Thursday, May 29, 2014
For the past three months or so, I’ve been watching a slow-motion battle between spokesmen for the recreational and commercial fishing industries.
The first shots were fired by a coalition of boatbuilding, tackle industry and anglers’ rights groups inaptly named the “Center for Coastal Conservation”, which provided the ideological backbone for what became the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries”.
That “Vision” report made gratuitous use of the word “conservation,” repeating it often, but when you read through to the nuts and bolts—the proposed changes to federal fisheries law that would delay rebuilding overfished stocks and eliminate recreational quotas, all in the name of “socioeconomic” benefit—you realize pretty quickly that, in the end, the TRCP “Vision” is really all about money, and keeping it flowing to—you guessed it—the boatbuilders and tackle industry folks who effectively wrote the report.
Disguised in nice talk about conservation being important to anglers…
Still, it’s hard to blame the industry folks for proposing such things. They’re in business to make money, and if they believe that they’ll enjoy greater profits by prolonging overfishing and delaying the recovery of overfished stocks, they can fight to promote their interests, regardless of how much they might hurt the rest of us.
Businesses do that every day.
But it’s a lot easier to find fault with groups representing anglers, when they jump on that pro-profit bandwagon instead of safeguarding the sportsman’s traditional role as guardian of our shared natural resources.
I think that I may have used Robert Ruark’s words in an earlier post, but I’ll use them again because they do say it all.
“A sportsman, is a gentleman first. But a sportsman, basically, is a man who kills what he needs, whether it’s fish or bird or animal, or what he wants for a special reason, but he never kills anything just to kill it. And he tries to preserve the very same thing that he kills a little of from time to time. The books call this conservation. It’s the same reason why we don’t shoot that tame covey of quail down to less’n ten birds.”
That notion of what makes a “sportsman” defined waterfowlers more than a century ago, when they pushed for a federal “duck stamp” for hunters, to fund the protection of critical habitat. Back in ’05, it defined striped bass fishermen here on Long Island, when we banded together—ultimately unsuccessfully—to fight the recreational fishing industry’s drive for relaxed regulations and a bigger bass kill.
And it has long been a part of the trout angler’s heritage, with Art Neumann, one of the founders of Trout Unlimited, noting,
“Take care of the fish, and the fishing will take care of itself.”
Thinking that way is what sportsmen do. As stewards of the resource, always with an eye to the future, we know that of all the measures of a creature’s worth, profit is the very least of them.
So when Michael Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association, showed up at the Miami Boat Show last winter, and used gumballs to illustrate his point that commercial fishermen kill most of the fish, while anglers provide most of the economic benefits, he was being a good businessman.
He was not speaking for sportsmen.
If commercial fishermen take too many fish, their landings should be reduced. And if anglers take too many fish, their landings should also be cut, even if that pushes down gear sales for the next year or two. But despite all of the talk in TRCP’s “Vision” report about “conservation,” “abundance” and other good things, we should never forget that the gumball show was all about moving around fish to maximize income. Nothing more.
Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised when, after a NOAA Fisheries report indicated that commercial fishing provides a greater economic benefit than the recreational sector did, the commercial folks responded loudly to Nussman’s gumball barrage.
Soon after, the Coastal Conservation Association jumped in on behalf of its ally, attacking (with some justification) the NOAA Fisheries report, and Nils Stolpe, a public relations flak for the commercial industry, took another shot at Nussman, the American Sportfishing Association and gumball democracy. At that point Rip Cunningham, former publisher of Salt Water Sportsman, bona fide conservation advocate and fellow blogger on fisheries issues came to Nussman’s defense and began to rip (no pun intended) Stolpe’s position.
It has been a spring full of sound and fury, all of it over dollars.
The fish just got lost in the din.
That wasn’t right. It was not right at all.
If anglers are to win the current fight to conserve and restore our coastal fisheries, we aren’t going to win on our own. We will need broader public support, to offset a strong industry drive to reverse two decades of progress. And the only way to win public support is to emphasize the public benefits conferred by healthy, restored marine fish stocks not only to anglers, but to divers and beachgoers and to folks who just want to eat local fish every now and again.
Twenty years ago, the Coastal Conservation Association’s Florida chapter recognized that truth when, in its effort to ban most nets in state waters, it launched its “Save our Sealife” campaign. That campaign was built around the net ban’s environmental benefits, not its economic impacts. In the end, CCA Florida convinced nearly 72% of the voters to support its position.
Do any of us believe that a net ban campaign built around industry profits would have done nearly as well?
Yet that is exactly the route CCA, and others, are now taking.
Pat Murray is the president of CCA, and clearly supports its current position.
