Sunday, August 9, 2015


The northern scup—here on Long Island, we just call them “porgies”—isn’t a big fish. 

The International Game Fish Association, which keeps track of the biggest fish caught by anglers, recognizes a 4-pound, 9-ounce scup as the all-tackle world record, and it’s unlikely that they get too much larger than that.

Scup have a pretty small mouth, and no teeth to speak of, but to hear some folks tell it, they’re the scourge of the seas.

That became pretty obvious a week or so ago, when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council released the summary of the most recentSummer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Advisory Panel meeting, where Marc Hoffman, a recreational fisherman from New York said

“All those scup are eating lobster roe, small crabs, shellfish, and baby flounder…When one species grows so much, it’s going to wipe out some other species…”
Hoffman made similar comments about black sea bass, a somewhat larger species often caught along with scup, that on rare occasions can grow to nine pounds or so.  In that case, he said that

“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…”
And he made the impassioned plea

“Sea bass and scup are growing enormously and need to be contained to a reasonable amount.  You can’t allow one species to devour everything else.”
His last sentence may have even had value if, when he said “one species” he had Homo sapiens in mind…

But it’s pretty likely that Hoffman wasn’t thinking that way when he said what he did, but rather envisioned some maritime Armageddon that saw a horde of fish perhaps the size of your foot running rampant and scouring life from the seas.  

The sort of event that might give rise to a movie such as “Scupnado:  This time, it’s even harder to believe…

Still, Hoffman’s comments weren’t all that unusual when folks are trying to stave off conservation efforts or even increase their kill.  At the Advisory Panel meeting, Michael Ireland, a North Carolina commercial fisherman, said that

“Sea bass are eating scallops, lobster, everything,”

and reported that

“I recently had a huge tow of scup and some of them got damaged while we were bringing them aboard.  We discovered they were eating small scallops.  There were 10-12 scallops in each fish.  When you think about how many scup are out there, that’s a big impact on other species…”
Yep, maybe even “Scupnado II:  The Sixth Extinction.”

But, no, our kind already has that one well underway.

And you have to wonder about how scallops ever survived for a few million years before we came along to “protect” them…

Yet the “Scupnado” scenario is just the lastest in a long series of claims that fish have to be killed off lest they somehow unbalance the ecosystem.

Spiny dogfish are a perennial whipping boy for anglers who want to blame predators—rather than fishing mortality—for the decline of various species, including summer flounder.  

“…one might reasonably assume that stringent preservation of other predatory species like spiny dogfish and black sea bass—an imbalanced effort to create preservation and abundance—could significantly impact the amount of young fluke.  While local commercial fishermen are once again allowed to harvest spiny dogs, the environmentalists’ [sic] who forced the closure of this fishery a decade ago ultimately destroyed that market, creating an overabundance of fluke-hungry sea wolves.”
Last October, as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was debating a reduction in striped bass landings, the same argument was made in a different form, with one member of its Striped Bass Management Board, Russell Dize, legislative proxy from Maryland, arguing that increasingthe abundance of striped bass wasn’t necessary because

“I’ve been a commercial fishermen for 55 years in Maryland.  I’ve watched the striped bass come and go.  At this time, we’ve probably got more striped bass in the bay than I’ve ever seen in my life.  We’ve got so many striped bass that it has affected our crab-catching industry.  We are probably down to a low ebb last summer on crabs.
“One of the predators is rockfish, striped bass.  When the charterboats catch the striped bass and they clean them, you can count anywhere from ten to forty small crabs in the belly of a rockfish…”
Of course, such arguments aren’t limited to the East Coast.  They occur anywhere and everywhere people want to kill more fish than the law will allow. 

Down in the Gulf of Mexico, where red snapper are about halfway through a long rebuilding effort, we’re told by Alabama charter boatcaptain Dale Woodruff that

“[T]here’s way too many Red Snapper out there, we’ve got to go thin the heard [sic] out.”
That follows comments by anglers and charter boat captains that red snapper are, well, snapping up everything on the reef, driving down the population of everything from beeliners to gray triggerfish.

But the most outrageous case of blaming one fish for the decline in other fish stocks probably came in the form of comments made by a major industrial fish catcher/processer opposing proposed  language that would provide greater protection for forage fish in the National Standard One guidelines.

The National Standards are provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that establish the framework for how the law should be applied, and the guidelines applied to such National Standards are intended to inform regional fishery management councils that must prepare fishery management plans that conform to the law.

It was proposed that forage fish be managed more conservatively than species at higher trophic levels, to better assure that their role in the food web, as well as their mere sustainability, could be maintained.

But the catcher/processer in question challenged that assumption arguing, among other things, that an abundance of forage fish, intended to provide food for predator species such as cod and haddock, could actually cause a decline in such species by eating their larvae and eggs.

Such argument isn’t without some support; in the North Sea, where cod and other groundfish have been overfished for many years, there is data suggesting that an abundance of herring can inhibit the groundfishes’ recovery. 

However, that problem only arose because groundfish populations had been so badly overfished that they were vulnerable to the forage fish’s predation.  Had groundfish been properly managed, an abundance of herring would only be a boon, not a potential obstruction, to their sustainability.

It was a perfect example of blaming the fish for a problem that fishermen first engendered.

So it is with all of the claims that the abundance of one stock of fish can only harm the health of another.  Fish of all species thrived at unfished levels of abundance for untold thousands—often millions—of years without causing harm to one another.

It was only after unregulated harvest threw the ecosystem out of whack that some problems seemed to appear.

Thus, we must realize that the answer to any such problems isn’t to fish all species down to some level of scarcity.  

Rather, it is to increase the abundance of depleted stocks, through restrictions on harvest when needed, to restore the balance once more.

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