Thursday, December 29, 2016


Back on December 15, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held a hearing in New York, where it sought comments on its Public Information Document For Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan For Atlantic Menhaden.

It’s an important amendment, which could break some very new ground.  If some of the options proposed in the public information document survive, and are incorporated into the final amendment, ASMFC will manage menhaden not merely for whatever economic benefits it might provide, but also for its role in the coastal ecosystem.

By adopting so-called “ecological reference points,” ASMFC would try to assure that there will be enough menhaden in the water to serve as forage for all of the predatory fish, birds and marine mammals that have historically made the species an important part of their diets, even if doing so means that harvest has to be reduced.

That’s pretty remarkable.

But perhaps it's not as remarkable as what went on at the hearing that night.

By the time the hearing began at 6:30 p.m., the room was just about full; more chairs had to be brought in from elsewhere in order to seat everyone who came.

The crowd was pretty diverse.  There were representatives of national and local conservation groups, whale-watching operations, fishing guides and commercial and recreational fishermen.  And I think that there were some just-plain-citizens, too, who were concerned about the health of the marine environment and wanted to have a say.

It was the sort of mix that, at most fisheries hearings, would have been volatile.  All it needed was a match, in the form of an unconsidered or perhaps just unpopular word, to blow up the folks in the room.

Except…that didn’t happen.

I’m still not completely sure why.

I could be bright-eyed and optimistic, and say that, for whatever reason, everyone decided to put their own interests aside and try to do right by what is, by any measure, a keystone species in our marine ecosystem.

Or I could be my cynical—but here, still strangely optimistic—self, and say that everyone in the room was still putting their interests first, but for whatever reason finally understood that their best interests and the best interests of the resource were one and the same.

Whatever it was, in thirty-five or so years of attending fisheries hearings, this was the first time that I sat through a meeting that was completely without rancor, when recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, environmental groups and everyone else in the room spoke with passion, yet softly, to do what was right for the fish.

Admittedly, menhaden are special.  They travel up and down the coast in such great numbers that no one in the room was trying to take fish away from anyone else who was there. 

The recreational bait fishery is so small that it doesn’t compete with commercial interests—and some commercial menhaden fishermen specialize in catching recreational bait. 

The conservation groups, the whale-watchers, the anglers and the angling guides all wanted enough menhaden to stay in the sea, so that other things—whether bald eagles, striped bass or humpback whales—could eat their fill.  
There was no discord there.

And the real ogre in the story—Omega Protein Corporation, an industrial fishing operation that kills and processes hundreds of thousands of tons of menhaden each year—lives down in Virginia, so no one in the room had any problem taking fish away from them and handing them over to our local commercial fishermen, so that they could make a decent living.

Thus, it was fairly easy to reach agreement, as we all were after more or less the same thing.

Still, there were opportunities for discord that we just let pass by. 

Anglers and conservationists could easily have called for more restrictions on the commercial fishery, so that there would be more menhaden around for bluefish, striped bass and ospreys to eat, but we didn’t.  ASMFC could increase New York’s commercial quota tenfold or more, and menhaden would still abound.  So no one picked a fight that didn't need to happen.

Commercial fishermen could have insisted on a quota rollovers, so that any part of their quota that they failed to catch this year, they could legally catch in the next.  But they didn’t, saying that some years, the fish just don’t come in, and that not rolling quota was good for the stock.

Some good things were going on, and I left the hearing feeling good, but in a way that I never felt before.

Every time before, when I walked out of a hearing or fisheries, if I felt good, it was the kind of good you feel after winning a fight; you feel battered and tired and are maybe still mad, but you feel good because you feel like you beat up the other guy and carried the day.  And there were plenty of times when the other guy left with that kind of feeling, and I left licking my wounds.

But the menhaden hearing was different.  I felt good because, for the first time, we were all on the same page, and it felt as if progress could be made because of everyone else, and not despite them.

It was a very good feeling to have.

And I can’t help thinking that we can all work together on other fisheries, too, to find answers that give everyone a piece of the win, instead of creating losers and those who prevail.

On other species, it’s going to be a much harder slog, but it’s not an impossible thing to attain.

Let’s start by admitting that we all want more fish.  

Whether commercial or recreational fisherman, light-tackle guide or party boat fisherman, we want to be able to catch, and in many cases to keep, more fish than we can today.

So instead of concentrating on today, and who gets what piece of a pretty small pie, why don’t we look ahead a few years, toward a time when there can be enough fish for everyone (or, if not enough, then quite a few more) and ask what must we do to get there?  Why can’t we agree to do what is needed to give everyone a slice of a pie that is far larger than the one we’re devouring today?

Instead of jealously concentrating on each other, trying to shift allocations to benefit ourselves, why don’t we concentrate on the fish, and what needs to be done to bring them back to the sort of abundance that can support healthy commercial and recreational fisheries?

It wouldn’t be easy, and there would be plenty of chances to fail along the way.

