Sunday, November 29, 2015


On Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine, cod stocks have collapsed. A stock assessment update released in October 2015 found that the Gulf of Maine stock was experiencing a fishing mortality rate five times the sustainable level, while abundance had fallen to just 5% of the biomass target. The Georges Bank stock is in even more trouble. Abundance has fallen to a mere 1% of its biomass target, while fishing continues at a rate ten times greater than managers deem sustainable.
More than a decade ago, fisheries managers acknowledged that cod stocks were overfished and still subject to overfishing. In 2003, they adopted Amendment 13 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (Amendment 13), which governs both stocks of cod, as their first serious effort to begin rebuilding the fishery. However, Amendment 13 failed to adequately address the problem, and subsequent efforts were equally ineffective.
Fishing in federal waters is governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens). Magnuson-Stevens includes a series of National Standards that fishery managers must adhere to when preparing fishery management plans.
National Standard One reads
“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.”
When managers find a stock to be overfished, they must prepare a fishery management plan that includes a time period for rebuilding it, which time period shall
“be as short as possible…and not exceed 10 years, except in cases where the biology of the stock of fish, other environmental conditions, or management measures under an international agreement in which the United States participates dictates otherwise…”
Fisheries managers effectively ignored the 10-year rebuilding requirement when it was added to Magnuson-Stevens in 1996, but that changed after a federal appellate court decided the case of Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, and issued a decision which noted that
“Only in Superman Comics’ Bizarro World, where reality is turned upside down, could the [National Marine Fisheries] Service reasonably conclude that a measure that is at least four times as likely to fail as to succeed offers a ‘fairly high level of confidence’ [that it will prevent overfishing].”
The court went on to decide that, in order to comply with the mandates of Magnuson-Stevens, a fishery management plan must have the
“at-least-50% likelihood [of achieving its goals] required by statute and regulation.”
While Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley established a minimum standard for fishery management plans, it also put fisheries managers on notice that they weren’t required to produce anything better than a plan that was as likely to fail as succeed.
Amendment 13 was such a plan. It stated that
“Rebuilding programs will be developed to rebuild most overfished stocks with a median (50 percent) probability [within 10 years]…
“The [New England Fishery Management] Council considered analyzing rebuilding trajectories with greater than a median (50 percent) probability of achieving the biomass targets…[T]he Council rejected this approach…The social and economic implications of the rebuilding programs are already substantial, and larger reductions in mortality would threaten the continued existence of the groundfish fishery…”
Adopting a mere 50% probability of success means that the plan will only succeed if nothing at all goes wrong, and that all of the unknowns will resolve themselves in the managers’ favor. Unfortunately, that rarely, if ever, occurs.
Thus, NMFS has adopted a set of guidelines intended to help managers comply with the mandates of National Standard One. The guidelines that the “acceptable biological catch” (ABC), which represents the maximum annual catch level for the relevant stock, should not be equal to the “overfishing limit” (OFL), because
“If the ABC were set equal to the OFL, then catching the ABC would result in a 50-percent chance of overfishing…In general, the higher degree of scientific uncertainty, the bigger difference there should be between OFL and ABC.”
Unfortunately, such guidelines do not have the force of law. The New England Fishery Management Council largely ignored them, and thus went awry.
In order to avoid “social and economic implications,” managers adopted harvest levels that did not adequately account for the scientific uncertainty inherent in the cod stock assessments.
They clung to high harvest levels even though the waters off New England, and the Gulf of Maine in particular, are warming faster than almost any marine region on Earth, and the impacts of that warming on cod remained largely unknown.
Even after the collapse of the Gulf of Maine stock was acknowledged in 2014, NMFS adopted a 386 metric ton (mt) annual catch limit for the 2015 fishing season, rather than the 200 mt limit that many believed necessary, because
“Based on the available projections, and analysis of the biological impacts of this action, [NMFS] determined that an ABC of 386 mt is sufficiently below the OFL to prevent overfishing, and will not jeopardize rebuilding…
“Although the Council could have considered, and recommended, an ABC lower than…386 mt, a lower ABC would not have mitigated economic impacts…”
So, twelve years after Amendment 13 failed to halt the cod’s decline, managers still discounted scientific uncertainty in order to minimize the short-term economic impacts of their actions.
The consequences of that approach were revealed in late October, when a paper published in Science described how warming ocean waters off New England were harming cod stocks in a manner that the stock assessment never considered.
The researchers found that warmer ocean temperatures reduced the number of cod that survived for more than one year. They also found that warmer water significantly increases the mortality of 4-year-old cod, which are just entering the spawning stock, and that those which survive weigh less than cod caught during periods of cooler water.
“The temperature-mortality relationship…means that in warm years, fewer fish are available for the fishery. Not accounting for this effect leads to quotas that are too high. The resulting fishing mortality rate was thus above the intended levels, contributing to overfishing even though catches were within prescribed limits. Socioeconomic pressures further compounded the overfishing…The socioeconomic adjustment coupled with the two warmest years in the record led to fishing mortality rates that were far above the levels needed to rebuild this stock…”
NMFS decision to ignore scientific uncertainty, in an effort to minimize economic impacts, had come back to haunt both the agency and the cod fishing industry, as stocks fell to unprecedented lows, requiring even greater harvest restrictions to be imposed.
It is probably appropriate to close with the researchers’ words.
“As climate change…reduces the productivity of some stocks, resource managers will be increasingly faced with trade-offs between the persistence of a species or population and the economic value of a fishery…Social-ecological systems that depend on steady state or are slow to recognize and adapt to environmental change are unlikely to meet their ecological and economic goals in a rapidly changing world.”
Thus, as oceanographic conditions continue to change, fisheries managers must incorporate a far greater allowance for scientific uncertainty into their decisions. If they fail to do so, their management plans will almost certainly fail, and protect neither fish populations nor the industries that depend upon their abundance to thrive.
NEW ENGLAND COD:  VICTIMS OF UNCERTAINTY first appeared in "From the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which publishes the thoughts of a number of recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen and conservation advocates concerned with the restoration and conservation of America's fish stocks.
"From the Waterfront" may be found at

