Thursday, July 30, 2015


It’s one of the truisms of fisheries management.

Any time that managers make a decision that someone doesn’t like, before the ink is dry on the press release, someone will pop up to cry “The numbers are bad.”

It doesn’t really matter which species in involved, or how good the science that supports managers’ decisions might be.  Someone is going to challenge the numbers.

Consider the recent debate at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission over striped bass conservation.  It occurred after a benchmark stock assessment determined that the population would almost certainly become overfished by 2015, after anglers from Maine to North Carolina were reporting declining numbers of fish and demanding that something be done.  Even so, some members of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board denied the existence of any problem, and sought to cast doubt upon the stock assessment.  Tom Fote, thegovernor’s appointee from New Jersey, was typical of such folks, saying

“It seems I’ve been here over the years doing the same thing.  We have been looking at some figures for a period of time and then decided we’re going to do a drastic cut.  Two years later they’re finding out that we didn’t need the drastic cuts and had to change the regulations in New Jersey again…
“In my estimation, we’ve been where the sky is falling, and a whole bunch of people yammering…Whether fish come inshore or not depends on water temperature and with the bait inshore a lot of times, and that is what it affects especially when we keep the [Exclusive Economic Zone] closed…
“…People have been pushing for closing this or doing something.  The people that basically send the e-mails are the people that want to do that.  The people that are out fishing a lot of times, which is a majority of the fishermen I go around and talk to, they’re not ready to jump through this type of hoop…”
All of the data in the stock assessment, supported by what the “people yammering” note about the striped bass population were, to their eyes, invalid.  Conservation measures weren’t required, they told us, because “two years later” the water temperatures would improve, or forage fish would move inshore, and all would be well with the world.

Of course, if they had gotten their way, and things were worse a couple years down the road, they’d find other reasons to protest…

But “flawed data” or, as some like to exclaim, “fatally flawed data,” is still the typical response to conservation efforts.

Back in the fall of 2009, the Recreational Fishing Alliance announced a lawsuit brought against federal fisheries managers claiming—you guessed it—“fatally flawed data” that constrained harvest in the recreational black sea bass fishery.  In that pressrelease, the RFA warned anglers

“What’s worse is that there seems to be no end in sight to the [Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey’s] assault.  Today it’s the complete shutdown [after the recreational allocation had allegedly been landed] of a healthy sea bass fishery.  Next, we can expect an impact on the summer flounder limits for 2010, and scup soon after that.  Could striped bass be next?  How about [tautog]?  If “fatally flawed” data has not impacted your favorite fishery, rest assured that it will happen soon enough if we don’t take a stand today.  Where does it end if we allow the federal government to continue to use a broken system to deny recreational anglers access to healthy fisheries?”
While just about everyone will admit that the MRFSS data used to close the black sea bass fishery in 2009 was far from perfect, the judge hearing the case noted that federal regulators were improving their data-gathering process, and decided that plaintiffs’ claim that data problems would cause fishery closures to recur wouldn’t fly, saying that

“Plaintiffs provide no support for [a]…reasonable expectation that an emergency closure will recur.”
But still, folks like to criticize the data, largely because they don’t understand how it works.

Anyone wanting to really understand the system must first accept the fact that every number used in a stock assessment, harvest assessment or other management calculation includes some degree of error. 

In some cases, such as commercial landings estimates, the error levels are pretty small, because vessel trip reports can be cross-checked against fish house weighout slips.  But even that sort of ground-truthed process isn’t perfect, as was recently demonstrated when commercial fishermen and fish houses here in New Yorkcolluded to misreport hundreds of thousands of pounds of summer flounder landed pursuant to the Research Set-Aside program.

In other cases, such as when data from the late and unlamented MRFSS program was applied to a seldom-caught species in a single state, the data could be so imprecise as to be unusable, and it was such situations that were often used by critics to impeach the MRFSS data.  Yet when MRFSS was applied on a coastwide basis to often-encountered species, the estimates really were pretty good.

At any rate, the number represented by such calculations—whether an estimate of biomass, recreational landings or the level of harvest that will produce optimum yield—doesn’t mean that, for example, exactly 1,342,906 striped bass were caught in a given state in any particular year.   Instead, that number represents what is called a “point estimate;” the actual number of fish caught is almost certainly higher or lower—perhaps much higher or lower, depending on the quality of the data—than the point estimate itself.

And that’s the first thing that the “faulty data” folks don’t understand.  Because when they scream “Bad numbers!!!” they might really be right, but even if the point estimate is well off the mark, there is no way of knowing where the error lies. 

People trying to fight conservation measures consistently try to argue that, because the data is imprecise, managers should assume that harvest estimates are too high, biomass estimates are too low and the number of fish that can be safely removed from a population is higher than the stock assessment suggests.  In fact, a proposalto increase black sea bass landings, introduced at last May’s meeting of theMid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, actually included all three of those assumptions.

Unfortunately for such people, it is as likely as not that the opposite is true, and that harvest was underestimated, the biomass is smaller than believed and sustainable harvest requires that fewer fish be taken out of the population.  

Thus, if the data really is bad (and black sea bass are recognized as a “data-poor species”) the prudent course isn’t to assume that the stock can sustain higher harvests, but rather to exercise a greater degree of caution and set harvest levels well below what the point estimate suggests, to avoid accidentally crashing the stock.