Yet as I gird myself for 2017, and the Second Fluke Wars, the inevitable bitter attacks on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation andManagement Act and who knows what other threats to the health of our fish stocks, I think back on the night of December 15 and the way fisheries meetings could be.

If we just cared enough about the fish to make it so.

Monday, December 26, 2016


Back in the 1970s, I worked in a small Connecticut tackle shop.

The shop was less than five minutes from my house, and about the same distance from my boat, which meant that I could get up and go fishing each morning and still have no trouble getting to work by the time the shop opened at 7 o’clock.  I could buy all of my gear at cost.  And if I still smelled a bit like stripers or bluefish when I stepped behind the counter, no one paid too much attention.

It seemed like the perfect arrangement, and for a while, it was.  I could be out every day before sunrise, get some good fishing in, then spend the heat of the day in an air-conditioned shop talking about fish, until I went home for dinner and then, if I felt like it, back out after stripers again at night.

Life was good, at least until the bass population began to collapse.

The collapse wasn’t unexpected.  The late Bob Pond, inventor of the iconic Atom plug, noticed that striped bass spawning success had cratered, and warned that the stock was headed for trouble.  He took the money he made from his fishing lure manufacturing business, and used it to advocate for striped bass conservation. 

He came to the shop where I worked, and as I spoke with him, his words made a lot of sense.  I was on the water just about every day, and it was impossible to ignore the fact that the smallest bass were missing from the population.  I was finding big bass—the largest over 50 pounds—but the younger year classes that represented the future of the population were just not around.

On the other hand, the tackle shop’s owner couldn’t care less about Bob Pond’s views, or the health of the bass population.  He was in business to make money, and if that meant encouraging his customers to go out and kill as many big bass as they could, well, that was fine with him.

He discouraged me from talking about conservation in the ship, and when I did, he seemed to get a twisted kick out of making a special effort to tell the next customers to bring in a boatload of stripers, so that he could weigh their fish and take their pictures and hang them on the shop wall, to better encourage other people to do the same thing.

He seemed contemptuous of the whole idea of trying to keep what was clearly a troubled stock from falling into further distress; so long as he could make a buck or two off the folks killing the fish, he’d just keep on encouraging them to pile dead stripers on the dock.

And there weren't many regulations governing how many bass you could kill back then.  There was a 16-inch minimum size, and Connecticut had make stripers a “gamefish” that couldn’t be sold, but you could kill as many bass as you wanted, and a lot of those fish ended up being sold to restaurants regardless of the gamefish law.

Eventually and inevitably, the striped bass stock collapsed and the owner sold the tackle shop to someone else and moved to the Florida Keys, where he died well before the bass were declared rebuilt in 1995.

It has been forty years since the striped bass population began its collapse, and twenty since it was recovered.  One might expect that in all of that time, people in the fishing industry would have finally seen the need to conserve troubled stocks, and so avoid the long, painful process of rebuilding a collapsed population.

Unfortunately, there are too many people who, like the owner of the shop I worked for decades ago, still focus only on short term profits.  Despite the lessons taught by the striped bass collapse, which should have been reinforced by the disappearance of species such as winter flounder, they stubbornly oppose needed harvest restrictions and blindly ignore the fact that fishing businesses need an abundance of fish if they are to thrive.

The latest illustration of such willful blindness can be seen in the summer flounder fishery.

Summer flounder have experienced six consecutive years of below-average spawns.  The last good year class of fish was spawned in 2009, and the remnants of that year class, although large, are growing scarcer each year.  

The spawning stock biomass is declining.  There is a real risk that, if the annual harvest is not reduced, the stock will become overfished and thus put at risk.

However, as reported by CBS News, New York’s angling industry is fighting all efforts to conserve the summer flounder population.

“’A lot of boats have been put out of business already and more to follow if these rules go into effect,’ said Ken Higgins, a captain who takes out boat loads of recreational fishermen daily…
“’Fluke are the bread and butter on Long Island, so we really can’t take anymore restrictions.’”
Others echoed similar sentiments.

“’It can’t happen,’ said Fred Galofaro, publisher of The Fisherman magazine.  ‘It’ll cripple the industry, and it affects everybody in the industry.  It affects all the tackle shops.  It affects tourism.’”
There’s no question that tightened regulations, particularly a shortened season, would have an immediate impact on fishing business’ bottom lines.  However, what no one is talking about, and what no one even seems to be considering, is the impact that a badly depleted, perhaps even a collapsed, summer flounder stock would have on the recreational fishing industry.

And no one seems willing to talk about balancing the short-term impacts of tightened regulations against the longer-term impacts of doing nothing, and seeing the summer flounder population decline even farther.

With more restrictive regulations, anglers might be able to at least catch a few fish, even if they wouldn’t be able to take many of those fish home. 

If regulations aren’t tightened and, due to poor spawning success, fish are removed from the spawning stock faster than they can be replaced, there can come a time when many anglers are no longer able to catch any fish, because there are so few around.

And when you can’t even catch a fish, the question of whether you can take a fish home becomes academic.

