Sunday, December 27, 2015


On Monday, December 7, the House Natural Resources Committee held an oversight field hearing in Riverhead, New York. Entitled “Restoring Atlantic Fisheries and Protecting the Regional Seafood Economy,” it illuminated the debate surrounding reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens).
The Committee had already approved H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, which was passed by the House last spring; the hearing was held in New York at the request of Rep. Lee Zeldin, a freshman Republican and an avowed opponent of the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.
The majority of the witnesses were opponents of such provisions, too. Even so, more than one of them unwittingly praised Magnuson-Stevens while doing their best to condemn it.
Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fisheries Alliance, set the tone in his opening statement.
“Prior to the modern advent of environmental organizations…fishermen assumed the function of advocate, scientist, manager, and conservationist long before these roles were defined in the modern fisheries management…”
That’s probably why summer flounder abundance fell to the lowest level ever recorded in 1989, when biologists had trouble finding fishthat had managed to survive for more than two years, black sea bass were probably overfished from 1996 through 2002 and scup spawning stock biomass flatlined below 25,000 metric tons from at least 1984 (and perhaps earlier) through 2000.
And that’s also probably why, even after the Magnuson-Stevens Act, as amended in 1996, required that managers end overfishing and rebuild stocks within a time certain, the fishermen who dominated the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council still created a summer flounder management plan that had an 80% chance of failure in 1999.
As Mr. Donofrio words suggest, management didn’t improve until the “environmental organizations” stepped in, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the National Marine Fisheries Service over that summer flounder plan, and a federal court declared 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 court decision finally gave the Magnuson-Stevens Act real legal teeth. As a result, the age and size structure of today’s summer flounder stock has markedly improved; by the end of 2014, the summer flounder spawning stock was nearly eight times larger than it was in 1989. The black sea bass stock was fully rebuilt by 2009, while scup have grown so abundant that their biomass is now twice the number needed to produce maximum sustainable yield.
Even so, Mr. Donofrio refused to give Magnuson-Stevens credit for all of the good that it had done. Instead, he made the incredible claim that “Magnuson is not working,” and praised H.R. 1335.
The testimony of Bonnie Brady, Executive Director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, was marked by the same disconnect.
She began by rightly noting that
“Federally, our commercial fish stocks are in very good shape. Of the 308 commercially caught (230 of which represent 90 percent of all commercial landings) stocks, 84% are not overfished and 92% overfishing is not occurring, while 37 stocks have been rebuilt since 2000.”
But then she, too, failed to give due credit to Magnuson-Stevens, and instead also supported H.R. 1335, saying
“Nothing has destroyed our New York fish economies more than the unintended consequences of a rigid, ten-year timeline for rebuilding a fishery to a supposed Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) level that does not take into account the economic effect on fishing communities that must suffer these cuts, and the cumulative effect when more than one fishery is in need of rebuilding.”
Like Mr. Donofrio, she supports a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill that would, as Mr. Donofrio’s says,
“allow for long-term sustainability, rebuilding and improved access [“improved access” being a euphemism for larger harvests] without compromising conservation goals.”
Unfortunately, such legislation resembles a diet that allows folks to eat steak and eggs for breakfast, pizza for lunch and a pound of pasta—plus sausage—for dinner, and still lose a few pounds, in one important respect. Neither one exists in the real world.
That point was emphasized by Capt. Patrick Paquette of Hyannis, Massachusetts, a hometown that has made Capt. Paquette an eyewitness to what the sort of “flexibility in fisheries management” proposed by supporters of H.R. 1335 can do to a fishery. In his testimony to the Committee, Capt. Paquette firmly declared that
“Flexibility failed America’s oldest fishery…
“No clearer example of this exists than what [the New England Fishery Management Council] & [the National Marine Fisheries Service] did when a stock assessment in 2011/2012 confirmed what some fishermen had been saying for a few years; there was an ongoing and significant decline of our nation’s oldest fishery, Gulf of Maine cod (GOM cod). Management decisions took advantage of existing flexibility within [the Magnuson-Stevens Act] to push back mandatory rebuilding timelines; initiate interim measures that delayed and lessened the immediate impact of reduced catch limits and conduct a previously unscheduled back-to-back stock assessment to corroborate the decline.
“Ultimately, however, these allegedly creative ways to use existing flexibility within [the Magnuson-Stevens Act] once again delayed needed rebuilding of the stock and merely paved the way for quotas so small that recreational harvest of GOM cod was shut down for all of 2015, because the recreational quota of 30% of the annual catch limit was used up by discard mortality that occurs when fishing for other species. This use of the existing flexibility under [the Magnuson-Stevens Act] seemed eerily familiar to the failed management practices of the past.
“…The evidence shows that increased flexibility, whether it is for GOM cod, summer flounder, or other valuable species will not provide the sustained fishing opportunities our fishermen and communities need. Many small boat commercial and nearly all recreational fishermen that rely on GOM Cod and other iconic species will respectfully urge you to be careful what you might ask for when it comes to flexibility. Flexibility Failed GOM cod.”
Thus, in the testimony of just three of the witnesses, we find the underlying truths in the Magnuson-Stevens debate.
At one time, “fishermen assumed the function of advocate, scientist, manager, and conservationist long before these roles were defined in the modern fisheries management.”
And fish stocks crashed.
In 1996, the Magnuson-Stevens Act was amended by the addition of strong conservation and rebuilding provisions. As a result, “Federally, our commercial fish stocks are in very good shape. Of the 308 commercially caught…stocks, 84% are not overfished and 92% overfishing is not occurring, while 37 stocks have been rebuilt since 2000.”
Despite such clear success, some fishermen want Magnuson-Stevens to be weakened, by introducing greater “flexibility” to the management process.
But “Flexibility Failed GOM cod.”
NOTE:  This post first appeared in "From the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at 