Friday, November 27, 2015


Sometimes, to understand our local fisheries, it helps to take a broader view, and see what’s going on elsewhere in the world.

Over in Europe, there’s a fish they call “bass” or sometimes “sea bass.”  It’s a not too-distant relative of the striper—paint some lines on its side and you probably couldn’t tell them apart—and looking at the parallels between striped bass management and European bass management can give us some insights about where we’ve been what worked and, just perhaps, where we still need to go.

European bass  are now sitting where stripers did around 1975, poised on the brink of a major collapse, with a harvest dominated by a commercial fishery, far too few regulations on harvest, no real idea of what anglers are doing and an “recreational” sector that, at least in some nations, was still allowed to sell fish without even purchasing a commercial license.

The European bass seems to be most valuable as a recreational target.  A briefing paper prepared for the British Parliament, entitled “UK and European Sea bass conservation measures” notes that the total annual ex vessel price for the commercial European bass harvest is about 4.5 million British pounds, while the recreational value of the bass fishery in 2004, when the fish were more abundant, was more than twenty times greater—in the vicinity of 100 million British pounds.  That, too, is in accord with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science study which found that striped bass would provide the greatest economic value if allocated 100% to the recreational sector.

However, allocation of the European bass seems to ignore that fact; only about 25% of the landings are attributable to the recreational sector.  That’s a big contrast to the situation with striped bass, where the commercial sector is held to a hard quota, while recreational landings are allowed to grow or contract in harmony with the size of the stock, and recreational anglers are responsible for the bulk of the harvest.  As a result, European bass fishermen hold out striped bass as an example of good fisheries management, with the European Anglers’ Association saying that

“The striped bass (Morone saxatillis) is the American big sister of the European sea bass.  In the seventies, when the [striped] bass stock collapsed, a focused and careful management with regard to limited fishing measures was introduced for recreational as well as commercial fisheries.
“The objective was to assure optimal recreational use.  This was based on the fact that the [striped] bass value is higher when it is caught by recreational fisheries.  Ever since then the stocks have recovered, recreational fishing for striped bass thrives, and the expenditures by recreational striped bass fishers increased exponentially to more than 600 million US dollars per year.”
While that assessment is, perhaps, a little too rosy—we can question whether the objective of the striped bass management plan was ever “to assure optimal recreational use,” and given the current downturn in the stock, and the experience of most striped bass anglers this season, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that “recreational fishing for striped bass” actually “thrives”—but there is little doubt that European anglers are headed in the right direction when they use striped bass management as an appropriate model for European bass.