That wasn’t always the case. Just seven years ago, when he was still Vice President and Director of Conservation, he penned an article entitled “The Last Fish,” which appeared in CCA’s in-house publication, Tide. In “The Last Fish”, Murray noted that
“There was also a smaller but very vocal group of anglers who thought that their sport would not survive with bag and size limitations of any kind…The defiance of this greedy recreational faction seems so shortsighted when compared to the modern voice of marine conservation, but if you listen, you can still hear those same calls when the management decisions get personal.
”The ‘resource first’ ethic that drove the early saltwater conservation movement is slowly being corrupted by a doctrine of ‘fishermen first.’
“It has often been said that commercial fishermen want to catch the last fish. But are we recreational anglers trying to stop them simply because we want to catch the last fish?
“Some of the very people who first pushed the ‘resource first’ ethic are now arguing for greater poundage and more liberal limits, even in the face of troubling stock assessments. They cry that it will limit anglers’ interest and may damage the industry, but won’t killing the last fish not decisively kill the industry?”
No sportsman can easily disagree with Murray’s sentiments, and they are as valid today as when first put on paper.
They’re sentiments that a broader public can understand and support.
Of course, the folks who Murray described as “killing the last fish” weren’t too happy, saying
“…as Capt. Tom Buban, skipper of the Atlantic Star out of Atlantic Highlands puts it, ‘My people just want to take home a fish to eat.’ Is that too much to ask when fluke are more plentiful today than they were in the 1950s?...
“The shrill charge that recreational anglers are bent on killing the last fish, when they protest harsh regulations that increasingly shut them out of…fisheries, is nonsense designed to protect a broken fishery management system…
“…recreational anglers who took trains and drove cars to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting…were not asking for the last summer flounder…They went to protest a broken fisheries management system that will slash the…harvest this year to its lowest point since 1993…they are fishermen who understand that a renewable marine resource can be harvested as it grows…”
If you look at the press releases coming out of CCA’s office these days, they echo the words of Murray's formenr critics, and make it sound as iff CCA wants to “kill the last fish” too.
“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…”
“Federal management of red snapper reached a new low in 2013 when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council announced the shortest season ever, even though the red snapper population is booming…The reality is that federal fisheries management has a credibility problem.”
“After decades of management, participants in the red snapper fishery were rewarded with a 27-day season and a two-fish bag limit…The current situation is unacceptable, and that is with a fishery that by all accounts is recovering wildly…”
That matters, because, out of all the angler-based organization dealing with broad salt water fisheries issues, CCA is the big dog—a bull mastiff standing in a kennel filled largely with ankle-biters, including one rabid toy poodle that yaps and snaps at anyone who crosses its path but is, in the overall scheme of things, inconsequential.
Which means that CCA’s abandonment of the “resource-first” high road, and its enthusiastic engagement in the “socioeconomic” tug-of-war over gumballs and cash flow has left coastal sportsmen in a pretty bad place.
There is no one left to champion the traditional values of conservation, who is willing to make sacrifices to assure the resource’s health.
There is no association of anglers who value the fish for their inherent worth, and don’t seek to manage them as commodities put on earth merely to channel more dollars to industry coffers.
Why should the general public—the folks who don’t fish, but support conservation—give a good damn about who kills the last fish and so makes the last dollar?
In warfare, one of the most elementary principles of strategy is to take and to hold the high ground. For years, sportsmen did that, placing the good of the resource ahead of their own.
In abandoning that resource-first posture and engaging in a debate over dollars, today’s recreational fishing organizations have abandoned the high ground, electing to fight on industry’s chosen terrain.
Letting someone else choose the place of a battle is always a bad idea. It may be a particularly bad idea now.
For in this current America—this post-Lehman collapse, post-Great Recession America—bigger corporate profits aren’t always viewed as the greatest good.
The recreational industry may stand smug in its certainty that the gumballs—excuse me, the economic data—are all on their side. But the public may just disagree.
They may decide that a publicly-traded corporation—even one that makes boats—shouldn’t profit at the expense of a family-owned fish house. They may believe that an American man, who risks his own life at sea to put food on his table, deserves a few more fish—and thus a little more money—than a company that imports Chinese fishing reels.
A head-to-head fight based on profits alone is a fight that we anglers—and our fish—could well lose.
Fish have a value that transcends economics, and cannot be measured by cash flow. There is a rightness to restoring our marine ecosystems that cannot be measured by dollars alone.
Although Aldo Leopold dealt with the land, not the sea, he described that rightness precisely.
“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.”
Economics wasn’t mentioned at all.
It is time for salt water sportsmen to do what is right. Time to reclaim the high ground as well as ourr heritage.
From the high ground, one can see what the future can be.
And one can realize, again, that a future filled with a healthy and abundant sea is the only future worth fighting for.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
When I have the spare time, I enjoy watching television shows that cast a little light on what fishing is like in other parts of the world.
