless…If regional management will be similar to coastwide management, New Jersey should be concerned it will lose the flexibility to regulate its summer flounder fishery and control its own fishing future. [emphasis added]”
So much for cooperation…

Yet elsewhere on the coast, they try to emulate our mistakes. 

Down in the Gulf of Mexico, a coalition of industry and anglers’ rights groups are trying to rip red snapper management away from NMFS and hand it over to an interstate group similar to ASMFC, which would manage the stock “cooperatively”, deciding on issues such as size limits, bag limits, seasons and—yes—allocation.

Red snapper managers face a lot of the same problems that summer flounder managers faced up here, although snapper live a lot longer than flounder and mature a lot slower, so their problems are going to take a lot more time to solve.

However, NMFS has been rebuilding red snapper.  The rebuilding has progressed significantly farther in the western Gulf; east of the Mississippi, it is taking longer, perhaps because the eastern Gulf holds very few fish more than ten years old (red snapper can live for more than 50 years). 

If I was a fisherman in Texas or Louisiana, I’d jump on the state management bandwagon just as fast as I could.  They’d be fools if they let a chance to make their states the “New Jerseys” of the snapper fishery pass them by.

On the other hand, if I fished out of Florida, Alabama or Mississippi, I’d be having second thoughts, knowing that I’d probably be getting a very small share of the allocation pie.  I’d look at the way summer flounder allocations worked out for all of those states that weren’t New Jersey, and ask myself “When our snapper fully recover, will I be able to catch them?"

"Or will an old allocation hold down my harvest, just because folks in Texas and Louisiana won’t share?"

And yes, I’m sure that the people pushing state allocation down in the Gulf are telling folks now that the folks in Texas and Louisiana will be “cooperative.”

Maybe they will be, just like people say.  But up here, a decade or so ago, we were assured that the folks in New Jersey would be “cooperative” too…

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Right around New Year’s Day, one of my friends sent me a link to a guest editorial that had appeared in the Miami Herald.  It was written by John Brownlee, who earns his pay as a writer and as an editor for a couple of glossy fishing magazines.  The thrust of the piece was that recreational fishermen were getting short shrift from federal fisheries laws and the fishery management system.

You can find Brownlee’s op-ed at  It’s pretty short, but if you read it, you'll see that it covered a lot of ground.

Brownlee got some things right, made a few iffy statements and said a few things that were pure and unadulterated bull.  He raised more points than I can effectively address in a single essay.  I plan to come back from time to time and take a look at them all in the weeks to come.

Yet for all the ground that Brownlee covers, the thrust of his entire editorial can be boiled down to a single sentence that appears about a third of the way through the piece:  “A father taking his son to fish in the Gulf of Mexico will be put to the same strict standards that regulate commercial fishermen.” 

The line seems disingenuous, and intended to provoke an emotional response.  Perhaps that’s because Brownlee and his “anglers’ rights” colleagues are trying to weaken the most successful fisheries management law in the world.  Manipulating people’s—particularly legislators’—emotions and avoiding hard facts could be their route to success. 

Last spring, I happened to overhear the executive director of a big anglers’ rights group tell some of his fellows that “We have to get away from the fishhead stuff.”  “Fishhead stuff,” of course, means things such as science, data and the proven successes—or failures—of various approaches to management.  The kind of objective measures that don’t support an anglers’ rights agenda at all.

So Brownlee evoked the Norman Rockwell-like image of a father taking his son out to fish and juxtaposes it against the image, not of a single waterman earning his pay, but of “commercial fishermen” as a whole, thus evoking all of the negative connotations that the term “commercial fishermen” can have among anglers.

Negative connotations, because you and I know exactly how much damage a poorly-regulated commercial fishery can do.

However, if we want to be honest, we must also admit—in print and in public—just how much damage a poorly-regulated recreational fishery can do. 

Brownlee left that part out, but plenty of other anglers understand, particularly here in the northeast, where no fish is as important to the recreational community as the striped bass.  The stock has been in decline for a number of years, and striped bass anglers, many of whom still recall its collapse three decades ago, have been clamoring for more restrictive regulations, both on the commercial fishery and on themselves, to ensure that the stock does not collapse again. 

Last October, a peer-reviewed striped bass stock assessment was completed.  It clearly shows that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s striped bass management plan allows far too many fish to be killed.  Despite that assessment, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board overwhelmingly refused to reduce 2014 harvest to a more sustainable level.  ASMFC’s inaction dismayed a legion of responsible recreational fishermen, who have decided to take matters into their own hands and promote voluntary restraints on recreational harvest until ASMFC and state managers finally get around to doing the right thing.

So we see grassroots efforts such as the 1@32 Pledge, a Facebook-based effort encouraging anglers to adopt a personal limit of one fish no less than 32 inches long, in lieu of ASMFC’s more profligate 2 @28. 