One thing that managers of both striped bass and European bass have not yet figured out is the role that should be played by hard poundage quotas.  In the striped bass fishery, quotas are only applied on the commercial side; that has worked fairly well, but the lack of an effective restraint on recreational harvest resulted in the stock being overfished in six of the ten years between 2004 and 2013.

So far, no quotas have been applied to the European bass fishery.  The result has been serious overfishing.  In 2012, 4,060 metric tons of bass were commercially harvested; that figure must be reduced significantly, to 2,707 metric tons, to avoid further harm to the stock. 

Experience in many United States fisheries, most particularly New England groundfish, suggest that such significant cuts will never be made absent a hard poundage quota.  However, many bass fishermen, particularly recreational fishermen, fear that if the European Commission adopts a quota management plan for the species, France would be awarded a majority of the landings based on established catch history.  To avoid such an outcome, they are arguing for management measures based on increased minimum sizes and individual catch limits, rather than annual quotas.

Thus, in adopting effective management measures likely to conserve and rebuild the stock, European bass managers appear to lag behind not only United States managers guided by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which mandates annual catch limits for all federally managed species, but even lag the striped bass managers at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, who have at least imposed hard quotas on the commercial sector.

However, one place where European bass managers appear to be ahead of their United States counterparts is in their growing realization that limiting gear to hook and line increases the value of the bass that are caught.  In the United Kingdom, only about 23% of the commercial harvest is caught on such gear.  However, bass caught on hook and line bring the highest market prices—9.50 pounds per kilogram, versus just 7 pounds per kilogram for bass caught in trawls—while producing, on a relative basis, fewer discards and less spawning season mortality than other gear types.

George Hollingberry, a member of the British Parliament, went so far as to say that

“The only way forward for bass is for them to be caught by hand line or rod.  Any commercial activity at all should be based on its being a premium, hand-caught resource, in a similar way to mackerel in the south-west and other species:  a virtue is made of the fact that those are local and high quality.”
I have heard from commercial fishermen here on Long Island that the same is true of striped bass—that hook and line fish are of better quality and bring a higher price than those caught in gill nets or trawls—but except in Massachusetts, no effort to maximize the value of the striped bass caught by limiting gear to hook and line has yet been made.

Here in the United States, managers have recently imposed rules intended to reduce striped bass harvest by 25% in order to keep fishing mortality at or below target levels and begin the rebuilding of a recently depleted stock.  In Europe, fisheries managers are expected to ban bass harvest for the first six months of the year, and impose other measures, in order to begin the rebuilding of the stock’s biomass, which has fallen from 16,000 metric tons to less than 7,000 metric tons in just the past five years.

Although striped bass managers in the United States seem to be well ahead of their European counterparts when it comes to developing measures that will effectively conserve the resource in question, managers on both shores of the Atlantic have something to learn from folks on the other side of the ocean, and would do well to keep track of what others are doing to manage these two, distantly related species of fish.

For in the end, no situation is truly unique, and it is always better to learn from another’s missteps than to make every mistake on your own.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


There’s always something to fish for here on Long Island.  

Even during the depths of winter, someone will be making a trip for cod, pollock or ling, and a few adventurous folks might even go all the way to the canyons and try to pick up a few tilefish.

However, for most inshore anglers, the end of the striped bass season marks the end of the year’s fishing, too.  

Yes, the fishing was tough, but it was Montauk’s last shot at glory until the next year rolled around.  Surfcasters worked big plugs and some bucktails, knowing that they still had a shot at a 50.  Out in the boats, the chances for big fish were even better as flocks of diving gannets marked herring schools that were pressed against the surface by striped bass hunting below.

For a few more weekends, as the solstice drew near, Montauk’s charter boat docks and tackle shops, along with its restaurants, bars and motels, pulsed with life as anglers hoped to pull on a few more quality bass before the season shut down for the winter.

But from what my friends on the East End are telling me, this year Montauk is a ghost town.

By the first week in November, most of the big stripers had headed west, and the anglers headed west with them.  Die-hard surfcasters pulled a few nice stripers from all-but-deserted Easthampton beaches, and a few more fell to the boats.  However, most of the folks on the party boats and charters were fishing the bottom for blackfish, sea bass and porgies, not for the stripers that usually supported the fleet.

