Sunday, September 27, 2015


A few days ago, I came across a press release from the American Fly Fishing Trade Association announcing the expansion of the “AFFTA Fisheries Fund,” which it describes as a fund established in 2014

“with the main objective of funding organizations and projects focused on fisheries conservation and education.
“’The Fisheries Fund is a unique opportunity for not only AFFTA, but everyone whose vocation or avocation is fishing, to give back.  To protect what we hold most dear…”
To date, the Fund has, among other things, supported efforts to restore steelhead and salmon habitat in Oregon, helped Trout Unlimited fight a proposed mine that would threaten an healthy, clear-running river in Montana and funded work to permanently end the threats to the spectacular Bristol Bay salmon and steelhead runs posed by drilling and mining interests up in Alaska.

All of its advocacy has been related to anadromous and strictly freshwater fisheries so far, but given the growing importance of salt water fly fishing, I have no doubt that if a worthy project came forward to help protect striped bass, redfish or tarpon, the AFFTA Fisheries Fund would give it serious consideration as well.

Such an industry-wide commitment to conservation is admirable.  It’s also a classic example of doing well by doing good, for as I noted in a blog that I wrote eighteen months ago, if you want to have a fishing industry, it helps to have fish

By funding conservation projects, AFFTA is helping to assure that future generations of anglers will get the opportunity to enjoy some of the pleasures that we already know, while at the same time assuring that their businesses also survive.  For if the fish disappear, the fishermen will disappear shortly thereafter.

AFFTA’s wise actions contrast with those of the American Sportfishing Association, the trade organization that represents the greater part of the tackle and angling-related industry.  ASA sees a threat to angling’s future, too, and created an organization called “Keep America Fishing” designed to help perpetuate the sport. 

But where AFFTA concentrates on protecting the fish and the waters they swim in, Keep America Fishing announces on its Internet home page that it is

Protecting the fish appears optional—or perhaps undesirable, given that ASA supports H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, a bill just about identical to one introduced in the previous session of Congress that was so bad that conservationists called it the “Empty Oceans Act.”

Although H.R. 1335 would allow managers to perpetuate overfishing for an indeterminate amount of time, and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks, ASA calls House passage of the bill last spring

“a victory for recreational anglers,”
and insists that

“the Senate version of the bill still must [be] passed.”
The whole notion of assuring healthy fish stocks in the future, in order to assure a healthy fishing industry as well, seems to have escaped ASA.

Even when it comes to such a simple issue such as litter, ASA’s views seem skewed.  It tells anglers to clean up soft plastic lures, and not leave them littering the waters, which is a good thing.  But the motivation isn’t to perpetuate beauty or to have anglers clean up their mess so that the next angler can enjoy unsullied waters, but rather the cynical

“Our waterways are being littered with worn-out soft plastic lures.  If this habit doesn’t stop, we are giving the environmentalists and politicians adequate ammunition for making fishing with these lures illegal.”
So it seems that the whole notion of doing something just because it is right has escaped ASA, too..

Maybe that’s why, while AFFTA’s Fisheries Fund is helping to fight drilling and mining that could destroy pristine waters in places such as Alaska and Montana, ASA has no problem cozying up to someone such as Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, who has criticized actions by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the Bristol Bay fishery, and  has actually sponsored legislation that would take away much of the agency’s authority to do so.  

The same legislation would remove the EPA’s authority to veto permits for “mountaintop removal,” a form of coal mining which is much what it sounds like—a process in which overburden removed from above Appalachian coal seams is dumped in the valleys and cool mountain streams which, often right up until then, held populations of rapidly-disappearing native brook trout.

And killing more fish is, I suppose, good for ASA’s members’ business—at least until the supply of fish starts to run out.

It always leaves me more than a little amazed that so many bright people—and the folks who run ASA certainly fall into that category—can’t look ahead for more than  a season or two, and realize that the health of the fishing industry is directly related to the health of fish stocks.

Maybe it’s because the industry, and its allies in the marine trades business, are so caught up in their pretty fishfinders and GPS units and such, which make it easier for even mediocre anglers to find a few fish when populations are down, that they don’t understand that there comes a point when fishing becomes so poor even the best electronics can't help.

And maybe that’s why the fly guys get it right.  They still keep things simple.

“fly-rodders are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.  The technique we use makes it harder to catch large fish, and we are the first to see the effects of a decline.”
That makes a lot of sense.

And what AFFTA is doing makes a lot of sense, too.

What doesn’t make sense is that rest of the angling industry hasn't yet reached out to lend AFFTA’s conservation efforts a hand.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


For the past couple of years, we’ve been hearing angling industry interests down in the Gulf of Mexico crying out, calling for the federal government to cede its authority to manage red snapper and hand such responsibility over to the states.

