Sunday, August 23, 2015


The speaker, the governor’s appointee from the State of Rhode Island, was objecting to a proposal to sharply curtail or even suspend lobster harvest south of Cape Cod.  Even though the stock was apparently suffering recruitment failure, and the population threatened with collapse, he objected to the only measures that might have a hope of halting the decline, saying

“I don’t know whether you people are aware of it or not, but if you chose a five-year fishery moratorium to keep the fishery from collapsing, you’ve kind of jumped the shark and guaranteed that the fishery collapses without even giving the opportunity to collapse, because there would be no fishery left after five years.  There would be no infrastructure.
“The average age of the lobster fishermen in Southern New England is something like 57 or 58 years; so if you take those people and you put five more years onto their average, they’re well up into their sixties.  At that point there is no fishery to come back, so it seems like the board would be considering an option that it seems nice to say, oh, yes, well, we can do this, this and the other thing and then everything will be fine and hunky dory, but there wouldn’t be anybody to fish…”
And that is the crux of so many fishery management debates.

How do we apportion the benefits of fisheries management? 

Should we accept the risk of putting some—perhaps many—of today’s fishermen out of business, or at the least expose them to severe economic harm, in order to better assure that their fishery will thrive in the future?  Or should we allow those fishing today to collapse a once-vital stock, in the hopes of keeping their businesses alive for a few more years, and let the future fend for itself?

Is it ever acceptable to risk extirpation of local stocks—or even the extinction of a species—in order to keep businesses going for a few seasons more?

Does a stock even have value, if no one can fish it?

And do the answers change when the science is a little fuzzy, or suggests that even with managers’ best efforts, a stock may not recover?

Unfortunately, such things have happened before.

In February 2009, Dr. Steven Correia informed ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Management Board that
“The [Technical Committee] believes the Southern New England winter flounder is in serious trouble.  There is no evidence of any year classes coming through.  Projections indicate the stock is not going to be rebuilt for quite a bit even at very low [levels of fishing mortality]…
“The concern that comes up is that where the fisheries occur within state waters, that they’re occurring on the spawning groups, individual spawning groups as they’re moving in and out of the estuaries, and so the inshore fishery could actually have a bigger impact on some of these spawning groups because they’re getting ready to go in as opposed to the EEZ where they’re mixed with various components…”
Faced with the dire condition of the stock, the Management Board was contemplating emergency action to completely close the fishery for the southern New England winter flounder stock before any significant harvest took place in the spring.  ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel unanimously endorsed such closure.  

However, once again, the interests of those exploiting the stock were elevated above the health of the stock itself.

Philip Curcio, an attorney representing the United Boatmen of New York, the New York Fishing Tackle Trades Association and the New York chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance admitted that

“we have an extreme situation here,”
but objected to the emergency action solely on business grounds.  He argued that

“The gentlemen who represents New York on this panel has no economic interest in the fishery whatsoever, and I have no doubt that he was part of the group that opined as to the fact that there would be no economic impact because nobody catches these fish.  I come directly against that opinion and say that even if people don’t catch them or catch very few of them, they still do fish for them…
“Basically, you’re looking at these guys now staying tied to the dock probably until the 1st of July or the very end of June, if we’re fortunate enough to get away with even that situation.  There are several partyboats that still make a living at this.  Even though they don’t catch a lot of fish, they’re providing the opportunity for people to come out in the spring and wet a line.  There is an economic impact here…”
So once again, even though the speaker knows that the fish are in extremely bad shape, he supports further exploitation because there are still a few dollars yet to be made.

In the end, he and folks who thought like him carried the day, and the fishery was never closed.

And some folks undoubtedly made a few dollars in the years since, while driving the population of New York’s winter flounder so low that biologists studying it warn that more management missteps

“may lead to decline and extinction.”
However, extinction seems to be an acceptable risk when there is money to be made, an unfortunate truth often demonstrated at various ASMFC management board meetings, where fishermen with direct economic interests in the species being discussed are permitted to vote on how such species are managed. 

That may help to explain why not only southern New England lobster and southern New England winter flounder have suffered stock collapse while under ASMFC’s aegis, but stocks of northern shrimp and weakfish as well.  It may also help to explain why, since 1995, ASMFC has failed to recover a single stock under its sole management authority, although it has seen a number of other stocks, including but not limited to American shad, river herring, striped bass and tautog, decline sharply during that time.

It also demonstrates very clearly why, if fishermen are to have voting roles on management boards, there must be laws in place that clearly require them to place the long-term health of the stock above their own short-term economic interests.

That is why the National Marine Fisheries Service has been so successful in rebuilding stocks over the past fifteen year or so; the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires that NMFS must end overfishing, and must rebuild overfished stocks as quickly as possible.

At the August 2015 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, members of the recreational and commercial fishing industries came to the podium to ask the Council not to recommend reductions in summer flounder landings, even though the best available science indicated that such reductions were needed.  But no matter how sympathetic fishermen on the Council might have been to such pleas, federal law did not allow the Council to heed them; it was bound to follow the scientists’ advice.   Thus, efforts to rebuild the stock will begin soon .

We see the same thing up in New England, where the collapse of the Gulf of Maine cod stock has led to very severe—but very badly needed—harvest reductions.  

“a completely idiotic program…intended to kill fish and kill fisherman,”
but the reductions are mandated by federal law, unlike the proposed reductions in lobster harvest, and were put in place despite fishermen’s complaints.

And that’s what makes Magnuson-Stevens such a good and important law, and why anyone concerned with the health of America’s marine fisheries must urge their representatives in Washington to resist efforts to weaken the law to allow a harvest of fish that is greater than science or common sense would allow.

For if we let Magnuson-Stevens be weakened, more fisheries will start to look like southern New England lobster.

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