Of course, that’s exactly the opposite of what the “Flawed data!!” folks are trying to do.

The numbers are telling their story, but it’s not one that such folks want to hear.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


A while ago, I was browsing the message board on a popular Internet site when I came across a discussion on keeping striped bass.  There was the predictable gamut of comments, with some folks saying that they keep their fish, and many others promoting catch and release.

But one comment really stood out.

An angler stated that it was his right to keep as many fish as the law allowed, and that it was no one’s business whether he ate them, gave them away or used them to fertilize his tomatoes.  Another person quickly chimed in, agreeing that a person had a right to keep every fish permitted by law, and to use them—or not—in any manner they wished.

Throughout the debate, the word “right” was frequently used.

The word “responsibility,” however, was notable only for its absence.

That pretty well describes the current fisheries debate.

We see the Recreational Fishing Alliance state declare that, among other purposes, it exists to “To safeguard the rights of saltwater anglers.”  A statement on its webpage notes that

“RFA was the first national, grassroots political action organization established to represent the rights of recreational fishermen and the recreational fishing industry as a whole on marine fisheries issues,”
which is probably true, although a now-defunct (I think) outfit down in New Jersey that never grew legs, called the National Fishing Association, might have contested the “first” claim if it was still around.

But the funny thing is, if you read that RFA page, there is no talk about anglers “obligations,” “responsibilities” or “duties.”  

Only multiple references to “rights.”

And RFA isn’t alone.

There is the Fishing Rights Alliance, a group primarily focused on fighting conservation measures for various southern reef fish, that assures members and potential members that it is

George Poveromo, an outdoor media personality who has apparently been named the Coastal Conservation Association’s “Offshore Spokesperson” notes that

“They are fighting for the rights of recreational anglers to fish,”

“for standing up for the rights of recreational anglers”
after CCA’s Florida chapter opposed a state effort to outlaw a type of fishing lure used to intentionally foul-hook tarpon in Boca Grande Pass.

To be fair, CCA was once a very effective voice for marine conservation (I became a life member and was an active volunteer back in those heady days), and a few of the state chapters are still outstanding advocates for enlightened conservation measures.  But at the national level, while it still talks the conservation talk, it now walks a very different path, dedicating much of its resources and advocacy efforts to weakeningfederal fisheries laws and even undermining federal managers’ ability to managevarious stocks of fish, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico and, to a lesser degree, the South Atlantic.

The bottom line is that whether you’re talking about RFA, CCA, FRA or any of other organizations with similar messages and objectives, there is a lot of talk about “rights,” and not a lot of talk about the “responsibilities” that go along with those rights.

And that’s a pretty striking violation of the social contract that should bind all of us together, for in modern society, the only folks who are exempt from having responsibilities accompany their rights are children and the mentally deficient—both of whom are only granted qualified and limited rights, as well.

So for the nation’s salt water angling organizations to argue that they have rights without accepting the full plate of responsibility that goes with them can reasonably be deemed childish, or at least not completely rational, behavior.

For as anglers, we all have a very clear and, if we’ve been brought up right in the sport, a very well-defined set of responsibilities.

First and foremost, there is our responsibility to the resource.  

As people who depend on living marine resources for our sport and, in many cases, for some portion of our food, we have an obligation to treat those resources with respect and to accept our role as their stewards.

In the simplest terms, that means that we should not abuse them.  If we decide to take home a few fish for dinner, we shouldn’t take more than we know we can use, and we shouldn’t kill anything—say a big shark or marlin—just to show it off at the dock (and maybe collect a tournament check) and then toss it into a dumpster.

As stewards of the resource, it is our responsibility to not only obey the law, but at times to go beyond the law when regulations don’t adequately protect fish stocks.  The recent trend in the northeastern striped bass fishery, that sees anglers releasing the largest and most fecund females and keeping a smaller fish for dinner, in order to maintain the stock’s spawning potential, is a good case in point.

On the other hand, the weasel words used by those named organizations, whoclaim that they only seek “reasonable access” to a fishery, when what they truly desire is the freedom to overfish various stocks in clear contravention of current science and law, present a good case of folks shirking their obligations.

Second, anglers have a responsibility to the public, which includes other anglers.  

Neither anglers nor angling-related businesses own the fish.  Fish, like all wildlife, are a publicresource, held in trust by the state and federal governments for the benefit ofall citizens, with use governed by the exercise of the state’s police powers. 

When an angler takes a fish, or merely tries to catch one, he or she is exercising a privilege (yes, a privilege, not a “right”) granted by the state as part of its duties as trustee of such resources.  Removing fish from a population reduces the number that remain available to the public for recreation, food or merely passive appreciation (all of which, viewed objectively, are equally valid uses), and such removals must not be capricious. 

It’s clear that unsustainable rates of removal can do long-lasting harm to a fish population, but even removals that fall within sustainable limits can lead to local and temporary reductions in availability, which can diminish other anglers’ enjoyment of the shared fishery.  So while there’s nothing wrong with taking, say, two or three bluefish home, killing a full limit just because it’s legal, and then trying to give away, or even dumping, the fish is not ethically defensible.

