Sunday, March 30, 2014
This week, red snapper anglers down in the Gulf of Mexico, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, got spanked by a federal judge and—of all people—a bunch of commercial fishermen who sued to uphold the Magnuson Act.
I met some responsible commercial fishermen when I served on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. But I can say with some confidence that it wasn’t anglers who wiped out our groundfish back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, nor was it anglers who killed off most of the fluke at about the same time.
So when I hear that the commercial guys went to court to stop “my side” from killing too many snapper, it’s just a little embarrassing.
I understand that red snapper are tough to manage. They live long, mature late and, even at the best of times, are far less abundant than northern groundfish could be. Because they bunch up on structure; where you catch one, you usually catch a lot more. As a result, they have been badly overfished by both commercial and recreational fishermen.
Early efforts to restore the stock bore little fruit. Anglers placed blame on the shrimp trawlers, who killed a lot of juvenile snapper. First, they sued to require “bycatch reduction devices.” The shrimpers lost that round, and sort-of complied, but still killed a lot of little snapper.
The anglers sued again, further restricting the trawlers. Again, they won. And again, the snapper moved forward slowly.
The National Marine Fisheries Service revised the snapper management plan in 2008, and set a rebuilding deadline in 2032 (yes, to a full 24 years).
The recreational harvest limit dropped from 4.47 million to just 2.45 million pounds in 2009, while season length was cut by two-thirds, but anglers still overfished their quota by more than 50%. In the succeeding years, anglers overfished by as much as 88%; the only exception was 2010, when the BP oil spill halted fishing.
Throughout that time, commercial fishermen had a slightly higher quota—they’re allocated 51% of total landings. Because they fish under a catch share program, their harvest was predictable and they didn’t overfish a single time. Catch share programs have their flaws, but they keep overfishing under control.
Suddenly, anglers in the Gulf had a problem. They had a history of conserving other people’s fish by imposing bans on the use of various nets, and outlawing the sale of various species. In the case of red snapper, they had already sued over shrimp trawls.
Any time some fish stock fell ill, they blamed the commercial guys. If someone could just stop them from overfishing, and lift their gear from the water, all would be right with the world.
But this time, commercial harvest was under control. It was time for the anglers to cut back on their own kill for a change, because red snapper were being overfished by—and only by—recreational fishermen. Given that undeniable fact, the recreational snapper fishermen…began attacking everyone. According to them:
NMFS is the problem, because it doesn’t understand anglers and is trying to force them off the water.
Scientists are the problem, because they say that a bigger harvest would be bad for the fish.
The Marine Recreational Information Program, which estimates recreational catch, is the problem, because it overstates anglers’ landings.
Environmentalists are the problem, because they are trying new things to recover the stock and keep anglers from overfishing.
Commercial fishermen are the problem, just because they exist.
If you believe the red snapper anglers, the only people who don’t seem to be the problem are the red snapper anglers themselves, and they are the ones killing too many fish…
Federal regulations don’t apply in state waters, so anglers in Texas convinced state regulators to write their own rules. Texas set its bag limit at 4, its size limit at 15” and has no closed season; in federal waters, the bag is 2, the size 16” and the season last for just 40 days. That was nice for anglers in Texas, but bad for everyone else, who had to their harvest cut to make up for the Texas fishermen’s excesses.
By law, fishermen are accountable for their overages, but NMFS never did much to keep Gulf red snapper anglers from chronically overfishing. Biologists suggested a 20% buffer between the annual catch limit—the amount fishermen were permitted to land—and the annual catch target used to set the regulations. Such buffer would accommodate the “management uncertainty” that led to overfishing. But anglers opposed it, and NMFS gave in to their cries.
Anglers argued that NMFS overestimated their catch, and they called for a better survey. When NMFS unveiled the improved MRIP survey, it turned out that the old data probably had been wrong. Anglers probably killed even more red snapper than NMFS had believed.
To fishermen, the new data was clearly “bad,” because it would lead to a shorter overall season—“good” data lets anglers kill more fish. NMFS eventually agreed, and replaced the MRIP estimate with a “good” number, even though overfishing would inevitably occur.
In a recent article describing the situation, David Sikes (who happens to be the President of the Texas Outdoor Writers’ Association), wrote in the Corpus Christi (TX) Caller-Times that the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the organizations representing the red snapper anglers
“is behaving like a parent who would rather be friends with their kids (members) than make the difficult and unpopular decision to keep them in line.”
I don’t quite agree. The National Marine Fisheries Service is really the overindulgent parent; groups such as CCA—and the folks who represent and speak for them—are more like spoiled children.
So the commercial fishermen took the brats to the woodshed and sued, not to get more fish, but merely to prevent anglers from again killing more than their share, and thus harming the snapper’s recovery.
The commercial folks won in a walk. The case, decided in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, was Guindon v. Pritzker. The court’s decision included the following language:
“…To summarize the sequence of events: (1) In July 2013, the Council proposed increasing the 2013 quota and suggested reopening the season in the fall, contingent on there being unused quota available; (2) in early August, NMFS published a proposal discussing the possibility of reopening the season, contingent on available quota; (3) in late August, NMFS received MRIP landings estimates indicating an overage that exceeded both the current and proposed quota; (4) NMFS reopened the fall season anyway…
“The administrative record is replete with references to the high degree of management uncertainty in the recreational sector, as compared to the commercial sector, which had none…NMFS administrator Roy Crabtree described the recreational sector’s particular management uncertainties to the Council’s Reef Fish Management Committee in January 2013, and to the full Council in June 2013…All this evidence of high management uncertainty explains why the SSC recommended a 20 percent buffer for the recreational sector. The Council well understood this. In the July Framework Action, the Council discussed the SSC’s buffer recommendation as one possible alternative…Yet the Council rejected the buffer, while proposing no other accountability measures for the recreational sector, and NMFS approved the Council proposal…”
In other words, the anglers threw a tantrum when told to behave so NMFS, not wanting to hear them scream any more, gave in. Fortunately, there was another adult in the room, garbed in the robes of a federal judge, and the proper discipline was imposed.