But no one in the industry seems to be giving that any thought at all.

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.”
Right now, the folks who are opposing more restrictive summer flounder regulations are closing their eyes and keeping them tightly shut whenever anyone mentions the six consecutive years of poor spawning success, and the resultant impact on the fluke stock.

But as we learned with striped bass four decades ago, the problem with walking around with your eyes closed is that it makes it easy to march right off of a cliff.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Many fisheries conservation advocates were dismayed when, in October 2016, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) decided that it would not develop a management plan for shad and river herring, fish that some thought should be included as stocks in the Atlantic mackerel, squid and butterfish fisheries.

Although I would have preferred to see the MAFMC develop a management plan, and so give shad and river herring the protections provided by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), I wasn’t particularly surprised by the decision. I had spoken with MAFMC members ahead of the vote, and got the impression that anadromous species just weren’t high on that council’s list of priorities.

One MAFMC member I spoke with said that it was time for the council to return its focus to fish such as bluefish, summer flounder and black sea bass.
He noted that the MAFMC had recently completed the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment, intended to protect key forage fish species from overexploitation, and that it had also just developed the first protections for deep-water corals in the Mid-Atlantic region. In his view, such ecosystem-based measures might have some value, but that they weren’t a part of MAFMC’s core mission, which was managing fish stocks that supported significant fisheries.
His comments weren’t unreasonable, but they started me thinking.
Just what was the mission of the MAFMC, and all of the other regional fishery management councils?
Was it to manage all “fish” in the ocean (Magnuson-Stevens’ definition of “fish” includes “finfish, mollusks, crustaceans, and all other forms of marine animal and plant life other than marine mammals and birds”)?
Or was it to concentrate management resources on economically important stocks, while paying far less attention to species that didn’t directly support lucrative fisheries?
Magnuson-Stevens directs the regional fishery management councils to, “for each fishery under its authority that requires conservation and management, prepare and submit to the Secretary [of Commerce] (A) a fishery management plan, and (B) amendments to each such plan that are necessary from time to time.”
The law defines “fishery” as “one or more stocks of fish which can be treated as a unit for purposes of conservation and management and which are identified on the basis of geographical, scientific, technical, recreational and economic characteristics; and…any fishing for such stocks.”
Based on that language alone, one could argue that a regional fishery management council has an obligation to produce a management plan for any marine animal or plant (excluding only birds and marine mammals) under its authority which is in need of conservation and management, whether or not such stocks are being actively fished.
On the other hand, the stated findings and purposes, which underlie Magnuson-Stevens, tell a very different story and emphasize economic concerns.
One finding states that America’s “fisheries resources contribute to the food supply, economy, and health of the Nation and provide recreational opportunities.” Another asserts that “Commercial and recreational fishing constitutes a major source of employment and contributes significantly to the economy of the Nation…”
Magnuson-Stevens also contains a finding that “A national program for the development of fisheries which are underutilized or not utilized by the United States fishing industry…is necessary to assure that our citizens benefit from the employment, food supply, and revenue which could be generated thereby.” That finding is joined by one with a more local focus, which says that “Pacific Insular Areas contain unique historical, cultural, legal, political, and geographical circumstances which make fisheries resources important in sustaining their economic growth.”
There are no similar findings that emphasize the importance of intact ecosystems. The only one that mentions ecosystems at all states that “A number of the Fishery Management Councils have demonstrated significant progress in integrating ecosystem considerations in fisheries management using the existing authorities provided under this Act,” without an accompanying statement as to why such approach is important.
Another finding states that “Habitat considerations should receive increased attention,” but only because marine habitat loss poses “One of the greatest long-term threats to the viability of commercial and recreational fisheries.”
The findings thus paint a picture of Magnuson-Stevens as a law which only concerns itself with ecosystems issues when such issues have a direct bearing on economically important activities.
Such picture is reinforced by the stated purposes of the law.
One such purpose is “to promote domestic commercial and recreational fishing under sound conservation and management principles…” Another is “to encourage the development by the United States fishing industry of fisheries which are currently underutilized or not utilized by United States fishermen…”
There is no similar stated purpose to promote the preservation of marine ecosystems, or to encourage the preservation of fish stocks which are not currently harvested, although the need to protect essential fish habitat is specifically mentioned.
The emphasis on economically important fisheries, as opposed to ecosystem considerations, was reinforced when the National Marine Fisheries Service released revised guidelines intended to help regional fishery management councils apply the provisions of Magnuson-Stevens to fishery management plans.