Finally, there is anglers’ responsibility to future generations

“I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that that world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”

Hunters and anglers must all be such men.  The fact that they aren’t is puzzling, as in the course of our lives, we have all seen what irresponsible stewardship brings.

In my own case, it was what caused me to become an advocate for fisheries conservation.  Some fish are more available now than they were in my youth—and I caught my very first fish fifty-nine years ago—others have all but disappeared.

So while I enjoy the scup and black sea bass that abound on local wrecks, in numbers I did not see over the course of nearly six previous decades, I mourn for the cod and the pollock, winter flounder and tautog, rainbow smelt and bluefin tuna that I once caught in their abundance and now see in much diminished numbers—if I see them at all.

As someone who grew up on the northeast coast, I find it indescribably sad that the current generation of children will not enjoy the simple pleasure of meeting up with their friends to catch a few flounder off a local dock when school’s not in session or, when they’re a bit older, to join their father and this friends on a party boat cod trip, a simple coming-of-age rite that I enjoyed when young.

Current efforts to gut federal fisheries laws in the name of “reasonable access” and “diminish[ing] socioeconomic impacts” may, on their face, appeal to many.  But we must always understand that such things are not without price, and that price is the diminishment of the world that only children yet unborn will know.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest irresponsibility of all:  Not paying the debt that is owed to the future.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Recently, Representative Garrett Graves, Republican ofLouisiana, introduced legislation that would change the way red snapper aremanaged.  He calls the bill the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act.  If passed, it would take authority to manage red snapper away from the National Marine Fisheries Service and hand it over to the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

Graves makes a number of claims in defense of his actions, including the claim that

“State-based management of federal fisheries has been successfully implemented on the East Coast as well as in Alaska over the past decades.”
I can’t speak for Alaska, having spent little time there, but I live on the East Coast, and when it comes to our local fisheries, it’s pretty clear that Graves has overstated his case.

There are three different tiers in East Coast fisheries management.  There are the federal fishery management councils, which operate regionally in federal waters, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate compact that imposes more-or-less uniform management measures on fishermen operating in state waters (and in federal waters if the councils do not elect to manage a particular species) and state managers who may impose state-specific rules in their particular jurisdictions.

Under that system, a given stock or species might be managed only federally, by federal managers and by ASMFC, by federal managers and individual states, by ASMFC alone, by individual states or by no one.  It is an intricate web of management authority, and each layer has demonstrated a different degree of success.

When folks along the Gulf of Mexico refer to the "success" of East Coast management, they’re generally thinking about ASMFC, so in order to see whether Rep. Graves’ statement is true, it’s probably best to take a look at ASMFC’s management successes and failures.

That’s pretty easy to do, because ASMFC provides a StockStatus Overview that summarizes the health of all of its managed stocks in just three pages.  

The Overview breaks ASMFC’s ’s 29 managed stocks into five categories:  Rebuilt/Sustainable, Rebuilding, Stable/Unchanged [at an unspecified level], Depleted and Unknown. 

Currently, ASMFC lists 12 managed stocks—about 40% of the total—as “Rebuilt/Sustainable”, none as “Rebuilding”, 2 as “Stable/Unchanged”, 8 as “Depleted” and 7 as “Unknown”.  So less than half of the stocks managed by ASMFC are either “Rebuilt/Sustainable” or “Rebuilding,” although those categories, combined, encompass more stocks than any other.

Yet that doesn’t tell the whole story.

ASMFC deems the Atlantic striped bass stock to be “Rebuilt/Sustainable”, despite the fact that the most recent benchmark stockassessment, completed in late 2013, noted that

“If the current fully-recruited [fishing mortality] (F=0.200) is retained during 2013-2017, the probability of being below the [spawning stock biomass] reference point increases to 0.86 by 2015…”
Since a stock is deemed to be “overfished” when spawning stock biomass falls beneath the reference point, there is at least an 86% probability that the striped bass stock will be overfished this year.  Even so, ASMFC still classifies that stock as “Rebuilt/Sustainable”, which makes you wonder how bad things have to get before ASMFC finally admits that a stock is “Depleted”.

Nevertheless, out of the 12 stocks that ASMFC designates as “Rebuilt/Sustainable”, seven (Atlantic herring, black sea bass, bluefish, scup, Spanish mackerel, spiny dogfish and summer flounder) are jointly managed with the National Marine Fisheries Service pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  The five “Rebuilt/Sustainable” stocks that are managed solely by ASMFC include two stocks of American lobster, Atlantic menhaden, black drum and the dubiously-designated Atlantic striped bass.

On the other hand, of the eight “Depleted” species, seven (American eel, one stock of American lobster, American shad, northern shrimp, river herring, tautog and weakfish) are managed solely by ASMFC, while only one, the southern New England/mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder is also managed by NMFS, and that species falls under the jurisdiction of the New England Fishery Management Council, which usually gets management wrong.

And once again, folks must remember that not one single stock managed by ASMFC is thought to be “Rebuilding”.  That’s in accordance with ASMFC’s judgment, and not just my own.

Taking a look at those numbers casts a lot of doubt on Rep. Graves’ premise that “[s]tate-based management of federal fisheries has been successfully implemented on the East Coast.” 