Yet what was truly shocking was the anglers’ response. On March 28, the Coastal Conservation Association characterized the decision by saying “Ruling Against Recreational Angling Confirms Federal Fisheries Management System Broken” (http://www.joincca.org/articles/656).
And then it went on:
“In a case brought by commercial fishermen, seafood processors and trade groups closely associated with the Environmental Defense Fund, a federal district judge acknowledged this week that federal management of recreational anglers is deeply flawed and in need of overhaul. The lawsuit essentially challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service’s policy of setting hard quotas for the recreational sector without timely or reliable means to manage to such a standard…”
Having read the opinion, I have to say that’s a bit of a stretch, and spun so hard that reality got a little distorted along the way. But it gets worse.
“After decades of mismanagement, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper population rebounded wildly after successful efforts by recreational anglers to reduce juvenile red snapper mortality in shrimp trawls in the mid-2000s. As the red snapper population increased, the recreational sector began to catch more and larger fish, and thus met their outdated quota faster. Even with recreational seasons that were as short as 27 days, the lawsuit alleged that ‘it became commonplace for the recreational sector to exceed its quota by a large margin even though individual anglers followed the rules.’”
In CCA’s particular universe, red snapper problems were the shrimp trawls’ fault, and that was inexcusable. But anglers only exceed their quota because the quota is “outdated,” and the fact that “it became commonplace for the recreational sector to exceed its quota by a large margin” is somehow OK because “individual anglers followed the rules.”
Even thought the same “individual anglers” fought against newer, potentially more effective rules…
Fantasy is confused with fact. Chester Brewer, Chairman of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee, actually stated that
“It is no longer theoretical – we are in a situation now in which the red snapper population is as healthy as it has ever been, and recreational anglers may be unable to access it for more than a few days due to an inadequate management system and a ridiculously outdated allocation.”
That’s demonstrably wrong. It’s not even debatable. Far from being “as healthy as it has ever been,” the red snapper stock remains overfished (http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sustainable_fisheries/gulf_fisheries/red_snapper/overview/), and even when fully “recovered,” will retain just 26% of its spawning potential.
(I’m not picking on CCA here; they're just the most active player in the game. Another “anglers’ rights” group, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, has made comments that are nearly as bad http://joinrfa.org/2013/06/62613-red-snapper-wars-come-to-washington/.)
I know a lot of the folks involved. Many are very good, very bright people, but when red snapper issues arise, they seem to take leave of their senses.
Personally, I don’t understand what all of the fuss is about. I have caught red snapper. Functionally, if not biologically, they're little more than a big scup (i.e., northern porgy) with a sunburn. Like scup, they’re not sought for their fight; they appeal largely to headboats and folks out to fill coolers.
Yet despite all the fuss, they’re not even a big recreational target. Only about 2% of the fish caught and about 2% of the fish killed by recreational anglers in Gulf-coast Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana (Texas doesn’t participate in the federal catch estimate program) last year were red snapper. Twenty years ago, the percentages were about the same. Current regulations haven’t reduced anglers’ landings; because federal management has had some success, anglers actually took home more than twice the red snapper—measured in pounds—than they did in 1993.
Even so, they're dissatisfied.
If the thoughtless, self-serving demands of Gulf-states fishermen only affected red snapper, I would have discussed something else today. But the antics surrounding that one southern groundfish can—and very possibly will—hurt anglers on every shore of the United States.
Commercial fishermen will probably use the decision in Guindon v. Pritzker to punish anglers when the opportunity arises. I can easily see them trying to penalize us in the Mid-Atlantic, should we overfish black sea bass or fluke. Recreational fishermen, everywhere on the coast, risk being tarred with the same brush as the red snapper anglers, even for inadvertent overages rather than the kind of chronic and predictable overfishing that takes place in the Gulf.
On a larger scale, the red snapper fishermen down in the Gulf are now trying to gut the conservation and rebuilding requirements of the Magnuson Act—America’s federal fisheries law, and the finest such law in the world—so that they can kill a few more fish.
They want to take management authority for important recreational species away from NMFS and hand it over to the states. That way, there will be no inconvenient federal law forcing managers to use the best available science and rebuild overfished stocks.
They may want Louisiana and Texas to manage their snapper, but I’m not sure that any of us wants Maine and Massachusetts to manage or cod stocks, or New Jersey and North Carolina to manage our fluke…
They want to end current rebuilding deadlines—24 years doen't seem long enough—so that they can continue to overharvest and abuse a public resource and maybe never fully restore the stock. Their counterparts up here tried that with summer flounder, but Magnuson prevailed and we have more and bigger fluke than we could have hoped for ten years ago. Thanks to Magnuson, our sea bass and scup are doing well, too.
So, to those red snapper anglers in the Gulf, I say this:
As sportsmen, you’re an embarrassment. You make us all look bad when you sound just like the boys up in Gloucester, out to kill the last cod.
As advocates, you’re dangerous. You want to change the law so you can kill too much snapper. But the law is just fine--just like it is--for those of us who want to rebuild cod stocks. And the folks who hope that their kids—and if not them, then their grandkids—might still catch winter flounder. It's fine for the guys on the Pacific coast who want rockfish restored.
You emphasize the short term, and what you might kill next year; those of us who care about the future find that not only frightening, but remarkably dumb.
