Thursday, March 3, 2016
There’s still a long way to go before America’s fish stocks are all restored to health, but on every coast, we’re making real progress.
Here in the northeast, the most striking example of that is scup, the small, silver panfish better known on Long Island as “porgies.”
Scup range along the Atlantic coast from somewhere south of Chesapeake Bay up into New England, but something like 95% of the recreational landings come from the four states between New York and Massachusetts.
Traditionally, scup were a party boat favorite. Anglers from as far away as the Carolinas would drive up to Massachusetts in May, when the fish swarmed that state’s inshore waters, and return home with their cars loaded down with the making of family fish fries. In the fall, action would shift a little bit south, where party boats from Montauk and the North Fork of Long Island, loaded with passengers, would fill up with scup before the fish moved out to winter in deeper waters.
Back in the 1970s, they caught so many fish that some of the boats would loan their passengers wheelbarrows to help them get the scup back to their cars.
The party eventually came to an end, as orgies of excess usually do. However, while overfishing played a role in the scup’s decline, far more of the blame can probably be attributed to trawlers, seeking squid and whiting, pulling small-mesh nets in areas where young-of-the year scup spent their first winter. The bycatch of small scup was immense, and had a real impact on adult scup abundance.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council acknowledged the problem and, in 2000, established two “gear restricted areas” where small-mesh nets were excluded. One was located more-or-less south of Block Island; the other followed the continental shelf off the New Jersey shore. Their shape has been altered somewhat over the years, but the protection that they offered remained in place.
As a result, the population of scup not only recovered, it boomed. Today, biologists estimate that scup biomass is more than twice the target level, and even though such an embarrassment of riches is likely to decline a bit over time, the stock is in extremely good health, and should remain healthy throughout the foreseeable future. Anglers are finding more and bigger scup on all of the traditional grounds; scup are giving for-hire passengers something to fish for when striped bass are scarce and fluke can’t be found.
It’s a resounding success story and so, predictably, folks want to fool with it. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is now considering significant changes to the boundaries of the restricted areas.
The science shows that the areas should actually be expanded, into abutting, unrestricted regions that now produce most of the bycatch of immature scup. However, the trawlers don't like that idea.
Instead, the Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass and Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish advisory panels have adopted the typical “If it ain’t broke, it’s time to break it” mentality that has long plagued fisheries management.
Willing to risk undoing a decade and a half of success they are trying to convince the Council to reduce the size of the southern restricted area by as much as 61%, in order to provide better access to squid.
Unfortunately, such attitudes aren’t limited to trawlers. As I’ve reported in previous essays, a group of Montauk charter and party boat owners have long waged a campaign to open some federal waters to striped bass fishing.
The current moratorium on striped bass fishing in federal waters was adopted in the late 1980s, in response to the collapse of the stock. Even after the stock was declared recovered in 1995, it served as an effective measure to limit striped bass landings, which are not constrained by hard poundage-based quota and could easily skyrocket if anglers had access to additional areas that held concentrations of bass.
Over the years, there have been efforts to effect such openings, originating primarily in Montauk, Massachusetts and Virginia. Shortly after the turn of this century, one progressed far enough to lead to a proposed rulemaking by the National Marine Fisheries Service, but broad angler opposition kept the federal sea closed.
Now, at a time when the striped bass population is at or near its lowest point in twenty years, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission lists the fish as a species of “concern,” Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY) has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would permit anglers to exploit concentrations of striped bass that historically occur in federal waters between Montauk Point and Block Island.
Such exploitation could only increase striped bass mortality at a time that managers are trying to rebuild a stock that has been in decline for more than a decade. Worse, should Zeldin’s bill gain any real traction, and should Montauk boats gain access to federal waters, we can be sure that boats in Massachusetts, Virginia and elsewhere will seek similar deals, which can only hurt the stock’s prospects for recovery.
For about thirty years, the federal waters closure has helped to keep striped bass stocks at reasonable population levels; it would be very unwise to end such closure now.
But wisdom is often absent when fisheries' health is debated, and nothing shows that more clearly than the current red snapper debate in the Gulf of Mexico.
If one looks in from the outside, current management clearly seems to be working. Although the stock has only been rebuilt to a little more than half of its biomass target, the overall catch limit has already jumped from 5 million pounds in 2009 to about 14 million pounds today. Anglers are allocated about half of that.
But that’s not enough to keep the anglers happy.
Federal fisheries managers, and federal fisheries management law, can be thanked for the red snapper’s steady recovery. But as usually happens when a fish stock recovers, red snapper are becoming a lot easier to catch; anglers interpret their greater success as a sign that the stock has recovered, and want to kill more fish than managers believe that they should.
As a result, instead of praising the managers and the law responsible for bringing back the red snapper stock, Gulf anglers are actually damning them for not letting them harvest more fish than the stock can sustain. They’re actually going so far as to try to take management authority away from the National Marine Fisheries Service, and hand it over to the states which seem far more sympathetic to the anglers’ desires.
Overfishing the red snapper stock clearly won’t do it any good. As Brad Kenyon, a Florida angler and boat dealer, noted in the Tampa Bay Times,
“Under federal fisheries management, red snapper populations in the Gulf of Mexico are recovering, and the boating and fishing industries have grown. But…a U.S. Senate committee will hear a proposal that could gut a decade of recovery and growth for both. The idea floated by Sen. David Vitter, R-La, would…loosen some of the stronger tenets of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act—like science-based rebuilding timelines and annual catch limits…
“His argument is based on a flawed narrative by fishery rights groups that claim short federal-water red snapper seasons are hurting industry growth and that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is broken. But here is what is really going on: These groups are part of a growing national move by the states to take public natural resources from federal stewardship and pass them on to the states. Think of the fiasco of the armed occupation of the Oregon Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—but in flip-flops and sunglasses…
“Vitter’s proposal is an attack on public federal national resources and threatens Florida’s economic health and Florida gulf anglers. But more frightening for me, the senator’s proposal carries the very real threat to inject an undue level of chaos into a stable fishery management system…”
Everything that Kenyon wrote is true, but it won't stop some people from continuing their efforts to overthrow the very system that’s successfully restoring the red snapper stock.
A newfound abundance of fish, whether red snapper, scup, striped bass or anything else, seems to be a strange intoxicant that makes too many otherwise rational people want to abandon successful fisheries management strategies, and replace them with the same failed approaches that drove populations down in the first place.
We must always resist the impulse to do so.
For stocks are hard enough to rebuild once. Only a fool would allow them to collapse again, and have to begin the rebuilding anew.