Sunday, November 30, 2014


It’s looking ever more likely that what once seemed like a modest yet meaningful win—the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s vote to reduce striped bass harvest last October—was even more modest than it first appeared.

ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board seemed to be acceding to public demands that landings be cut and a 1-fish bag limit be adopted.  However, it is now clear that at least some of those who voted that way were merely blowing smoke in the public’s face.  Now that the smoke has cleared a bit, they are ignoring the overwhelming public sentiment for a single-fish bag, and seeking ways to let folks kill additional fish, at least when those folks are fishing from for-hire vessels.

I discussed the matter at length in a recent post, and don’t intend to rehash it all here. 

It’s now time to start thinking of the next steps in the dance—where we go and what we do when Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass proves to be another failed state management effort, and we have to step in again to try to recover the striped bass population.

I know that a lot of folks are thinking about just throwing up their hands and leaving the fight.  After all, if the big angler turnout and overwhelming call for a 1-fish bag didn’t move mountains this time, why is there any hope that the next time will be any better?

I know that feeling pretty well.

After being involved in the fishery management process for a few decades, I know what it feels like to lose.

But, first of all, remember that anglers didn’t lose this round at ASMFC.  Its Striped Bass Management Board did what we wanted.  It’s the states’ management systems that are letting us down.

We are looking at new fishing mortality reference points that, in the long term, should do the bass good.

We defeated the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions’ efforts to draw out the harvest cut over three years.

A lot of the Management Board members were and still are concerned with the integrity of the management plan and the management process.

And if our greatest worry does come to pass, and the striped bass stock fails to recover, we still have a good leg to stand on.

Right now, we need to be looking at Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, and more particularly, at Management Trigger 2, which reads

“If the Management Board determines that the biomass has fallen below the threshold in any given year, the board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [ten years].”
Because it is very likely that trigger will be tripped in a very few years.

Let’s start with a simple truth.

The biomass is probably below the threshold right now.

That’s a sobering thought, but the Draft Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass included a chart (on page 11) which projected that the biomass would fall below threshold—that the stock would be technically overfished—this year.

“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality] (0.200) is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015.  After 2016, the probability is expected to decline slightly…If the fully-recruited [fishing mortality] decreases to the current Ftarget (0.180) and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point reaches 0.77 by 2015 and declines thereafter… [emphasis added]”
Based on that finding, the striped bass is already behind the eight ball.

Regulations in place during 2012 will not change until 2015; although we don’t have fishing mortality rates for 2013 and 2014, there is no reason to assume that, absent regulatory changes, those rates will be at least equal to the F=0.200 of 2012. 

In practice, fishing mortality was almost certainly higher in 2013 than it was in 2012; total landings in 2012 were estimated at a little over 19,500,000 pounds, while in 2013, that estimate jumped to more than 24,300,000.  Taking a more fish from a decreasing biomass will inevitably cause the fishing mortality rate to spike. 

We don’t have final figures for 2014 yet, but preliminary numbers show even more reason to be concerned.  In the first eight months of 2012, anglers landed about 14,000,000 pounds of striped bass.  That number jumped to over 17,000,000 pounds in the first eight years of 2013, and increased again to nearly 18,500,000 in the first eight months of 2014. 

The greater part of the 2014 increase can be attributed to a big kill of the immature and barely legal 2011 year class down in Chesapeake Bay, but it’s still bad news, and very possibly takes us to the third scenario envisioned in the Update,

“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality] increases to Fthreshold (0.219) and is maintained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass reference point reaches 0.93 by 2015 and declines thereafter.”
So given the trends in 2013 and 2014, there is an overwhelming likelihood that the stock will be overfished—below the spawning stock biomass threshold—next year.

Then, the only thing that needs to happen is for ASMFC to formally determine that there is a problem.

That may not happen right away.

Complete, benchmark striped bass stock assessments take place every five years.  Thus, we won’t see another one until late 2018, based on 2017 data.  That gives Addendum IV a long time to fail and adversely affect striped bass numbers.

However, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee has historically conducted interim “turn-crank” assessments in nearly every year.  Such assessments are far less formal and detailed than the benchmark, and merely plug annual harvest data into the model from the benchmark assessment, in order to update the results.

ASMFC’s striped bass website page shows some sort of assessment, benchmark or interim, for the years 2000-2005, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013.  However, due to a demand that the Technical Committee produce biological reference points unique to Chesapeake Bay, there will probably not be sufficient manpower available to do one in 2015.