A joint industry letter written to key United States senators early this year stated that

“We support Senator David Vitter’s Red Snapper Management Improvement Act, S. 105.  Last Congress, we supported several other bills fixing red snapper for Americans, including Congressman Jeff Miller’s Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act, H.R. 3099.  These bills give the states the responsibility to manage this fishery in a manner that ensures not only a robust, healthy resource, but one that is not systematically put out of the reach of ordinary citizens.  With their proven track record managing fisheries and recovering stocks such as red drum and speckled trout, and with superior recreational data collection systems, the states have earned the trust and respect of Gulf Coast anglers and conservationists…”
While the assertions made in that letter are open to question, that’s not the point.

What is really interesting is how the rhetoric surrounding the issue, particularly the attacks leveled against federal fisheries managers and the claims that the states could manage fish better, parallel attacks that have long been leveled against federal land and resource managers in many western states.

Out West, the attack on federal stewardship have been led by the mining, energy, timber and ranching industries, along with the host of politicians that are well-supported by such folks’ campaign contributions.

In the Gulf, the attack comes from the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries and the politicians…  Well, let’s just say that the Gulf industry groups have come together under an umbrella known as the Center for Coastal Conservation, which says of itself

“The Center for Coastal Conservation’s role is to affect public policy…with broad abilities to pursue political solutions.   The organization…focuses on having an impact in the national political arena, particularly Congress and national regulatory agencies.
“…the Center has established the Center for Coastal Conservation Political Action Committee (Center PAC), so that its members can fully participate in elective politics…”
“Fully participate,” of course, means “make campaign contributions”…

So what we ultimately end up with is a recreational fishing and boating industry that seems to have a lot in common with the folks seeking to bring more mining, more drilling, more grazing and fewer trees to America’s public lands.

Given that is the case, it might make a lot of sense to take a closer look at what’s going on west of the 100th meridian.

Earlier this year, there was an article in The Salt Lake Tribune, a Utah newspaper, headlined “Bishop, Stewart launch action group for states to take over federal lands.”

The article goes on to explain that

“Two Utah congressman are launching a ‘Federal Lands Action Group’ to identify ways Congress could to push a transfer of lands to state and local governments.
“GOP Reps Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop announced the new working group…and said that it would hold a series of hearings with experts on public lands policy with the end goal of introducing legislation to move the federal units into state and local control.”
And yes, that’s the same Rob Bishop who was one of just three cosponsors of H.R. 1335, the so-called “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” which would seriously weaken the conservation and rebuilding provisions of current federal fisheries law, so there’s more than a casual connection here.

At any rate, the Salt Lake Tribune went on to quote Congressman Stewart as saying

“The federal government has been a lousy landlord for Western states and we simply think that the states can do it better.  If we want healthier forests, better access to public lands, more consistent funding for public education and more reliable energy development, it makes sense to have local control.”
That’s not very different from a statement made by the Coastal Conservation Association (an “anglers’ rights” group that helped to organize the similarly-named Center for Coastal Conservation and, like the Center and Congressman Bishop, a supporter of H.R. 1335), which argued that

“State-based fishery management has been proven to be far more effective than the federal system and has engineered some of the greatest conservation victories in the country.  Whereas federal management of red snapper has been marked by crisis after crisis, the states have proven far more capable of not only conserving and managing robust fisheries, but also providing greater access to those resources for their citizens.”
When you have different people in different places saying about the same thing about the management of natural resources, it’s not unreasonable to believe that their motivations are about the same, too.

What are those motivations?

“the federal land can be developed for oil shale, logging, raising of cattle and for recreation.”
Thus, it’s not very surprising to see the Coastal Conservation Association argue that the states should take over red snapper management and abolish “overly restrictive” regulations that restrict landings

“and are negatively impacting the thousands of recreational fishing dependent businesses all along the Gulf coast.”
For Congressman Bishop and Senator Hatch are far more interested in the short term profits of energy, logging and ranching businesses than they are in intact ecosystems, clean, flowing waters or the survival of imperiled species such as the sage grouse.  

And the Center for Coastal Conservation is far more concerned with the short term profits of the recreational fishing and boating industries than it is in the long-term health of red snapper.

At first glance, the Western politicians and the Gulf angling industry seem to be dealing with very different issues.  But if you listen closely, you’ll realize that they’re just singing different verses of the same old song.

They all are trying to replace responsible federal stewardship of publicly-owned natural resources with weak, politically-driven state management that will put those resources at risk so that resource-dependent industries can pocket a little more cash.

Yes, it’s the same old song, but these days, it sounds badly off-key, particularly to sportsmen who know that they, like the nation, do not own the fish, the game, the land or the oceans, but merely hold them in trust for not only their children and grandkids, but for the children and grandkids of other sportsmen who are not yet born.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


More particularly, he signed a bill which prohibits North Carolina from entering into a joint enforcement agreement, pursuant to which the North Carolina Marine Patrol would be empowered to enforce federal fisheries laws in North Carolina waters, in return for the Marine Patrol receiving additional funding—perhaps as much as $600,000—from the feds for enhancement of the Marine Patrol’s law enforcement activities.

Such joint enforcement agreements have proven to be beneficial to both state and federal fisheries law enforcement agencies.  As a result, they have become very popular with state officials on every coast—so popular, in fact, that North Carolina is currently the only coastal state in the nation that does not have one in place.