Maybe it’s just a matter of age. You’re getting a lot of gray hairs now. So you can have your fun and leave rebuilding our fish stocks, just like fixing the national debt and living with too much CO2 in the air, as problems for your kids and your grandkids to address when you're gone.
That wouldn’t be right, but you stopped worrying about “right” a number of years ago.
Or maybe you’re just myopic, and can’t see past your own problems. You neither know nor care that we don’t have red snapper on Long Island, or off Cape Cod or Point Reyes or in Prince William Sound, and you can’t get your head around the fact that what you do down there can affect folks everywhere else on the coast. And are you so self-indulgent that you won't fish for something else for a couple of years? Red snapper are only 2% of your landings; isn’t the other 98% enough?
It’s well past time for you all to get your heads out of the Gulf—or wherever else they've been stuck these days—and come back to reality. The earth does not revolve around red snapper, and it certainly doesn’t revolve around you. So consider the chance that you might be wrong, sit down, shut up and just think for a while.
Things need to change.
Because right now, you’re embarrassing—and threatening—us all.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
“Flexibility” is one of those words that just sounds good. It’s a friendly, mushy, go-along-to-get-along kind of word. It’s opposite, “rigidity,” is something that makes you think of Prussians and carbon steel, not the sort of associations that leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. “Flexibility” is for nice guys; “rigidity” and “stiffness” is, well, for stiffs…
And it’s probably that warm and fuzzy connotation that makes “flexibility” one of the favorite words of people who want to gut federal fisheries laws and weaken the current management system.
It’s pretty safe to say that, in most homes (if not in mine), fisheries management isn’t a typical topic of dinner-table conversation. Very few people—and far too few anglers—think much about it, and far fewer delve into the details. But it’s also probably safe to say that at some gut level, quite a few people, and most anglers, would say that overfishing is wrong, and would instinctively prefer a healthy stock to one in serious decline.
Thus, people aren’t likely to heed anyone who comes right out and says “Federal fishery law shouldn’t bar growth overfishing” (growth overfishing is a relatively low level of overfishing which doesn’t, by itself, cause a stock to decline, but removes most or all of the larger, older fish and so makes such stock less resilient and more vulnerable to adverse environmental or other events).
But if someone says “Fisheries laws should be more flexible” or “Managers should have more flexibility in rebuilding stocks,” most folks would nod and smile and likely feel that being “flexible” sounds like a reasonable thing.
Even if growth overfishing—or worse—would result.
For as someone observed a long time ago, it’s not what you say, but how you say it, that matters.
I served on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council a decade ago, when the summer flounder stock was still a long way from being rebuilt. There were more and bigger fish around every year, and fishermen were catching more of them all the time, but we were still far from achieving recovery, so regulations remained pretty tight. You heard a lot of “flexibility” talk back then, mixed in with comments about there being “more fluke around than there’s been for forty years.”
Most of that talk came from the owners and operators of party boats, and those who wanted to “protect marine, boat and tackle industry jobs,” along with the writers who carried such folks water in the angling press. We kept hearing pleas about “flexibility” at each August Council meeting, when we set the annual harvest limits for the following year, and those calls for “flexibility” were repeated in December, when the recreational rules for the coming season were set.
Yes, they kept saying that what they wanted was “flexibility”.
But what those for-hire and industry folk really meant was “There are enough fluke around to keep people happy; let’s cut the recovery short so we can rake in some cash.”
Fortunately, federal law didn’t let that happen, and today we have the sort of quality fishing we could have only imagined ten years ago.
But the recreational industry weren’t the only "flexibility" fans.
Up in New England, you hear members of the groundfish fleet complaining that rules intended to rebuild Gulf of Maine cod and other collapsed stocks are too strict, and should offer more “flexibility.” (http://www.cnhi.com/releases/x546103917/East-Coast-fishermen-protest-federal-catch-rules). But what they mean is, “We always overfished these stocks, and we don’t want to stop now.”
A few years ago, all of the fans of “flexibility” came together to urge Congress to pass the “Flexibility in Rebuilding America’s Fisheries Act.” The bill, which would have institutionalized “flexibility” as a euphemism for “overfishing,” was supported by angling industry groups such as the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which noted that
“We need deadline flexibility, we need to get rid of the accountability measures based on flawed science, and we have to address the problems with annual catch limits in the recreational sector where rebuilt fish stocks are concerned. Some say it’s a lot to ask, but we’re going to need it all if we want to save coastal jobs and keep our members fishing in the 21st Century.” (http://joinrfa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/MagnusonReform_061711.pdf)
Once again, economic considerations would trump the health of fish stocks.
However, another recreational organization, the Coastal Conservation Association, quickly debunked that argument, cutting through the smoke and mirrors to note
“For most important recreational species, rebuilding has either been completed or is well underway, and little is gained by stretching out the last few years of recovery periods that are already well underway. The exceptions are those complexes of slow-growing, generally deep-water species which support a mixed commercial/recreational fishery: New England groundfish, southern snapper-grouper and Pacific rockfish.
“Claims that the current rebuilding deadlines don’t take biological or ecological conditions into account are false. The current law permits the 10-year deadline to be exceeded when the biology of the fish requires it, in which case the rebuilding period is generally one mean generation (the time it takes a fish of the affected species to mature) plus 10 years.
“The extension of the rebuilding deadlines in the Flexibility Act are simply designed to drag out recovery in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue.” (http://www.joincca.org/articles/36)
The effort to enshrine “flexibility” in federal fisheries law faded in the face of such undeniable truth.
For a while.
But now some time as passed, and the friendly façade of “flexibility” is again being used to cover an ugly effort to overfish and delay the recovery of battered stocks. But this time, the attack on federal rebuilding and conservation initiatives is coming from an unexpected source—formerly rational representatives of recreational fishermen who once were among “flexibility’s” staunchest foes.