Thus, we should begin petitioning our ASMFC representatives and demanding that an interim, “turn-crank” assessment be done in 2016.  

We won’t be asking for great detail, just an estimate of the size of the spawning stock biomass (although an estimate of 2015 fishing mortality, with the new regulations in place, would also be useful). 

And if the Technical Committee determines that the spawning stock biomass has dropped below threshold, and that Management Trigger 2 has tripped, we must insist that managers put in place a rebuilding plan that will restore the spawning stock to target levels within ten years.

Such a rebuilding plan will not allow the maneuvering and loopholes that we see today.

Because in order to have mature, spawning fish in the biomass, you have to have small fish first, and they’ve been lacking lately.  The average for the Maryland young-of-the-year index over the past 10 years was 10.4, below the long-term average of 11.7.  

Management measures sufficient to restore the striped bass stock to target levels, and not merely prevent current overfishing, will probably have to be a lot stronger than what we’re seeing today.

The question, of course, is whether the states and ASMFC’s state-based management system is up to the task of putting such measures in place.

As we come to the end of the Addendum IV process, we already see it failing the resource and the public, as the politically-connected for-hire fleet in New Jersey, Rhode Island and elsewhere seeks to undo, at the state level, conservation gains won by the public at ASMFC.

At the state level, there is nothing like the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to assure that overfishing is really prevented, or overfished stocks timely rebuilt.

In the end, there is only us, anglers with a burning desire to preserve and restore the fish that we seek, and to hand them down as our legacy to the next generations.

That will have to be enough.

And if we only hold firm, and don’t lose our faith, it can be.


Thursday, November 27, 2014


Sharks are living in interesting times.

Few fish in the ocean mature more slowly or produce as few young, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

None have been as historically feared and reviled.

And perhaps none have received quite as much attention, on a worldwide basis, in 2014.

The scalloped hammerhead, along with the closely related great and smooth hammerheads, the oceanic whitetip and the porbeagle shark were listed under Appendix II of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  Such listing will require that, for the first time, any international shipments of meat or other parts of such species must be accompanied by permits and certificates attesting that the sharks were taken as part of a sustainable and legal harvest.

That’s all good news, but all of the news is not good.

A number of important shark-fishing nations, including Japan, Denmark, Canada, Iceland and Yemen, entered a “reservation” to the CITES listing, meaning that they will not be bound by the documentation requirements or other restrictions imposed by the treaty.

We can only surmise why a nation would oppose a requirement that its sharks be sustainably and legally caught…

It doesn’t make sense, because as noted above, sharks are probably more easily harmed by overfishing than any of the other species managed by ICCAT.

Both the shortfin mako and the porbeagle swim off the U.S. coast.  They belong to the family Lamnidae, commonly known as “mackerel sharks”; as that name suggests, they are open-ocean predators that feed mainly on fish.

Of the two, the sleek, cobalt-blue mako is by far the better known.  It is the primary target of recreational shark fishermen in the New England and upper mid-Atlantic states, both because of its flashy and aggressive fight—there is something savagely beautiful about a 400-pound-plus fish cartwheeling a dozen feet into the air almost within touching distance, and something that makes your breath catch, just for a moment, as you wonder whether it will crash back into the water or land, vital and angry, next to you inside the boat—and because of its flavorful meat.

That meat also makes the mako a valuable commercial catch.  As a result of decades of fishing pressure, ICCAT scientists believe that the North Atlantic population has declined since 1970.  Although the species is not believed to be overfished, and overfishing may or may not be occurring (depending on the model that scientists use), the scientific panel’s recommendation to ICCAT is that

“Taking into consideration results from the modeling approaches used in the assessment, the associated uncertainty, and the relatively low productivity of shortfin mako sharks, the Working Group recommends, as a precautionary approach, that the fishing mortality of shortfin mako sharks should not be increased until more reliable stock assessment results are available for both the northern and southern stocks.”

How an increase in fishing mortality can be prevented without an internationally-recognized quota isn’t completely clear, but despite that, ICCAT rejected such quota a few weeks ago.

Porbeagles present an even more compelling case for firm international quotas.

Superficially, a porbeagle looks a lot like a chunky mako, and the ranges of the fish do overlap, but porbeagles generally prefer colder water.  They are, or at least were, one of the more common sharks on the banks off New England and Canada, although they were also encountered in the mid-Atlantic region.