And the reason for that was pretty simple—there were very few bass around, and over the long haul, fishing needs fish if it’s to be any fun.

Thus, it’s no coincidence that anglers gave most of their business to the party boats sailing for porgies—which are more properly known as “scup”—since they were large and abundant, and kept anglers busy all day.

A year ago, conservation-minded striped bass anglers were in a bitter fight with the for-hire fleet over striped bass regulation.  The overwhelming majority of fishermen wanted to see the bag limit cut to one bass; the overwhelming majority of party and charter boats wanted their customers to continue to kill two striped bass per day.

Yet if we look at Montauk this November, a two-fish limit wouldn’t have done the for-hires much good; anglers aren’t likely to worry about a second bass when they can’t even put one in the boat. 

Nor are anglers inclined to drive all the way to Montauk when they know that they’re likely to catch no bass at all. 

However, many anglers will drive that far when the porgies are swarming, as they have throughout this fall.  

Back in 2001, one of Montauk’s biggest party boat operators complained that a 9-inch minimum size and 50-fish bag limit would hurt his customers.  However, even though the rules are stricter today, with a 30-fish bag and 10-inch minimum size, the same party boat owner has been sailing throught this fall with anglers shoulder-to-shoulder along his boat’s rails.

Those anglers are catching plenty of porgies, many the size of dinner plates, thanks to the regulations that he constantly opposed.  Scup abundance is now twice its target level, so anglers can be sure of catching fish every time they go out.
That makes them want to go out even more. 

This December, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board will meet to set recreational specifications for 2016.  Here in New York, and in other states along the coast, regulators will ponder changes in the rules not just for those fish, but for others as well.

That debate will undoubtedly feature many loud and passionate complaints from party and charter boat owners, who will argue that they need bigger bag limits and smaller minimum sizes, in order to attract customers.

But that’s not really true.

What they need to attract customers is fish.  Fish that can be reliably caught by their customers throughout the year.

Big bag limits might convince folks to go fishing once, but empty coolers will convince them to stay at home for the rest of the season.  On the other hand, if anglers can reliably put fish on ice, even if those fish have to be pretty big and the bag limits are small, such anglers are far more likely to go fishing again.

As fisheries managers sit down to draft regulations for the upcoming season, Montauk charter and party boat captains—and their counterparts elsewhere—would be doing themselves a big favor if they didn’t fight rules intended to conserve and rebuild local fish stocks.

Because right now, Montauk is a ghost town in November, and it will probably stay that way until the striped bass stock rebuilds.

But if managers aren’t allowed to rebuild and properly conserve species such as summer flounder, black sea bass and bluefish, Montauk’s docks might easily resemble a ghost town in June, August and October, too.

And that would be a big problem.  A big problem that no one can really afford.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


It has become a cliché, but it’s nonetheless true:  Worthwhile things rarely come easily.

Good fisheries management is no exception.

Consider the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management andConservation Act.  Signed into law in 1976, it achieved its goal of pushing foreign fleets far off American shores, but at first failed badly when it came to conserving and rebuilding depleted fish stocks. 

It took twenty years, and the enactment of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, before Magnuson-Stevens was given the teeth that it needed to make a real difference.  And even then, it took five years more, and the court’s decision in Natural ResourcesDefense Counsel v. Daley, before fisheries managers felt compelled to take the law’s mandates seriously.

Even then, fishing industry representatives on the regional fishery management councils, particularly up in New England, found creative ways to evade the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.  Adopting management plans that eschewed hard catch limits in favor of alternative measures that looked good on paper but bad on the water, they prolonged overfishing until the 2006 reauthorization required mandatory catch limits for all managed stocks and—to many fishermen’s horror—imposed accountability measures on those who landed more fish than those limits allowed.

It was a good result, but even today, nearly forty years later, the fight is not done.  The law still lacks clear language to adequately protect forage fish stocks and the integrity of marine habitats.  And voices from the commercial and recreational fishing industries still call out for a weakened law that elevates short-term profits above the long-term health of fish stocks.

I wish I could say that was an exception, and that most fisheries issues are more easily solved  Unfortunately, that is not true.

Many of us first got involved in fisheries issues when the striped bass stock began to collapse in the mid-1970s.  Today, when issues arise, we're still in the fight.