This time, the call for “flexibility” has emerged in the much-hyped and blatantly hypocritical report issued by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” (http://www.trcp.org/assets/pdf/Visioning-Report-fnl-web.pdf) which states
“The Magnuson-Stevens Act currently states that the timeline for ending overfishing and rebuilding fisheries ‘be as short as possible’ and ‘not exceed 10 years,” with a few limited exceptions to allow for longer timeframes. While some stocks can be rebuilt in 10 years or less, others require longer generation times, or factors unrelated to fishing pressure may prohibit rebuilding in 10 years or less.
“Echoing the concerns raised by stakeholders and many of the regional fishery management councils, a report by the prestigious and nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences concluded that the 10-year rebuilding provisions should be revised to provide greater flexibility than is currently allowed under the law. Instead of having a fixed deadline for stocks to be rebuilt, the NAS recommended that the regional councils and fisheries managers set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
That statement is unremarkable in some respects—boiled down, it’s just another case of folks talking about “flexibility” when they are really saying “allow overfishing and delay rebuilding so folks can pocket some short-term cash”—and it clearly stands in opposition to the Coastal Conservation Association’s characterization of “flexibility” that was quoted a few paragraphs before.
But what is remarkable here is that the Coastal Conservation Association was a major contributor to TRCP’s “Vision” report, and that such report is being heavily promoted by members of the Center for Coastal Conservation, a trade association founded, in large part, by CCA. Roughly recalling some words of a recent presidential campaign that highlighted one candidate’s alleged flip-flops on the issues, “CCA was against ‘flexibility’—until it was for it.”
And that’s too bad, because CCA was right the first time. ““The extension of the rebuilding deadlines in the Flexibility Act,” and, I might add, any “flexibility” legislation that arises out of the TRCP report, “are simply designed to drag out recovery in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue.”
For that is the truth, and truth is immutable, even if people and organizations end up changing their views.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
When I was growing up in Connecticut, alewives running up the Mianus River were a sign of spring.
We didn’t call them “alewives” back then; they were “herring” or, in the vernacular of the city folks who came down to net them each weekend, “bony herring”, and as I grew old enough to descend to the river and fish for them myself, I called them “bony herring”, too.
Later on in the spring, it’s possible that the alewives thinned out and blueback herring took their place; we never thought that there were two kinds of herring in the river, so we never tried to tell them apart. The folks who lump them together as “river herring” today know better, but “lumping” is just such an easy thing to do…
The first waves entered the Mianus sometime in late March or early April; by Easter, they’d always be in. They’d arrive from Long Island Sound—and from the ocean beyond--and collide with the Mianus Dam, which pretty much halted their journey upriver. Yet some of the fish somehow found a way up, because I’ve seen largemouth bass chasing young-of-the-year herring in the pond above the dam.
The folks who study such things say that river herring can’t really jump, and that’s why dams have caused such harm to the stocks; the fish just have nowhere to spawn. That’s probably true, and the little alewives (or perhaps they were bluebacks) that I saw in the pond might have been spawned by the few buckets of fish that folks usually dumped up there each spring, just because it seemed like the right thing to do.
But I know that after a rain, there was a spate of water that poured past the corners of the dam, creating a small waterfall in the seam where concrete merged with the bedrock of the Earth. And I know that when the tide was high, if you watched that white water closely enough, you would see flashes of silver and sometimes whole fish streaking upward into the torrent. Might herring jump better than folks think that they can? Or did they just have such energy and determination that they swam up the near-vertical flow, perhaps finding miniscule resting spots amidst the jagged rock, which allowed them just enough respite to flex their body into the final spurt of motion that allowed them to gain the spawning grounds above?
I don’t know.
I also don’t know how many herring came into the river back then, nor how many were taken out, by the pail and the bushel and anything else that could hold a fish, but there were certainly a lot of them.
Early in the season, when the water was cold, most of the fish held in the deeper water south of the Route 1 bridge. Beginning when I was in fourth or fifth grade, I’d go down with my friends and snag the fish with treble hooks that I’d cast out and let sink to the bottom, then jerked back ‘til a fish was impaled. Yes, that was legal back then, and so was selling the fish to the folks who waited, usually in vain, for the alewives to move up to the dam. At that time of year, you could get a quarter apiece for the herring, and that was good money to a 10-year-old back in ’65.
That was my sole venture into the commercial fishing business and, yes, back then, selling fish felt good.
But once the water warmed and the fish came all the way to the dam, prices dropped to $5 per bushel and the market was dominated by the high school kids with dipnets who waded out as far as they could and caught herring by the hundreds.
It’s been a while, but I still remember the frenetic April weekends clearly.
Cars would fill the parking lot. Remember that this happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when big Detroit iron ruled the roads, so we’re talking about full-sized Buicks and Cadillacs, old—probably bought used—but repainted, sometimes in what we’d think of as garish colors today, and well-maintained by their owners.
During the early ‘60s, there were few enough cars on the road that New York license plates carried a prefix that revealed where each owner lived—“BX” for The Bronx, “QU” for Queens, etc.—so we knew where the fishermen were from. They came out to the Mianus not only for fish, which they pickled, but to find some time away from the concrete where they could enjoy a kind of country picnic.
That was particularly true on Sundays, when folks came to the river right after church. Men would still be dressed in wool suits and leather shoes, white shirts and dark ties, while the women descended the riverbank in flowing, pastel-colored spring dresses that somehow never seemed to attract a single blotch of mud.
The women often cooked over small bonfires lit on the eastern bank—back then, the government didn’t regulate and prohibit the small things the way that they do today, so no one said anything about the fires, and even when one got out of control and lit up the adjacent brush. The bank was bordered by water on one side and either concrete or stone on the other three, so nothing got out of hand; if the spring was dry and the fire got a little too big, volunteer firemen showed up and put things right in a few minutes.