Sunday, December 20, 2015


There’s an article about red grouper that has been getting a lot of play on the Internet recently.

As anglers, we probably think of groupers as a complex of structure-dependent species that don’t need much more than a reef, wreck or rockpile to be happy, but in the case of the red grouper, at least, that stereotype does not hold true.

According to the aforementioned article, red groupers actually create their own structure by removing sediment to create hard-bottomed “holes’ that may be as much as 25 feet in diameter and several feet deep.  In doing so, they help to create a more diverse and species-rich habitat, as sessile organisms such as sponges and corals attach themselves to the newly-created hard bottom, and in turn attract the sort of crustaceans and smaller fish that live on higher-profile structure.

Those small fish include the young of commercially valuable species, particularly juvenile vermillion snapper (“beeliners”).

Nor does the grouper take a mere passive role, clearing off the bottom and allowing animals to settle at random.  The fish is aggressively territorial, and more than willing to chase off any other groupers, snappers and similar predators that move onto its patch.  In doing so, it provides an incidental service to the various small fish and other animals that share the grouper’s domain, greatly reducing their exposure to predation.

The impacts of such behavior has yet to be adequately recognized in the fishery management process.  Currently, the linchpin of red grouper management—and the management of virtually all other recreationally and commercially important fish species—is the concept of maximum sustainable yield, which can probably best be defined as the greatest number of fish that may be removed from a population on a continuing basis without causing such population to decline in abundance.

Such an approach can do fine if all we care about is red grouper, or any other individual species.  However, as the red grouper demonstrates, species do not live in a vacuum.  Their actions and abundance can and do impact other species as well.

In the case of red grouper, it is entirely possible—although I haven’t come across data that suggests it is true—that a decline in the population, which would naturally cause a decline in the number of red grouper “holes,” would deprive juvenile vermillion snapper of some portion of both their nursery habitat and protection from predators, and thus adversely impact vermillion snapper abundance.

It’s not clear that there is such a cause-and-effect relationship, but at the same time, it’s not at all clear that there’s not.  What is clear is that when maximum sustainable yield is the sole criterion used by fisheries managers, they ignore important relationships that, in the long run, impact the total productivity of our coastal ecosystems.

For a good example, consider the oyster toadfish (Opsanus tau) of New York’s bays.

For years, toadfish were one of those things that no one, whether angler or commercial fishermen, wanted to catch.  

They were slimy, ugly things, resembling nothing more than an oversized tadpole with spines and teeth, and if those teeth got a good hold on your finger, it hurt.  The Bay Daily reprinted a passage from the book Life in the Chesapeake Bay, and though it is describing Chesapeake toadfish, it applies to Long Island toadfish as well.

