After spending over 50 years on and around the water, I have realized that without strong fisheries laws and effective conservation measures, the future of salt water fishing, and America's living marine resources, is dim. Yet conservation is given short shrift by national angling organizations and the angling press. I hope that this blog will incite, inform and inspire salt water fishermen to reclaim their traditional role as the leading advocates for the conservation of America's fisheries.
Sunday, February 28, 2016
FISHERIES MANAGEMENT: ARE THERE ALTERNATIVES TO HARD QUOTAS?
People don’t like to be told what to do. Fishermen are no exception.
Ask any fisheries managers who ever imposed an annual catch limit to regulate landings.
Fishermen’s aversion to annual catch limits has always been particularly acute in the northeastern United States. The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) refused to impose hard poundage quotas on any fishery under its jurisdiction until compelled to do so by language contained in the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act(Magnuson-Stevens), which required that each fishery management council to “develop annual catch limits for each of its managed fisheries.”
Prior to that requirement, NEFMC depended on limiting days at sea, closing areas to fishing and similar attempts to restrain fishing effort as alternatives to hard caps on the number of fish that could be landed and sold.
The alternatives didn’t work. When the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) conducted an operational assessment of New England groundfish stocks in 2015, it found that half—ten out of the twenty managed stocks—remained overfished, while the status of three others remain unknown. Six of those twenty stocks were still subject to overfishing (with the overfishing status of two more unknown).
Despite that clear failure of alternatives to hard poundage quotas, some members of the fishing community have failed to learn from NEFMC’s missteps.
H.R. 1335, the House of Representatives’ effort to reauthorize and revise Magnuson-Stevens, contains language that would allow “A fishery management plan, plan amendment, or proposed regulations [to] use alternative rebuilding strategies,” and includes an entire section that would give NMFS “the authority to use alternative fishery management measures in a recreational fishery.”
“NMFS should manage recreational fisheries based on long-term harvest rates, not strictly on poundage-based quotas. This strategy has been successfully used by fisheries managers in the Atlantic striped bass fishery, which is the most sought-after saltwater recreational fishery in the nation. By managing the recreational sector based on harvest rate as opposed to a poundage-based quota, managers have been able to provide predictability in regulations while also sustaining a healthy population.”
Such rapid reporting lets managers know, in a timely fashion, whether fishermen exceeded their quota in any particular year, and also provides information on in-season landings trends that, if harvest greatly exceeds expectations, allows managers to intervene before overfishing gets too far out of hand.
That can’t be done when regulations are based on fishing mortality rates, which can only be determined through the stock assessment process.
Preparing a stock assessment of any sort, even just an update of work already done, takes a lot of time. During that time, overfishing can continue unabated, and a shrinking stock can decline even farther.
That’s exactly what happened with Atlantic striped bass, which, far from demonstrating the value of mortality-based management, actually illustrates just how easily such an approach can go wrong.
Anglers began to complain about decreasing striped bass abundance beginning around 2007. A stock assessment update released in late 2011 supported the anglers’ observations; it warned that the population was declining steadily and could soon become overfished.
However, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board (Board) chose to take no action, because the fishing mortality rate threshold hadn’t yet been exceeded, and decided to wait until a benchmark stock assessment was released.
The benchmark stock assessment wasn’t completed until two years later, in October 2013. It indicated that the stock had endured overfishing in six of the previous ten years, and that there was a good chance that it would become overfished by 2015.
Again, the Board chose to take no immediate action to reduce fishing mortality. Instead, it created a new draft addendum and sought public comment, asking for input not only on proposed harvest reductions, but also on whether it should rely on the new, peer-reviewed stock assessment at all.
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of fishing mortality-based fisheries management, which has proven itself to be an unwieldy system that is largely unresponsive to declines in the health of the stock.
Of course, that’s exactly what makes “alternate fishery management measures” so attractive to their proponents.
They lack the precision of hard poundage quotas, and don’t allow fisheries managers to respond quickly when threats to fish stocks arise. They encourage fisheries managers to procrastinate, and allow overfishing to go on, unabated, until a “long-term harvest rate” can be discerned.
They prevent some stocks from recovering, and drive other stocks into decline, but they keep harvests high in the short term, which is all that matters to some.
At the same time that fisheries managers, employing hard quotas, successfully worked to rebuild summer flounder and scup, black sea bass and Gulf red snapper, other managers used alternative management measures to preside over the collapse of winter flounder and cod, and the decline of striped bass and weakfish.
As we lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself.
The foregoing post first appeared in From the Waterfront, the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which publishes the opinions and insights of fishermen located on every coast of the United States. From the Waterfront may be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/