While the women cooked, the men fished.
Just getting to the water—at least on the west bank, where the fishing was best—was a challenge, for the dam, an adjacent pumphouse and the ground around it was owned by the railroad, which pumped fresh water from the pond to a power plant about a mile farther downstream. The railroad prohibited trespassing but, again, in those days, the police generally ignored the incursion unless somebody complained. Fishermen—kids and visitors alike—just either climbed over or went under the fence, or just bent the bars and went through it.
Then, everyone jostled for position. If the tide was high, the fish stayed in deep water, and there weren’t many places where someone could reach “fishy” water. Netters crowded onto a concrete platform right up against the dam, and the best spot of all was a red tile pipe that carried overflow from the pumphouse. It stuck out about a foot the wall that held up the platform, and was about two feet below ground level. So if you really wanted to catch herring, you’d have to be the first guy out to the platform, then ease yourself onto the pipe to reach the most fish.
At least, you’d do that until you fell off, because the pipe was slippery, and the leather-soled shoes that the city fishermen wore weren’t really good for holding on. The fact that, back in the ‘60s, folks were a little more tolerant of someone having a beer or taking a little nip of whiskey on a Sunday afternoon added to the netters’ instability, so it usually wasn’t long until there’s be a splash and a splutter, and some fisherman—suit, tie and all—would be drifting down the muddy Mianus.
But there was a gravel bar just a few yards downstream, and they all washed up there, so no one ever drowned.
On the other hand, by the time the soggy herring hunter could climb back onto the platform, someone would have stolen his spot on top of the pipe. Until he fell off, too.
A lot of the folks realized that it was better to stay dry and enjoy the sunshine, rather than ending up wet in the river, and they hired the high school kids to catch the herring for them. The kids grew up on the river, so they owned waders, and could walk out to where the fish were without taking an unintended bath. As a result, they could fill up a bushel basket in minutes.
The people on shore quickly discovered that there were more fish available than there were baskets to hold them. The problems was usually solved by just pouring the fish right into the trunks of the waiting Cadillacs, where they could be bailed out of the back at the owner’s leisure once he returned home.
I’m sure that a few slipped into crevices where they weren’t located right away…
When the tide went out, the herring still came in, although in lesser numbers. There’s a seven-foot tide on the Connecticut shore, so when the water retreated, all that was left of the river were runnels as shallow as high mountain brooks, that wended over the gravel and between the bigger stones. Yet the herring came on, flowing silver as mercury in an old-time thermometer, often turning onto their sides to navigate the shallow stretches and reach the deep at the base of the dam.
At that point, the water was actually too shallow to net fish, unless you waded right up to the dam itself. There was a lobsterman who everyone called “Sarge”—not an unusually nickname given that World War II wasn’t twenty years past—who used to come down at low water to catch herring for bait. He also owned a black Labrador retriever who was an old hand at handling fish.
So while the lobsterman waded out to catch the fish at the base of the dam, his Lab would race into the shallows, pick up one herring at a time, then run back to drop them on the bank. Every now and then, as fish flopped back toward the river, the Lab would break the routine to catch one of the wayward herring and drop it higher on the bank. (That dog also liked to eat live lobster, and had learned over the years how to avoid their claws by coming up from behind and crushing the lobster’s carapace with one hard and sudden bite. It’s not clear how the Lab learned to do that, how painful the learning might have been, or how the lobstermen felt about his companion eating a share of his profits.)
An entire colorful, if very local, seasonal culture built up around the “bony herring” run, but it died when the fish went away.
The herring never disappeared entirely; the run declined to about 5,000 fish—probably less than the folks used to net in a single weekend. Maybe the run had been suffering for a long time, and finally reached some tipping point. Maybe, like many similar runs, it was depleted offshore, by the small-mesh trawls that targeted Atlantic herring (a fairly distant relative that never enters fresh water), mackerel and squid.
Whatever the problem was, people could see it coming for a long time before they did anything about it.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission engaged in extensive studies to determine the health of the various runs and to figure out why runs were declining, but it took a very long time before ASMFC actually did anything to reduce the kill. A few states, including Connecticut, didn’t wait for ASMFC to take action, and preemptively shut down their river herring fisheries. In 2009, ASMFC finally caught up, giving states the choice: Draft a management plan that creates a sustainable river herring fishery by 2012, or close the fishery altogether.
Maine, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina produced such plans, although some are very limited in scope. New York’s plan, for example, only permits river herring harvest in the Hudson River and a portion of its tributaries, and that harvest is, rightfully, extremely limited.
In the ocean, federal management is lagging.
In 2012, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council did adopt a cap on river herring caught as bycatch in the mackerel fishery, but the cap is fairly large, and may not be restrictive enough to help stocks rebuild. An effort to implement more comprehensive measures, which would have led to more effective management in federal waters, failed in a close vote last October, and was replaced by an industry “working group” that may or may not ever take meaningful action. The New England Fishery Management Council is also making some efforts to limit the number of river herring incidentally killed in the Atlantic herring fishery, but once again, the efforts are modest and may not be enough.
On the other hand, local efforts are starting to bear some fruit. Dams are being removed, giving herring access to spawning waters that they haven’t been able to reach, in some cases, for well over a century. In many places where dams aren’t removed, fish ladders have been built to allow at least some fish to get upriver and spawn.
One of those fish ladders was built on the Mianus some years ago. My childhood river, which almost lost its herring run, now hosts the largest run in the state of Connecticut. It has rebuilt from a low of 5,000 fish to a current run of about 100,000, which I suspect is still smaller than it was when I waded the river’s waters, but it’s still far better than it was not very long ago.