One of the key sections of the revised guidelines addressed the question of when a stock of fish “requires conservation and management.”
While the language of the statute seems to give a regional fishery management council broad discretion in deciding that question, the guidelines set forth ten discreet criteria which should be used in making such decision. One is whether “The stock is an important component of the marine environment.”
That is the only criterion that relates to the ecosystem. The remainder include considerations such as “The stock is a target of a fishery,” “The stock is important to commercial, recreational, or subsistence users,” “The fishery is important to the Nation or to the regional economy,” “The economic condition of a fishery and whether [a fishery management plan] can produce more efficient utilization,” and “The needs of a developing fishery, and whether [a fishery management plan] can foster orderly growth.”
Thus, it’s probably safe to argue that, as things stand today, the regional fishery management councils should be spending most of their time managing economically important species, rather than addressing ecosystem issues.
It’s also probably safe to argue that such emphasis on existing fisheries for a relative handful of species will not provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation in the long term, and thus creates an obstacle to achieving optimum yield from the nation’s fish stocks.
Fish do not live in a vacuum. Each species, whether economically important or not, interacts with and affects a host of other species. It is impossible to impose management measures on a single stock and not have such measures impact other stocks within the same ecosystem.
Even that statement is an oversimplification, for it suggests that the ecosystems themselves are static, and that each fish has but one place in a single ecosystem. The truth is far more complex.
The river herring caught in an offshore mackerel trawl swims in very different waters from a river herring being chased by striped bass in Long Island Sound, which enters yet another ecosystem as it ascends a river to spawn; however, a single fish will pass through all three environments over the course of a year. A summer flounder exists in two very different worlds when it hunts shrimp in the channels of a shallow coastal bay and when it winters, sixty fathoms down, at the edge of the continental shelf.
In each case, such fish are part of a web of predators and prey that works best, on behalf of all of its members, when every strand of that web is intact.
Thus, should Congress decide to address Magnuson-Stevens in the upcoming session, it would do well to amend the law in a way that requires regional fishery management councils to place a greater emphasis on maintaining healthy and intact ecosystems. For when such ecosystems thrive, the economically important fish that they host are more likely to thrive as well.
This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.  "From the Waterfront" may be found at

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Less than two hundred years ago, a single American bird was so abundant that, when it flew, it literally darkened the sky.

They were called passenger pigeons, and according to reports recently published in The New Yorker magazine, 

“In 1813, John James Audubon saw a flock—if that is what you want to call an agglomeration of birds moving at sixty miles an hour and obliterating the noonday sun—that was merely the advance guard of a multitude that took three days to pass.  Alexander Wilson, the other great bird observer of the time, reckoned that a flock he saw contained 2,230,272,000 individuals…
“In their wake, passenger pigeons left behind denuded fields and ravaged woods; descriptions conjure up those First World War photographs of amputated trees in no man’s land.  ‘They would roost in one place until they broke all the limbs off the trees,’ one old-timer recalled, ‘then they would move to Joining timber & treat it likewise, then fire would break out in the old Roost and Destroy the remainder of the timber.’  Their droppings, which coated branches and lay a foot thick on the ground, like snow, proved toxic to the understory and fatal to the trees.”
Yet just one hundred years after such a riot of abundance filled the skies over the United States, they were completely gone.  

The last passenger pigeon on Earth, a bird named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

Arguably, the collapse of the passenger pigeon population wasn’t caused by recreational hunting, although back then hunters killed birds, and everything else, in numbers that would horrify a modern sportsman.  But it was market hunters, who shipped untold millions of passenger pigeons to urban markets, that did the real harm.  As Helen James, curator of the bird division of the Smithsonian Institution, explains,

“There was no major colony that wasn’t heavily disrupted during the breeding season.  It may have looked like quite a few in number, but they were all an old age cohort, so it just collapsed.  I think that’s part of it.  This heavy, heavy disruption and harvesting of breeding colonies.”
So the question I want to ask is, if Martha hadn’t lived at the zoo, but remained a wild bird, and if you were a hunter in 1914 and saw Martha fly by, or if you were out in the woods a few years earlier and one of the last passenger pigeons in the world careened over your head, would you try to shoot the bird down?

You probably want to say that you wouldn’t, because something just feels wrong about killing the last of a species, even if that species is already doomed.  

I think that most hunters would feel the same way.  

And if a species is in really bad shape, but still has a chance to survive, many hunters would not only refrain from shooting, but would also go further, investing substantial time and money in efforts to restore that species to something approximating its former health and abundance.

That has happened time and again in the United States.  

Today, hunters support a plethora of organizations that seek to maintain the health of wildlife populations.  Big game hunters founded groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Wild Sheep Foundation and the Mule Deer Foundation.  Upland game hunters formed the Ruffed Grouse Society, the National Wild Turkey Foundation and Pheasants Forever, while waterfowlers can proudly point to the conservation advocacy and on-the-ground work that they have done through Ducks Unlimited and the Delta Waterfowl Foundation.

If those folks had been around in the late 1800s, Martha’s 
descendants might well still be flying over our eastern forests today.

On the other hand, if the folks who purport to speak for today’s salt water fishing community had anything to say about it, passenger pigeons would probably have been wiped out before Martha ever popped out from her egg.

Many individual anglers have a well-developed conservation ethic, but the big salt water angling organizations are closely tied to the tackle and boatbuilding industries, which lean toward fillet and release.

Think about it.