If North Carolina had a joint enforcement agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, its Marine Patrol would be able to enter federal waters and enforce NMFS' regulations prohibiting striped bass fishing more than three miles from shore—a chronic problem off North Carolina.  A joint enforcement agreement would also make it easier for North Carolina to combat illegal harvest of tuna, grouper, dolphin, snapper and other species normally found outside of state waters.

Better fisheries enforcement in federal waters, along with more money that North Carolina Marine Patrol agents could use to better enforce laws within state waters, would seem to be a win-win situation that would benefit law-abiding fishermen in both the commercial and recreational sectors.
However, a sizeable majority of North Carolina’s state legislators decided this year that a joint enforcement agreement would not be in the best interests of North Carolina’s commercial fishermen.

Why did they feel that way?  

An excerpt from an article in Lumina News, a newspaper serving coastal North Carolina, which describes why one member of the state’s Marine Fisheries Commission opposes a joint enforcement agreement, is enlightening.

“Joseph Smith represents the commercial and recreational fishing industry on the commission.  He voted against the agreement.
“Smith owns and operates Atlantic Seafood, a wholesale distributor in Hampstead.  He said it has become harder to acquire local seafood despite more demand, which he attributes to increased regulation.
“’People don’t realize it’s not because there aren’t any fish.  There’s certain kinds of fish that they’ve got rules on that you should be able to catch,” Smith said during a June 30 phone interview.
“He is also worried that additional regulations could push the state’s commercial fishermen out of business.
“’Commercial fishermen are a service to the people of North Carolina.  It’s a hard, tough job and it’s a dangerous job.  They’re under-appreciated.  We need to be mindful and supportive of commercial fishermen because we all want North Carolina seafood,’ Smith said.”
The problem with Smith’s comments is that a joint enforcement agreement would not put a single new regulation in place.  So when he argues against the joint enforcement agreement because he believes that regulations make it more difficult to obtain local seafood, and says that “There’s certain kinds of fish that they’ve got rules on that you should be able to catch,” he's not merely opposing proposed new regulations. 

The only logical reason to oppose a joint enforcement agreement, based on Smith’s statements, is because you think that existing regulations are bad for commercial fishermen, you believe that “certain kinds of fish” shouldn’t be subject to such existing rules and you don’t want the state to be able to help NMFS enforce such rules.

Or, to put it another way, you want fishermen to be able to violate federal regulations without having to worry about being caught by North Carolina Marine Patrol agents.  

Poachers could breathe a lot easier knowing that no joint enforcement agreement is in place.

That rationale for opposing the joint enforcement agreement becomes is confirmed by comments made to Lumina News by ex-Marine Fisheries Commission member Bradley Styron, owner of Quality Seafood.

“Styron said the federal plan does not offer flexibility to tailor federal regulations to state needs.
“’That puts us in a quandary…What’s good for North Carolina is not necessarily good for Massachusetts, and what’s good for Rhode Island is not necessarily good for North Carolina,’ he said.”
Even without a joint enforcement agreement, neither North Carolina nor any other state has the power to “tailor federal regulations to state needs.”  The federal regulations are what they are, and must be enforced as written.

However, without a joint enforcement agreement, North Carolina not only hs no power to “tailor” federal regulations, but also has no power to enforce them at all.  So even if the same regulations apply to Massachusetts, North Carolina and Rhode Island fishermen, if North Carolina does not enter into a joint enforcement agreement with the feds, then its marine enforcement personnel, unlike their counterparts in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and every other coastal state, has no power to enforce those regulations, even if they are blatantly violated by a North Carolina fisherman.

And that seems to be just what the North Carolina Legislature, and the state’s governor, intends.

For here in New York, we’ve seen what can happen when the state and federal enforcement folks work together closely.  According to an article in Newsday,

“Long Island fishing ports have been a chief target of federal and state enforcement actions that found illegal fishing and underreporting of hundreds of thousands of pounds of [summer flounder]…
“In briefing documents…regulators reported that the ‘known illegal harvest’ of [summer flounder] exceeds 50 percent of New York’s annual quota allocation.  And ‘the illegal harvest estimate is likely to increase substantially as the investigation in that state continues to unfold,’ noting the 70 subpoenas served in mostly Long Island fishing ports, according to the reports.”
North Carolina’s governor and legislators are making it very clear that they don’t want the same sort of successful enforcement operations to take place down there.

“most of the added enforcement was directed towards commercial fishing, fish houses and even transportation of commercial product.”
However, honest commercial fishermen, fish houses and fish transporters never had anything to worry about, because enforcement agents can’t take any action at all against folks who obey the law.

“I think the federal (government) needs to get out of North Carolina…we need to protect our commercial fishing industry.  In 15 or 20 years, federal regulations will run them out of business,”
he wasn’t talking about protecting the honest guys, the commercial fishermen who play by the rules and go out every day trying to make an honest living.