“Toadfish may lay claim to being the ugliest fish in the Chesapeake Bay, a vision for nightmares, slimy and ragged, with fleshy flaps hanging from their lips and over their eyes, covered with warts and with threatening, wide-gaping jaws armed with sharp teeth…When caught, it erects sharp spines on its dorsal fin and gills and snaps viciously with its powerful jaws.”
Nobody ever thought of eating the things or, if they did, never admitted to it in public.

But then things changed, as they usually do, and the New York region began to host newcomers from Asian shores, who had much broader minds than than we locals did when it came to edible seafood.

Suddenly, live toadfish became a hot item in local markets, and Long Island’s baymen found themselves in the midst of something that looked like a small-scale gold rush.

Toadfish were everywhere.  The baymen didn’t have to do too much different to catch them; the fish were already finding their way into blue crab and blowfish traps.  And best of all, there were no regulations.

The markets would take all of the big, mature toadfish that the baymen could catch, and pay very good prices, too. 

No one complained, or tried to limit the size of the baymen’s landings.  Even Long Island’s anglers, who were often the first to complain about the baymen's perceived excesses, stayed totally silent; toadfish were only a nuisance to them.

Then…something happened.  

After a very few years, the number of toadfish in the bays declined sharply.  On the other hand, the number of crabs in the bays—not the blue crabs, that go so well with melted butter and beer, but the smaller sort of crabs that folks don’t usually notice and definitely don’t eat—began to increase.  A lot. 

Toadfish like to eat crabs, the same little crabs enjoy nothing more than eating young quahogs—hard clams—when they are still very small and their shells not tough enough to endure a crab claw’s embrace.

A lot of the baymen were also clammers, and began to connect the dots.

They soon demanded that limits be put on the toadfish harvest, not so much to protect the toadfish themselves—although it had become hard to find the really big ones, which once were everywhere—but to protect the small clams.

And therein lies the lesson.

Single-species management cannot assure that America’s fisheries will thrive.  Coastal ecosystems are a web of species, connected by a web of relationships.  Some of those relationships are known to fisheries managers, although few are quantified and it is very likely that many remain only guessed-at or are completely unknown.

As we move into the future, it is crucial that federal and state fisheries laws give at least as much weight to the value of live fish in the water, where each species must fulfill its role in the greater ecosystem, as they give to the value of dead fish on the dock.

For as the toadfish and the red grouper teach us, all life in the sea shares connections.  If fisheries management is to be effective in the long term, managers must acknowledge those connections, and manage for the maximum productivity of not a single species, or a suite of species, but for the maximum sustainable productivity of the ecosystem as a whole.

And they must conserve not only the recreationally and commercially valuable species, but all species.  For like clams in Long Island’s bays, some of our most valued species may, in the end, depend on our most despised.

Thus, it is not our place to judge what species are worthy of conservation, and which are mere “trash.”  For evolution has already judged them, and found them all to be needed and good.


NOTE:  Because Christmas Eve falls on next Thursday, when the next edition of One Angler's Voyage would normally be published, and because most readers will probably have better things to do on Christmas Day than read about fisheries issues, no additional essays will be published this week.  Instead, a new edition of One Angler's Voyage will not be released until Sunday, December 27.

Thursday, December 17, 2015


Over the past few years, the collapse of New England cod stocks, and the growing restrictions placed on the northeast groundfishing fleet, has been a bigger and bigger part of the fisheries news.  We hear a lot of talk about fishermen selling their boats and going out of business as a result of strict regulations, but it is sometimes difficult to get a good feeling for what’s going on.

There is no question that groundfish landings are far smaller than they were a generation ago.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s reports of commercial landings, recent cod harvest peaked in 1990, when over 96,000,000 pounds were landed.  By 2000, that figure had dropped to just 25,000,000 pounds, and fell even farther, to a little over 5,000,000 pounds, in 2013.  This year, the figure will be much smaller.

Of course, groundfish boats catch a lot of fish other than groundfish.  The question is whether such other species will be enough to keep them afloat.

A recent study released by the Measuring the Effects of Catch Shares Project provides a good first look at the recent landings of vessels with limited access groundfish permits.
The data set used in the study begins in 2007, when cod landings were nearly 17,000,000 pounds, and extends through 2013.  