In fact, when one realizes that the majority of ASMFC’s “Rebuilt/Sustainable” stocks are federally managed in conformity with Magnuson-Stevens, and that nearly 90% of the “Depleted” stocks are managed by ASMFC alone—and no ASMFC-managed stock is “Rebuilding”—it's clear that just the opposite is true.  Federally managed stocks are doing pretty well, while stocks that are solely state managed are, in large part, doing pretty badly and not getting much better.

Probing a little deeper discloses more holes in Rep. Graves' understanding of East Coast fisheries management, and in the premise underlying his snapper bill.  

For on the East Coast, and particularly with respect to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which is responsible for most of the jointly managed species, federal and state managers work together.

In the Gulf red snapper fishery, there is little or no cooperation between state and federal fisheries managers, despite the fact that the fisheries managers of all five Gulf states hold permanent seats on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.  

In the Gulf, instead of trying to harmonize state and federal management plans, state and federal managers work at cross-purposes; in the most extreme example, the State of Texas has adopted a year-round red snapper season, along with a smaller minimum size and a bag limit twice that adopted by federal managers. 

Such non-cooperation on the part of the states assures that, in the Gulf, federal management plans will create problems for one or more user groups.  Unfortunately, legislators such as Rep. Graves, urged on by constituents seeking to further their own agendas, blame federal managers for every perceived shortcoming, and seek to perpetuate the real problem by giving even more power to the uncooperative states.

The successful rebuilding and long-term sustainability of some East Coast stocks can be attributed to state managers taking a completely different approach that promotes cooperation.  

In the mid-Atlantic, for example, the federal fishery management council and representatives of ASMFC meet in joint session.  Identical management measures are considered by both state and federal managers, and if either the Council or ASMFC fails to approve any such measure, protocol requires that deliberations continue until measures agreeable to everyone are adopted.

Since the Council’s doesn’t have the ability to approve measures that aren’t in accord with Magnuson-Stevens, that means that the more conservative federal measures, which are intended to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks within a relatively short period of time, are the ones put in place.

That, and not the mere fact of state regulation, is why some of the most important East Coast sport and food fish stocks have been rebuilt.

Thus, Rep. Graves has learned exactly the wrong lessons from East Coast fisheries managers.  

He has “learned” that when East Coast managers have been successful, it is because the states have managed the stocks involved.

But that is not true.

East Coast fisheries managers have been successful when the federal fisheries management councils take the lead, applying the Magnuson-Stevens Act mandates to promptly end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks.  They have been successful becasuse the states cooperate with federal managers, remaining in compliance with the federal management plans and working together with NMFS to rebuild fish stocks.

In short, East Coast fisheries managers have been successful because they don’t do what Rep. Graves wants to do with red snapper.

And that’s a lesson that Rep. Graves needs to learn quickly, before he does some real harm.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


Last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council released a staff memo suggesting that summer flounder landings in 2016 may be cut by 43%.

That’s not good news.

Ever since the court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley set the standard for federal fisheries management back in 2000, summer flounder have been a sort of bellwether for the federal management system.  The tribulations experienced by managers and fishermen while summer flounder were rebuilding foreshadowed the difficulties that would be experienced in other places by other people involved with other species.  And the period of stability that was finally achieved over the last couple of years provided a fine example of the improved angling opportunities and improved economic benefits that can be enjoyed from a recovered stock.

Now, the debate set off by the Mid-Atlantic Council’s staff memo presages the sort of conversations we’re going to have once stocks are rebuilt.  For rebuilding does not last forever, and even a rebuilt and well-managed stock needs to be managed if is to thrive.

The first thing to recognize is that the current decline in the summer flounder population, and the apparent need to reduce harvest, is not due to overfishing, although the commercial fishery exceeded its 2014 allocation by about 8%, and anglers were also about 6% over. 

However, summer flounder abundance was already sliding down from its 2010 peak, largely due to four consecutive years of sub-par recruitment that occurred from 2010 through 2013.  In 2014, recruitment had returned to something close to an average level.

That’s sort of thing is only natural.  Populations never hold truly steady; they rise and fall in accord with conditions, and hit natural periods of peaks and lows.

Fishery managers have decided that they can maintain a healthy summer flounder population by allowing fishermen (recreational and commercial) to remove a fixed percentage of the adult population each year.  So when that population drops, as it has, anglers aren’t allowed to kill as many fish as they can when the population is larger. 

It’s not rocket science.  The current biomass—the aggregate weight of all of the fish in the stock—is estimated to be around 89 million pounds.  A given percentage of that results in a smaller allowable harvest than the same percentage of a fully restored biomass.

Hunters have learned to deal with this sort of thing years ago.  When deer populations drop below optimum levels, managers cut back on the number of doe permits that they issue.  Out on the bay, brant numbers are down, so the bag limit is cut and seasons are shortened.

It’s a rational system that has been proven to work over the past hundred years or so—at least when it’s applied to deer, waterfowl and upland game.  Out in the salt water, it still causes much angst, largely because on the coast, among too many fishermen, rationality has yet to set in.

And so we’re already hearing predictions of doom.

Tom Fote, the New Jersey governor’s appointee to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, can usually be counted on for an over-the-top quote, and he didn’t disappoint when this issue surfaced.

“This is another nail in the coffin of the recreational fishing industry.  Nobody’s going to want to give up fish.”
Unknowingly commenting more on the ethics of many New Jersey anglers rather than on the management system, he said that

“We’re turning people into pirates.  This will turn a lot of them [into poachers].”
It that is true, then down in New Jersey, anglers must only follow the laws that they like.