He was taking care of the crooks, the fishermen who already violate federal rules that can’t currently be enforced by the North Carolina Marine Patrol.

He, his allies in the Legislature and the governor in Raleigh are all protecting the status quo, so that lawbreakers can continue to do their illegal business as usual, and the Marine Patrol will continue to be unable to stop them.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Summer flounder management gets a lot of publicity, and has for the last fifteen years, even though the management of that species has been very successful.  But there is another, closely related fish, the southern flounder, which gets far less publicity, although its management hasn’t been very successful at all.

Summer flounder are managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), acting pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), while in federal waters; elsewhere, they are managed by the states, acting jointly through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).  Less than thirty years ago, summer flounder abundance was at the lowest level ever recorded, but the population has been rebuilt since then, and remains at healthy levels today.

Southern flounder are managed solely by the individual states where they swim, with no coordination between jurisdictions.  Magnuson-Stevens does not apply.  Thus, there is no mechanism to manage and rebuild southern flounder throughout its range, nor any means to legally assure that needed management measures are taken.  The population has been declining for over a decade, particularly in the waters of North Carolina.

North Carolina dominates the commercial southern flounder fishery.  According to NMFS’ commercial fisheries database, it was responsible for nearly 100% of commercial landings since 2004.  NMFS reports that recreational landings are not as concentrated.  North Carolina traditionally had the largest harvest, but Florida also has significant landings and, in three of the past five years, harvested more southern flounder than any other south Atlantic state.

Decreasing landings have led North  Carolina to consider measures to conserve and rebuild southern flounder in its waters.  In 2010, the state noted that

“North Carolina’s southern flounder stock is listed as depleted, based on the 2009 stock assessment that determined that the stock is still overfished and overfishing is still occurring.  An improvement in the spawning stock biomass and age class expansion occurred since the 2005 fishery management plan was implemented, but further harvest reductions are necessary to rebuild the stock.”
As a result of that assessment, North Carolina announced that

“[m]anagement measures to achieve a sustainable harvest of southern flounder by ending overfishing and rebuilding the spawning stock by 2015 are the most important issues to be addressed in the management plan amendment.”
However, amendments take a long time to put into place.  It is now 2015 and the stock has shown little if any improvement.  North Carolina commissioned a new stock assessment in 2014; however, that assessment failed peer review, largely because such a single-state assessment did not and could not take adequate account of flounder moving between North Carolina’s waters and those of states as far away as Florida.

Had the 2014 stock assessment survived the peer review process, it would have required substantial reductions in southern flounder harvest, and perhaps a complete closure of the fishery.  Even without the assessment to support the action, Dr. Louis Daniels, executive director of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, tried to move forward, saying

“We know we’ve got a problem.  Immature fish are being caught…The only way to improve spawning success and likelihood of better recruitment, and (expansion) is not to catch as many fish.  The only way to move forward is a reduction in harvest.”
Daniels referred the matter to the state’s Marine Fish Commission, which began preparing a “supplement” to North Carolina’s southern flounder management plan; in August, after receiving substantial public comment, the Commission was supposed to finalize the supplement and begin the rebuilding process.

That was when state politics intervened.

A number of state legislators with commercial fishing constituencies wrote a letter to Donald Van der Vaart, Secretary of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which objected to the supplement procedure, arguing that a more detailed, and much more time-consuming, amendment process was required before the harvest reductions, and associated gear restrictions, could be implemented.  Van Der Vaart notified the Commission that he agreed with the legislators, and the southern flounder supplement was removed from the agenda of the Commission’s August meeting.

Of course, the legislators want the Commission to use the amendment process, rather than a supplement, in order to delay harvest cuts.  As the North Carolina Wildlife Federation noted in its comments supporting the supplement

“Because of the length of North Carolina’s regulatory process, we realize that an Amendment to the current Southern Flounder [Fishery Management Plan] could take as long as five years; longer given potential legal tactics by interest groups who oppose the Amendment outcome…”
Every day that fishermen can delay harvest reductions is another day that they can profit from overfishing the stock.  So in state-managed fisheries, where no law such as Magnuson-Stevens prohibits overfishing and sets a hard deadline for rebuilding overfished stocks, fishermen are encouraged to drag out the regulatory process for as long as possible, while enjoying the short-term economic benefits that ensue.

North Carolina is supposed to revisit the southern flounder issue later this month, but given the legislative opposition to meaningful action, and the apparent agency sympathy for the legislators’ position, the outlook for the flounder seems grim.

That would seemingly make southern flounder a good candidate for ASMFC action; after all, fish migrate between various states’ waters, and overfishing in North Carolina would presumably affect the availability of southern flounder elsewhere on the coast.

