Sunday, January 17, 2016


“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know.  It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
That observation can be applied to just about every aspect of human endeavor, but whether we’re talking about issues in New England, the Mid-Atlantic or the southern U.S., it’s particularly relevant to fisheries management.

We can invoke Twain’s quote when we discuss Gulf of Maine cod, black sea bass or summer flounder.  But out of all of today’s fisheries debates, it is probably most applicable to Gulf red snapper.

I realized that a few days ago, when I read an article about red snapper on the website of the Houston Chronicle.  As red snapper articles go, it was better than most, for it noted that

“The Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper fishery, staggered to near collapse by the late 1980s after decades of unregulated plundering, has over the past 20 years or some made a comeback.”
And it correctly acknowledged that

“Actions guided by federal mandates, decided by federal fishery managers and interpreted by federal courts have driven the snapper recovery.”
It even pointed out that

“This past year, the annual recreational quota of red snapper set by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service was 7.01 million pounds, an increase of 1.6 million pounds from 2014, more than double the 2010 allowable catch and the highest since annual quotas were implemented in 1996,”
Unfortunately, after that the article went off the rails.

It made the absolutely incredible claims that federal management measures

“have left Texas’ recreational anglers almost cut out of the snapper fishery,”
and that the current short federal season for recreational anglers

“was a result of an amendment to the federal red snapper management plan that divided the annual recreational quota between anglers fishing from private boats and those fishing from charter boats and other for-hire vessels that operate under federal permits.”
Both statements are demonstrably false, and in fact are as completely contrary to the facts as a statement can be.  And that’s where Mark Twain’s quote, and the notion of “misinformation,” comes into play.

Far from being cut out of the red snapper fishery, Texas anglers enjoy the most permissive red snapper regulations anywhere in the Gulf.  Within state waters, which extend nine nautical miles from shore, there is no closed season.  The bag limits is four fish, which is twice the federal limit, while the 15-inch size limit is an inch below the federal minimum.  In federal waters, Texas anglers fish under the same regulations as everyone else.

Thus, it’s clear that they are hardly “cut out of the snapper fishery.”

Blaming the for-hire fleet for the short federal fishing season is equally untrue.  In fact, it's is akin to a thief blaming a victim for allowing himself to be robbed.

For an unbiased look at the truth with respect to this matter, one might well look to the court’s decision in the recent matter of Coastal Conservation Association v. United States Department of Commerce, which lays it all out pretty neatly.

“[The] rebuilding effort has been complicated by state seasons that are much longer and have higher bag limits than their federal counterpart.  As a further component of management efforts…federal permit holders have been prohibited since 2009 from fishing in state waters when federal waters are closed…”
“…recreational fishermen…can, due to lengthy state seasons, pursue snapper fishing opportunities in state waters while federal waters are closed to them.  The federal for-hire sector may not take advantage of state fishing opportunities.”
That prohibition is the real reason that sector separation occurred.  As explained by the National Marine Fisheries Service in Final Amendment 40 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico, when describing an increase in private-boat landings and a decrease in the red snapper landed by the for-hire fleet,

“A part of this shift is attributable to changes in state regulations where state waters are open when federal waters are closed.  For 2014, while the season in federal waters was nine days long, Texas waters were open for a total of 365 days, Louisiana for 286 days, Florida for 52 days, and Mississippi and Alabama for 21 days.  Charter vessels and headboats with a reef fish for-hire permit are not allowed to fish in state waters for red snapper when federal waters are closed.”

Thus, far from sector separation causing the federal private boat season to shorten, it was instead the landings of private boats, often fishing in state waters over very long seasons, which forced charter and party boats into a red snapper season that could be measured in just a few brief days.  

Sector separation could best be characterized as the for-hire vessels’ effort to restore some historic balance to the fishery, and recover a reasonable fraction of the season that they had before the states went so very far out of compliance with the federal management plan.

So why, in the face of such very clear facts, is there so much misinformation out there, not only in various newspaper columns, but in the minds of Gulf red snapper anglers?

It turns out that folks have actually studied the question, not with respect to just fisheries, but as part of the broader question of how misinformation influences the political process.  Their findings make sense, but are nonetheless disturbing.

In “When Corrections Fail:  The persistence of political misperceptions”, professors Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler note that

“many citizens may base their policy preferences on false, misleading, or unsubstantiated information that they believe to be true.  Frequently, such misinformation is related to one’s political preferences…
“…people typically receive corrective information within ‘objective’ news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source.  In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions…
“…humans are goal-driven information processors who tend to evaluate information with a directional bias toward reinforcing their pre-existing views.  Specifically, people tend to display bias in evaluating political arguments and evidence, favoring those that reinforce their existing views and disparaging those that contradict their views.”
In other words, when an answer isn’t completely clear-cut, and there is some room for error—which is the case in just about every fisheries debate—people will only believe the bits of information that support their opinions.  

Or, as Simon and Garfunkel sang after they wrote “The Boxer” back in 1970,

“Still, a man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest.”
And that’s a problem when it comes to translating scientific data into policy.  Because, as Nyhan and Reifler discovered from their experiments,

“ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions.  Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.”
That may be an important finding for political scientists, but the notion that people are not only willing to cling to wrongheaded ideas, but willing to fight you to prove that they’re right, is hardly news to anyone who’s ever had a couple of beers in a waterfront bar…

It certainly explains why debates such as the current battle over red snapper can go on for so long and are fought so bitterly.  People double down on what they believe, and aren’t willing to surrender those beliefs easily, even when facts say that they should.

In the case of red snapper, anglers want to believe that they’re the good guys, who do no harm to the stock (unlike the commercial fishermen or, increasingly these days, the for-hire fleet, who make perfectly acceptable villains), that the stock is healthy and can support more recreational harvest, and that they only reason that they can’t have a longer season, and bring home more red snapper, is because NMFS, the commercial fishermen, the for-hire fleet, the environmental community, the scientists, the law and the courts are all arrayed against them.

That makes them vulnerable to press releases such as one issued by the Coastal Conservation Association, in which the chairman of its Government Relations Committee said

“The Environmental Defense Fund, a select few charter/for-hire operators and the commercial shareholders are working hand-in-glove to privatize roughly 70 percent of the entire red snapper fishery, and the federal government is facilitating it.  The merger of a major environmental group with for-profit harvesters is making a mockery of the federal council system…”
It also makes them predisposed to agree with statements made on sites such as Keep America Fishing—which is nothing more than a tool designed by the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle manufacturers’ lobby, to influence public opinion—that

“Federal management of red snapper has been broken for years,”
despite the fact that last year’s recreational red snapper quota was the highest it has been in nearly two decades.

Fisheries management is a political process, and American politics is based on the notion of informed citizens driving the policy process.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely defend against misinformed citizens pushing policy in the wrong direction.

That’s why it’s critical that federal managers keep a firm hold on the reins of red snapper management, and a that strong Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which requires that decisions be made based on the best available science, and not the most strongly-held misinformation, continues to chart their course.

The alternative, being pushed hard by some folks right now, is to strip federal managers of their authority to manage red snapper and turn such management over to the states, which will make red snapper even more vulnerable to local politics and the wrongheaded opinions that so often drive it.

1 comment:

  1. the states infringing into fishery management is the problem not the solution. state fisheries are taking a major percentage out of the federal totals. when you have a pie and states take most of it don't act surprised that the portions remaining are too small.