Another fish ladder has been built on the Carlls River, in the village of Babylon, New York.
The Carlls River’s herring were deprived of their spawning grounds many decades ago, when a dam created Argyle Lake. But a fish ladder was built there last spring, and with childhood memories and a haunting knowledge of what had been lost up in Connecticut, I volunteered to monitor the run this spring.
I didn’t expect to see anything, given the age of the dam. When I stood watch on the river for the first time, my low expectations were fully justified. The water was dead.
Five days later, on my way home from work, I stopped by the river again. I went through my routine, checking the water temperature, scanning the surface for signs of life and then settling in with the sun at my back to watch.
And then I realized something that, somehow, I hadn’t noticed before. Lying next to the fish ladder, on a gravel flat exposed by the dropping tide, was an alewife.
It might sound strange to folks who don’t spend their spare time helping to keep fisheries alive, but when I saw that alewife on the gravel I felt an emotional jolt as strong as the one I get when I hook up with a big fish offshore.
On the other hand, if you do this sort of work, I don’t need to explain. You already understand.
Maybe that fish was the only herring in the river, a loner that somehow wandered up the Carlls instead of some other creek. But I don’t think so.
Herring normally travel in schools, and I suspect that it was part of a small group that was ascending the ladder as the tide fell away, and that it was either bumped or became confused and darted over the edge.
I hope that is true.
Because if it is, then there is hope that both our rivers and their hordes of river herring can again shiver with silver life every spring.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a thing, and I miss it.
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Quoting—or misquoting—Rodney Dangerfield is something of a cliché. But the fact is, winter flounder get no respect.
Maybe that’s because they’re flat and small, cryptically colored with funny, bulging eyes. They aren’t pretty, like marlin. They’re don’t frighten, like sharks. And they lack the freight-train strength and presence of bluefin tuna.
Flounder don’t jump like tarpon or run like bonefish, and their mouths are so small and toothless that they can’t even give you a nip if you’re careless removing a hook.
Worse than that, they taste good, and they used to be so abundant that no one ever believed that they could ever disappear.
So, somehow, winter flounder got lost in the management process, and they’re still looking for a guide to help them back to their bay-bottom homes.
By historical standards, we’re already well into flounder season. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, my boat would have been in the water by now. I would have been flounder fishing this weekend.
St. Patrick’s Day was the unofficial start of the season, although a few of the party boats on the South Shore of Long Island started fishing a couple of weeks sooner. So long as there was no ice on the bay, a handful of anglers would catch flounder all winter.
We used to take flounders for granted. Fishermen would go out with a feed sack, a five-gallon pail or bushel basket, and often filled it before they went home. Mostly, they intended to eat the fish, although sometimes when they had more than they wanted to clean, they tried to give some away; if no people were interested, the tomatoes always appreciated some additional fertilizer.
There were no bag or size limits back then. I knew one fisherman who kept every fish that he caught, claiming that the “sweet little ones” fried up into “potato chips” that tasted better than the big fish. I knew another who got very offended if anyone told him that he should toss the small fish back and not bury them in his garden.
Fishery managers saw the signs that flounder were starting to slide downhill, but were slow to respond. I first got involved in fisheries issues when the striped bass collapsed back in the ‘70s, but by 1980, I was working on flounder, too. That’s when I went to a hearing held somewhere in Connecticut, when that state was proposing its first-ever size limit on flatfish. It was ridiculously low—something like 7 or 8 inches—but the folks from the tackle shops showed up to oppose it, afraid that putting any restrictions on flounder at all might mean that anglers who wanted to keep the “sweet little ones” wouldn’t buy quite so many worms, hooks or sinkers.
It’s now about 35 years later, and nothing has really changed, except that today there are a lot fewer flounder.
The poor fish just can’t catch a break.
It didn’t help that, in federal waters, they were managed by the New England Fishery Management Council, which is largely peopled by the commercial fishing industry and still seems to believe that no fish should ever die of—or even reach—old age. For 20 years after the Magnuson Act’s passage, the folks up in New England used the letter of the law—which then justified overfishing because of “economic factors”—to drive down populations offshore at the same time that few states did anything to conserve the fish on their inshore spawning grounds.
The passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which prohibited all overfishing and required that stocks be timely rebuilt regardless of economic impact, seemed to hold out some hope for the flounder. But the folks up in New England don’t give up easily. They couldn’t explicitly allow overfishing any more, but they could pretend to solve problems by imposing “input controls”—restrictions on how many days a boat could fish, or how many boats could participate in a particular fishery—while avoiding the hard poundage quotas that were the only certain way to control the kill. So the New England Council continued to reign over the flounder’s demise while adopting sham rebuilding plans that never actually did any good.
Inshore, states tried to step into the breach, but they received a lot of pushback from the fishing industry. I moved from Connecticut to New York in ‘83, but flounder didn’t fare well anywhere. In 1988, New York adopted its first recreational bag and size limits for winter flounder; however, due to resistance from the tackle shop and party boat owners, the size limit was so small and the bag limit so large that they did little to protect the fish. The rules did protect the incomes of the angling industry, which admitted that flounder were waning, but argued that their customers must have the “perception” that they could enjoy a “big day”—that is, a big kill—or they wouldn’t want to fish any more.
So the regulations weren’t particularly effective, and New York anglers killed over 4.8 million flounder that year.
In 1993, the passage of the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cooperative Management Act gave the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission authority to manage winter flounder (and a number of other species) in state waters. The ASMFC fishery management plan in force at the time estimated that between 55 and 65 percent of the flounder population was killed by recreational and commercial fishermen each year. It eventually introduced measures intended to reduce that kill.