“To address abundance and management concerns moving forward, the Board discussed ways to improve the exchange of data and cooperation between the South Atlantic states of Virginia to Florida to improve interstate management and move toward the development of a regional stock assessment.
However, there is no chance that the authority of ASMFC will be used to coerce North Carolina into taking serious management action, as

“The Board did not move forward with initiating a new ASMFC [Fishery Management Plan].”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that no action was taken, given the makeup of the Board.  For Tom Campbell, the executive producer and moderator of the political show NC Spin, reported that after the meeting, one of the legislators most opposed to the supplement to the southern flounder management plan, Representative Bob Steinburg, was

“caught on tape in the hallway saying the public’s opinion on fisheries issues doesn’t matter.  What matters, he asserted, was fairness to the commercial fishing industry.”
The same Representative Steinburg is North Carolina’s legislative appointee to ASMFC, where he serves with the governor’s appointee, W. Douglas Brady, who owned a commercial fishing business for over 25 years.

Other states have similarly interested persons sitting on the Board. 

And that’s pretty typical not just for ASMFC, but for state management generally, as people with economic interests in various fisheries, unconstrained by the stock rebuilding mandates of Magnuson-Stevens, control the management process.

Which may be why ASMFC hasn’t rebuilt even one stock in at least 20 years, while the states manage fish…like southern flounder.


NOTE:  "State Management Fails Southern Flounder" first appeared in "From the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at

Sunday, September 13, 2015


When I was a boy, nobody thought too much about killing fish.

If you caught a “keeper”—and back then, except for sub-16-inch striped bass, everything was—you kept it, cleaned it and tossed it into the freezer, and maybe you ate it or maybe you threw it out, freezer-burned,  when the icebox was cleaned in the spring.

We fished in the shallows back then, with occasional “deep sea” trips for cod.  But when my family traveled to coastal ports, we stood on the docks with the rest of the folks to watch the big fish—the bluefin, the sharks and, rarely, a marlin—hauled out of the boats and put up on the scales, after which they were trucked off to landfills or dumped back out at sea the following day (there was no market for bluefin back then).

As for “trash fish,” well, those you just killed as a sort of revenge for them taking your hook in the first place.  

Cunners—we called them “bergalls”—were bounced off the transom and fed to the gulls, because they were viewed as too bony for eating.  Out on the cod boats, the mates would break the backs of any dogfish that the fares might catch, and toss them back over the side crippled and unable to swim.  With ocean pout, you stomped on the spine right behind the head to be sure that never bothered anyone’s hunk of clam again…

Just writing those words makes me feel some revulsion, but back in the ‘60s, that’s how it was, and it took a long while to even think about change.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure how the change started.  Maybe the collapse of striped bass stocks in the late ‘70s started some folks thinking about curbing their kill.  It certainly had that effect on many who fished for stripers, although twenty years later plenty of bluefish were still being wasted back at the dock when the question “who wants a fish?” went unanswered.

Change came more quickly in the bays than it did offshore; when I started tournament fishing back in the ‘80s, there was always a dumpster or a parked garbage truck to accept entrants’ unwanted sharks and marlin.  At many tournaments today, the dumpster still stands, despite many anglers’ efforts to end such disgrace.  It tends to persist most stubbornly in big-money venues, where the sight of dead fish is thought to attract tourists, and a scale is thought to be needed to determine who wins cash awards—calcutta included—can handily break seven figures.

Even today, the idea of not killing fish is meeting resistance.  The New York Times reported that, when a new all-release shark tournament started up out in Montauk a few years ago

“It [was] enough to make some of the old fishermen here wonder what is happening to the world.  They lament that their friends are letting the environmentalists get to them, and predict that a shark contest without a winning carcass on the dock will not be viewed as a shark contest at all by the hundreds who still come for them.
“’People want to see sharks,’ Jack Passie, the captain of the charter boat Windy, which ties off at the Star Island Yacht Club, declared emphatically.”
The old-timers out at Montauk, and at some other ports, still feel that way.  It’s all about dead fish to them.  But among most folks, attitudes are changing.

A successful charter boat captain whom I speak with quite often, who operates out of one of the busiest recreational fishing ports on the coast, tells me that he sees a big split between generations.  The younger anglers are mostly out for a good time.  They want to catch fish, and hope for some good ones, but aren’t Hell-bent on killing all that they can.  On the other hand, those of my generation are much more likely to go out with the goal of filling the box.

I mention this now because it’s striped bass season, a time when salt-water anglers flood to the coast.  Some will have years of experience.  Others will be fairly new to the sport.  But all will know that the fall offers their best chance for fast action. 

Over the course of the season, a number of anglers, by accident or by design, are going to be in the right places at the right times, and catch more than their share of stripers.

The question is what happens next.

Will they take one fish for dinner and, over the course of the season, let the rest go?  Or will keepers be kept, like in the old days, whether they are eaten or not?

Much will depend on the angler and, on the for-hire boats, on the mates and the man at the wheel.

A lot of for-hire captains encourage customers to “limit out,” doing their best to convince them that keeping fish is their right and something that they ought to do.  And, let’s admit it, a part of us enjoys coming back into port and tossing fish on the dock, to the admiring cries of the tourists; the hunter deep in our souls still measures his worth by the meat brought back for the tribe.