I’m not talking about the usual offerings in which a supposed angling “expert” flies off to an exotic resort to catch a few fish of some sort, and spends most of his time promoting his sponsors’ latest products. Instead, I’m referring to foreign programs which depict day-to-day angling in a less commercial light.
The United Kingdom is particularly good at producing such shows, and one of my favorites is something called Boat Fishing with Barham. It’s a World Fishing Network offering, which features its host, David Barham, fishing for various species of salt water fish off the coasts of England and Wales.
Watching the show is almost like seeing ourselves through a pane of tinted and slightly flawed glass.
The anglers all speak American, although their accent makes them a bit hard to understand at times. A lot of their gear is made by the same folks who make ours; the brand names are the same, but many of the models are just different enough to evoke that same kind of through-a-glass-darkly feel.
The fish are familiar, too. We share a few common species, such as cod and haddock, while other species closely resemble those we catch here at home.
The other thing that you really notice about the fish is that, compared to what we’re used to here in the United States, there aren’t very many of them. You might compare it to fishing in Maine, now that the groundfish are scarce and the stripers declining.
And then you realize that, as bad as the fishing is, the anglers are no less ardent than we are. They also clearly appreciate the opportunity to just go out on a boat and catch something.
And maybe the very scarcity of fish in their waters that makes them appreciate what they do have far more than we appreciate our relative abundance, because they are truly respectful of their quarry, and always express their awareness of the need to conserve what remains.
For example, a large part of one Boat Fishing with Barham episode was taken up with catching and tagging “rays”, which are what anglers in the UK often call skates. The fish looked like the clearnose skates that we catch here on Long Island, but instead of facing the ignominious fate that often faces a New York skate—roughly handled at best, and at worst, mutilated with a knife or tossed up on the beach to die—the English skates were carefully tagged and returned to the water, with the host of the show talking about the need to conserve the species after too many were killed in trawls.
While the anglers on the show, along with the show’s host, seem to be as enthusiastic about fishing as anyone else, they manage to avoid the high-fives and fist-pumping that plagues a lot of the shows made over here. Everyone demonstrates a maturity, and a concern for the dignity of both their sport and their quarry, that American anglers—and television hosts—would do well to emulate.
Another episode depicted a group of fishermen who chartered a boat to go wreck fishing for conger eels in the English Channel. They caught some impressive eels, fish as thick around as fire hoses and nearly as long as a man is tall, and then they them free. Congers have long been popular foodfish in Europe, but no one on the boat expressed a need to stuff a cooler with eels in order to have “a big day.” The captain didn’t insist on killing a pile of fish to display at the dock, in an effort to pump up his business.
Dead fish didn’t matter at all.
Even when Barham went fishing for bass, which resemble—and are closely related to—our American stripers, and some small fish were kept to the table, the big bass vital to the spawning stock were released as a matter of course. The anglers naturally accepted the need to fish responsibly, unlike those patrons of our local party boats who are attracted by ads screaming “Striped bass slaughter!” or “Bassacres!”, which seems to be the newest foul phrase of the season.
Perhaps the Old World has something to teach us after all.
And perhaps we have something to teach them, too.
For it’s likely that the British angler’s respect for his quarry, and his pro-conservation attitudes, arise directly out of the fact that the United Kingdom—in fact, most of Europe—just doesn’t have very many fish left. European fisheries have been mismanaged for so many years that the vast majority of stocks are overfished, and many are in a state of collapse.
Back when I was alarmingly young, Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi, with its refrain “Don’t it always seem to go/ that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” became the anthem of a nascent environmental movement.
Perhaps the English fishermen have learned that Ms. Mitchell was right.
And in their respectful stewardship of the dogfish and skates that would be beneath the contempt of most American anglers, they serve as both an example of what anglers should be, and a warning of what our fisheries could be if we fail to be responsible and respectful stewards ourselves.
Their diminished fisheries illustrate all too clearly where we can end up if we forsake our current federal fisheries laws, unquestionably the most comprehensive and effective such laws in the world, and in the name of short-term convenience and profit, replace them with the sort of “flexible” management that has become a hallmark of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has already presided over the decline of so many inshore species along our east coast, and now threatens even striped bass.
And the English—indeed, all of Europe—can learn from us that even badly depleted fisheries can be rebuilt, if the will is strong enough and matched with a good law such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act, which forces fisheries managers to end overfishing and promptly rebuild stocks, even if some of the folks making money exploiting those stocks don’t particularly like the idea.
In the end, having fished all around this nation’s coasts for well over fifty years, I am an American angler. I know the kind of fisheries that we have here, and I understand what other places have lost.
And though the English anglers are truly noble in the face of their adversity, I just don’t want our fishing to get that bad.
Joni Mitchell’s words to the contrary, I already know what we’ve got.
And I don’t want to see it gone.
Because once things are gone, the only thing we’ll have left is regret.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
About five years ago, I wrote an article for Tide magazine, the in-house publication of the Coastal Conservation Association, entitled “Pioneers of Wildlife Management.”