Throughout that period, cod and other groundfish never comprised much more than a quarter of the overall landings of the groundfishing fleet, with the exact proportion ranging from a high of 26.9% in 2009 (when cod landings totaled nearly 20,000,000 pounds), to a low of 16.5% in 2013.

Thus, groundfish regulations had a lesser overall impact on the income of the fleet than they would have if the various groundfish species made up a majority of the catch.  Still, there is no question that the groundfish restrictions have been painful.

That pain wasn’t shared equally among all of the vessels.  Researchers found that vessels in the 30 to 50 foot range, which includes many boats in the fleet, had a much greater dependence upon groundfish than either smaller or larger boats.  Smaller vessels, which fish inshore waters for a greater variety of species, had the least dependence on the groundfish resource.

Although the poundage of groundfish landed fell from 70,000,000 in 2007 to 42,000,000 in 2013, the poundage of non-groundfish species landed remained relatively consistent.  In 2007, groundfish boats landed about 214,000,000 of non-groundfish species; in 2013, that figure was essentially unchanged (although it did vary between 221,000,000 pounds and 183,000,000 pounds in the interim.

Unfortunately, from an economic standpoint, all species are not equal.    

For the most part, groundfish are pretty valuable.  In 2013, the average ex vessel price for cod was about $2.10 per pound, while haddock was worth around $1.45 and yellowtail flounder about the same.

The value of non-groundfish species varies widely, and some ports are able to fish on more valuable species than are available elsewhere.  In that regard, southern groundfish ports—those south and west of Chatham, Massachusetts—have more valuable non-groundfish species available to them than do ports in northern New England.

The study found that the primary non-groundfish targets of the southern groundfish boats are monkfish, which sold for $0.95 per pound in 2013, skates, which brought an ex vessel price of $0.33 and squid, which could be sold for $1.06 per pound.

On the other hand, groundfish boats sailing out of ports bordering the Gulf of Maine had far less attractive options.  

Historically, they were significant participants in the northern shrimp fishery, but that fishery has suffered from a combination of rapidly warming waters and overharvest, and is currently closed.  Some Massachusetts vessels are also active in the spiny dogfish fishery, but with dogfish selling for just 0.16 per pound, it takes a lot of dogfish to make up for lost groundfish landings.

Throughout the northeast, NMFS records indicate that various boats supplemented their harvest with other seasonally-available non-groundfish species that ranged from sea scallops to black sea bass to bluefin tuna.

However, it is clear that, particularly in northern New England, the reduction in groundfish landings has had a real economic impact on the fleet, which has been made worse by a change in the groundfish mix.

In 2007, cod was arguably the most important component of the groundfish complex, with vessels landing nearly 17,000,000 pounds, worth about $1.60 per pound at the dock.  In that year, groundfish boats also landed about 8,000,000 pounds of haddock, at $1.55 per pound, and just 1,700,000 pounds of Acadian redfish, which sold for only $0.58. 

By 2013, cod landings were less than a third of what they were in 2007; while the price increased by $0.50 per pound, such increase didn’t come anywhere close to making up for the lost volume.  Haddock landings increased by about 25%, and so were worth a little bit more even though the price per pound had dripped a few cents.  However, landings of Acadian redfish had surged; harvest more than quadrupled, to 7,800,000 pounds, although the price slipped just a bit to $0.55.

Thus, because of the change in species mix, the 42,000,000 pounds of groundfish that were landed in 2013 were probably worth quite a bit less, in the aggregate, than the same amount of groundfish were worth in 2007.

Groundfishermen are thus caught in a double bind, with regulation reducing the size of their landings and the fish that they can land being worth less.

Yet, however unfortunate their plight, it is a fate they brought onto themselves.

The New England Fishery Management Council, which manages northeastern groundfish, has been historically hostile to regulation.  Until changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, made in 2006, forced them to do so, they had never imposed hard catch limits on any species under their jurisdiction, and tolerated ovefishing for year after year.  More than 15 years ago, the New England Council already knew that Gulf of Maine cod were in danger of collapse, and yet the fishermen who dominated the panel refused to take meaningful action.

New England groundfishermen are now reaping the inevitable consequences of their actions. 