Prior to this year, that was a big problem as anglers killed two fish apiece.  More than a few came back to the dock with a pair of big fish—30s and 40s, with the occasional 50-pounder thrown in—posed proudly for photos of their kill, and then realized that they not only had no use for the meat, but didn’t even have the coolers to take it home in good shape.

The new one-fish bag limit should help with that, but there will still be plenty of times when folks overdo and, over the course of a few trips, a few weeks or the rest of the season, kill more fish than they know what to do with, and end up wasting a part of their catch.

There are some don’t think that’s wrong.  I have argued with anglers, as recently as last summer, who believe that killing fish is their right, and it shouldn’t matter to me, or anyone else, whether they eat it, give it away or bury it in their back yard, so long as they don’t break the law.

I disagree.

Striped bass, and all fish for that matter, are a public resource, and that resource is diminished by each fish removed.

If folks take them to eat them, that’s fine.  It’s what the resource is for.

But people shouldn’t kill fish just because they can.  It’s certainly legal, but like killing a deer just for its antlers, it’s morally and ethically wrong.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


I was looking through the August/September edition of Fisheries Focus, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s bimonthly newsletter, when I came across a piece written by Robert Beal, ASMFC’s Executive Director.

I’ve known Robert Beal for quite a few years, in the way that anyone who does fisheries advocacy knows folks at the Commission.  He’s always tried to do the right thing for the fish he’s entrusted to manage, and his column usually highlights some new effort or management action.

But this time, his subject and tone caught me fully off-guard.  It could only be described as defensive.

He started right off talking about eating striped bass, and how

“For many recreational anglers, professional chefs and amateur cooks alike, Atlantic striped bass is the East Coast’s most sought after fish.  It is just as likely to be spotted at your neighborhood fish market as on the menu of the region’s top restaurants.”
And maybe that’s true or maybe it isn’t, but it seemed kind of strange when he started to criticize those “professional chefs” for deciding not to serve stripers, writing

“Recently, Atlantic striped bass management has come under criticism from a group of “celebrity” chefs.  Some have even gone so far as pledging not to serve wild Atlantic striped bass in their restaurants…
“As you may know, the United States imports up to 90% of its seafood every year.  By buying and eating locally caught seafood like Atlantic striped bass, you are choosing a sustainable, environmentally responsible product that supports American fishermen and fishing communities…It is important to know where your seafood comes from, and with Atlantic striped bass, you can be confident that it is harvested responsibly.”
That’s just weird on a number of levels.  

First, ASMFC’s job, and by extension its Executive Director’s job, is to manage, conserve and rebuild Atlantic coast fish stocks, not to promote the harvest, sale and consumption of any particular species.  

We never heard equivalent criticism of folks who opposed management measures that scientists told us were needed (with respect to southern New England lobster, perhaps, or American shad, northern shrimp or maybe tautog), but the guns came out firing when some chefs suggested precaution.

Perhaps if ASMFC spent more time worrying about restoring fish stocks, instead of killing, cooking and eating them, they might have restored a few more of those stocks since ’95, instead of, well, none

And exactly what did the chefs do to earn ASMFC’s attention and wrath?

Well, it was pretty admirable, as described in a story in Forbes.

“Kerry Heffernan, the former executive chef of Eleven Madison Park and Southgate, and the current impresario of the new Manhattan restaurant, Grand Banks, is obsessed with fishing for striped bass.  But like countless recreational anglers up and down the East Coast, he’s noticed, with growing despondency, that fishing for stripers has grown worse and worse over the last few years.  His personal tipping point came, he says, during the 2014 iteration of the Manhattan Cup, a New York City inshore catch-and-release fishing tournament…’I caught a puny eighteen-inch striper and it won the tournament in the fly fishing division,' he says.  'Even the guys fishing with artificials had pitiful results.' He decided then that something had to be done…
“Heffernan decided to embark on a new campaign, something called #SaveOurStripers.  Leveraging his many years in the restaurant business…Heffernan cajoled nine of his fellow celebrity chefs to join him in making a pledge to take striped bass off of the menus in their respective restaurants…
“The SaveOurStripers campaign is, at once, both simple and powerful.  Taking stripers off the menu is a relatively easy task, but the implications of such a move are much grander.  Chefs, in general, have more visibility and power than ever before.  They have become celebrities and cultural tastemakers.  The campaign sends a strong message that they will no longer participate in the overharvest of fish…”
And when you look at it that way—which is the right way, I think—what the chefs did seems like something noble, and hardly worthy of criticism.

So what, exactly, is going on?

When you read Robert Beal’s column again, and combine it with the fact that ASMFC felt a need to announce on Twitter that

“Our Executive Director responds to criticisms of striped bass management,”
you might start to believe that ASMFC was feeling a bit defensive.  And you usually don’t get defensive unless you have a least a suspicion—or maybe a fear—that your critics might have a point.

After all, ASMFC says that

“Since the Atlantic states orchestrated the historic comeback of Atlantic striped bass beginning in 1984…”
(Which we must note, was three decades ago; it’s probably past time that the Commission stopped looking back at the past, when it once recovered a stock, and started looking, instead, to the future.)  