Toni Kearns, who runs ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Mangement Program, puts everything in a more rational perspective when she says

“This is a very early stage.  I’m not saying things are likely to change.  It depends a lot on what the scientists see.”

“Whenever you get a 43 percent reduction, it gets your attention…

“I don’t think anyone is saying that the status of the stock is in jeopardy.  There are variables that the {Science and Statistics Committee] can work with and I would be hopeful that the SSC will take a lot of information into consideration and not take any draconian measures.”
But rationality isn’t in high demand right now.  It seemingly never is, when summer flounder are the subject.  Fote is already talking about buses filled with anglers going to the next Mid-Atlantic Council meeting, although since recruitment and stock size are purely scientific questions, and few if any of those anglers are likely to be fisheries scientists, it’s not too clear what they might add to the discussion.

“No one has any faith in the fishery numbers any more.  The science is so bad.”

Given such a learned observation, should buses arrive from New Jersey, we can guess how the meeting will go…

We can also guess that both before and after the meeting, folks hoping to gut the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s rebuilding and conservation provisions will try to spin the summer flounder issue to their advantage, even though it isn’t really a Magnuson issue at all.

That wasn’t too hard to do.  The summer flounder stock is not overfished, so the law’s rebuilding requirements and 10-year timeline was never an issue.  Nor does the 2014 overharvest trip the law’s mandate against overfishing.    Combined recreational and commercial harvest exceeded both sectors’ Annual Catch Limit by a bit, but never came close to reaching the Overfishing Limit, which was far higher.

That’s because managers recognized that there was some scientific uncertainty involved in the summer flounder stock assessment, so they set the Allowable Biological Catch at 21.94 million pounds, well below the26.76 million pound Overfishing Limit, to allow for it.

However, what managers didn’t do was allow for management uncertainty, which was a mistake. 

Everyone recognizes that recreational catch estimates are just that—an approximation, and not a precise figure—and that it is impossible to accurately predict angler behavior, and thus harvest, from year to year.

And while commercial harvest figures are much more accurate, they too are not perfect.  There is always some late reporting, and illegal harvest—perhaps best exemplified by theResearch Set-Aside abuses here in New York—is an unfortunate part of the equation.

Thus, managers should have established a buffer for such uncertainty, and set the Annual Catch Limits for both sectors below the Allowable Biological Catch.  However, members of federal fishery management councils, most particularly those members belonging to the commercial or recreational fishing sectors, hate to establish buffers that reduce their sectors’ catch.  Thus, they try to avoid doing so, and we end up with the sort of situation summer flounder is now undergoing.

The answer is to establish such buffers, and that’s just what Council staff recommends that managers do.  Instead of a 43% reduction in harvest, the staff recommends that buffers be phased in over three years, in order to avoid disrupting the fishery.  In the first year, the buffer would be just 6%--slightly less than the actual overage—and the entire buffer would not be put in place until 2018, by which point the abundance of adult fish should have expanded enough to make such buffer far less painful.

Thus, the Mid-Atlantic Council has demonstrated that the Magnuson-Stevens Act has enough real flexibility to address real problems in the fishery, and that those who try to use “flexibility” as an excuse to gut conservation and rebuilding provisions either don’t understand what can be done under current law—or understand all too well, and just misrepresent the true situation.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Fisheries advocacy can get depressing sometimes. 

Part of that comes from all of the problems that are still unaddressed.  Part comes from the fact that, when you get something fixed, there are folks who seem Hell-bent to break it again.

There’s a temptation to seek dramatic solutions, to find the big answers that get it all done.  But opportunities to do that come seldom, if they come at all, which means that getting things done is a long uphill grind.

But that doesn’t come as news to anyone who’s long been involved with the process.  Years ago, when I took my first steps into the arena, intent on changing the world in a day, a sunburned veteran from Florida took me aside, and asked me one question.

“Do you know how to eat an elephant?”

I looked at him, kind of puzzled and silent, not knowing just why he asked.  He let me stew for a while, then said

“You eat it one bite at a time.”

Which is right.  And with every bite, the elephant gets a bit smaller.

Folks who know me also know that I’m dedicated to preserving and restoring New York’s winter flounder stocks.  

It's just very wrong that a fish that once teemed in our bays, and supported vibrant recreational and commercial fisheries not too long ago, has declined to the point that extirpation is a real possibility.

Restoring the stock--even just halting its decline--is a huge and frighteningly complex job.  It's not made any easier when folks in the recreational and commercial fishing industries, apparently intent on squeezing the last drop of blood out if this particular dry and crumbling stone, continually try to frustrate management efforts.  

About 15 months ago, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, again elevating harvest above either conservation or common sense, approved a proposal that would increase the recreational season for the southern New England/mid-Atlantic stock of winter flounder--the stock that populates New York's waters—from 60 days to a full 10 months.

From a purely biological standpoint, it was an inexplicable decision that seemed to serve no purpose other than the destruction of the surviving remnants of the stock.

The states that hosted the stock—all except for New York—fell all over themselves to adopt the longer season.  The New York Department of Environmental Conservation, to its great credit, refused to rush to the flounder’s demise and maintained the 60-day status quo.