When I joined the Coastal Conservation Association in 1996, that organization had already started the fight for better menhaden management.  When I resigned from my CCA posts in 2013, they were still in the thick of it and, along with the many other organizations that were on the same side, making slow progress in their effort to give that important forage fish the protection that it needs to thrive.

The point of the story is that fisheries reforms don’t take place overnight.  They take money and sweat, a little bit of courage and a whole lot of patience to see the fights through to their end.

Thus, it is gratifying to see that one fight down in Florida seems to be reaching its proper end.

For the past few years, a grassroots group of anglers calling themselves “Save the Tarpon” has been fighting to better protect the tarpon and tarpon fishery of Florida’s Boca Grande Pass.  

For those unfamiliar with the fishery, it is one of the oldest—perhaps the oldest—recreational tarpon fishery on Florida’s west coast.  Since the days of boxy wooden boats, propelled slowly by small gas-powered inboards, anglers have drifted live baits through the pass in late spring, hoping to hook up with one of the big tarpon that travel through the area at that time of year.

A number of years ago, that fishery was disrupted by boats competing in a glitzy, televised tournament that was reportedly characterized as “controlled chaos” by one of its promoters, who described the scene by saying

“Picture 50 boats of varying styles jockeying for position without wrecking each other, around pods of tarpon…Oh, yeah, don’t forget the non-tournament weekend warrior trying for his shot at a huge silver king, right in the middle of it all.”
Save the Tarpon felt that the tournament boats’ behavior was dangerous, placing non-tournament vessels at risk and destroying the pleasure that “weekend warriors”—meaning anyone who was not participating in the tournament—once took from the fishery.

Save the Tarpon also accused the tournament boats of using unethical tactics, claiming that the a jig that they was designed to foul-hook tarpon.  Save the Tarpon also claimed that many of the tarpon caught during the tournament where handled roughly during the weigh-in, and did not survive the experience.

But Save the Tarpon did more than complain.  It embarked on an all-out effort to protect the tarpon and Boca Grande's traditional tarpon fishery.

Organization was the first step; the next was getting the message out and attracting donors and members.  Once membership achieved critical mass, Save the Tarpon began a publicity campaign to convince tournament sponsors to end their support of the event.  It was very effective.

The organization also launched a political effort aimed at outlawing the use of the “Boca Grande jig” that, they claimed, was used to snag tarpon.  They also asked the State of Florida to adopt new rules that would help to prevent tarpon—particularly those caught and dragged to the scale in the Boca Grande tournament—from being stressed to the point that they died.

Tournament organizers reportedly threatened the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, saying that it would be sued if it adopted the proposed regulations.  They did sue Save the Tarpon for $500,000, claiming that the organization’s effort to influence tournament sponsors caused them economic harm.  

On the political front, it did little good, as Florida proclaimed tarpon a strict catch-and-release species (except for a 1-fish-per-year bag limit for anglers seeking an IGFA record, who must buy a costly permit) and prohibited anglers from removing a tarpon more than 40 inches long from the water.  Such regulations ended the practice of weighing in fish, although the tournament continued, with fish being measured while still in the water.

Save the Tarpon was on a roll, but it still had the lawsuit to worry about.  Although it had labeled the action a “SLAPP” suit—a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation—the suit nonetheless had to be defended, and that cost money.  (Which, after all, is what SLAPP suits are all about—making it too expensive for the public to take on well-heeled corporations by dragging out litigation long enough to bankrupt the public advocates.)  But once again, the organization dug in and managed to find the cash it needed to go on.

There were a series of preliminary legal arguments that whittled away at the tournament promoters’ claims.  Finally, earlier this week—just one day before the matter was scheduled to go to trial—the plaintiff asked that the case be dismissed.

Save the Tarpon had been completely vindicated. 

The three-year lawsuit was over, marking an end to the even longer—and equally successful—fight to protect the tarpon fishery of Boca Grande.

It was a win that clearly illustrated how, with enough dedication, resiliency—and yes, cash resources, too—anglers can make a big difference.

It wasn’t easy.  But then again, important victories rarely are.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Hatcheries have been a part of the freshwater fisheries scene for well over a century. 

Initially seen as an unalloyed good that could reduce the impacts of overfishing and other adverse effects of an expanding population, hatchery fish have recently been subject to significant criticism.  It has been argued that they degrade the fitness of wild-spawned fish, and that hatchery fish compete with wild fish for limited food and other resources.

