Sunday, October 25, 2015


I read a recent piece in Field & Stream that that didn’t deal with fisheries management.  But it included one line that said

“Conservation isn’t an occasional fight—it’s an everyday battle.”
That line is worth reading, because it is true.

On any given day, at every given hour, someone is threatening the natural resources that anglers (and hunters, hikers and birders as well) rely on for their enjoyment. 

To give you an idea just how severe the threat is, just consider this blog.  I’ve written nearly 200 separate posts just describing threats to marine fish.  Twice a week, since the early days of 2014, I’ve discussed threats to species as diverse as tarpon and tautog, red drum and black sea bass, Gulf of Mexico red snapper and Gulf of Maine cod.

And I never have problems coming up with new topics,
because there’s a lot going on, and too little of it is good.

Here in the northeast, the collapse of cod stocks in both the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Banks gets most of the news. 

But cod represent just two of the twenty stocks in the groundfish complex. 

Of the entire complex, only seven stocks are neither overfished nor subject to overfishing.  Out of the remaining thirteen, eleven are overfished, meaning that current abundance is less than half of the biomass needed to produce maximum sustainable yield; in some cases, abundance is less than 10% of such threshold biomass.  The remaining two aren’t necessarily at healthier population levels; instead, there is so little data that their status is unknown.

Five groundfish stocks are still subject to overfishing, which is inexcusable since, mechanically, it’s a lot easier to stop fishermen from killing too many fish than it is to rebuild the stocks after the damage is done.  However, doing so takes a certain amount of moral courage and the will to do the right thing; both characteristics have been lacking on the New England Fishery Management Council for the past four decades or so.  

But if groundfish get all of the news, they’re not the only fish needing some help.

Inshore, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission delayed for years before finally taking action to protect the striped bass stock from overfishing.  This season, anglers throughout the striper coast are reporting some of the slowest fishing in years; hopefully, strong spawns in 2011 and 2015 will bolster the population a bit, if managers can keep those year classes alive long enough to become a significant part of the spawning stock.

Yet striped bass are doing well compared to some other once-popular recreational species.  The weakfish population is near historic lows, while tautog, once a mainstay of the fall recreational fishery, has been overfished for more than two decades, and the population is low. 

The press has already done a pretty good job of reporting the decline of fish such as dusky sharks, white and blue marlin and bluefin tuna, all victims of the pelagic longline fleet.

Similar problems exist on every coast.

In the southeast, a recreational fishing industry trying to increase its red snapper kill is threatening to overthrow a successful rebuilding effort, and is willing to do serious harm to the entire federal fisheries management system if that’s what it takes to get the job done.

On the Pacific coast, salmon and steelhead, already denied access to many of their historic spawning grounds by dams built in their way, are further threatened by farmers and ranchers who covet the little water flowing through drought-stricken rivers.  They are completely willing to usurp that water for their own uses and let the salmon runs die.

Even in Alaska, salmon are threatened, this time by politicians in the United States Congress who would override the Environmental Protection Agency’s actions to prevent a mine from dumping toxic water and tailings into the pristine waters of the rivers that feed Bristol Bay.

So those who rail against empty oceans, and want generations yet to be born to know an abundance of life, can never afford to take a break and step away from the fight.  

Because, every day, the battle goes on.

At times, it seems overwhelming.  The folks doing harm have most of the money, which they use to buy political support and sway public opinion.  In what is probably the most important fight going on at the moment, the recreational fishing industry is trying to weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in the federal waters of the United States.  Both the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, and the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association, which represents boat builders and allied trades, have taken leading roles in the effort to undercut the fisheries management process.

How are mere anglers supposed to stand up to such folks?

Well, the same way that we'd eat an elephant—we do it one bite at a time.

Striped bass aren’t doing too well at the moment, but they’d be doing far worse if anglers throughout their range hadn’t banded together and sent a clear message that something was wrong.  

Even after ASMFC reduced bass landings, there was a strong effort made by the party and charter boat crowd, which wanted to increase their kill, and sought to take two fish per person instead of just one.  It was hard to defeat their efforts, but thanks to hard-working anglers and responsible fisheries managers in several states (including my own), the striped bass eventually won.

Here in New York, industry efforts to increase landings of badly depleted winter flounder were also turned back.

Elsewhere along the coast, similar victories have also occurred, so yes, it can be done, so long as we never let our vigilance waiver, and never let our  efforts flag.

The only other option is to give up and lose, and that’s not a viable option.

For while some stocks may recover on some latter day, in other cases, populations are so low that stocks are at risk of extirpation.

And that’s just not acceptable, for as noted by naturalist William Beebe, who explored the ocean through the windows of his bathysphere in the first half of the 20th Century,

“The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression is destroyed; a vanished harmony  may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”
And that's why the battle is worth it, even if it means fighting it day after day.

For without our efforts, some of the things that we value may be forever lost to the world. 

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