Instead of embracing the conservation provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, which might allow their stocks to rebuild, they support snake oil remedies such as H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act which, if passed, would only assure that their industry’s lot will never improve.

The plight of the northeastern groundfishermen must serve as a lesson to the rest of the nation.

Fish are not an inexhaustible resource, and they will not be restored through benign neglect.

Magnuson-Stevens is the most effective fisheries law in the world, which has proven itself on every coast in the nation—except that of New England.  That is no fault of the law, but the fault of New Englanders, who must at some point accept that the ocean has limits, and that they exceeded those limits a long time ago.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


If you’ve been involved in fisheries management very long, you’ve gotten used to politicians proposing dumb things at the behest of various constituent groups. 

For the past year or two, I figured that H.R. 3094, which would strip the National Marine Fisheries Service of authority to manage red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and hand all management responsibilities over to the states, was clearly leading the idiots’ parade.

However, somehow one bill slipped past me this summer, even though it was proposed by a local congressman, and would affect an important fishery right here where I live on Long Island.  And when it comes to stupid, the local bill is head and shoulders above any of the proposed red snapper legislation.

The bill in question is H.R. 3070, introduced on July 15 of this year by Representative Lee Zeldin, a freshman Republican congressman who represents New York’s 1st Congressional District, which includes the port of Montauk along with the rest of Long Island’s East End.

Representative Zeldin entitled the bill the “EEZ Clarification Act” and claims that its purpose is

“To clarify that for purposes of all Federal laws governing marine fisheries management, the landward boundary of the exclusive economic zone between areas south of Montauk, New York and Point Judith, Rhode Island, and for other purposes.
As far as I can tell, the landward boundary of the EEZ south of New York and Rhode Island is already pretty clear; it’s a line three miles offshore, which is sharply delineated on both the charts prepared by NOAA and on every electronic chart that a mariner can plug into his or her GPS.  There’s not a lot of room for confusion.

However, there is room for discontent, because the waters off Block Island are often filled with striped bass, and striped bass may not be fished for, nor even possessed, in the EEZ.  And Block Island is more than six miles from the nearest landmass, meaning that it is surrounded by federal waters.

Originally, that made it impossible for fishermen—and particularly Montauk charter and party boats—sailing from off-island ports to bring back striped bass caught off Block Island.  NMFS long ago acknowledged the problem, and created a “transit zone” that permitted vessels to return to port with bass caught in the state waters surrounding the island.

However, that wasn’t enough for charter boats sailing out of Montauk, which wanted to be able to fish in federal waters as well.  Their plight wasn’t really any different from that of their counterparts in Massachusetts, Virginia or North Carolina, all of whom lost access to areas that they once fished in the EEZ.  Even so, the Montauk charter boats have long sought federal legislation that would give them their way.

The latest expression of that effort came on December 7, when the House Natural Resources Committee held a field hearing in Riverhead, here on Long Island.  There, Captain Joe McBride, as Legislative Representative for the Montauk Boatmen and Captains Association, requested that Congress adopt H.R. 3070 which, by changing the boundaries of the EEZ, would allow the Montauk boats to fish in waters currently closed to striped bass angling.

“We have a long standing problem with the Transit Zone between Block Island, RI and Montauk Point, NY, and between Block Island and Point Judith, RI.   The unintended consequences of this restriction is that New York State and Rhode Island have lost over 60% of their historical striped bass fishing areas in the Transit Zone.
“This anomaly exists only in this area because of the extended distance between Montauk Point, NY to Block Island, and is the same for Point Judith to Block Island.  The distance from Block Island to Montauk Point or Point Judith is approximately 15 miles.  We having [sic] been trying to for many years to correct this problem with no success…”
Congressman Zeldin, who attended the hearing, had already introduced H.R. 3070 in an effort to fix Capt. McBride’s problem.  In doing so, he would create far more problems that exist already.