While hunters have founded an array of conservation organizations, and freshwater anglers have embraced advocacy groups such as Trout Unlimited and the Atlantic Salmon Foundation, there is not one national, angler-based conservation group that focuses on salt water fish.  There are angler-based organizations, but far from promoting conservation, they tend to emphasize “anglers’ rights” and the economic health of the angling industry.

Consider the latest blowup over Pacific bluefin tuna.

Right now, Pacific bluefin are in a tough spot.  NOAA Fisheries clearly states that

“The Pacific bluefin tuna is overfished and subject to overfishing…
“NOAA and [the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species] scientists can not precisely estimate how few spawning Pacific bluefin tuna would be too few to sustain the population, but agree there is a high risk that the population has reached that point
“Scientists are concerned because most of the spawning adults in the Western Pacific appear to be the same age, about 20 years old, and because so many juveniles are now caught that few reach adulthood.  In addition, Japanese scientists report that Japanese juvenile fisheries have recently seen and caught fewer juvenile bluefin tuna, which may be a sign that recruitment is in fact declining.  Japanese scientists are also observing spawning bluefin in a smaller and smaller area and finding no spawning bluefin where they used to be abundant.  [emphasis added]”
Reading that last paragraph—not many juvenile bluefin surviving, all of the spawning adults about 20 years old, the area of the spawning grounds declining—it’s hard not to think of Helen James’ comments about the health of the passenger pigeon population, just before the bird disappeared.

So you’d think that, conscious of other extinctions that occurred not so long ago, people might want to take a precautionary approach to Pacific bluefin management.

But if you thought that, you’d be very wrong.

“Pacific Island nations and environmentalists have expressed concern after talks on measures to save the North Pacific bluefin tuna from a near-catastrophic collapse in stocks ended in deadlock. 
“An annual multinational fisheries conference held in Fiji was presented with scientific reports showing the species at dangerously low levels, but Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China questioned the need to take new measures…
“Japan, the major fisher and consumer of bluefin in the region, is resisting further conservation moves, but Pacific Island nations have backed a call by environmentalists for a two-year moratorium on fishing for bluefin…
“[Amanda Nickson, the Pew Trusts’ Global Tuna Conservation campaign head] said that Japan had defended the existing position, adding ‘It was very much about the hardship their fishermen will face if there are any more catch reductions.  They say they have to take that into account.’
“Japan also questioned the need for further measures, Nickson said.  ‘They say that the [northern bluefin] population has existed at a very low level for some time without disappearing, and while [fishing] is maintained,’ she said.  ‘Their argument is that they do not need to go any farther.’”
Anyone familiar with Japan’s approach to marine resource matters, whether the resources involved are whales, bottlenose dolphins or pelagic fish, should hardly be surprised by that nation’s opposition to further restrictions on Pacific bluefin harvest.

However, people may be surprised to learn that representatives of America’s recreational fishing community are taking about the same position.  Instead of being opposed to the proposed two-year moratorium,  they are up in arms over a proposal to list Pacific bluefin tuna under the Endangered Species Act, but their words are about the same.

“The American Sportfishing Association, the Coastal Conservation Association, the Coastside Fishing Club and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation argue in a letter that an ESA listing is not applicable, would be ineffective management policy and would unfairly harm sportfishing and related industries on the West Coast, especially in Southern California.”
The groups argue that foreign commercial fishermen kill far more Pacific bluefin than do American anglers, and that listing the fish under the Endangered Species Act would “penalize” United States anglers and the angling industry.

While I’ve been a critic of petitions seeking ESA listings for species that are largely out of the control of United States fisheries managers, believing that agency resources could be better employed elsewhere, once such petition is filed and the necessary resources have been committed, the species in question deserves a fair hearing.

“Pacific bluefin tuna are not listed in the Endangered Species List.  One reason that they may not be endangered is that they are very productive—females can spawn millions of eggs in one year.  This is also why scientists believe that if fewer were caught for even a short period, maybe five years, the population could recover and again reach sustainable levels.  [emphasis added]”
However, when provided with a recent opportunity, the relevant international body did not reduce harvest in order to give the fish time to recover.  Thus, it’s worthwhile to note that “inadequacy of existing protection” is one of the grounds for listing a species pursuant to ESA…

With respect to the United States' Pacific bluefin fishery, NOAA Fisheries’ has observed that

“While the quantity of spawning bluefin tuna is very low, California fishermen are seeing and catching many more juvenile bluefin than they have in years...
“All North Pacific bluefin are born in the waters off Japan and some portion migrates to the U.S. West Coast each year.  So, it is possible that a larger proportion of the juvenile bluefin migrated from the spawning grounds off Japan to the West Coast in the last few years than in previous years…”
If that’s true, then United States anglers may be landing a larger proportion of the juvenile population of Pacific bluefin than it has in the past, at a time when too few of those juveniles are being recruited into the spawning stock.  

While a far, far greater number of juveniles are still being killed outside of United States waters, an ethical question remains:

When there is a “high risk” that there are already too few adult Pacific bluefin to sustain the population, is it conscionable for anglers to catch any Pacific bluefin at all.