“…sustainable management has always been goal number one.”
That sounds good, but doesn’t clearly jibe with reality.  

Addendum IV to Amendment 6 ofthe Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, adopted by the Commission late last October, adopted harvest cuts on the coast that were so small that they only had a 50% chance of reducing fishing mortality to the target level—and the reductions taken in Chesapeake Bay couldn’t even achieve that.  

A 50-50 chance of success—at best—truly sets a very low standard.  If you sustainability is your primary goal, you might not want a management plan that’s as likely to fail as succeed.

In federal fisheries management, a 50% chance of success is the absolute minimum allowed; anything else is patently illegal.  Federal plans frequently have 60%, 65% or even higher likelihoods of success in an effort to assure sustainability.  But at the Commission, a mere 50% of failure seems to be viewed as something to laud…

It should also be noted that Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass contains management triggers which require action when any such trigger is tripped. 

One of those triggers was tripped when fishing mortality exceeded the target for two consecutive years, and spawning stock biomass dropped below target for at least one.  It was that trigger that ultimately led to last October’s harvest reduction.

However, there is another trigger, which reads

“If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target for either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [ten years] [emphasis added]”
But “must” apparently means something different to ASMFC than it does to the rest of us, because this trigger was also tripped, but no action to rebuild the stock to target within the ten year deadline was even discussed.

If sustainable management was really “goal number one,” you might think that rebuilding stocks mattered.  Again, under the federal system, it is required, but at ASMFC…

Other claims made by ASMFC are equally subject to question.  

For example, there’s that tired old assurance that

“Atlantic striped bass are not overfished and are not experiencing overfishing.”
Today, that may not be true.

It was true, back in 2013, when the benchmark stock assessment and the Update of the Striped Bass Stock Assessment using Final 2012 Data were issued.  But the Update also noted that

“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…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…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…”
We don’t know exactly what the fishing mortality was in 2013 and 2014, but we do know that it probably wasn’t reduced to 0.180 until the new harvest cuts went into effect on January 1 of this year.  Based on the stock assessment Update, at best, there is more than a 77% chance that the stock will be overfished—if it isn’t already—at some point this year. 

In fact, since National Marine Fisheries data shows that recreational harvest in 2013 and 2014 was 24 million and 23.5 million pounds, respectively, considerably higher than the 19.5 million pounds landed in 2012, and since the biomass was still declining during those years, fishing mortality was very probably above 2012’s 0.200, which would push the likelihood of the stock being overfished this year into 90%-plus territory.

Thus, if ASMFC was being perfectly forthright, it would not make the claim that “Atlantic striped bass are not overfished and are not experiencing overfishing.”  Instead, it would have admitted that

“The stock was not overfished, and was not experiencing overfishing, on December 31, 2012.  However, based on the best available science, it is much more likely than not that it is overfished today.”
We should get a little more clarity on that at the November ASMFC meeting, when the Striped Bass Technical Committee provides a report on the state of the fishery as of the end of 2014.  But even that won’t necessarily tell us whether the stock is overfished now.

Finally, we should also take issue with ASMFC’s claim that

“to reduce the downward trend and ensure the fishery remains sustainable, ASMFC initiated coastwide reductions in Atlantic striped bass harvest with the goal of harvest with a goal of protecting the strong 2011 year class and increasing [spawning stock biomass]…”
While that was certainly a stated intent in Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, once again, the reality didn’t live up to the addendum’s aspirations. 

Addendum IV was intended to reduce striped bass harvest by 25%, and on the coast, it did just that.  However, in Chesapeake Bay, the required reduction is just 20.5%.  And Chesapeake Bay is the only place where the 2011 year class can be harvested before the fish get to be 28 inches long, a size that most won’t attain until 2017.

And why did ASMFC allow Chesapeake Bay to take a lower reduction?

Why, so they could kill more of the 2011s, of course.

As Rob O’Reilly, representing the State of Virginia, noted quite clearly at the October 2014 Management Board meeting when arguing against a one-year, 25% reduction for the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions

“The principal reason for wanting to go to three years [to reduce fishing mortality to the target level, instead of the one year mandated by the management plan] is that we do have small fish in the bay…
“These small fish include what Tom O’Connell mentioned that in 2015 45 percent of the 2011 year class will be under 20 inches.  The small fish are not only part and parcel of commercial fisheries, but also of recreational fisheries.  There are certainly areas in Virginia where all they see are small fish…”
Virginia and the other Chesapeake jurisdictions didn’t get to phase in the 25% harvest reduction over the course of three years.  However, they didn’t get a 25% harvest reduction, either, but instead a smaller 20.5% cut.  

That smaller cut will allow them to kill more of what Rob O’Reilly described as “small fish”—the very members of the 2011 year class that ASMFC claims it is protecting.

So once more ASMFC’s story doesn’t ring true.  

Given so many holes in so many of their positions, it’s not surprising that ASMFC is sounding pretty defensive when it comes to striped bass.