The late Capt. Frank Mundus of Montauk, NY devoted an entire chapter to porbeagles in his book Sportfishing for Sharks, which was first published in 1969.  In that chapter, he noted that

“When porbeagles show there are respectable numbers of 200- and 300-pounders.  You shouldn’t have trouble latching onto some of these…
“In numbers, porbeagles exceed makos and maneaters [i.e., great whites] and they appear to have a greater tendency to group more than most other sharks.  In that respect they may be second only to the blues.  When they’re visiting a region therefore, it’s possible to contact them with frequency.  The Cricket II [Mundus’ charter boat] has docked with as many as six or eight caught during a single sailing.”
Yet, although I’ve been an active shark fishermen for nearly 40 years, fishing off Rhode Island, Montauk and the South Shore of Long Island—waters close to, and in some cases identical to, those fished by Capt. Mundus—the porbeagle is the only local shark that I have not caught or, at least (in the case of great whites), have seen at close range in my chum slick.

A lot of the blame for that can be placed squarely at the feet of the Norwegian longline fleet which, beginning in 1961, engaged in a directed porbeagle fishery off Canada and New England.  

The Norwegians overfished the porbeagles so badly that the entire fishery collapsed in only six years.

The Norwegian longliners left long ago, but they took most of the porbeagles with them; the shark has never recovered from their onslaught.  However, it is still caught as bycatch in the pelagic longline fishery, and is targeted in a Canadian porbeagle fishery that, in recent years, has landed less than 100 metric tons per year.

ICCAT scientists have found that the Northwest Atlantic stock—the one that swims off American shores—is overfished, although overfishing is not currently occurring.  The Northeast Atlantic stock, which is taken off Europe, is in even worse condition.

“High-seas fisheries should not target porbeagle…
“Increased effort on the high seas within the stock area could compromise stock recovery efforts.”
But, once again, ICCAT has refused to adopt a quota that would compel fishing nations to avoid such an increase.

There are quotas.

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan includes both makos and porbeagles, along with blue sharks and threshers, in the “Pelagic” shark category.  Shortfin makos and common threshers are part of the general “Pelagic” commercial quota of 273 metric tons (dressed weight).  In recognition of the porbeagle’s precarious status, NMFS has given that species a separate commercial quota of just 1.7 metric tons.

Yet there are some folks who believe that even that low quota provides insufficient protection.

In 2011, two organizations, the Humane Society of the United States and Wild Earth Guardians, filed petitions with the National Marine Fisheries Service, requesting that the Northwest Atlantic stock of porbeagle sharks be listed under the Endangered Species Act.  The law required NMFS to determine, within 90 days after receiving the petition, whether there was sufficient evidence that such listing might be justified, in which case a more comprehensive listing proceeding would begin.

NMFS denied the petition, and the organizations sued.  Their lawsuits were consolidated into a single case, Humane Society of the United States v. Pritzker.

Just two weeks ago, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia handed down its decision, in which it found that

A 90-day determination under the Endangered Species Act constitutes a ‘threshold determination,’ and Plaintiffs need only provide ‘that amount of information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the measure proposed in the petition may be warranted.’  While the Court must give APA deference to NMFS's determination regarding whether Plaintiffs have met this low evidentiary bar, the Court nevertheless has found that Defendants acted arbitrarily and capriciously in applying an incorrectly stringent evidentiary standard at the 90-day finding stage.
At this point, it’s impossible to say whether NMFS will ultimately decide that a listing is warranted, and it’s impossible to say whether such listing would be a good thing.

But what is perfectly clear is that, of all of the highly migratory species managed on an international scale, sharks get the least attention and the least protection.

That needs to change.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


When I was growing up along Long Island Sound, there was a fish that we called a “sundial.”

It was a sort of toothless but large-mouthed flounder.  Very aggressive despite its lack of dental equipment, we’d catch them on sandworms while fishing for winter flounder, on bucktails and soft-plastic shrimp cast for weakfish and stripers and on the small killies that we’d fish for smelt around this time of year.

Sundials are, proportionately, the thinnest fish that I have ever seen.  The dark side provided a decent fillet, but the white side was nothing but skin and bones; on a bright day, you could hold up the fish and easily make out its skeleton.

The dearth of meat, back in the days when far more robust winter flounder were everywhere, might have been why sundials were held in contempt.  It just wasn’t worth cleaning them, although their flesh was as good, and perhaps even better, than the flounder and fluke we all prized.

But we just tossed the sundials back. 