The State of Montana stopped stocking trout in its rivers forty years ago, after studies indicated that eliminating hatchery fish will significantly increase a stream’s productivity. 

“Stocking is only one of the tools available to fishery managers to restore or increase fishing opportunities.  The decision as to whether or not to stock should not be taken in isolation, but as part of a broader plan for the management of the fishery as a whole.  Such a plan should consider all the possible options.  These include altering the level and distribution of fishing…
“Stocking can do harm as well as good, and ill-considered stocking exercises can have a deleterious effect on the wild resource…”
On the East Coast, hatcheries haven’t had too much of an impact on angling; their only significant and continuous use occurs in the Gulf of Mexico.  Texas has what is, by far, the largest hatchery operation, which releases red drum and spotted seatrout

“to ensure that harvest levels are sustained and stocks are replenished…[and] to counterbalance the effects of habitat degradation, natural catastrophes and fishing pressure on the species.”
A paper written by an employee of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, about six years after the state’s red drum stocking program began, argued that the stocking effort was successful, noting that

“the number of fish harvested in bays that have been stocked has nearly doubled over historic mean harvest rates in those systems.”
However, it is important to note that “success” was gauged solely by an increase in angler harvest, not by more permanent values, such as an increase in the overall red drum spawning stock.  In addition, there was no mention at all in the paper about any possible environmental downside caused by, for example, an adverse impact on the genetic makeup of the wild stock or stocked fingerlings competing with wild fish for food resources or nursery habitat.

Seen in that light, one comment in the paper can be read as a warning.

“The effectiveness of marine fisheries stock enhancement programs cannot be evaluated on an a priori basis.  To measure the impact, fish must be stocked.  Once they have been stocked successfully, the system will be forever changed.  [emphasis added]”
That being the case, it might make sense to move forward very slowly when considering the release of hatchery fish into salt water environments.

The likelihood that marine fisheries managers may become more open to hatchery “enhancement” of coastal fish stocks is suggested in the National Marine Fisheries Service’s National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy, which was released earlier this year.  Once section of that policy, which was heavily influenced by various angling industry organizations, notes that

“Examples of strategies that NMFS supports include…[d]evelopment and application of aquaculture tools and technologies that support recreational fisheries.”
The phrase “aquaculture tools and technologies” sounds like a bureaucratic euphemism for “hatcheries,” and the fact that the same industry groups supporting this policy are the organizations trying to weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of current federal fisheries law provides plenty of reason for concern. 

It’s not hard to envision such folks, already advocates for irresponsible fishery management, using the alleged success of the Texas hatchery program as a basis for arguing that it’s fine to overharvest wild marine fish stocks, so long as there is enough hatchery production “to assure that harvest levels are sustained.”

Freshwater fisheries management was led astray by just such Pied Pipers many decades ago, and is only now trying to undo some of the damage and restore healthy populations of native fish.

Even so, such an approach may already be moving forward in Mississippi, where the Mississippi Press-News reported that

“Marine biologists are trying to learn whether they can increase populations of [spotted seatrout and red snapper,] two of the Gulf of Mexico’s most popular sport and food fish—and perhaps further relax quotas on one of them—by raising and releasing small fry.  [emphasis added]
Not everyone is sold on the idea.  The Press-News quoted Alec D. MacCall,  a senior scientist at NMFS’ fisheries ecology division based in Santa Cruz, California, who observed that

“The real fundamental problem is fisheries reform.  If a hatchery effectively stops management reform for the natural stock, I’d be hesitant to call anything successful.”
The industry folks who would use hatchery production to justify overfishing would, of course, disagree.

Earlier this year, two biologists, Gregory T. Ruggerone and Brendan M. Connors, published a paper entitled “Productivity and life history of sockeye salmon in relation to competition with pink and sockeye salmon in the North Pacific Ocean.“  It described the sort of problems that hatchery fish might cause when large numbers of them are introduced into a marine ecosystem.

Ruggerone and Connors began by investigating why sockeye salmon runs were declining sharply over a wide area that extended from southern Alaska down the entire coast of British Columbia and into the rivers of Washington.  Anything that could affect sockeye salmon over such a broad geographic area, and spanned fish returning to so many river systems, had to be taking place out at sea. 