My answer is no.  But then, I would not have shot Martha, or any of her ancestors, once it was clear that the population was under real stress.

However, Bill Shedd, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association’s California chapter, in a statement that could have come right out of the Japanese fisheries ministry, said that

“If this ESA listing is successful, recreational fishermen, guides and companies along the West Coast face possible negative impacts, including loss of revenue.”

So we can be pretty sure that he, along with the other organizations opposing the petition, would have had no problems at all if a hunter shot Martha.

They’d probably strongly support it, if one of their colleagues sold shotgun shells… 

Thursday, December 15, 2016


Fishermen, and fisheries managers, are very conservative folks, opposed to most forms of change.

I was reminded of that just yesterday, as I was drafting some comments for tonight’s hearing on the latest proposed amendment to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s menhaden management plan.

The proposed amendment contains some cutting-edge thought, including a plan to manage menhaden, an important prey species that ranges along the entire Atlantic seaboard, for its value to the coastal ecosystem, where it serves as food for a wide variety of fish, birds and marine mammals, and not just as an industrial commodity to be caught, processed and included in things such as lipstick, chicken feed and WD-40.

At the same time, it contains other ideas that are stuck in the past, particularly its approach to allocation.  Currently, menhaden are allocated to the coastal states based on such states’ reported landings in the period 2009-2011.  The Public Information Document for the new addendum says

“Amendment 2 divides the total allowable catch into jurisdictional quotas based on average landings between 2009 and 2011…
“The reference period created by Amendment 2 does not consider history prior to 2009, nor recent changes in the fishery…In revisiting state-by-state quotas, the [ASMFC Atlantic Menhaden Management] Board must decide if these three years are the most appropriate timeframe on which to base allocation.” 
The document then goes on to encourage the public to comment on the current base years and on others, including 2012-2016, or an undetermined longer series of years, which might stretch back at least to 1985.

I opted for none of the above.

That's because all of the options contained the same fatal flaw.  They only addressed what the fishery looked like in the past, and take no account of what the fishery should look like in the future.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The past was a great time.

I’d love to go back to the ‘80s again, when I was far younger, newly married and no longer near-broke, and most of the great adventures I’ve had were still somewhere in my future.  

I’d relive the good times, correct some mistakes…

But I can’t go back; time relentlessly pushes us forward.  

The good times are still memories.  The mistakes were hopefully lessons that keep me from making the same errors again.  Whatever I learned over the years will, with luck, give me the edge that I’ll need to confront new problems and new situations.

Fisheries management should work the same way, but mostly it doesn’t, at least with regard to allocation.  Instead of learning from history, as most people do, fisheries managers too often seem bound and determined to blindly repeat it, mistakes and all.

Atlantic menhaden provide a good example of that. 
The current allocation gives Virginia the lion’s share of the harvest, more than 85%, based on past landings.  Most of that is caught by a single industrial harvester, Omega Protein CorporationOmega employs about 300 people at its Virginia facility, and according to information provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the average price paid for Virginia menhaden in 2015 was less than $0.08 per pound, one of if not the lowest prices paid for menhaden anywhere on the coast.

That turns out to be a pretty good deal for Omega, but perhaps not for the rest of the coast where, based on historical (2009-2011) harvest patterns, three states are granted no menhaden landings at all, while six more each receive less than 0.10% of the coastwide quota. 

Virginia’s neighbor, Maryland, may land just 1.37% of the quota, but Maryland menhaden sold for nearly $0.14 per pound, about 175% of the price in Virginia.  Here in New York, which receives a miniscule 0.06% of the quota, and must go begging for transfers of additional quota from neighbors, menhaden also sold for about $0.14 per pound. 

In addition, menhaden in New York and Maryland, and everywhere else but Virginia and, to a lesser extent, in New Jersey, are caught by small-scale operators that each land far fewer fish than does Omega Protein, meaning that a lot fewer fish benefit a lot more people, and the income derived from their menhaden sales ultimately all goes into the pockets of the fishermen themselves, and not into the coffers of corporate management, as is the case with Omega.

Thus, from both an economic, highest-return-per-pound-landed standpoint, and also from the standpoint of spreading the economic benefits of the resource around to as many fishermen as possible, allocating fish away from Virginia and toward states that are currently given just a tiny share of the fishery probably makes sense, regardless of historical harvest patterns.

However, fishermen are generally unwilling to give up allocation, no matter how justified a new allocation might be.

That has become manifest in the summer flounder fishery.

As the summer flounder population rebuilt, and as waters warmed, the center of abundance for the species began to shift north.  Since the 1960s, such center of abundance has shifted about 19 miles northward every 10 years.