The one exception to that came one fall in the late 1960s, when a lobsterman tied up his boat to the North Dock at the town marina in Cos Cob, right when the smelt run was strong.  If you know anything about lobstermen, it’s that they always need bait, and this guy asked all of the smelt fishermen to just toss their sundials into his boat, where he’d retrieve them in the morning.

All went well until one evening, when the usual crowd was lining the docks, cane poles and light spinning rods in hand, their eyes glued to the bobbers that floated in the rings of light thrown by a dozen or more Coleman lanterns.  It was a cold night, so many of the anglers drained needed warmth from the insides of convenient flat bottles.

It might be that those warming fluids affected their aim just a bit, because when one of those worthies, let’s just call him “Bill,” backhanded his sundial into the boat, he didn’t quite make it past one of his neighbors, who was just then bending over to get a fresh piece of bait.

The sundial hit the other guy full in the face, making a slime-muffled slap that the 12-year-old kid that I was at the time thought was completely hilarious.  The recipient of the sundial’s affections didn’t quite see the humor, and we almost had an impromptu version of the Friday Night Fights break out there on the dock until folks managed to stop laughing long enough to cool the offended party down.

That may have been the most entertainment a sundial ever provided.   Otherwise, they mainly served as lobster bait, although a few anglers ate them and they were sometimes sold as “brill” to a few fish markets in low-income areas.

As time went on, I learned that “sundials” were properly called “windowpane flounder,” that they were managed by the New England Fishery Management Council as part of its Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan and that, from the early 1970s through the late 1990s, they supported a significant commercial fishery, with over 9 million pounds landed in 1985. 

Even though the health of the stocks is better than it was, federal regulations still prohibit both recreational fishermen and commercial “common pool” groundfish boats (that is, those not fishing under sector catch share programs) from landing any at all.

It seems that not only high-visibility species such as cod are getting hit hard up off of New England.  Even species that we rarely think of are overfished, too.

The ocean pout certainly provides a good example of that.

There’s a good chance that you never saw one, either alive or cooked on a plate, although they used to be very common on the wrecks and ledges off New England and the upper mid-Atlantic coast.

Pout are one of those fish that suffered not for its meat, which is small-grained, mild and nearly snow-white, but for its appearance, with a stout, vaguely eel-like body, blunt head and broad mouth that brought inevitable comparisons with the mid-20th Century actor, Joe E. Brown

I first ran into them aboard party boats sailing for cod in the mid-1960s, when mates normally dealt with them by stomping on them, hard, right behind their heads, taking the hook out and tossing the soon-to-die animal back over the side. 

Ten years later, I noticed that the mates had changed their tune, and were collecting the pout that there fares didn’t want and putting them on ice along with their own catch.  Curious, I took a few of the “trash fish” home, filleted them out and that folks had been foolish over the years.

Of course, back when cod were abundant, you could afford to be picky…

Pout followed about the same trajectory as windowpanes, a relatively ignored fish that suddenly saw landings spike, remain high for a couple of decades, and then crash.  

However, pout were never as popular as windowpanes.  Landings peaked in 1987, at 4.8 million pounds, but the fish were never worth much back at the dock.  They usually sold for about 10 cents per pound, far less even then windowpanes, which usually sold for about twenty-five cents per pound, and sometimes brought over sixty.

But in the end, that didn't matter, and the ocean pout stock was driven so low that fishing was halted.

And that may be the saddest, and most significant, thing about New England’s fishery.

We hear about the destruction of cod stocks that fed western Europe and eastern North America for half a millennium, and are shocked by the loss.

We mourn for the Atlantic halibut, overfished so badly more than a century ago that it has never come close to recovery.

We watch the winter flounder collapse all around us, say our requiems for the lost whiting fishery in New York Bight, tell stories of spring pollock we once caught off Block Island.

We hope that the recovery of haddock is real.

But what we don’t see, and for the most part don’t miss, are the ocean pouts of this world. 

When the cod stock collapses, we hear about it on the nightly news and maybe read stories in The New York Times.  But when the trawler fleet drives a “minor” species such as ocean pout into near-oblivion for a dime a pound, nobody reads or hears anything at all.

That is the real tragedy of New England groundfish. 

The failure to properly manage the fishery, and to rein in excessive harvest hasn’t just driven Gulf of Maine cod stocks down to the point that that, in some quarters, the word “moratorium” is occasionally whispered.   

The trawl fleet, in its recalcitrant greed, hasn’t merely destroyed one iconic fish stock and one iconic fishery.  It has disrupted and degraded an ecosystem that includes not just the stars we see in the restaurants and on shows on TV—the cod and the halibut and the yellowtail flounder—but the poorly known supporting players such as ocean pout, spotted wolfish and windowpanes.