The article described the trials and tribulations of sportsmen and wildlife managers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as they tried to restore and conserve America’s waterfowl, then suffering from the twin perils of overharvest—largely at the hands of market hunters—and habitat loss.
The never-quite-stated message of the piece was that salt water fisheries managers were a century or so behind the times. There was no reason to reinvent the wheel and try to come up with novel ways to conserve and rebuild America’s salt water fisheries. The problems that fisheries managers face today are very similar to those that waterfowl managers faced in 1900, and are amenable to similar solutions.
Although I wrote the piece on assignment from Tide, the notion that salt water fish are just another form of wildlife, and that traditional modes of wildlife management will work just as well in the oceans as they do in the forests, marshes and fields is one of my deeply held beliefs.
I liked the way the article came out, and I liked where it led its readers.
The other day, as I was perusing the most recent edition of Tide, I noticed that its editor had revisited the “managing fish like waterfowl” theme, although this time, he made the connection explicit.
The impetus for the article was (is there ever any other reason to pen a fisheries management piece these days?) the red snapper and grouper fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. It was entitled “The Road Once Taken” and, as the context might suggest, was basically a long lament that fish, unlike waterfowl, can still be commercially harvested, that catch shares “cement commercial [harvest] into existence forever,” that allocations between the commercial and recreational sectors are unfair, that federal fisheries managers favor the commercial sector, that…
Well, no need to go on. We’ve all heard that “pity poor me” song before. Commercial fishermen in the northeast sing it all the time, with just a few different words and different folks in the chorus.
The piece asked anglers to think about what fisheries would look like if fish were managed like ducks, and ends with the sentence
“Whenever you hear or read of someone extolling the virtues of current federal fisheries management and the brilliance of catch share systems, ask them to imagine what recreational fisheries could be like if they were on a different road…a road once taken.”
I read the article, and that last sentence caught me as surely as the sharpest hook.
I am “someone [who extols] the virtues of current federal fisheries management” (although I’m not all that sold on catch shares, at least in fisheries with a significant recreational component), and as the guy who first broached the “manage fish like ducks” concept in Tide half a decade ago, I do think about “what recreational fisheries could be like if they were on a different road” that more closely resembled the way waterfowl—and wildlife in general—is managed.
And I agree with a number of the points raised in “The Road Once Taken”, although I deplore the whiny manner in which they were presented.
But the problem with the piece is that it doesn’t go far enough.
Sure, market hunting was outlawed, but that just a part of how ducks are managed. Folks such as Theodore Roosevelt, Ding Darling and George Bird Grinnell—all mentioned favorably in the newest Tide piece—didn’t merely put the market hunters out of business. They reduced their own kill.
And they certainly didn’t outlaw market hunting just so they could take the commercial kill for their own.
For those folks were sportsmen and conservationists, who were willing to limit their own take for the good of the resource, and place real restrictions upon themselves.
Which made them a little different from the red snapper and grouper anglers who fish down in the Gulf these days…
So what would recreational fisheries look like today, if we really managed fish like ducks?
To begin, fish would be professionally managed. Biologists would make their best assessment of the stock, then set the regulations based on what they knew—and what they didn’t know—with adequate buffers to account for scientific and management uncertainty.
There would be no panels of folks, with economic or other interests in the fishery—call them “councils,” “commissions,” “boards” or anything else—with the power to challenge, water down or otherwise frustrate the professional managers’ judgment calls.
Harvests would be relatively low, based on concepts such as compensatory mortality rather than maximum sustainable yield. No one would even consider allowing overharvest for whatever transient economic benefit it might provide.
Federal rules would be applicable everywhere. Today, no state—not even Texas—can set its own seasons and bag limits for the ducks that fly through its airspace.
If we managed fish the way we do ducks, every state would have to strictly abide by all of the regulations set by the feds. The days of Texas anglers being able to land four 15-inch red snapper per day, every single day of the year, while the poor folks fishing the Gulf off Alabama get two 16-inch fish, and only nine days to catch them, would be over.
That would be good for the resource, because regulations would be set by scientists concerned with the fish, and not by political appointees concerned with the fishermen.
It would benefit enforcement, since fisheries enforcement officers would no longer have to prove that fish were caught in waters where the most liberal state rules did not apply.
And folks such as the red snapper anglers in Alabama would get a break—at least a little longer season—if the fish currently hogged by the Texans (and, to a lesser extent, the Floridians and the residents of Louisiana) were returned to the common pool.