I always held a soft spot in my heart for winter flounder, so in the late ‘90s I became a member of ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel.
I was at ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Management Board meeting in the winter of ’99, when it was clear that too many fish were being killed and that, pursuant to the management plan, the states had to adopt more restrictive regulations. And I was there when that management board voted—unanimously—that the states wouldn’t have to comply with the harvest cuts in the management plan, supposedly because the New England Council wasn’t cutting harvest and the management board thought that state and federal rules should be coordinated.
Of course, when a completely collapsed stock caused the feds to impose a moratorium a few years later, coordinated management didn’t seem so important. ASMFC tightened regulations, did not impose a similar ban on landings, despite the near-disappearance of inshore spawning populations.
After all, no one cared about winter flounder, so why not continue the kill?
And it truly seemed that no one at all cared about flounder, Even the national conservation groups, who had no problem suing the National Marine Fisheries Service over summer flounder and tilefish, river herring and red snapper, collectively shrugged when, a year or so ago, NMFS suddenly pushed the rebuilding deadline back another ten years. The fact that the flounder stock was in such dire straits that it couldn’t be rebuilt by the original deadline might—if you stretched the point—justify the extension. But it certainly didn’t justify reopening the fishery and giving a 5,000 pound trip limit to the groundfish boats when the stock is 84% smaller than it is supposed to be.
As I said, winter flounder get no respect. It was like the conservation folks didn’t even notice.
But if the big conservation groups didn’t notice the latest nail hammered into the flounder’s coffin, ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Management Board certainly did. When the feds imposed a moratorium, coordinated management might not have mattered, but when the feds opened up the fishery offshore, well, it was time to kill more fish in the bays.
ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel disagreed; it unanimously recommended a moratorium. ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Technical Committee advised that the southern stock was at or close to its historic lows, and presented data to prove it (http://www.asmfc.org/uploads/file/52fbdf06WinterFlounderTCReport_AbundanceIndices_Feb2014.pdf). But this was ASMFC, after all, where overfished stocks and fishery science may be safely ignored. So, as I described in a post last February, the Management Board decided to extend the recreational season from 60 days to 10 full months.
Next it was up to the states to figure out what to do.
Here in New York, the issue came up at the March 18 meeting of the Marine Resources Advisory Council. A biologist from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, who does most of the agency’s winter flounder work, described the recent events at ASMFC, and noted that the decision to extend the season “caught the Technical Committee by surprise” because such decision
“had nothing to with stock health and everything to do with economics and politics.”
Which, of course, is true of a lot of decisions—almost certainly most decisions—made at ASMFC.
It was probably inevitable that the majority of the audience at the Advisory Council meeting, which was largely composed of party and charter boat operators, supported the longer season. That’s what those folks usually do. And it’s not surprising that all but one of the commercial and recreational fishing industry representatives on the Advisory Council also supported the increased kill. Because that’s what those folks normally do.
And, after all, this was winter flounder, a fish that they don’t respect.
I hope that the state feels differently.
It’s too early to tell. But the Chief of the DEC’s Marine Bureau made it clear that, if the agency does propose an extended season, it won’t do so in “emergency regulations” issued without public comment. Instead, any change in the regulations will be made through the normal rulemaking process. That would take some time, perhaps enough time to get the flounder safely through this season.
After that, who knows? There are good people at DEC, and they’ve followed the science before. There is reason, at least, to hope.
I went into the Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting prepared to fight for the flounder, but I feared that it was a hopeless cause. I came out saying “At least I didn’t lose today. For now, the season won’t change.”
And as any fisheries advocate knows, when you can say that, it’s almost like a win.
But that isn’t the way the flounder story should end. It should end with real protection for a fish that desperately needs it.
And it’s not the way that the fisheries management story should end. It should end with real protections in place for all of our fish. We shouldn’t be where we are now, with the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries trying to weaken federal fishing laws and hand management of important fisheries over to the states, so that those industries may enjoy “extensive economic benefits” at the expense of the resource.
For if they succeed in achieving those goals, all of our fish may end up like winter flounder.
Sunday, March 16, 2014
In this final essay in the One Angler’s Vision series, I will suggest that there are far better models for salt water fisheries management than that put forward in the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” (http://www.trcp.org/assets/pdf/Visioning-Report-fnl-web.pdf). And that’s important. Because in the last five essays, I explained what I thought was wrong with TRCP’s “Vision” report. But you can’t just be against something, and it’s not enough to just criticize someone else’s effort.
If you’re going to criticize something, you’d better have a better idea to put in its place.
Fortunately, there are a lot of good ideas out there.
We should probably start with a comment made by Aldo Leopold, a pioneer of American wildlife management, who noted that
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Leopold’s comment is as appropriate to managing living marine resources as it is to managing ducks, upland birds and deer. And by that standard, the TRCP “Vision”, which emphasizes economic returns rather than restored fish stocks and healthy marine ecosystems, is miserably wrong.
But, as I said, there are plenty of better ideas out there.
Let’s start with Rip Cunningham’s recent blog on managing New England groundfish (http://www.reel-time.com/articles/conservation/upcoming-decisions-impact-recreational-groundfish-anglers/). Cunningham, who served a long tenure as editor at Salt Water Sportsman and, until recently, was the Chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, noted that anglers require
“essentially three things to be successful: fish, fish and fish! Recreational users have the least efficient gear and therefore need to have population levels as high as possible”
Not coincidentally, Cunningham was also a member of the commission that assembled the TRCP “Vision” report. I don’t think that I’m going out on a very long limb when I say that he probably supported the report’s conclusion that recreational fish species should be managed for abundance, and for a reasonable number of large fish, and not for maximum sustainable yield.