Now, the depressed stocks need not only survive fishing pressure, but a warming ocean that is changing the very environment that they live in and provides new challenges to managers trying to recover the stocks.

Hopefully, such challenges won’t be insurmountable.

Managers will undoubtedly try to recover the codfish.  But let’s hope that, in their efforts, they spare a little time for less well-known species.

Ignored and unloved for generations, ocean pout and windowpanes have their niche in the system, and  deserve some attention, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


I wish that I didn’t have to write this at all.

But things need to be said, and maybe it’s right that I’m saying them now, in November, with the big Christmas shopping spree poised to begin.

In one more week, Black Friday shoppers will descend on the malls, some lured by ads promising wonderful deals on clothes, smartphones and TVs.

And when a lot of those shoppers get to those malls, they will find the sale items gone, and learn that the deals that had drawn them were “limited to items in stock.”

But, ever helpful, the stores will be willing to sell them all something else, even if it is far less attractive and comes at high cost.

When that sort of thing happens in shopping centers and malls it’s called “bait and switch.”  It gets consumer advocates riled, and is just plain illegal in many states.

When that sort of thing happens at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, it’s called “conservation equivalency.”  It pleases the fish hogs, and is clearly endorsed in the ASMFC Charter.

Striped bass fishermen are learning about the ASMFC’s version of bait-and-switch right now, and they’re learning the hard way.

Those striped bass fishermen have long been complaining about a decline in the striped bass population, and, most particularly, in the number of big female spawners.  They have been asking ASMFC to cut back on landings to let the bass stock rebuild.

Those pleas fell on mostly deaf ears until, a little over a year ago, ASMFC received a benchmark stock assessment that confirmed what the anglers were saying.  The fishing mortality target and the threshold that defined overfishing were both set too high.  Landings needed to come down.  And even under the best possible conditions, the stock is almost certain to be overfished in 2015, and for some years thereafter.

Finally, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board began to take action.

It was grudging action, to be sure, but things slowly ground forward.

There were public hearings, and chances for comments to be mailed in.  Anglers responded in droves.  Thousands of anglers made themselves heard, and the overwhelming majority called for a one-fish bag limit, and a minimum size somewhere between 28 and 32 inches.

On October 24, the Management Board voted to adopt new striped bass regulations, maintaining the 28-inch minimum size and dropping the bag limit to a single fish.

Anglers went to bed happy that night, believing that they had won a victory.  I have to admit that I was quite pleased.


And it was a big but

The Management Board also said that states could adopt alternate regulations that provided “conservation equivalency.”  Moreover, that conservation equivalency didn’t have to equal a 31% harvest reduction, as the 1 fish at 28 inches did; it merely had to equal the 25% reduction that would supposedly be enough to reduce fishing mortality back to the target.

It was a little strange, because states that opted for conservation equivalency would be able to kill more fish than those who stuck with the regulations that were actually adopted.

And yes, it was an omen.

Because last Monday, representatives of the coastal states between Massachusetts and Delaware held a conference call to discuss adopting the same regulations throughout the region and to discuss conservation equivalency.

All of a sudden, striped bass managers were pulling their own bait-and-switch.

A good chunk of the states that voted at the Management Board meeting, and acted as if they had heeded anglers’ calls for a one-fish bag, were having second thoughts.  Now that all of the excitement had ebbed, and few were paying attention, they were talking about conservation equivalency and continuing to kill two fish per man.

To be fair, not all were on board.  The push for two fish is being driven by New Jersey and Rhode Island.  From all that I hear, New York doesn’t like the idea, and the other states fall somewhere in between.

New Jersey opposed one fish all along, and was one of only two states (the other was Delaware) to vote against one 28-inch bass.  And since, regardless of species, New Jersey is always conniving for ways to let its anglers kill more and smaller fish, it’s position was hardly unexpected.

Up north, Rhode Island is driving the action.  Apparently, it couldn’t care less that its anglers asked for  one bass.  Rhode Island’s sole concern seems to be its for-hire fleet which, like so many such fleets, is still struck in troglodyte times when only dead fish are a gauge of success.

Unfortunately, greed is a metastatic disease, no less so than cancer, and when one state kills more fish, everyone else wants to kill more fish, too.  If Rhode Island gives its for-hires two bass, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts are likely to do the same.