In Maryland, where immature bass just 18 inches long are fair game, state fisheries managers took advantage of ASMFC’s delayed response to the striper’s decline.  This spring, thanks to the 2011 year class—the only strong year class in the past decade—there will be lots of barely-legal bass in Chesapeake Bay.  Maryland will thus allow fishermen to kill 14% more fish than they could in 2013, despite the fact that the 2012 year class was the worst in history.  In response, Coastal Conservation Association Maryland has stepped in where the state would not, initiating a “My Limit Is One” campaign in an attempt to better protect the striper’s future.

Such anglers understand something that Brownlee apparently does not.  They have seen the elephant in the cockpit, and know that elephant is too large to ignore.  For the elephant is made up of us.  It includes Brownlee’s hypothetical father and son, and all the other fathers and sons, along with daughters, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers and people who never had any kids at all, but who nonetheless averaged well over 22 million fishing trips just in the Gulf of Mexico (over 60 million trips nationwide) each year.  And that 22 million doesn’t include anglers in Texas; add Texas fishermen and the number of recreational trips taken in the Gulf would certainly climb well above 25 million, and maybe above 30 million, too.

But even 25 million recreational trips kill a lot of fish—over 65 million fish each year, not including whatever died off Texas. 

65 million dead fish provide a lot of good reasons to subject fathers and sons, and everyone else, to strict conservation standards.  It’s not unreasonable, and it’s not punitive.  It’s plain common sense.

Because nothing is more important to recreational fishermen than healthy populations of fish.  Fishing in an empty ocean is just not much fun. 

Millions of anglers, who take upwards of 25 million trips each year, can have a big impact on Gulf fish populations, just as commercial fishermen can.  They may not be able to empty out an ocean, but they can deplete local wrecks and reefs, and put enough pressure on already overfished stocks to slow or stall out a recovery.  In the end, that’s bad for all of us.

To keep it from happening, anglers and commercial fishermen alike must be subject to standards that avoid overfishing and allow overfished stocks to be promptly rebuilt.

Even the fathers taking their sons to fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


You probably don’t care about northern shrimp.  But please be patient, and read the shrimp’s story.  For history tends to repeat itself, and if it does, a fishery that you cherish might die.

Northern shrimp live in and around the Gulf of Maine, and need cold water to thrive.  For years, the shrimp has supported a modest commercial fishery that operates during the winter; 87% of landings are allocated to trawlers, while the remaining 13% are taken in traps.

The shrimp’s lifespan is five or six years.  Like a number of marine creatures, the shrimp are hermaphrodites; they mature, as males, when 2 ½ years old, then switch sex to female a year later. 

After spawning, female shrimp carry the fertilized eggs on their bodies.  The eggs hatch in mid-winter.  Although the precise time of the hatch depends on water temperature, about half of the eggs have usually hatched by February 15. 

The northern shrimp stock is assessed every fall.  2004 produced the last strong year class; the past decade saw consistently sub-par spawns.  Warmer water temperatures probably played a role.  Since 2010, when the 2004 year class aged out of the fishery, abundance has declined.  Yet despite such declining abundance, ASMFC has allowed fishermen to overfish the population—by as much as 60%--for each of the past four years.

When ASMFC’s Northern Shrimp Technical Committee assessed the stock in 2011, it considered the declining abundance and the impact of warming waters, and recommended a 2012 catch limit it believed prudent—a little over 1,800 metric tons.

If northern shrimp had been a federally managed species, subject to the Magnuson Act, managers would have been legally required to follow the scientists’ advice.  In fact, the 2012 catch limit probably would have been set a little lower than recommended, to allow for any uncertainty inherent in the assessment.

But northern shrimp are not managed by federal regulators; they are managed by ASMFC, and ASMFC is not legally bound to be prudent.  So when its Northern Shrimp Section received the Technical Committee’s recommendation, it paid little heed, and set the 2012 quota more than 20% higher--over 2,200 metric tons.  And then it opened the season for trawlers on January 2, when all of the females would still be carrying unhatched eggs (because the shrimp were harvested more quickly than expected, the season was closed early, on February 17—about when it should have been opened).

The result was gross overfishing.  According to the northern shrimp management plan, fishermen should remove no more than 30% of the shrimp from the population in any one year; overfishing occurs if more than about 37% of the shrimp are taken.  But in 2012, ASMFC allowed more than 65% of the remaining population to be harvested, a level of landings that was nearly twice the overfishing threshold.

After that prodigal season, the entire biomass of northern shrimp—that is, the combined weight of every single living shrimp swimming anywhere in the Gulf of Maine and its surrounding waters—was only 1,500 metric tons.  That is less than three-quarters of the amount of shrimp that ASMFC had said it was OK to remove from such waters the previous spring!  And the Technical Committee came to that figure using a model known to overestimate abundance and underestimate fishing mortality in the most recent fishing year.