That didn’t please the state’s recreational fishing industry, which apparently saw no reason to conserve a disappearing stock at the expense of small profits.  Tackle shop and party boat interests asked New York State to adopt the same over-long season already adopted by neighboring states.

So New York proposed a new regulation that would have allowed anglers to kill winter flounder from March through December, and put it out for public comment.  The state didn’t even try to provide scientific justification for the proposed regulation, merely noting that it would give New York anglers the same season that anglers in other states already had.

Response to the proposal was refreshingly negative.  In what was probably a first anywhere on the coast, a coalition of national conservation groups came together to speak for the humble flounder’s survival.

Finally, last Tuesday night, at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, Jim Gilmore, who runs the DEC's Marine Bureau, announced that the state would not adopt the proposed rule, due to both an “overwhelming” number of comments in opposition and the fact that the condition of the state’s flounder stocks continued to decline.

It was a small victory (and, in the end, not a surprising one, as it was clear that the DEC’s heart wasn’t in the new regulation; rather, it was proposed mainly because industry interests, on and off the Advisory Council, had asked that the change be considered).

It didn’t portend a sea change in the way New York’s fisheries are managed (which is fine, for on the whole, they are already managed pretty well).

Standing alone, it won’t even begin to fix the flounder’s problems.  But it would certainly help to keep those problems from getting any worse.

For the moment, it was enough.

When you’re involved in fisheries battles, you want the big wins.

You don't just want to keep the Magnuson-Stevens Act from being gutted; you want to improve it, so that both forage fish and marine habitats get some better protections.  You want to end longline bycatch and see groundfish return to New England.

But in the real world, the first step is to avoid the big losses, and then seek incremental change.

The first step—that first juicy mouthful of elephant steak—comes when you walk away from a hearing or legislative meeting and can honestly say “We didn’t lose one thing today.”

That's not quite declaring victory.

But with a well-heeled fishing industry arrayed to gut our fisheries laws, and with a host of people working very hard to relax regulations designed to protect our marine resources, holding the line on existing protections is a vital first step.  

Only then can we look to push forward when conditions are right.

That’s certainly true in the case of New York’s flounder.  

The status quo won't rebuild the stock.

But last Tuesday's announcement makes it more likely that there will be a stock to rebuild when the effort is finally made..

Sunday, July 12, 2015


When I was a boy, I’d often get involved in pickup baseball games.

They were pretty casual affairs, and it was just about unheard-of to have two nine-person teams.  More often, there’d be maybe four of us—five on a good day—to play all the positions and man both of the teams.  That meant that each team would have a pitcher and a catcher, and maybe one guy in the field, which worked pretty well as far as it went because we usually played in somebody’s back yard that was all hills and stones that pretty well assured that the ball wouldn’t go far.

It got a little harder when it was time to bat, because tight quarters pretty well guaranteed that hits would mostly be singles (don’t even think of home runs between stone walls and rock cliffs), which meant that teams lacked enough batters to populate the bases and still swing at the ball.

Thus we relied on “imaginary men.”

An “imaginary man” was the guy left on third when you had to leave the base for an at-bat.  He ran just as fast as the batter, so if you got a hit, your imaginary baserunner would move up one base, too.

It was a pretty good system for some kids playing ball.  But when adults invoke imaginary men to scare folks into taking political action, it’s not good anymore.  It should lead to embarrassment, if not outright shame.

I started thinking about that a few days ago, when I read anarticle on the Business Wire website touting the Bass Anglers SportsmenSociety’s new program, “Bass Anglers for Saltwater Conservation.”  I’ve written about the program before; it’s a cynical effort to abuse freshwater bass fishermen’s trust, convince them to get involved in saltwater fisheries issues that they know little or nothing about, and urge their elected representatives to weaken America’s fisheries laws.  

But what caught my eye in the Business Wire piece was the line

“The primary threat to the future of saltwater fishing is lack of access to thriving fish stocks.  One example of this is the current situation with red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.  Once considered one of the most prized fish in the Gulf, red snapper’s federal season was a mere 10 days in 2015, despite the stock’s population nearing its highest level in decades.  Those who oppose recreational fishing are driving situations exactly like that of red snapper throughout America’s oceans, and may soon bring the battle to freshwater fisheries… [emphasis added]”
Now, there is enough wrong with that paragraph to support an entire blog (I’ve pretty well decided that one day it will), but for this discussion, concentrate on the last words:  “those who oppose recreational fishing…and may soon bring the battle [against such fishing] to freshwater fisheries.”

Because the first question we have to ask is just who those people “who oppose recreational fishing” are.  And the answer to such question is clear.

They’re the imaginary men.

They don’t really exist, but folks in the public relations and political fields learned long ago that nothing brings people together better than a threat from outside, and that if no threat exists, it pays to create one.  

The more that you can keep folks’ attention focused on a supposed outside threat, the less likely they are to notice your malfeasance at home.

On the world scale, we can see this in Venezuela today, where the late President Chavez and his current successors demonized the United States, and continue to do so, in order to keep the population looking fearfully north instead of keeping close tabs on bad acts in Caracas.

Thirty-something years ago, an abusive junta in Argentina picked a fight with Great Britain over the Falklands—or, should I say, the Islas Malvinas—starting a war that they were fated to lose while stirring up patriotic fervor that would hopefully cause folks to forget that their neighbors were disappearing in the dark of night.