There are so few for-hire operators and so many anglers, that you might be wondering why such a short, stubby tail would be wagging the whole recreational dog.  Well, I understand your confusion, because I’m wondering, too…

But what I’m not wondering about is how much those for-hire boats kill.

Last year, in my home state of New York, anglers made about 950,000 trips in search of striped bass, and killed about 375,000 fish.  About half of those trips—more than 450,000—were made by surfcasters, while fewer than a quarter—just 191,000—were made on party and charter boats.

But when you look at the landings, nearly two-thirds of the fish—235,000 out of 375,000—were killed by the for-hires.

Giving the for-hires two fish when other anglers only get one will only make that disparity worse.

And that’s the good news…

The bad news is that “conservation equivalency” is largely a myth, and giving the for-hires (or even worse, everyone) two bigger fish rather than one at 28 inches, isn’t going to reduce the kill very much.

That’s because, to calculate conservation equivalency, ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee looked backwards, to what people caught in 2013.  They assumed that the size and age structure of the striped bass stock will be the same in 2015 and beyond, and that’s just wrong.

We can never forget (as the Technical Committee apparently did) that the striped bass stock is shrinking because spawning has been poor.  Compared to a healthy population, there are relatively few smaller fish, and a disproportionate number of big ones.

Based on 2013 figures, allowing anglers to keep one 28-inch bass has about the same conservation impact as allowing folks to keep two 33-inch fish.  Here in New York, about 44% of the bass landed in 2013 were between 28 and 33 inches long, with fish from the above-average 2005 and 2007 year classes accounting for more than half of the total.

But if we look ahead to 2015, the 2005 year class will average about 35 inches long, and all of the other above-average year classes in the fishery, except for 2007 (which was only slightly above average) will be even larger.  With very few fish between 28 and 33 inches long, raising the size limit to 33 inches won’t make that much of a difference.
It will be better than two fish at 28 inches, but not by much.

To suggest that it will reduce 2015 and 2016 harvest by at least 25%, and have “conservation equivalency” to one 28-inch fish in those years is ludicrous. 

Thanks to conservation equivalency, ASMFC once again finds itself with a management plan that is more likely to fail than succeed.

Even under the best assumptions, the proposed 25% harvest reduction had only a 50-50 chance to cut harvest to target levels by the end of next year.

After the Management Board decided to base commercial harvest on the Amendment 6 quota rather than on actual landings, those chances got smaller.

They shrunk a little more after the decision to cut Chesapeake Bay landings by just 20.5%, instead of the full 25.

Now, if the states adopt one of the conservation equivalency proposals, the chances of getting harvest back down to target will become even slimmer.  Maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll be one in three.

Our fish—and, in the long term, our fishermen—deserve better than that.

In the short term, we can hope that folks from New York and the other rational states can convince their recalcitrant colleagues to reject conservation equivalency.

In the long term, as I’ve repeated before, we need a long-lasting solution.

We need to end ASMFC’s tolerance of “conservation equivalent” measures that allow states to game the system and kill more fish than the stocks can withstand. 

We need to set some limits on management boards’ discretion, and force them to adopt plans that are more likely to succeed than to fail.

We need to compel ASMFC to end overfishing and timely rebuild overfished stocks.

In short, we need legislation that will compel ASMFC’s fishery management plans to adhere to the same standards that currently bind federal fisheries managers.

Call it a consumer protection act for the fish stocks, that will stop bait-and-switch in its tracks.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Some of that is due to the presence of the big 2003 year class of bluefin, which meant that a lot of tuna will be swimming around somewhere.

But the reason that the fish were concentrated on Jeffreys, within just a dozen miles of the Massachusetts coast, was a big body of Atlantic herring, one of the bluefin’s favorite forage, that had concentrated over the ledge.

There are few things more basic to fishing, whether sport or commercial, than the fact that big fish will follow the bait.

Atlantic herring spawn during late summer and autumn, and according to the 2012 Atlantic herring stock assessment, Jeffreys Ledge is a major spawning area for the Gulf of Maine stock.

The bluefin tuna, which prey on the herring, “know” this and follow them there.  Unfortunately, the big mid-water trawlers that also prey on the herring know this as well, and that’s how one very practical lesson in forage fish management began.

The mid-water boats tow small-mesh nets more than a thousand yards wide, and when they pass through an area, not too many small fish remain in their wake.