Scary stuff, certainly.  But then things got worse.

Scientists use trawl surveys to estimate the size of the shrimp population.  After the 2012 fishing season, that survey found the lowest abundance ever recorded.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that numbers of immature shrimp, needed to assure the future of the stock, were also extremely low.  The long-term average is 393 immature shrimp per trawl; the 2011 average was a mere 44 individuals, by 2012, it had fallen to a dismal 7, less than 2% of the norm.

Knowing those things, the Technical Committee acted responsibly.  Noting that short-term prospects for the fishery were “’very poor” and that, because of bad recruitment, long-term prospects were “also poor,” it called for a harvest moratorium in 2013.  However, because it knew that the Northern Shrimp Section was not likely to approve such a closure, it advised that the Section should take a “very conservative approach.”  Any harvest should not exceed the fishing mortality target.  Any season should not start until February 15, when half of the eggs would be hatched.

Again, if northern shrimp had been a federal fishery managed under the Magnuson Act, the scientific advice would have been binding.  There would have been no harvest in 2013 and, pursuant to law, a rebuilding plan would have been drafted to recover the stock, probably within ten years.

But the shrimp were managed by ASMFC, and its Northern Shrimp Section again rejected scientists’ advice.  The quota was cut substantially, but still remained so large, when the shrimp population was so small, that by season’s end, only half of that quota would be caught.  And it allowed trawlers to begin fishing as early as January 23, putting most of the egg-carrying females in jeopardy.  The subsequent stock assessment found that, even though fishermen only landed half of their quota, they overfished nonetheless. 

By that time, it was clear that ASMFC had done its traditional job; it had wrung out all the blood from the northern shrimp stone.  The stock had collapsed, and had nothing more to give.  So ASMFC finally declared a long-overdue moratorium last December.  No one can say how long it will be before the shrimp population rebounds and the season can open again.  No one can even say with certainty whether the population will ever recover.

The story of the northern shrimp is sad, and the saddest thing is, the whole thing wasl completely legal.  When managing fisheries, ASMFC need not abide by the Magnuson Act’s national standards or, in fact, any standards at all.  It may allow overfishing, ignore scientific advice and fail to rebuild stocks, and it cannot be compelled to do otherwise.

That, fellow anglers, is why the fate of the northern shrimp should matter to you.  For the same organization that manages northern shrimp—ASMFC—manages fish that you care about.  Fish such as tautog, weakfish and winter flounder.  And, of course, striped bass.

And the fate of the shrimp should matter to you because some folks clearly have not learned from history.  In recent years, “anglers’ rights” groups headquartered down near the Gulf of Mexico have grown discontent with the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act.  They don’t like parts of the law that require depleted stocks to be promptly rebuilt, and they don’t like federal regulators who keep them from killing as many fish as they’d like to.  So they have set their sights on changing the law, so that some—maybe all, their plans aren’t completely clear—of the fish important to anglers will no longer be protected by strong federal laws, but instead will be exposed to the whims of state managers, just as northern shrimp are today. 

If they get their way, cold water fish such as haddock and cod might be managed by the very same folks who drove northern shrimp to the brink of oblivion.  The fate of fluke and black sea bass might be in the hands of regulators from places like New Jersey and North Carolina.  You can see the problems that is likely to cause.

So I would truly hate to see current law weakened, and I’ll do what I can to oppose anyone who tries.  But the simple truth is, most of my good years are already behind me.  While the “anglers’ rights” folks (along with plenty of others) certainly threaten the health of our fisheries, they probably won’t trash them all before my ashes are scattered at sea.

But if I was younger, or if I had kids or grandkids who liked to fish, I’d really be worried.  If I was in that boat, I’d do anything in my power to see that those people don’t win.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


Exactly forty-five years ago today, up along the Connecticut shore, the tidal reaches of the Mianus River were freezing over.  I don’t remember it happening, exactly, but the river froze every January back then, and 1969 wasn’t an exception.

The freeze ended my smelt fishing season, which began when the first fish showed up in October.  Most smelt were caught at night, and those nights could get so numbingly cold that you might slip a thin wire hook right through the bait and into your finger, and not ever realize what had happened.  Even so, anglers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on the docks, a fraternity of wool-clad working men whose blazing Coleman lanterns flared across the black water.  

I was a kid back then, longing to join my elders on the dock, where the night and the cold made smelt fishing a rite of passage.  Through most of my youngest years, my father refused to take me along, allowing me to fish only for whatever smelt might deign to bite on clement autumn afternoons.  But at the age of ten, I was finally allowed to embark on my first nocturnal excursion; as my father predicted, the cold made it a pretty short outing. 