So yes, there are good things that could come out of managing fish like ducks…
Of course, if fish were managed like ducks, you’d have to find something else to do for much of the year. Here on the Atlantic flyway, waterfowlers get just a 60 day season. If fish were managed like ducks, the season might be a little longer than that, but it would still be closed when fish are spawning (and, for species such as grouper probably as they begin to aggregate ahead of the spawn). Short seasons intended to minimize disturbances to inshore nursery habitat, anchor damage to offshore reefs and discard mortality caused by catch-and-release could also be imposed.
Anglers might be given just enough time to land their annual catch limit before the season is shut down.
Fishermen probably wouldn’t care for that. I know that I wouldn’t like it; the fishing season’s too short as it is. But if anglers want to walk the duck hunters’ road, they’re going to have to learn to live with the potholes…
And speaking of potholes, the waterfowl model prohibits the intentional waste of a duck. You can’t just kill one and let it rot in the marsh. Applying that model to fisheries would be the death knell for tournaments which see billfish and shark brought back to the dock, hung on the scale and then tossed into the dumpster just for the dollars—often very big dollars—that go to the winner.
Killing other fish viewed as inedible—tarpon, bonefish, and such—for prizes or records, and then discarding the remains, could also be rendered illegal.
Although, I have to admit, I’d gauge that a good thing. Killing fish just for a prize, or to stoke someone’s ego, strikes me as wrong. Keep them for food, or let them go free.
And, just maybe, give them some refuge.
National wildlife refuges form one of the keystones of waterfowl management. From the rich Gulf shorelines of Laguna Atascosa, running along both coasts and up through the heartland, a network of refuges provide waterfowl places to winter, to rest, to feed and to shelter throughout the course of their seasonal migrations. The refuges aren’t no-take preserves or national parks. Folks hunt there and fish there all of the time, but they’re required to do so in a way that won’t interfere with the birds’ basic needs.
Thus, it’s somewhat surprising to read, in the same issue of Tide that suggests that fish should be managed like ducks, a “Capitol Ideas” column entitled “Runaway MPAs”.
In that piece, CCA’s National Government Relations Committee Chairman decries the creation of marine wildlife refuges, intended to protect overfished speckled hind and warsaw grouper, off the South Atlantic coast, even though at least some of those refuges would protect “known spawning sites”.
Such refuges wouldn’t be no-take “sanctuaries”; bottom fishing would be prohibited to protect the grouper stocks, but anglers would still be able to access the upper reaches of the water column, where billfish, tuna, dolphin, wahoo, sharks, mackerel and such all reside.
CCA argues that any such grouper refuges should be supported by data, which seems logical on its face. It notes that
“…there has been very little monitoring or research done at the current MPA sites. There is a troubling lack of documentation to support the idea that new sites will provide the necessary protections for speckled hind and warsaw grouper. There is not even information on the effectiveness of the ones currently in place, as required under federal law.”
Yet, how much data supported the creation of any of the great wildlife refuges on our coasts?
When we look at the places that help to protect our waterfowl today, refuges such as Cameron Prairie, Pea Island, Blackwater and Brigantine, did we condition their creation on monitoring and research done at other sites?
Did we make extensive documentation a prerequisite to their creation?
Or did we merely recognize that good duck habitat was getting harder to find every day, and decide to protect what we could, and let the ducks eventually pass judgement on the wisdom of our decisions?
If what is good for the ducks is good for the grouper, as “The Road Once Taken” suggests, then shouldn’t we establish our marine refuges in just the same way that we set up wildlife refuges on land?
And let the fish tell us if we were right?
I could go on, equating steel shot with circle hooks, and thinking up angling equivalents for plugged shotguns, the sinkbox ban and prohibitions on live decoys and “rallying” birds.
But the main point has already been made.
“The Road Once Taken” offers a tantalizing glance at an important truth: We could all benefit if basic wildlife management approaches—which have already proven their worth when applied to waterfowl and all sorts of terrestrial game—were used to manage marine fisheries, too.
But then it goes astray.
For waterfowl managers weren’t successful merely because they eliminated the market gunners.
If all they had done was reallocated the birds killed by the meat hunters to the recreational gunners, they would have accomplished nothing at all.
Too many birds would have died, too many marshes would have been drained, and the canvasback and the pintail might have joined the Labrador duck on the rolls of life that has been swept from our world.
Waterfowl management was successful because it did more.
It elevated the needs of the birds above those of bird hunters, and created a uniform, integrated, science-based approach to conserving ducks and geese wherever they might be, throughout every day of the year. Breeding grounds were protected, and refuges established, across the breadth of the nation.
That is the true ‘road once taken,” and it was embraced by sportsmen because it was right, and because it benefited us in the long term, too.
If such a comprehensive, science-based approach, free of petty politics and the clamoring voices of those who want to kill fish today, was ever adopted for our federal fisheries, it would surely mark out a road worth taking again.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
It’s weakfish time on Long Island.
They’re supposed to bite when the lilacs bloom. I think that’s probably true, and if it’s not, it should be, for the same light purple hues that color the lilac are washed bright on the weakfish’s scales, which glow with an ethereal tone that no simple flower can match.