Eventually, they found a strong correlation between declines in sockeye salmon and increases in the numbers of pink salmon.  More specifically, they found that the growth, age at maturity and survival of sockeye salmon were adversely impacted when the sockeye had to compete for food with large numbers of pink salmon during the sockeyes’ second year in the sea.

That becomes relevant to the hatchery debate because, in recent years, hatcheries in both Alaska and Russia have been ramping up salmon production, and pink salmon have comprised a large part of the approximately 5 billion salmon that are released into the ecosystem every year.  To minimize the impact on sockeye salmon, the paper’s authors recommend that hatchery production be capped.

Some challenge the science, arguing that there is no link between the seeming correlation and actual causation.

Others take a more fatalistic view, suggesting that the harm was inevitable.  Along with challenging the science, Steve Reifenstuhl, the general manager of Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture reportedly responded to the paper by saying

“Do you think that we can control Russia?  Russian [sic] and Japan would quickly move to fill that void if there were a cap.”
What Reifenstuhl left unsaid was exactly what he meant by “void” and why he believed that both Japan and Russia wouldn’t maximize hatchery production regardless of anything that Canada and the United States might do.

Others emphasized economics.  Trent Dodson, production and operations manager for the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, said that

“when we had a low wild pink salmon return and a better than average hatchery return, we were able to help bridge that gap and provide a [sic] economic benefit for common property fishermen that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.”
Thus, hatchery supporters repeat a common theme whether they are dealing with the recreational red drum fishery in Texas, the mixed red snapper fishery in Mississippi or the commercial salmon fishery in Alaska:  Hatcheries let people kill more fish.

They also seem joined by another common theme:  None of them appear to be giving serious consideration to the damage that hatchery fish may do out in the ocean, when they compete with wild-spawned fish of their own or perhaps of other species.

Given Ruggerone and Connors’ work, fisheries managers shouldn’t be so unconcerned about the effects of releasing hatchery fish into our marine waters.

As the Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist has already told us,

“Once they have been stocked successfully, the system will be forever changed.”

Before taking the irreversible step of releasing hatchery fish into the ecosystem, fisheries managers have an ethical obligations to be completely sure than any such change is a good one.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


Over the years, fisheries managers have put in a lot of time, trying to rebuild overfished populations.

There have been notable successes, including summer flounder and scup in the northeast, red drum in the south and Atlantic swordfish through ICCAT’s efforts.  In the Gulf of Mexico, red snapper are well on their way toward recovery, while a host of species are now sustainably managed in the North Pacific.

Unfortunately, there have been plenty of failures as well.

Atlantic cod probably lead that list, although tautog and weakfish, American shad and winter flounder all have places on that roster of failures.

The question that we must ask is “Why?”

We seem to have the structures in place to get the job done.  The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and the regional fishery management councils that it has established, provide a solid framework for managing fisheries in federal waters.

And on the East Coast, at least, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission offers a structure that can defuse interstate conflicts and allow the managers of the several coastal states to work together for the good of all.

Unfortunately, those structures are ultimately dependent on people, people who, in drafting management measures, too often refuse to consider the long-term needs of the stock, and instead concentrate on minimizing short term economic distress.

We can see examples of that in many places, but perhaps no fishery distills the problems that plague many species into one neat package as does southern New England American lobster, and how it is managed at ASMFC.

Southern New England lobster are not in good shape.  In August, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission released the American Lobster Stock Assessment and Peer Review Report, which clearly stated that

“abundance estimates for the [southern New England] stock show a sharp decline through the early 2000s to a record low level in 2013.  Basecase estimates for recent recruitment are near zero and the lowest on record.  In particular, the inshore portion of the stock shows a dramatic decline in spawning stock abundance…
“Furthermore, the assessment shows that the [southern New England] stock is not rebuilding and is experiencing recruitment failure.  A longer and more geographically widespread harvest moratorium in [southern New England] would be necessary to increase spawning stock abundance enough to boost recruitment and allow the stock to rebuild.  [emphasis added]”

When the stock assessment was presented to ASMFC’s American Lobster Management Board in August, the Management Board was warned of the need to keep the spawning stock as large as possible, to take advantage of any favorable spawning conditions that might ensue.  