On the other hand, Kerry Heffernan and the chefs aren’t defensive at all.  Having right on their side is an adequate shield.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


Last year, we learned to our dismay that the Gulf of Maine cod stock was in even worse condition than previously believed, and had fallen to just 3 or 4 percent of the target level.

Last week, we learned that the Georges Bank stock is probably in even worse shape, with the population at just 1 to 3 percent of the abundance target. 

Those numbers have yet to pass the peer review process, so there is always the chance that they will not be accepted.  They also came out late in the week, and fishermen haven’t yet had time to react.  However, assuming that the data holds up to scientific review, we can be pretty sure that New England fishermen will be gearing up for a fight that puts past management battles to shame.

For this could be the year when their decades of intransigent battle against needed harvest reductions finally puts them out of business.

They can deny their role in the cod’s final collapse.  They can blame the politicians, they can blame the conservation community and they can blame the ocean for getting warmer.  But there is one thing that, as businessmen, they can’t deny:

If they want to have a codfishing industry, they have to have codfish to sell.

And right now, the fish just don’t seem to be there.  

According to the draft 2015 Assessment Update Report, the total biomass of the Georges Bank stock is, at best, 5,853 metric tons.  When all of the likely errors in the calculation are considered, that biomass estimate is reduced by about two-thirds, to a mere 1,906 metric tons.

To put that number in context, National Marine Fisheries Service data show that Atlantic cod landings peaked in 1980, when fishermen landed over 53,000 metric tons of cod.  NMFS recreational landings data doesn’t include information for 1980, but in 1981, recreational landings were estimated at over 8,000 metric tons, so it’s probably safe to assume that they were about the same in 1980. 

That’s more than 61,000 metric tons of cod landed in just one year--ten times the best-case estimate for the entire Georges Bank stock, and more than 30 times current size of the stock under the worst-case, and more likely, scenario. 

Yes, a lot of those 1980 fish came from the Gulf of Maine, not Georges Bank, but even so, no one is going to catch many fish when the Georges Bank biomass is less than 2,000 metric tons.

Yet, fishermen still try.  They don’t have much desire to cut back their efforts.  In 2014, the total landings from the Georges Bank stock alone were estimated to be slightly in excess of 2,000 metric tons—very possibly more than the total biomass that remains in the ocean.

“We think that this should have a positive impact on the future of the fishing industry, protecting valuable habitat while allowing for reasonable fishing opportunities.”
However, those areas were closed in the first place because they were seen as critical habitat, and in particular spawning habitat, for the cod.  A few fishermen on the Council understand their worth.  Reacting to the vote to reopen formerly closed areas, Council member Dave Preble, from Rhode Island, said

“This council has purposely ignored the science and produced an amendment that is indefensible.  If you want to have big fish, you have to feed and protect the small fish.”

The conservation community was even more emphatic about keeping the areas closed.  Gib Brogan, ho works on New England fisheries issues for Oceana, declared that

“The council put short-term profits ahead of the needs of depleted ground fish,”
while Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation said

“The council wrote off the future of critical fish habitat areas that needed additional, not future, protections.”
Now NMFS, and its regional administrator, John Bullard, hold the future of the Georges Bank cod fishery, and the Georges Bank cod stock itself, in its hands.

There is no more time to kick the can down the road, no room for a “compromise” that will keep fisheries open while the cod stock continues downhill.  With stock abundance, at best, just 3 percent of target, whatever margin of error that once may have existed is gone. 

The current level of fishing mortality, whether caused by fish landed or by dead discards, is far too high.  At best, it is nearly three times the overfishing threshold; accounting for all likely error, cod were removed from the stock at nearly ten times the permissible level.

Managers must finally accept the unpalatable truth that at current levels, it is probably not possible to allow any directed cod fishery and still reduce fishing mortality to just one-tenth of what it was in 2014.  

The tougher question for managers to decide—because it is so likely that the answer will be no—is whether it will be possible to allow ground-tending gear targeting other species in the Georges Bank region, and still keep fishing mortality for Georges Bank cod below the threshold.

Bycatch is real, and with the cod stock so badly overfished, it’s easy to imagine trawlers targeting haddock, redfish or flounder accidentally killing and dumping far too many cod.  

If NMFS is to fulfill its legal responsibility to prevent overfishing the Georges Bank stock, and have any hope of beginning that stock’s recovery, it may find itself not only rejecting the New England Council’s advice to open closed areas, but closing additional areas as well.

NMFS must realize that doing so could be the final nail in the coffin for much of the New England groundfishing fleet.  At the same time, failing to do so might well be the final nail in the coffin of Georges Bank cod.

NMFS may have to make the decision of whether the fleet, or the cod stock, is going to die.

If the time for that decision does come, NMFS should be guided by a simple reality.  If the fleet ultimately destroys the last of the Georges Bank cod, the fleet’s demise won’t trail the fish’s by very much time.

On the other hand, if the fleet must be sacrificed to protect the cod stock, there is a chance that with time and the stock’s recovery, both could thrive again.