The striped bass gets most of the glory, and the fluke the attention of crowds, but weakfish are truly the iconic fish of Long Island’s South Shore.
They’re the stars of the stories from times long ago, when salt water angling was new. Fluke and striped bass were bit players then; bluefish barely part of the scene. But weakfish—yellowfin, tiderunner, squeteague—were the darlings of sportsmen who came to our bays from New York City and beyond, to trickle grass shrimp into the running tide and await a pull on their lines.
Yet, in more recent years, weakfish have seen hard times.
I never even saw one until I was about fifteen. I had heard of weakfish, or course. My father had caught them when he came back from the war, but they disappeared a few years later—supposedly because of an eelgrass blight—and stayed away for a very long time.
Since then, their population has hit highs and lows. If you looked hard enough a few were always around. At least that was true until ’05 or ’06, when the population went into freefall. There were a handful of very large weaks around—remnants of a big year class we had been catching since the mid-1990s—and some young-of-the-years that showed up when the kids fished for snappers, but other than that, they seemed gone.
Down at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the biologists knew there was trouble. A peer-reviewed stock assessment, prepared in 2009, found that, by 2007, the spawning potential of the stock had dropped to a mere 3% (an unfished stock has a spawning potential of 100%); it had never been found to be lower.
ASMFC’s Weakfish Management Board met in August 2009 to decide how to react to the stock assessment. Dr. David Pierce, a professional fishery manager employed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, summed up the available information, saying
“I see, however, that with a moratorium we double the current biomass with this projection by 2015, so we doubled the biomass with a natural mortality rate of 0.65 assumed over that course of time.
“If we have a moratorium we double the biomass and we get approximately, well, a little over halfway towards our target spawning stock biomass. If natural mortality decreases for any good reason, then obviously we will be rebuilding faster than the projections indicate…
“We have nothing before us except uncertainty. We have speculations, but we have a projection that came out of the workshop and that has been accepted by the technical committee. I believe they participated in developing it. This is what we have to use. I look forward to continuing discussions by this board regarding the merits of a moratorium to get ourselves back on track.
“Otherwise, with the projection we see before us, we stay crashed through 2020, and that certainly is not an acceptable outcome.”
Those were the words of a professional fisheries manager.
But when ASMFC’s Weakfish Management Board met in November 2009, to finally determine how the collapsed stock should be managed, the non-professionals on the Management Board had a very different view. In fact, if you read the published transcript of that Management Board meeting, you probably want to shake your head and wonder at the positions the amateurs took, and the comments that were made.
We can’t put the blame on the general public, who seemed to understand the gravity of the situation and, by more than a two-to-one ratio, asked to have a complete moratorium imposed on both the commercial and the recreational fisheries.
Over all the years that I’ve been involved in fisheries issues, it seems that most of the fishing public—if they get a fair briefing on the issues and don’t have to rely on information shaped and filtered by the various angling rights and industry organizations—will want to do the right thing. We saw that with striped bass—both after the last collapse and now, as we hope to avert the next one—and we saw it with weakfish, too.
But the amateur managers at ASMFC, who often have strong pro-industry sympathies, if not direct ties, see things a little differently. In his opposition to a moratorium, Pat Augustine, then governor’s appointee from New York, made the inadvertently telling comment that
“It’s interesting that with this action that we may take we will again affect the fishermen and will only play a small role, in my mind, in continuing to lead us toward a full demise of this specie [sic] of fish. [emphasis added]
“Similar as to winter flounder, where we almost put a moratorium on winter flounder, we would have been one of two states that would have done that, which would have put a further hit on both recreational, commercial and bait and tackle people and marines and so for those supplies.”
Apparently, in at least one manager’s mind, it’s OK to “only play a small role…in continuing to lead us toward a full demise of” the weakfish, if by doing so you don’t hurt the incomes of the industry folks.
Personally, I think that the “full demise” of any species should be avoided, by any means necessary, and that even “[playing] a small role” in such demise is a bad thing, but that’s just me, and may help to explain why I’m not an ASMFC commissioner…
Again, remembering Dr. Pierce’s recap of the technical data, a moratorium was the most likely way to start rebuilding the weakfish stock. Even so, Tom Fote, another amateur who serves as governor’s appointee from New Jersey, vehemently opposed the measure, saying
“So, again, I’m looking at a solution that doesn’t basically shut down a complete fishery and basically allow the person, if he catches the weakfish of a lifetime or something like that or the kid on a beach actually catches a weakfish on that rare occasion, they can go home with one weakfish.
“It’s bad enough they can’t go home with a sea bass, and it looks like next year in New Jersey they can’t go home with a summer flounder. At least they’ll have, you know, one fish to take home, maybe one winter flounder and one weakfish. That’s about your whole catch nowadays. How do you keep an industry going?”