That’s because H.R. 3070 would change the boundaries of the EEZ surrounding Block Island so that

“(1) the landward boundary of the exclusive economic zone between the area south of Montauk, New York, and the area south of Point Judith, Rhode Island, shall be considered to be a continuous line running
(A)   from a point running 3 miles south of the southernmost point of Montauk to a point 3 miles south of the southernmost point of Block Island, Rhode Island, and
(B)   from such point 3 miles south of the southernmost point of Block Island, Rhode Island, to a point 3 miles south of the southernmost point of Point Judith…”
If you look at a chart—which, apparently, Congressman Zeldin never did—you’ll note that the southernmost point on Block Island is Black Rock Point, which lies at approximately 41. 08.8’ N, 071. 35.6’ W.  Depending on whether you measure the southernmost point on Point Judith from the southernmost point of the mainland or the southernmost point on the jetty extending therefrom, you get either 41. 21.5’ N 071. 28.8’W or 41. 21.4’ N 071. 29.5’ W, respectively, for that.

A point 3 miles south of Black Rock Point, where Rep. Zeldin would anchor one leg of the EEZ, would be located at 41. 11.8 N 071. 35.6’ W.  That leg would run to a point 3 miles south of Point Judith, at either 41. 24.5’ N 071. 28.8’ W or 41. 24.4’ N 071. 29.5’ W.

If you then take a ruler and draw a line from the point 3 miles south of Black Rock Point to either of the points 3 miles south of Point Judith, you’ll find that Rep. Zeldin would have the EEZ run straight through Block Island, cutting off the southeast corner from roughly Mohegan Bluffs to somewhere just south of Old Harbor.

Yes, if Rep. Zeldin got his way, a surfcaster standing with his boots dry on shore, who casts a plug toward the rocks off Southeast Point, would be illegally fishing for stripers in the EEZ!

But that’s probably the sort of legislation that we can expect from a congressman who supports H.R. 1335, a bill that would tear the heart out of the most successful fisheries law in the world.  Or of someone who, as a state legislator, was proud of the fact that he repealed New York’s salt water fishing license, leaving the state’s fisheries regulators without enough money to do their jobs.

As I said when I began, I’ve been around fisheries politics long enough that there is little left to surprise me.

But sometimes, something does.

Such as a federal legislator who say that the finest fisheries conservation and management law ever written was “arbitrary”—and then arbitrarily draws lines in the ocean, without first consulting a chart.

Thursday, December 10, 2015


For the past few years, we have seen conservationists and fisheries managers begin to place new emphasis on maintaining healthy forage fish stocks.

Author Bruce Franklin dubbed menhaden “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” while conservation and angling organizations banded together a decade ago in a group called “Menhaden Matters,” to urge the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to recognize the importance of the species as forage when it crafts management measures.

There’s no question that menhaden are a very important forage species.  However, a new report focusing on the Chesapeake Bay suggests that many other prey animals may be as or more important to the maintenance of healthy recreational and commercial fisheries.

That report is an outgrowth of the Chesapeake Bay Multispecies Monitoring and Assessment Program, and encapsulates the results of twelve years of sampling the stomach contents of five major predators resident in Chesapeake Bay—the striped bass, summer flounder, Atlantic croaker, clearnose skate and white perch.

Survey results aren’t applicable everywhere—a different choice of predators would almost certainly have resulted in different prey species appearing in the samples, while samples taken off a rocky, high-energy coastline would not have contained many life forms common in the relatively sheltered Chesapeake waters.  However, they do provide an example of how important it is to maintain an array of forage species.

The study denoted any forage species that comprised at least 5% of the stomach contents of no less than two different predators as “key”, while any species that comprised at least 5% of the stomach contents for a single predator was deemed “important.”

It turned out that of all the “key” species, it was the bay anchovy, and not the menhaden, which was the most-consumed animal in Chesapeake Bay.  It comprised more than 5% of the stomach contents of four different species, while the menhaden only broke the 5% threshold in the stomachs of striped bass—and even there, bay anchovies, mysid shrimp and polychaete worms were more significant in  the striper’s diet.

To give the menhaden its due, most of the striped bass sampled were relatively small; menhaden were a very important component of the stomach contents of larger striped bass, although such bigger bass are only in the bay for a short time.  Menhaden are also important forage for other fish not included in the study and to various fish-eating birds.  Thus, in a slight departure from study standards, they were also designated as a “key” forage stock.

However, it was some of the other forage species that should be drawing our attention.  We may debate the quality of current menhaden management, but at least the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is giving it some attention, and taking the first halting steps toward incorporating its role as forage into management decisions.  