We were fishing around 3 o’clock in the afternoon when they started coming from all directions.  There were 10 boats and they started moving through the tuna boats, looking for the biggest (herring) biomass.
To be fair, the trawlers did nothing illegal.  A spawning closure imposed to protect Atlantic herring had just expired, that the boats were merely trying to fill their allotted quota.  The same Daily Times article reported that the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries sampled the herring caught by the trawlers and found “no spawning fish at all.”

But, in many ways, that wasn’t really the point.

Michael P. Armstrong, assistant director of the Massachusetts DMF, told the paper that

“We fully expected this conflict.”
“…it’s all about allocation. You’ve got a bite going on. But you’ve also got an industry that hasn’t touched a fish all season.
On the surface, it looks like a conflict between two groups of fishermen, and an allocation of herring between the trawl and the tuna fleets.  But, as Capt. Moody recognizes, the heart of the matter is something else very different and, in the end, far more important.

“This is a flaw in management structure.  This is an area and a time frame prime for rebuilding, but management has not taken any steps to protect the food source the whole thing is predicated on.
“This is an area where currently no recreational angler is allowed to catch cod or haddock with a jig for fear of their stocks collapsing.  This is an area where gillnetters have been forbidden to fish in the fall due to fears of interaction with dolphins and porpoise. But management thinks it’s fine that the entire herring fleet towing mile-wide nets in 150 feet of water of 5/8-inch mesh at seven knots is a good way to harvest the inshore herring resource.
Capt. Moody has clearly learned a very basic and very practical lesson; if you want to have healthy fish stocks, and an abundance of the other animals that render the marine ecosystem healthy and whole, you don’t start at the top.

Sure, you need to rein in the harvest of tuna and haddock, to strive to keep porpoises out of gillnets and whales free of entangling gear.

But to succeed, you start at the bottom, making sure that the forage fish base is solid, and then address the higher trophic levels that can only exist if the forage is there.

The good news is that some fisheries managers are beginning to get the message.

In December 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden.  For the first time, under that amendment, the species—which under earlier incarnations of the management plan had been effectively (mis)managed by the commercial reduction fishery—would be managed according to biological reference points for biomass and fishing mortality.

Although there’s not yet any hard data to support the conclusion, conservation advocates in the upper mid-Atlantic region are already pointing to signs of early success as predators swarm into inshore waters to prey on the increasingly abundant menhaden schools.  And such predators don’t only include the usual striped bass and bluefish.  Thresher sharks approaching the quarter-ton range are being caught within clear sight of shore, while humpback whales sing their enigmatic songs while hunting menhaden right off the beaches of Brooklyn.

Last June, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council took action to limit river herring bycatch in the Atlantic mackerel fishery, voting to close down the mackerel fishery in any year that too many river herring were killed.

But despite the good news, there’s still plenty of cause for concern.

As Capt. John McMurray pointed out in a recent blog published on, there is reason to fear that commercial fishermen in the northeast, reacting to closures of fisheries targeting cod and other overfished stocks might start looking for was to develop markets for forage fish.  He references an existing Norwegian fishery for sand eels as an alarming example.

Under no circumstances should such unregulated fisheries be permitted.  Forage fish need management, too.

For rebuilding a marine ecosystem is no different than rebuilding a house.  You begin not with the upper part of the structure, but with the foundation and frame.  And the foundation and frame of the marine food web is the plankton and forage fish that every other element relies on for food.

If those stocks are strong, the entire ecosystem can also be strong and resilient.  If those stocks are weak, there is no doubt that, with time, the whole construct will fail.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


The National Maine Fisheries Service has finally come out with emergency rules intended to protect what remains of the Gulf of Maine cod.

After looking at the rules and the reaction, it doesn’t seem that anyone involved has a firm grip on reality.

Let’s start with NMFS.

Faced with a situation in which the Gulf of Maine cod population has slipped to something like 3% of sustainable levels, the agency has, for the next six months, closed the recreational fishery, imposed a 200 pound trip limit on the commercial fishery and closed a number of fishing grounds that lie close to shore, where the fish are currently congregating.

“The Gulf of Maine cod stock, a historic icon of the New England fishery, is in the worst shape that we have seen in the 40 years that we have been monitoring it…”
But it’s also not enough.

Right now, NMFS estimates that the 2015 quota for Gulf of Maine cod will be between 200 and 386 metric tons.  Yet, knowing that such sharp cuts are needed, it left the 2014 quota of 1,550 metric tons intact, because

“The fishing industry urged us not to go in that direction because it would affect their business planning.”
It’s as if the agency hasn’t quite grasped the fact that the only way to rebuild the cod stock is to leave more fish in the ocean.  Allowing the 2014 quota to be killed—and, despite the small trip limit, worrying about  the industry’s “business planning” makes it pretty clear that NMFS wants the give fishermen a chance to kill the full quota—just digs the hole deeper and makes the stock that much harder to rebuild.