How do you keep an industry going? Maybe by managing fish a little more cautiously, so that there are enough around that people will want to spend some time on the water catching them, rather mismanaging them so badly that catching one becomes, to use Tom Fote's words, a "rare occasion."
Because if Pat Augustine’s statement, which seemed to indicate that it was alright to “only play a small role…toward the full demise” of the weakfish, so long as the industry doesn’t take a hit, is disconcerting, Tom Fote’s comment is…well…just wrong.
He apparently believes that folks should be able to catching and keep weakfish and winter flounder when, at 3% and 8%, of their respective spawning potentials, they were arguably the two most depleted species swimming in New Jersey’s waters.
Then he tries to justify that belief by saying that folks should keep them because “they can’t go home with a sea bass,” when over 580,000 sea bass were taken home in New Jersey that year, or because “next year in New Jersey they can’t go home with a summer flounder,” although more than 550,000 New Jersey summer flounder were eventually taken home.
That kind of statement crosses the line between mere rhetorical puffery and something far more dire.
It is a clear demonstration of the fact that, whatever the species involved and however badly it is in need of protection, some managers at ASMFC place little emphasis on conserving and rebuilding depleted stocks. To them, it is more important to kill and take home whatever remains of such stocks today, rather than to refrain and rebuild the stocks into something robust and productive tomorrow.
That kind of thinking isn’t just limited to weakfish, and it isn’t just limited to 2009.
It continues to this day, as demonstrated by ASMFC’s irrational winter flounder decision last February.
And it looms in the background every time ASMFC fails to take needed action on striped bass, and that still-viable stock moves ever closer to being overfished for the first time in more than twenty years.
With weakfish, we may have gotten just a little lucky. A solid year class—the kind that can pop up now and then, even from badly depleted stocks, and fisheries managers have used for years to absolve themselves after making bad decisions—emerged a few years ago, and is creating some good fishing right now.
But it is only one year class, and whether managers will be able to keep that year class alive and spawning until additional good year classes can enter the population is still an unanswered question.
But the bigger question is whether ASMFC will ever get its act together, and adequately protect not just the odd year class or two, but the long-term health of our fisheries--or whether it will forever be more interested in assuring that, no matter how depleted a stock may be, the folks who catch fish will always be able to kill them and take them home, with no thought for the future at all.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
As the Magnuson reauthorization debate heats up in Congress, one of the themes being pushed by the recreational fishing industry is that the National Marine Fisheries Service doesn’t know how to manage recreational fisheries.
They argue that federal managers should change their ways and model their actions on those of state fisheries agencies. They even suggest turning responsibility for the management of recreationally-important species—red snapper is the one most often mentioned—to the states, or perhaps to an interstate management body such as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The industry spokesmen often use a shorthand phrase to express the concept, saying that important recreational species “should be managed like striped bass.”
Unfortunately, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board met earlier this week and, in a chaotic and disjointed session that spanned parts of two days, demonstrated in a very vivid manner why no species—including striped bass—deserve the sort of ineffective efforts that somehow pass as “management” at ASMFC.
Yes, ASMFC did manage to get its act together back in the 1980s, and rebuilt the collapsed striped bass stock by 1995. But that Commission was structurally different from the one we have today and, in any event, that all happened twenty or more years ago.
It’s time to stop looking over our shoulders at yesterday, and start asking what ASMFC management means for striped bass—and other species—today, and what that means for them tomorrow.
For today’s striped bass problems is really very simple.
Last October, a “benchmark” stock assessment—a comprehensive analysis of the health of the striped bass stock, prepared under the aegis of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and peer-reviewed by a panel of internationally respected fisheries biologist—was presented to ASMFC.
That assessment noted that the current fishing mortality reference points—that is, the scientific guidance on how many fish could be removed from the stock each year—were far too high, and that new, lower limits on harvest were needed to avoid overfishing.
It also noted that female spawning stock biomass—the total weight of all of the sexually mature female striped bass in the stock—is continuing to decline, and that such biomass will inevitably fall below the threshold for an overfished stock.
That hasn’t happened for over two decades. ASMFC’s earlier, “successful” recovery of the striped bass stock is becoming more than a little frayed--it is beginning to unravel.
To make things worse, down in Chesapeake Bay, where the great majority of the striped bass are spawned, things aren't looking too good. There was a big year class in 2003, and another one in 2011, with two roughly average year classes in between. Aside from that, every year between 2004 and 2013 saw sub-par spawns, with the 2012 year class the worst in more than 50 years; even during the depths of the stock collapse, the young-of-the-year index never fell so low.
Thus, striped bass have a problem. The question is: How will ASMFC managers fix it?