Most of the other species listed as “key” or “important” items are not managed at all.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment is contemplating extending protections to both bay anchovies (“key”) and Atlantic silversides (“important”), while the ASMFC extends protections to five other “important” forage fish, river herring, Atlantic shad and the immature stages of weakfish, Atlantic croaker and spot, in various interstate fishery management plans. 

However, it is probably important to note that neither bay anchovy nor Atlantic silversides is likely to receive protection from the ASMFC at any time soon, even though if a fishery for such forage species is ever developed, it will probably be developed in inshore waters that fall outside the Mid-Atlantic Council’s jurisdiction. 

Similarly, although the Mid-Atlantic Council has done some good work to reduce the bycatch of river herring and American shad, neither is subject to a real fishery management plan while in the ocean waters where they spend most of their lives, while the New England Fishery Management Council is backtracking on measures that it had already adopted to limit bycatch of such species in the Atlantic herring fishery.

Protection for forage fish species is spotty and incomplete, but protections for just about every other sort of forage—worms, mysids, mollusks and such—is generally non-existent, except at the most local level.  And that’s a pretty big failure of resource management, given that seven of the twelve “key” forage species identified in the Chesapeake study were worms, clams and arthropods such as mysid shrimp.

In the end, despite their importance, such non-fish forage species may be the most difficult forage to protect.  For many, although certainly not all, forage fish species, threats such as excess harvest or loss of access to upstream spawning grounds are clearly identifiable.  But the threats to the various invertebrate species are more subtle and likely more numerous.

Nitrogen loading in places such as Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound and various coastal lagoons can result in hypoxia, which in turn leads to “dead zones” where the oxygen becomes insufficient to support most forms of life.  Fish can  usually escape such hypoxic zones (although doing so may force them from cool, deeper waters into warm shallows that give rise to other threats), but clams, worms and many small crabs and shrimp lack the ability to quickly abandon such hostile areas.  Most perish, impoverishing the ecosystem and making it less able to support life.

Other invertebrates suffer from shoreline development of marinas, hotels and housing, which destroy coastal marshes either directly, through draining and filling, or through the steady runoff of petroleum products, herbicides, pesticides and other pollutants. 

Some, which have evolved to live in barrier systems constantly reshaped by wind and tide, find their waters perpetually degraded when the Army Corps of Engineers insists on pursuing sand-pumping projects that fill in new, storm-carved inlets which would have brought clean, oxygen-charged waters into stagnating back bays.  Some are harmed when sediments from Corps dredging projects blanket the bottom with a suffocating coat of silt, either killing them directly or destroying the submerged vegetation on which they depend.

As anglers interested in healthy fisheries, which in turn depend on a healthy abundance of forage, it is our responsibility to protect the smaller life forms, whether fish, worms or something else, from the myriad adverse conditions that may be forced upon them.

Historically, anglers have been willing to turn out in numbers to protect their favorite predator species.  Recently, they have also been turning out to protect high-visibility forage such as menhaden.  But we have to do more, and protect the other, unsung animals that our stripers and weakfish, red drum and flounder, depend on to survive.