However, because commercial summer flounder allocations were based on landings that occurred back in the 1980s, when the population was overfished and waters were cooler, northern states such as New York and Connecticut are given very small allocations that have proven very difficult to change.  As noted by David Simpson, Connecticut’s marine fisheries director,

“We have these allocations state by state that are fixed in yesteryear.  How do you convince four people with a vote on the Mid-Atlantic Council from North Carolina that they should acknowledge all the fish are 20 miles south of Montauk now and that Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island now should have a bigger share than them?  It’s not going to happen…”
Jerry Schill, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, proved David Simpson’s point when he objected to any revision of the allocation, saying

“This is an opportunistic reason for using climate change or whatever the heck reason they want to use.  The northern states would like to get some of our quota.”

“States have established their fisheries based on what’s been allocated, so they’ve established the infrastructure to go along with that.  A change to allocation could have a big impact on economies and infrastructure.”
“A lot of us are having trouble with these complaints about low allocations and low trip limits.  These are situations that have not just arisen in the last couple of years.  I don’t think it is justifiable.  Even if all the fluke moved off of Connecticut and Massachusetts, I don’t think that would be a compelling reason to re-evaluate the quotas.”
“No change in state allocation.  Infrastructure and coastal economies were built on that allocation.  North Carolina fishermen created the lion’s share of quota up and down the east coast…I disagree with the supposed shift in populations.  There has been a shift in effort because [Endangered Species Act] regulations [intended to protect sea turtles] have forced it.”

“Absolutely leave the state allocations alone.  We used 1980-1989, setting regulations in 1993.  That’s 20+ years built around that…People see that there’s money in this fishery and now they want to get into it.  But the people that are in it have worked hard to get it where it is.  And it’s one of the only major fisheries that we have in Virginia and North Carolina.  We don’t need to change it.”
Yet there is little question that the summer flounder fishery, and the northeastern fisheries as well, have changed since the 1980s base years.  Waters have grown warmer, summer flounder have moved north, many groundfish have either grown scarce or moved to more distant waters.

Fishermen in Virginia and North Carolina, comfortable with their large quotas, might argue that “We don’t need to change” the summer flounder allocation, but fishermen in New York and southern New England, who have seen cod, whiting and winter flounder disappear from nearby grounds, and now have only fish such as summer flounder, scup and black sea bass coming into their nets, feel that the need for change is very real.

Who is right?

The best way to decide might be to impose the fishermen’s way of thinking onto other industries, and see how things worked out.

There was a time when General Motors, Ford and Chrysler owned almost all of the United States auto market.  They had invested in plants, dealer networks, advertising, distribution systems and similar sorts of infrastructure.  The economies of towns such as Detroit, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio were heavily dependent on the auto manufacturing business.  Yet, as time went on, foreign cars began to make inroads into the market, and threatened the Big Three’s position.

Should GM, Ford and Chrysler have argued that the years 1960-1969 should be established as “base years” for the automobile market, and that all manufacturers should be required to maintain the average market share that they held in those years, regardless of the quality of the vehicles that were later produced, the costs involved, or customer preference?  

Would anyone have taken them seriously if they had?

Here on Long Island, Grumman Aircraft was once the largest single employer.  Subcontractors and other supporting businesses sprung up from Bethpage to Calverton, with thousands of people investing money and a large part of their lives in Grumman-connected work.  

Should the aircraft industry have set base years, perhaps 1941-1945, and required the United States Defense Department to guarantee a budget allocation proportionate to what it spent during the Second World War, regardless of its need for aircraft or the specifications of the planes that each manufacturer could produce?

We all know that business doesn’t work that way.  

If you run any sort of business, whether it’s a corner diner or a multinational corporation, your one constant is change; you need to tune your business plan and account for new trends in markets, economic conditions, political conditions and other factors.

So why, we need to ask, should fishing businesses be any different?  

Why, of all businesses in the United States, should fishing businesses be insulated from biological, oceanographic, demographic and social changes, with allocations set decades ago still deemed to be valid today?

It is the job of fisheries managers to use the information that they have on hand today, to create and maintain the kind of fisheries that will best serve the needs of America tomorrow, next year and throughout the foreseeable future.

Yesterday, however, is dead and gone.

Fishermen and fisheries managers should both acknowledge its passing, and allow it to rest undisturbed in its grave.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


I was attending the November meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council when the topic of lobsters came up.

The southern New England stock of American lobster has collapsed, and a state biologist was doing her best to explain just how far abundance had fallen and what the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) was doing to rebuild the population. As part of her presentation, she said that a number of things contributed to the stock’s decline, including warming waters, high harvest levels and, possibly, increased predation.
Fishermen in the room quickly latched onto predation as the cause of the lobsters’ ills.
Predation requires a predator, and blame was quickly assigned to the black sea bass, a stock that was badly overfished not too long ago, but has since been restored.
Unfortunately, fishermen have grown so used to seeing stocks languish at some depleted level, when one actually is restored, they can become intimidated by its abundance. 
Thus, although the black sea bass is just a small bottom fish that rarely weighs more than five pounds and probably averages closer to two, it has become, in the minds of some fishermen, a terrifying super-predator that is destroying the ocean’s balance.
A New York representative to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (MAFMC) Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Advisory Panel demonstrated how divorced from reality such thinking could become when he claimed that “The biomass for sea bass is so much higher than what we have recorded. They’re wiping out other species. If we don’t act soon you’re going to lose the lobster fishery throughout the northeast. We need an emergency opening of both the commercial and recreational black sea bass fishery. We need to allow 100 pounds of black sea bass bycatch per day…”

If such comment were taken at face value, it would seem that lobsters just couldn’t survive unless there were people around to protect them from black sea bass and other potential predators.
Yet biologists tell us that American lobster have probably been around since the Pleistocene Epoch, between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago. Back then, lobster were completely on their own, and yet they managed to survive quite well until just a few years ago, which suggests that black sea bass aren’t their real problem.