If you never lived or fished on the New England coast, you’d probably think that the fishermen would be grateful to get that much relief, but in the northeast, folks know better than that.

Fishermen are still claiming that

An editorial in the Gloucester Daily Times had the temerity to say, in condemning the new rules, that

It's especially troubling that Bullard chose to make these new ‘emergency’ measures effective today — before even running them through the New England Fishery Management Council, which supposedly has at least advisory clout over NOAA's fishery management. It doesn't, given that Bullard can simply impose any action with or without council approval.
Such criticism completely ignores the fact that the New England Fisheries Management Council, at its last meeting, voted to wash its hands of the matter and toss the whole hot potato into the federal regulators’ lap, implicitly recognizing that action had to be taken, but unwilling to make the hard choices needed to rebuild the cod stock.

The Gloucester Daily Times often takes scientifically unjustifiable pro-harvest positions, reflecting the sort of emphasis on short-term economic benefits that caused the cod stock to crash in the first place.  But this time, they really outdid themselves, again attacking the interim stock assessment not because the data is wrong, but because it was unscheduled (meaning that it forced remedial action instead of allowing a few more years of intense overfishing) and because fishermen weren’t allowed to provide input (and make an effort to impeach the data).

The fact that the fish is in deep trouble was not mentioned at all.

As Regional Administrator Bullard points out, things are bad enough now that the idea is

“to avoid the situation that Canada found itself in when its cod stock collapsed in the 1990s.”
The fishing community doesn’t see it that way.

We have tried everything to fix this problem with Gulf of Maine cod, and nothing seems to work.
Of course, that’s not completely true, because the one thing that they never tried—and actively resisted for years—was the one thing that might actually have stopped the decline in the stock.  They never imposed strict annual poundage quotas, and shut down the fishery as soon as the quotas were met, when there were still enough cod around for such measures to turn things around in a reasonable time.
By the time quotas were introduced as part of the catch share program, the cod population had already fallen to levels that will make rebuilding a very long and very painful process.

Ms. Raymond added

My gut reaction is we couldn’t be any worse off, either the resources or the people, if we had no management at all for the past 20 years
But the facts prove her wrong, for New England fishermen have diluted the effectiveness of management measures for so long—closer to 35 years rather than merely 20—that “no management” is effectively what they’ve had, and that clearly hasn’t been working.

So it is time.

It is time for fisheries managers and fishermen alike to take a firm grasp on reality, and understand one basic truth:  Gulf of Maine cod are in dire trouble.

At this point, it doesn’t matter if the stock assessment was a little off, and there are really twice as many cod in the water than the data suggests.  A stock at just 6% of sustainable levels isn’t much better off than one at a mere 3%, and quibbling over those sort of differences does no one good.

The fishermen, who fought tooth-and-nail to avoid regulation, the fisheries managers, who approved management plans with illusory measures such as days at sea rather than meaningful quotas and the politicians and members of the press who enabled the fishermen’s fantasies, encouraging them to believe that they could overfish the stock indefinitely with complete impunity, have combined to dig a very deep hole that the cod—and the fishermen—will not be able to escape for a very long time.

Fishermen must accept the reality that the old freewheeling days are gone.  Their most promising future is defined by closed seasons, closed areas and strict quotas.  Their alternative is a future where cod are commercially extinct.

Fisheries managers must accept the fact that, with the cod stock so low, business failures are going to happen.  Even with a shrinking fleet, there are too few fish to support all the boats, and it will be impossible to keep them all sailing.  They can adopt regulations that will conserve and rebuild the stock, and put a number of boats out of business, or they can try to keep everyone fishing, completely collapse the stock, and put every boat on the beach.

Politicians and press are going to have to learn to tell folks the unpleasant truth that, at this point, you can’t rebuild the stock without considerable pain—something that their constituents and readers just don’t want to hear--or continue to sell pipe dreams to fishing communities, that will ultimately lead them into complete ruination.

Will the right choices be made?

Right now, things look grim.

It may be that nothing short of a complete stock collapse, and a Newfoundland-like moratorium, will force fishermen, managers and everyone else to accept what is clearly reality.

But by then, of course, it will all be too late.