Because, sure, menhaden matter.  But so do isopods and polychaete worms.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Fisheries managers are finally paying attention to forage fish, the myriad species of small fish, squid and crustaceans that the predators need to survive.
At the federal level, the Pacific Fishery Management Council got the ball rolling with its Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 1: Protecting Unfished and Unmanaged Forage Fish Species. That Amendment would prevent the creation of new fisheries for forage species that are managed at neither the state nor the federal level, until all of the relevant science, and the possible impacts of any new fishery, can be thoroughly examined.
Last October, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to move forward with an omnibus amendment that would also prevent the creation of new fisheries until all of the implications can be thoroughly examined.
Those measures deal with currently unmanaged forage fish stocks, which have little current commercial or recreational value. However, a number of forage species are already either targeted or incidentally killed by existing fisheries, and have management plans in place.
Menhaden is probably the best example of a targeted forage species. Harvested for fertilizer in colonial days, menhaden currently support an industrial fishery that “reduces” the whole fish into various products ranging from poultry feed to lubricants.
Menhaden landings in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico totaled over 1.15 billion pounds in 2014, which is an awful lot of forage to remove from the ocean, even if menhaden are very abundant along much of the coast. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is now investigating “Biological Ecological Reference Points” to better manage menhaden as a forage species, although no management action is expected until after 2017.
ASMFC is also trying to rebuild collapsed stocks of alewives and blueback herring; populations of both species, collectively known as “river herring,” have declined sharply in most East Coast river systems, and many local fisheries have been shut down to promote a recovery.
However, ASMFC can’t do it all. River herring spend most of their lives out at sea, where they are frequently killed as bycatch in the Atlantic herring and Atlantic mackerel fisheries.
The New England Fishery Management Council implemented catch caps on river herring in the Atlantic herring fishery in an attempt to reduce such bycatch. However, in a move decried by fisheries conservation advocates, the Council voted to increase such caps at its October 2015 meeting, making it likely that more river herring will end up being killed.
Fortunately, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council has shown itself to be a better steward of river herring resources, setting meaningful caps in the Atlantic mackerel fishery that will shut down that fishery if the caps are exceeded. However, it failed to initiate a river herring management plan that recognized river herring as a “stock in the fishery,” something that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) would have allowed it to do. In opposing “stock in the fishery” status, theGarden State Seafood Association, which represents some large mackerel fishing operations, said
“the Council has established a catch cap on river herring species, as part of the Atlantic mackerel fishery specifications for the 2014 fishing year, which already threatens the industry’s ability to realize the Optimum Yield from the Atlantic mackerel resource, on a continuing basis, as required by National Standard 1 of the [Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management] Act…”
That’s an interesting statement, which deserves some serious thought.
“The term ‘optimum’, with respect to the yield from a fishery, means the amount of fish which—
(A) will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems;
(B) is prescribed as such on the basis of maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevanteconomic, social, or ecological factor; and
(C) in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield in such fishery. [emphasis added]”
Thus, it’s not hard to argue that if the current annual catch limit of Atlantic mackerel would lead to an excessive bycatch of river herring, then the optimum yield in the mackerel fishery should be reduced, due to that ecological factor, to a level which makes it likely that any such bycatch will be adequately constrained.
But that just opens the door to another question. Whether we’re talking about river herring, Atlantic mackerel or other forage fish, just what constitutes optimum yield for forage species?
The Lenfest Ocean Program is a grant-making program that funds scientific research on a number of policy-relevant issues concerning the world’s oceans. A few years ago, a Lenfest-supported task force released a report entitled Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a Crucial Link in Ocean Food Webs, which investigated that issue in depth.
It noted that
“…our food web modeling results revealed that fishing at a typical rate, [that produces maximum sustainable yield], often led to collapses of forage fish populations and large decreases in the abundance of dependent predators…
“Model simulations showed that forage fish populations and their dependent predators were reliably sustained when fishing pressure was half as high and forage fish biomass in the ocean was twice as large as traditionally practiced…
“Overall, our results support setting much more conservative targets and limits for forage fishery management than have been commonly recommended and applied in the past.”
NMFS generally concurs, noting in its National Standard One guidelines that
“consideration should be given to managing forage stocks for higher biomass than [the biomass needed to produce maximum sustainable yield] to enhance and protect the marine ecosystem.”
If such standards were applied to forage fish stocks, such as Atlantic menhaden and butterfish, that are already subject to management, harvests would have to be substantially reduced in order to meet the standards proposed in the Lenfest report. As the Garden State Seafood letter suggests, any such reductions are likely to face strong opposition from the fishing industry.
However, when it comes to currently unmanaged stocks, such as round herring or sand lance, which don’t support federal fisheries, why not go Lenfest one better and set optimum yield at zero? Wouldn’t the relevant “ecological factors”—the dependence of so many species of fish, marine mammals and fish-eating birds on such forage species—justify reducing potential landings from maximum sustainably yield down to zero?
And wouldn’t economic considerations also support such an action? It wouldn’t cost anyone as much as a cent in lost profits. But it would help to ensure that adequate forage would be available to a host of species important to the commercial and recreational fishing industries.
That sounds like a win-win situation.
So far, no one has suggested that optimum yield for unfished forage stocks should be set at zero; that would be a far more conservative standard than either the Pacific or Mid-Atlantic Councils has considered.
Even so, it may be the right thing to do.
This post originally appeared on the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, "From the Waterfront", which may be found at