Even so, the notion that lobster, fish and other sea creatures need people to protect them from their environment has become a surprisingly pervasive part of fisheries debates.
In 2014, when the MAFMC’s debate over forage fish management intensified, the law firm of Kelley, Drye and Warren (Kelley, Drye) weighed in on the issue. Acting on behalf of Omega Protein Corporation (Omega), the Atlantic Coast’s only industrial-scale harvester of menhaden, the firm submitted a letter to the council, which questioned the need to give forage fish any special consideration.

The letter contained a number of carefully-worded arguments, all intended to undermine efforts to adopt ecosystem-based forage fish management. When parsed carefully, the letter doesn’t provide much support for Omega’s position (for example, it quotes a paper that said “single-stock [forage fish] collapses may not always be detrimental for predators in the long term [emphasis added],”) but to a casual reader, it might seem convincing.

Yet even a casual reader is going to stop short when they get to that part of the letter which argues that abundant forage fish stocks pose a threat to other species. Kelley, Drye argued that “Even forage fish are predators at some stages of their life cycles…Juvenile Atlantic herring opportunistically prey on fish eggs and larvae…Increased population sizes could therefore lead to increased predation on other stocks.”
Kelley, Drye went on to claim that “Filter feeders, such as menhaden, are also predators, feeding on eggs and larvae of their own and other commercially important species. A LIDAR study in the Chesapeake Bay found billions of menhaden, numbers that can have a measurable impact on menhaden, striped bass, oyster, and crab recruitment.”
Once again, it’s hard not to recall that jawed fish first appeared in the Ordovician Period, roughly 450 million years ago, and became abundant in the Devonian, 50 to 100 million years later. For almost all of the hundreds of millions of years since, completely unfished populations of forage fish have thrived in all the world’s oceans, and the fish that preyed upon them have thrived as well.

Thus, Kelley, Drye’s claim that forage fish populations, maintained at levels equal to forty, fifty, or possibly seventy-five percent of their unfished abundance, threaten otherwise healthy fish stocks is nothing less than an insult to MAFMC members’ intelligence.
Unless, of course, those other stocks have been severely overfished, in which case any natural mortality might cause further harm.
Such overfishing is a key issue, as fishermen are too often willing to blame a host of predators for a stock’s decline, while refusing to admit that their own overfishing caused most of the harm.
In 2001, the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab fishery was close to collapse, and both Maryland and Virginia imposed regulations on fishermen that, it was hoped, would allow the population to rebuild. Most of the fishermen, however, denied responsibility for the crabs’ problems. One waterman, interviewed by National Geographic, protested that “We’ve got millions and millions of fish in the bay. If we could catch more fish it would help the crab population.”

That attitude remained unchanged at least through 2014 when, at the October meeting of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, another waterman objected to a reduction in striped bass harvest, because “We’ve got so many striped bass that it has affected our crab-catching industry…When the charterboats catch the striped bass and they clean them, you can count anywhere from ten to forty crabs in the belly of a rockfish…”

Although the speakers and the fish that they talk about vary, similar arguments are heard on every part of the coast.
In Alabama, people complain that “an increase in the red snapper population can upset the equilibrium of the reef habitat and start to impact other species of reef fish,” even though the current red snapper population remains far smaller than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s.

A New Jersey staffer for The Fisherman magazine, objecting to more restrictive summer flounder regulations, wrote “one might reasonably assume that stringent preservation of other predatory species like spiny dogfish and black sea bass—an imbalanced effort to create preservation and abundance—could significantly impact the amount of young fluke. While local commercial fishermen are once again allowed to harvest spiny dogs, the environmentalists who forced the closure of this fishery a decade ago ultimately destroyed that market, creating an over-abundance of fluke-hungry sea wolves.”

And here on Long Island, where winter flounder have all but disappeared, fishermen continue to blame seals, striped bass, cormorants and other species, but too seldom regret taking countless bushels of fish off their spawning grounds, when flounder still swarmed there a few decades ago.
In truth, both forage fish and their predators managed just fine for millennia, until too many fishermen killed too many fish and depleted too many fish stocks.

It is time that all of us stopped looking for other species to blame, took responsibility for the harm that we’ve done and demanded that fish stocks be rebuilt, so that generations not yet born can inherit a healthy and abundant ocean.


This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at