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.


  1. It is excellent: I have hardly read something so full of hope.
    For me , french recreative angler, the next question is : how did you do, guys to be able to vote such an Act : Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act?
    Could you give more information, please?
    Sorry for my broken English.

    1. It was a long, hard process, The initial bill was signed into law in 1976, but that was more about pushing foreign fleets 200 miles offshore than about conserving fish stocks. It wasn't until fish populations, particularly in the northeast, started declining badly that people started to ask for a more effective law. Finally, the late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and former Congressman Wayne Gilchrist of Maryland wrote the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, wthich turned the law into an effective conservation tool--or, at least, it did after a federal court decided that it meant exactly what it said, and forced the National Marine Fisheries Service to adopt more effective plans. Ten years later, in 2006, the law was made even stronger, with a requirement that annual catch limits be established for every stock, and a further requirement that fishermen be held accountable for overfishing a stock. It was a long, hard fight that is still going on--people keep trying to weaken the law--but if enough fishermen and conservation advocates get behind it, it should survive intact.