Thursday, February 11, 2016


The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission plays a very big role in East Coast fisheries issues.

It holds the primary management authority for many key species.  The most notable of those, at least along the upper half of the coast, is striped bass, but ASMFC is also responsible for such important inshore fisheries as red drum, weakfish, menhaden and more.  In addition, it has significant say in how some federally-managed fisheries, including summer flounder, black sea bass and bluefish, are prosecuted within, and sometimes outside of, state waters.

ASMFC has a dismal record of restoring depleted stocks; Atlantic striped bass, rebuilt in 1995, still stands as its one and only success.

It often lacks the political will to keep overfished stocks from declining further.  Weakfish, tautog, and the southern New England stock of American lobster are but a few examples.

Many of the people who sit on its various species management boards have economic interests in the fish that they manage, or represent people who do.  As a result, ASMFC decisions often elevate short-term economic concerns above scientific advice and the long-term health of the resource.  Southern New England lobster, and the American Lobster Management Board’s years-long failure to take meaningful measures to address its collapse, provides the perfect example.

Yet, despite ASMFC’s many and serious flaws, the fish and fishermen of the Atlantic coast benefit from its existence.  It forces the various state fisheries managers to cooperate with one another and, thanks to the authority granted to ASMFC in the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, it imposes a sort of discipline that keeps any one state from drifting too far out of line.

Without ASMFC, each state would be free to become another New Jersey, always seeking and scheming to kill more and smaller fish than its neighbors, and trying to account for the largest share of the catch.  It was that truth, which initially prevented the rebuilding of the striped bass stock, that led to Congress passing the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984, which first gave ASMFC the authority to oversee state management actions, and ultimately led to the greater authority that it holds today.

Given ASMFC’s important role in East Coast fisheries management, it’s always helpful to have some insight into the collective thoughts and goals of the people who sit on its management boards.  Some of that insight can only be gained by knowing a few of the commissioners personally, speaking with them, and watching them interact with their colleagues over the course of contentious meetings.  Some can be gained by going over the meeting transcripts, where the personalities and policies of each board member will ultimately be revealed.

However, much can also be gained by perusing the results of a survey of its commissioners that ASMFC makes public each year.  In that survey, commissioners respond to a number of uniform questions, but are also allowed to give free-form answers on the problems and opportunities that they discern.  

The results of the most recent survey were released at the February 2016 ASMFC meeting, and they provide a good look into the hearts and minds of the folks who, collectively, dictate how many of our most important fisheries are managed.

Thirty-seven commissioners responded, and it seems that, by and large, they’re happy with ASMFC’s work.  

When asked whether they believe that the Commission has a clear plan for achieving its vision of achieving sustainable fisheries on the East Coast, the average response was a positive 8.08 points out of a possible 10, the third highest in the seven-year time series, although down from the two years before.  A second question, asking whether ASMFC is making progress toward achieving that vision, received an identical response.

The commissioners feel that they work well with each other, rating themselves an 8 on that score.  However, they don’t get along with others quite so well, rating cooperation with federal managers at only 7.11 (which is still the second-highest in the time series) and relations with constituents just a bit better, at 7.57 (also a second-place high).

When the commissioners get to the important issue, the effectiveness of ASMFC’s management, a dose of reality seems to set in.  We’re not given a chance to compare responses over a seven-year time series here, but rather just a comparison with commissioners’ views in 2014.  

Even so, the results are somewhat revealing.

When asked whether the number of stocks subject to overfishing is a good measure of management progress, the commissioners’ average response was a 7.47, down from 7.8 one year before, suggesting that they didn’t view overfishing as a truly accurate measure of how well the Commission performed.  

At the same time, they were not particularly satisfied with their progress in ending overfishing, rating such progress a 7.44 (perhaps equivalent to a college frat boy’s “gentleman’s C”?), down slightly from 7.66 in 2014.

There was even greater dissatisfaction with the Commission’s ability to manage rebuilt stocks, with that metric rated a mere 6.97, again down a bit from 7.17 a year before.  On the other hand, given that ASMFC hasn’t rebuilt a stock since 1995, that might not be an important consideration…

However, the best look into the minds of the commissioners may be found where they had an opportunity to verbally express their concerns. 

There are clearly thoughtful, responsible people sitting on management boards.  When asked

“What is the biggest obstacle to the Commission’s success?”
such folks provided answers that included

“Incomplete information about the stocks coupled with reluctance to make tough decisions without high level of certainty,”
“We sometimes don’t have a good grip on the long-term socio-economic aspects of good management, and that a little pain now can yield good fruit in the long run,”
and recognition of the fact that

“Once a species is depleted and overfishing is no longer indicated, the Commission has had little to no success in rebuilding depleted stocks.”
Perhaps explaining why that is so, others still try to avoid the tough questions, arguing that the Commission’s lack of success is due to

“Non-fishing factors such as changing environment and coastal development,”
and pulling out the old canard that some fish stocks aren’t rebuilt because ASMFC is

“Allowing apex predation or a dominant species to be the fall of other less aggressive fish species that are often as important to the eco-system [sic] as the top of the chain feeders.”
There are also suggestions that cooperation among the commissioners isn’t quite as good as earlier survey answers suggest.  One commissioner complained that

“A growing obstacle is the factionalism I see on certain Management Boards.  The desire to have other states make the sacrifices to rebuild stocks rather than one’s own state seems to be getting stronger…”
Another blamed the Commission’s lack of success on

“Politics and self-preservation by states.”
A troubling trend, which emerged in response to other questions, was some commissioners’ apparent desire to separate ASMFC actions from that of federal managers.  One expressed a desire for

“Developing a purely Commission discussion/perspective/position on species under joint management independent of the [Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council,”
while another said that the Commission should focus more attention on

“Correcting the problems dealing with the [Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee].”
Both are clearly references to some commissioners' preference for escaping the rebuilding and conservation provisions of federal law that bind the National Marine Fisheries Service, but are not binding on ASMFC.

In short, the survey makes ASMFC look very much like the federal fisheries management councils prior to passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, when there was no requirement to rebuild overfished stocks and council members could, and usually did, avoid making the tough decisions needed to replenish depleted fish populations.

It provides a picture of a very flawed, and yet very fixable and potentially very beneficial organization, that just needs a little outside help to put its house in order.

As was the case with the federal management councils, that help can only come from a concerned and informed Congress, that insists that the Management Boards do their job right, that they end overfishing and rebuild stocks within a time certain, and base their decisions solely on science, and not on short-term cash flows.

With the right legislation to help it along, ASMFC could easily become one of the most successful fishery management bodies anywhere in this nation.

Without such help, it is likely to continue to flounder along, forever lacking the will and the courage it needs to live up to its promise.

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