But by the time I was in junior high, I had toughened up enough to spend more time in the cold and the dark.  When school permitted, though, I’d still fish during the day.  More than four decades later, I can still recall one of those days, the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1968, when the sun was as bright and warm as a November sun can be, and the air was surprisingly still.  I spent an entire tide on the dock, and when my father stopped by after work to give me a ride home, I toted a pail filled with fish to his car.  It was my best day of the season and, all things considered, the best of my smelt fishing career.

I didn’t know—I couldn’t have known at the time—that when ice put an end to that season, I would never fish for smelt again.

They just never came back after that.  We didn’t know why.  No one tried to explain it and, as far as I know, no one ever tried to restore the runs.  It was the first fishery that ever died before my eyes.

Unfortunately, it was far from the last.

It’s dismaying to look back and realize just how much we’ve lost since then.  Winter flounder, which once seemed to carpet the bottom of every cove and bay, have grown so scarce that inbreeding threatens local stocks.  The once ubiquitous American eel is now being considered for an Endangered Species listing; that decision is expected next year.  And tautog, a once obscure and abundant denizen of rocks and wrecks, has become the victim of a destructive—and often illegal—commercial fishery that supples urban live-fish markets.

In the spring, silver hordes of river herring once clogged Atlantic coast waterways as they made their spawning run.  Today, some of those runs have been lost completely, and many more are hanging on by tenuous threads; only a handful retain some semblance of their former health.  When I was a boy, mackerel invaded Long Island Sound and remained for the entire month of May; today, that run is gone.  In the ocean south of Long Island, a spring run that once lasted for more than a month now endures—in exceptionally good years—for a couple of days.

As late as the 1970s, packed party boats from Montauk, Connecticut and Rhode Island converged over Cox’s Ledge in the summer, where they loaded up on cod that sometimes weighed more than 50 pounds; today, fishing is limited to the winter, when the biggest fish rarely break 20.  The once spectacular spring pollock run at Block Island died in the mid-1980s, about the same time that the winter whiting fishery collapsed in the New York Bight.


I could go on, but why?  The point is already made.  Many of our fisheries have been badly depleted.  Others face real and immediate threats.  The future of many seems dim.

Yet, it’s not all bad news.  After the striped bass stock collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, strict limits on harvest, including complete moratoriums in many states, brought the stock back to health by 1995.  In the mid-Atlantic, populations of three important bottom fish—summer flounder, scup and black sea bass—bottomed out around 1990, but have since been fully restored.  No stock managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is overfished, and none are experiencing overfishing.

It is clear that things can be turned around.

If you’re willing to keep your mind open and your mouth shut long enough to let the facts speak for themselves, it quickly becomes obvious that, when it comes to restoring and conserving fish stocks, some approaches usually work and some are dead ends. 

The approaches that work aren’t rocket science.  Boiled down to their simplest terms, they just require more fish to be left alive in the water, and allow fewer fish to be killed.  They require fisheries managers to treat fishermen—commercial and recreational alike—as adults, who understand the concept of making a short-term sacrifice in order to reap a long-term gain.  They impose some temporary social and economic pain.

But since pain is unpopular, you don’t see such approaches praised much these days. 

Instead, you see erstwhile conservation advocates turn into born-again preachers for the “anglers’ rights” movement, sounding like diet food salesmen on late-night TV.  But instead of “Eat what you want and STILL LOSE POUNDS!” you hear “Get rid of federal laws that rebuild stocks and restrict our harvest, turn  management over to the states so we can kill more fish, and WATCH FISHING GET BETTER!”  It doesn’t make a lot of sense when you stop to think about it, but these folks don’t want you to think at all; they want you to hear the main message with your gut, not your brain:  They want you to believe that they can rebuild our fisheries without pain, without responsibility, without cost.  

And they want you to be—hope that you are—gullible enough to buy their snake oil.

But we anglers, who have spent years on and around the water, enjoying its pleasures and its gifts, have seen too many fisheries that we loved and knew well sicken and wither away.  If there is any sense of honor or duty in our souls, we know that we have an obligation to generations yet unborn to leave behind an ocean that is as vital and abundant as the one we have known.  And if it hurts a little to leave that legacy, it is a pain that we should feel proud and honor-bound to bear.

For I have seen the smelt fishery die.  Each winter I remember fishing in the night with my father, and fishing in the cold daylight alone, and I recall that of all the generations that followed mine, and all who will be born and grow old after I am gone, none will have the opportunity to be tested, shaped, strengthened and delighted by the night, the cold and the company of decent, good-hearted men, all brought together by a fish scarcely longer than their middle finger.  That rite of passage is gone forever, and the sorrow of remembering what has been lost brings another sort of pain every time I remember.  And that pain is worse, my friends.

Believe me, that pain is truly worse.