Here in America we see the same thing, as advocates for various causes warn, in bright purple prose, that rights are threatened by persons named or by persons unknown.  The only hope, we are told, is to write, vote and/or donate in the prescribed way, without thinking or questioning why.

Because, if we don’t, the imaginary men are likely to win, and where—tell me!—where would we ever be then…?

It’s a time-tested ploy that’s been used by politicians, magicians and three-card monte dealers since time began:  Get people excited, get them focused, watching one of your hands—and hope that they focus so hard that they don’t see what you do with the other.

Because yes, there are folks such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who would like to see sportfishing cease, but there are folks who see UFOs, too.  In the end, both have about the same impact on politics.  I’ve yet to see PETA at a management hearing.

The folks who dreamed up Bass Anglers for Saltwater Conservation needed to create a far more frightening bogeyman.

At one time, they targeted various conservation organizations who worked to restore salt water fisheries, labeling them “extreme environmentalists” and such.

“Anti-fishing groups and radical environmental interests are pushing an agenda on marine fisheries issues affecting America’s saltwater anglers.  At the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), we’re pushing back to protect your right to fish!”
But that tack didn’t bear much fruit.  Most anglers are sympathetic to the need to conserve fish stocks, although they’re often unhappy when more restrictions are imposed on their favorite fishery.  In the Gulf of Mexico, which the red snapper issue has probably made ground zero in the anglers vs. environmentalists faceoff, the enviros end up looking pretty good after BP shut down fisheries for months—and perhaps impaired them for decades—after its Deepwater Horizon well blew.

And anyway, the conservation groups trying to protect salt water fish were focusing on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act.  Not only does Magnuson-Stevens only address salt water fisheries, and have no impact on fresh water fisheries at all (except for Pacific salmon and some anadromous herrings), but the sort of management Magnuson requires—size limits, bag limits and seasons that will restore overfished stocks and maintain them at healthy levels—is just the sort of thing that freshwater fishermen widely endorse.

Hard to find a boogeyman there…

A lot of the angling groups also like to point fingers at the commercial sector, but in this case, they’re not convenient villains either.  

For one, there is no commercial fishery for largemouth, smallmouth or the other freshwater bass anywhere in the United States.  For another, while people such as the New England trawlers or North Carolina gillnetters still give commercials a bad name, over the last decade or so, a lot of operations have cleaned up their act and embraced conservation.

The Alaska commercial fisheries are probably the best example, but it’s hard not to point out that down in the Gulf, in the red snapper fishery (sorry to bring that one up again, but then, in the end, it’s what’s driving all this) the commercial sector hasn’toverfished its quota since 2007, although it did successfully bring a lawsuitagainst the National Marine Fisheries Service to compel it to keep therecreational sector from exceeding its quota.

So when the recreational fishing industry and the “anglers’ rights” groups, who want to weaken federal fisheries laws, were looking for someone to scare freshwater bass fishermen into supporting their ignoble cause, none of their usual bad guys would do.

If they weren’t careful, they might be discerned to be “bad guys” themselves. 

So they invented imaginary men to get the bass guys’ attention, imaginary men of unknown identity or description, whose sole goal in life is to shut down recreational salt water fisheries, and then, maybe, turn their gaze on the fresh waters, too.

Like trolls or ogres or Medusa’s gaze, the imaginary men were far more frightening than anything that exists in the real world, frightening enough to really scare the bass guys and convince them to help weaken federal fisheries law.

Because if the bass fishermen ever lost focus on the imaginary, and paid attention to what was really going on, they’d want no part of that effort at all.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


I grew up in New England, and even if my home was out on the fringes, down on the southeastern edge of the region where the old values were watered down a little too much by the corrupting influences of urban New York, I understand how New England folks think.

One of my oldest and most valued friends had roots deep in the region’s granite-ribbed soil; his family name took up plenty of space on the maps of our childhood home, which was only appropriate since they were a part of the town since it was founded in 1640.  They took pride in their Yankee roots and Yankee outlook, and a lot of that outlook rubbed off on me.

Later on, four years of life in the heart of Massachusetts, and untold hours fishing, wandering the docks and drinking beer in dockside bars on the Rhode Island coast just served to make New England more a part of who I am.

It’s a special place.  Skim off the professors and techies from Worcester, New Haven and Boston, and winnow the New Yorkers who’ve flowed into Connecticut and some of the resorts, and what you have left is a resilient, resourceful and tough-minded culture built out of farmers who dug more rocks than potatoes out of the northern Maine soil, factory workers who lived and died in company towns such as Woonsocket, Nantucket whalers and fishermen from ports such as New Bedford, Point Judith and Gloucester.  While a lot of New England folks have left their hard-labor roots these days, it remains a part of their soul.

That’s good in a lot of ways, not so good in others. 

A few years ago, my wife and I were in California, enjoying the majesty and hiking the trails of Yosemite National Park.  One of the best-known sights there is Half Dome, a huge mass of hardened lava that formed in a volcano's heart.  The stone and soil that once surrounded the lava eroded away over time, but Half Dome remains.  It's nearly as hard and resistant to change as a New Englander’s opinion.