If striped bass were a federally-managed species, subject to the conservation and rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson Act, the path forward would be clear. The benchmark stock assessment, which represents the best available science, would have been incorporated into the management plan as a matter of course. Regulations would have been quickly adopted to reduce 2014 harvest by about one-third, to prevent overfishing and, with the stock about to become overfished, a recovery plan would have to be put together in order to to rebuild the stock in 10 years or less.
Managers would have acted quickly and effectively to take whatever actions were needed to bring back the bass, and in the end both the fish and the fishermen would have been ahead.
And there’s absolutely no question that would have happened, because federal law currently requires managers to act just that way.
But at ASMFC, where striped bass are, indeed, “managed like striped bass,” none of those things occurred.
The Commission couldn’t even adopt the reference points from the benchmark assessment without putting the matter out to public hearing first, something that they were supposed to do—but didn’t—in February, and then were supposed to do—but didn’t—earlier this week.
Maybe they'll do it in August.
Maybe they won't.
For delay is the fishermen’s friend when they want to keep overfishing, and there are enough fishermen—and friends of such fishermen—on ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board that I wouldn’t advise betting your firstborn on anything getting done at the next meeting=, either.
The whole process is kind of curious, since a peer-reviewed assessment of a data-rich stock represents the closest thing to a “gold standard” that exists in the world of fisheries science, and it’s not clear how the public—which for the most part is not composed of fisheries scientists—could provide any meaningful insight.
But the process does serve to delay things and, as I mentioned before, that some folks thing that delayh is just fine.
They wouldn’t want to see stripers managed in any other way.
The existing Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass provides a provision that says
“The series of triggers listed below are associated with the three-year planning horizon to prevent overfishing the striped bass resource. Upon reaching any (or all) of these triggers, the Management Board is required to alter the management program to ensure the objectives of Amendment 6 are achieved…
3) If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year.
4) If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [10 years]…”
Yet, while it appears that those two triggers have already been tripped, the draft addendum that ASMFC prepared for for last Tuesday’s meeting contained neither of the deadlines described above.
The striped bass management plan requires the Management Board to end overfishing within one year, but the draft addendum’s provisions let it continue for two years—at best. Because there is only a 50% chance that the proposed measures will end overfishing by 2016, there is a 50-50 chance that overfishing will occur in 2017 as well.
That makes the one-year deadline in the management plan a bit of a farce, but—that’s the way striped bass are managed at ASMFC.
And no matter how hard you peruse that proposed addendum, there was no mention of fully restoring the stock, whether within the prescribed ten years, or in any other time.
And that, too, is how striped bass are managed at ASMFC.
Yet even such clear disregard for the management plan didn’t satisfy every member of the Management Board.
Throughout the meeting, commissioner after commissioner came up with new and creative ways to delay rebuilding make recovery efforts as ineffective as possible.
Tom O’Connell, Maryland’s state fisheries director, claimed that the proposed 31% harvest reduction would cause social and economic harm to his state’s watermen. So he fought to phase it in over three years, rather than imposing the entire cut in a single year.
That would let overfishing go on even longer. It would also let fishermen in the Chesapeake, who kill 18-inch bass, decimate the 2011 year class—the year class everyone is depending on to rebuild the stock—before it has a chance to spawn for a single time.
Other managers, from coastal states that catch larger fish, would expand a proposed 28 to 34-inch “slot” size limit, intended to protect the largest and most prolific spawners, to 28 to 40 inches. That's big enough to assure that fish from the 2003 year class—the biggest year class in the entire spawning stock—will be slaughtered everywhere along their migration route, which stretches from North Carolina to Maine.
If ASMFC ultimately adopts both proposals, the spawning potential of the 2003 year class would be quickly diminished, while a substantial percentage of the 2011 year class would be killed before they ever had a chance to mature.
Those of us who lived through the last collapse, and watched the huge 1970 year class destroyed in just a few seasons, know just how quickly even a big year class can disappear. We don't want to see such a thing happen again today.
But ASMFC seems to be doing its best to forget the lessons of history, and repeat the mistakes of the past.
And that could easily happen, because ASMFC is under no legal requirement to either end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks—or even to consider good science when making its decisions. ASMFC management boards can and do ignore plan provisions when they prove inconvenient. And there’s not much we can do about it, since a federal appellate court has decided that ASMFC’s actions are not reviewable under the federal Administrative Procedures Act, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to successfully challenge the Commission in court.
When you get right down to it, striped bass aren’t managed very well.
They managed to get along during the fat years, when favorable conditions in their natal rivers allowed them to produce a big year class every few seasons. But when times got tough and stocks declined, and the population began to grow lean, ASMFC’s “flexible” management approach lacked the solid legal foundation needed to assure that overfishing is stopped and the stock is rebuilt.
Striped bass deserve better management.
And managing federal fisheries “like striped bass” is a step in the wrong direction.
Both the fish and the fishermen deserve a lot better.