The TRCP’s “Vision” also concluded that conservation was important to anglers and that the nation needed a recreational fishing policy. I believe that both those things are true; as I said in the first essay of this series, the “Vision” report got a lot of things right. It only went astray when it made recommendations that would support neither the effective conservation measures nor the abundant fish stocks that it recognized as anglers’ key needs.
Thus, we must envision a national recreational fishing policy that embraces those needs and makes them reality.
The good news is that folks already know how to make that happen. We need to recognize that salt water fish are just another form of wildlife, and that they need to be managed in the same way that biologists already manage wild brook trout, ruffed grouse, mallards and whitetail deer.
You don’t see those species, or any important species of game, upland birds, waterfowl or freshwater fish managed primarily for “extensive economic benefits,” as the “Vision” report would manage salt water fish. Such living natural resources are managed with an eye toward healthy populations, abundance and the integrity of the ecosystems in which they live. They are also (with a few exceptions, such as the landowner and outfitter hunting permits issued in a few western states) managed in a way that gives private citizens—and not the folks who make money from their demise—the broadest possible access to such resources that is consistent with sound conservation practices.
The key to such a management approach is something called the “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.” It’s unique in the world, and exists, to my knowledge, only in the United States and in Canada. It is based on the premise that natural resources are held in trust by the state or nation on behalf of all of its citizens.
More information on the North American Model can be found at (http://joomla.wildlife.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=171). However, it is founded on seven basic principles, which can be summarized as
1. Wildlife is a public resource, held in trust by the government on behalf of all citizens;
2. Wildlife should not be harvested for market;
3. Wildlife should be allocated among harvesters by law;
4. Wildlife should only be killed for a legitimate purpose;
5. Wildlife is an international resource;
6. Wildlife management decisions should be based strictly on science; and
7. Wildlife should be accessible to the general public.
Using those basic principles, American wildlife managers have restored and conserved a wide range of mammals, birds and fresh water fish.
If we could start with a blank slate, it would be difficult to come up with a better set of principles for managing salt water fish as well.
SO HERE IS MY VISION
As the TRCP report suggests, recreational fishermen need an abundance of fish in order to have a satisfying angling experience. “Flexibility” doesn’t get you there. So:
· Stock rebuilding should not be delayed. The current 10-year rebuilding deadline of the Magnuson Act does not fit every species perfectly, but it provides a good proxy for managers to use unless and until the best available science indicates that some other rebuilding period—which may be longer or shorter than 10 years—is more appropriate. The decision as to the appropriate rebuilding period should be based solely upon the biology of the stock and the impact on and of the ecosystem that supports it, and not on economic considerations.
· All decisions that are based on the biology of the fish, including but not limited to annual harvest levels, must be set solely by fisheries scientists. Anglers, commercial fishermen and representatives of the fishing industry may only make decisions between alternatives (e.g., combinations of size, bag and season) provided by such scientists, or with respect to non-biological issues, such as allocation. Groups such as ASMFC must be required to adhere to conservation standards at least as restrictive as those mandated by federal law.
· All overfished and/or recovering fisheries must be governed by hard caps on harvest; fully-rebuilt fisheries might be governed by alternate means such as fishing mortality rates, provided that there is a trigger in place to adjust such rates promptly if overfishing occurs.
· Allocation of fish must first consider the personal-use needs of the private individual; if those needs are satisfied and additional fish may be harvested without harming the ecosystem, they may be allocated to the commercial sector.
· In all decisions, the health of the resource must be given priority over economic concerns or the desires of any particular user group, or of all user groups in the aggregate. In the long term, a healthy, fully-restored fishery is in everyone’s best interests.
I write the above knowing that it’s something that I’ll probably never see in my lifetime. We've been inching closer to it over the years, but now some folks want to take us backward, to that place where the fish and the individual angler are subordinated to economic concerns. We’ve been there before, and neither the fish nor the anglers came out of it too well. We shouldn’t go there again.
AND NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
I know that a lot of people read this blog; I can look up how many “hits” I get daily. And I suspect that most of those readers—most of you—are anglers.
So now it’s time to figure out what your “vision” might be.
It might look like mine. It might look like the TRCP’s “Vision” report. It might be something else entirely.
But unless you move quickly to share it, it’s possible that no one will care.
Sometime this month, maybe sometime very soon, Senator Mark Begich of Alaska will unveil the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard’s initial draft of a Magnuson reauthorization bill. Senator Begich has a record of supporting conservation efforts that he believes in—in the middle of a very tough reelection fight, he had the character to come out against the infamous Pebble Mine, even though his stance might cost him needed votes—so we can be pretty sure that any Senate bill will be far better than Rep. Hastings “Empty Oceans” approach.
Still, the “contributors” to the TRCP “Vision” report have been lobbying Senator Begich incessantly, and believe that he is sympathetic to their cause (http://www.tradeonlytoday.com/2014/03/magnuson-stevens-reauthorization-cover-recreational-anglers/). The fact that the news appears in a publication called “Trade Only Today” probably suggests that their cause isn't necessarily yours.
And on March 26, the TRCP report will be presented to the National Press Club in an event that is apparently being coordinated by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (http://press.org/events/saltwater-recreational-fishings-future).
Once the momentum gets going, it’s going to be pretty hard to stop. And your voice will be lost in the process.
So if science-driven management, ending overfishing, rebuilding overfished stocks and preventing ASMFC and similar state-based groups from mismanaging fisheries is important to you, you ought to let folks know.
One of those folks is Senator Begich
111 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Washington, DC 20510
The other is your local congressman and your two U. S. senators, although they probably won’t be paying much attention until after the November elections.
Be polite, be concise, but tell them about your concerns.
Do it quickly.
Because it’s pretty clear that no one else is going to speak for you. They’re all too worried about themselves.