Specifically, they were advised that

“if you reduced the fishing effort, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll save the stock…it may be that nothing can save the Southern New England stock; but if you don’t protect the spawners, it is not likely that the stock will persist.”
That’s a pretty clear, and pretty frightening, message.

In November, the Management Board met and discussed the problem.  In a post-meeting report, ASMFC stated that

“The Board reviewed management objectives presented by the SNE Subcommittee which ranged from stabilizing the stock through reductions in fishing mortality to preserving the fishery infrastructure at the expense of the stock.  Discussion also focused on ways to reduce natural mortality, which is believed to be a critical component of the stock decline.  In order to gain more information on the [southern New England] stock and options moving forward, the Board charged the Technical Committee to complete several tasks, including a review of preliminary stock projections and a recalculation of reference points.  [emphasis added]”
The possibility of rebuilding the collapsed southern New England stock was apparently never a part of the conversation.  The best that some folks were willing to do was “stabilize” it; others wouldn’t even do that, and would instead cause further harm to the badly depleted stock in the name of preserving “fisheries infrastructure,” although what good such infrastructure would do if the lobster were gone was not immediately clear.

The Management Board had received a peer-reviewed benchmark stock assessment, the closest thing to a gold standard that exists in fisheries management, just two months before the November meeting.  But it apparently didn’t like what the assessment had to say, because instead of acting on its recommendations, it stalled, claiming to need further information from the American Lobster Technical Committee before it would act.

And it completely ignored the stock assessment’s recommendation that ASMFC impose a “longer and more geographically widespread harvest moratorium.” 

Various newspaper reports provided some additional color.  One of the most comprehensive appeared, for some strange reason, in the Salt Lake [Utah] Tribune, which reported

“William Adler, a longtime Massachusetts lobsterman and a member of the lobster board, said that a moratorium is not likely on the table but that something needs to be done to conserve the region’s lobsters…
“Overall, lobster availability and price have both been fairly high in recent months.  The high price has allowed fishermen to reinvest in gear and boats, and new restrictions would curtail that growth, said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
“’We want to make sure the measures aren’t overly burdensome,’ she said.  ‘You could lose infrastructure—piers, bait suppliers, marine stores.’”
Meaningful action to correct the problem appears very unlikely.

What is even worse is that fishermen haven’t learned from their past mistakes.  Five years ago, ASMFC’s Atlantic Lobster Technical Committee issued a report entitled Recruitment Failure in the Southern New England Lobster Stock, which noted that

“The southern New England stock is critically depleted and well below the minimum threshold abundance.  Abundance indices are at or near time series lows, and this condition has persisted.”
The report advised that

“Given additional evidence of recruitment failure in [the southern New England stock] and the impediments to stock rebuilding, the Technical Committee now recommends a 5 year moratorium on harvest…”
But that recommendation was ignored in 2010, setting the stage for the current collapse of the stock.  Now, it appears that the scientific advice will be ignored again.  This time, instead of a collapse of the stock, its complete extirpation is a real possibility.

So why have managers failed to recover so many stocks?  The tale of American lobster reveals the roots of their problems.

  • ·         ASMFC and other state management systems give fisheries managers the flexibility to ignore the best available science and refuse to rebuild overfished stocks. 

  • ·         Fishermen, briefly making good money catching the last of a collapsing population, double down on their initial bad bets, and invest additional capital in boats and gear, and thus oppose needed regulations out of fear of losing their investments.

  • ·         Fishermen with a vested economic interest in continued harvest are allowed to sit as voting members of management boards, where they block needed management measures and subordinate the long-term health of fish stocks to the short-term economic concerns of fellow fishermen and fishing-related businesses.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs fishing in federal waters, goes a long way toward eliminating all of those problems (although prior to the 2006 reauthorization, which for the first time required that hard quotas be established for all species, fishermen hostile to conservation efforts still managed to frustrate the intent of the law, most particularly up in New England). 

By mandating that managers use the best available science to guide management decisions, end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks within a time certain, Magnuson-Stevens effectively roots out the most pernicious problems that frustrate the recovery of overfished stocks.  Its record of success, when compared to the repeated management failures of the states and ASMFC, speaks for itself.

Yet there are folks in the commercial and recreational fishing industries who would weaken that law, and make federal fisheries management more closely resemble that at ASMFC.

And in the end, those folks, too, are at the root of our problems.