Thursday, August 6, 2015


About 175 years ago, in an essay entitled “Self-Reliance”, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
Maybe that’s so.

But anyone involved with fisheries management issues in the Mid-Atlantic region, where statesmen, philosophers and divines are not easily found,  might instead note that a foolish inconsistency is a hobgoblin of some other folks' minds, minds belonging mostly to folks trying to undercut the fisheries management process.

Yet the fact that their statements are not only inconsistent, but actually contradictory, seems completely lost on the speakers, even though they’re dealing with species included in the same fisheries management plan.

One of the species is black sea bass, a stock that’s considered fully restored.  Here in the northeast, sea bass seem to be pretty abundant, and anglers are taking plenty of them home—so many, in fact, that this year’s recreational landings in thestates between New Jersey and Massachusetts had to be cut by about one-third, when compared to last year’s, in order to keep them below what biologists believe to be prudent and sustainable levels.

That didn’t go over very well with many representatives of the commercial and recreational fishing industries, who emphasized the species’ apparent abundance and argued that harvest should be increased.  The summary of the Mid-Atlantic FisheryManagement Council’s Advisory Panel conference call of July 29, 2015 pretty much tells the story.
Commercial fisherman James Lovegren of New Jersey noted that

“I’ve been fishing for over 40 years and this is the healthiest I’ve ever seen the sea bass fishery…I think the quota should be at 7.5 or 8 million pounds…”
Others argued that the black sea bass population was growing so large that it had to be thinned to protect other species.

Marc Hoffman, a recreational advisor from New York, advanced that dubious premise, saying

“The biomass for sea bass is so much higher than what we have recorded.  They’re wiping out other species.  If we don’t act soon you’re going to lose the lobster fishery throughout the northeast.  We need an emergency opening of both the commercial and recreational black sea bass fishery.  We need to allow 100 pounds of black sea bass bycatch per day…”
His views were echoed by Michael Ireland, a commercial fisherman from North Carolina, who argued that

“Sea bass are eating scallops, lobsters, everything…”
So, OK, we get it.  

There seems to be a lot of black sea bass before out there, so many that, in the views of some folks (who have no scientific training at all), they are becoming a scourge to the ecosystem that must be eliminated before they start snatching small children from the shallows at coastal beaches and earn their own series of movies on the SyFy Channel…

And even if there aren’t quite that many around, their apparent abundance justifies a little larger harvest.

Fair enough. 

Fisheries biologists may not agree, for various reasons, but the basic premise is logical.  When there are more fish around, limits could be a little more generous.

But now, let’s consider summer flounder.

They’re managed under the same management plan as black sea bass.  They have the same set of advisors.  And biologists have solid evidence that recruitment was well below average for for consecutive years, from 2010 through 2013.

Even Marc Hoffman, one of the advisors warning us all to arm, gird our loins and wade out to do battle against the black sea bass “soon” lest great environmental damage be done, recognizes that some year classes are largely missing from the summer flounder population, noting that

“All the party boats I’m talking to are seeing plenty of fish, but not a lot of keepers.  There are plenty of fish just under 18 inches..”
And that’s just about what the science is reporting.  

The 2010 year class was the smallest in recent years, 2011 was only a little better, and those are the year classes that would be providing us with most of our just-legal fish this season.  Recruitment improved steadily after that, with the 2014 year class of roughly average size, which explains why there are quite a few “shorts,” including a bunch that measure in the 12- to 14-inch range that were spawned in 2014.

So one would think that Hoffman, who was certainly gung-ho to raise the black sea bass kill due to a seeming abundance of fish, would embrace the science that reflects his own observations, and readily agree to cuts in the summer flounder harvest.

But it didn’t work that way.  Instead, Hoffman opposed the proposed cuts, saying

“I think this is a very drastic action.  It’s too drastic based on what we’re seeing.”
Does anyone else notice the inconsistency here?

Although, to be fair, Hoffman wasn’t alone.

Michael Ireland, the commercial fisherman from North Carolina, declared

“I think we’re going at this way too fast.  I think we may have gotten an inaccurate assessment, and we need another assessment as soon as possible.”
Even Jim Lovegren, who I know as a reasonable and level-headed fishermen from the days when we both sat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, was very critical of the science, and said

“They need to take this whole thing back to the drawing board.  These cuts will have enormous impacts.  We have a failure of management.”
Thus, we seem to be confronted with an inconsistency.

When a stock is at a high level of abundance, as black sea bass appears to be, the Advisory Panel--and we can assume many fisherman as well--want to see harvests increased.
That seems to make sense.

So when a stock declines in abundance, as is the case with summer flounder—an observation confirmed by at least some of the Advisory Panel members—one would expect the Advisory Panel and fishermen as a whole to follow the same logic, and call for landings reductions.

But that’s not the case.  

In the face of four years of documented sub-par recruitment—and a stock assessment model that, if anything, makes recruitment appear higher than it actually was—the Advisory Panel and those whom the panel represents are adamantly opposed to landings reductions.

That’s inconsistent.

But it’s foolish as well, for if too many summer flounder are harvested now, when fewer fish are being recruited into the population, managers will be forced to make even greater cuts in the future, just to repair the damage.

Wisdom would dictate that fishermen accept a painful cut today, to avoid even greater and more painful cuts tomorrow,

But wisdom can be all too rare when fish are involved.

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