Such unshakable views probably help to explain why the New England Fishery Management Council has been unable to stem the decline of some of the most important groundfish stocks in the region, if not in the nation and maybe the world—not an exaggeration, when your realize that New England codfish stocks fed a substantial portion of the Christian world for close to half of a millennium.

Unfortunately, they’re not providing much food for anyone right about now, largely because cod stocks have fallen to such low levels that they having enough trouble sustaining themselves.

But New England fishermen still believe things are fine.

Sure, they’re catching fewer fish, but they’re still not willing to admit that’s because they caught far too many before.  They honestly still believe, as an article in the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette announced, that there’s

The article, which was actually pretty moderate for the northeast, alleged that

“The decay of [a large fishing vessel at a Martha’s Vineyard pier] has little to do with a lack of fish, [a local fisherman] said.  Instead, he said, the main struggle for fishermen these days involves the array of state and federal regulations and the ever-increasing costs associated with a way of life as old as the island itself…”
Yet despite that fisherman’s views, it’s hard to believe that the fleet wouldn’t be better off if the Georges Bank cod stock had been allowed to rebuild to the abundance level targeted by fisheries managers.  

Instead, mismanagement by the New England Fishery Management Council has it still languishing at something less than 10% of that number.

The Gulf of Maine stock of cod, which inhabits more northerly waters, is in even worse shape, with the best available science putting it at just 3% of managers’ target (although, once again, fishermen challenge that estimate).

But such numbers don’t seem to faze the New England Council, who seems more concerned that managers are requiring fishermen to leave cod in the water than the fact that there are few left to catch.

The New England Fishery Management Council described the action as one which would

“allow fishing opportunities on healthy stocks for the economically strapped groundfish fleet, while also providing greater access to a portion of the Georges Bank sea scallop resource that has not been open to the fishery since 1994.
“Currently, there are close to 7,000 square miles of habitat and groundfish closures on Georges Bank and in the Great South Channel.  The measures selected by the Council would maintain some portion of the existing closures, and open others, resulting in 2,000 square miles of habitat closures going forward…”
Of course, what wasn’t said is that fishermen want to get into the closed areas so badly because there weren’t many fish anywhere else.  Opening up roughly 70% of the currently closed areas—which is not a done deal, as it still requires signoff from the National Marine Fisheries Service—would be done, as the Council press release makes clear, for purely economic reasons, without regard for the needs of the resource.

It’s not hard to liken the fishermen’s actions to an old-time military campaign.  In fishing the cod stocks down to the brink of collapse, they have already effectively destroyed the "enemy" crops.  Now, in opening the closed areas and dragging weighted trawls across critical habitat, they’re effectively plowing salt into the ground, to assure that such crops cannot grow and thrive in the future.

To add insult to injury, the Council is also asking NMFS to lift the observer requirement on groundfish boats.  

Ostensibly, they're doing that because the boats don’t want to bear the costs associated with carrying an observer.  But it’s not hard to note that while the Council is justifying opening the closed areas to give groundfishermen “fishing opportunities on healthy stocks,” with no observers on board, it’s impossible to know how many fish from badly threatened stocks such as cod will somehow find their way into fish totes, or will be discarded, dead, back into the ocean…

Needless to say, the conservation community is opposed to eliminating both the closed areas and the observers.

Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager for the conservation group Oceana, noted in an op-ed for the New York Times that

“two new proposals by the New England Fishery Management Council…threaten to undo years of work to protect the Atlantic cod and other New England species.  This one-two punch to the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod stocks may be the knockout blow [for such fisheries].
“First, the council is preparing to drastically reduce the amount of protected habitat in New England waters, including by nearly 80 percent around the Georges Bank.  The plan would allow for expansion of bottom trawling and dredging, two of the most destructive fishing methods, into protected habitats.
“In addition to gutting habitat protections, the council wants to suspend a program that places observers on fishing vessels to monitor compliance.  But without monitoring the numbers of fish being taken out of the ocean, there is no way to accurately determine the health of their populations or ensure that quotas are reported…
“Pressure for even more change looms.  Dissatisfied with its current profits, the scallop industry is pushing the council to reopen portions of the most important New England cod habitat on Georges Bank, where the bottom-scraping scallop dredges would destroy any hope of rebuilding cod populations…
“Similar pressure is coming from the cod, haddock and flounder industries…To stay viable for another year, the industries claim that they need additional access to closed areas.
“But as they try to stay in business in the short term, they are risking the long-term existence of their fishery.  Closures, however painful, are vital to their survival.  Weakening protections will undoubtedly continue the collapse of groundfish stocks, including Atlantic cod…
“The temporary price of protecting habitats and monitoring and enforcing quotas should be seen as in investment in the future.  It may take years to begin to fully appreciate the returns on these investments, but anything less would be irresponsible, and ultimately far more painful to the people who depend on a healthy ocean for their livelihoods.”
Brogan is undoubtedly right.  If any enterprise, including a fishing-related business, is to survive, an investment must be made in its future.

But New England fishermen don’t quite see it that way.  

They’ve been killing codfish for four hundred years, and have no plans to stop doing so now.

Their determination to carry on is as firm and unyielding as granite.

New Englanders are a determined people, and that determination will assure that there will always be a New England.  It may also assure that, sometime soon, if they want a good chowder, they’ll have to import the codfish from Iceland.