Sunday, April 17, 2016


About a year ago, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1335, a bill that its sponsor named the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.”  H.R. 1335 is substantially similar to a bill of the same name, but different number, that retired Washington representative Doc Hastings introduced in the previous Congress.

The conservation community dubbed Hastings’ bill the “Empty Oceans Act,” predicting that if it were made law, and so gutted the most effective conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the current abundance in our coastal seas would be drained off pretty quickly.

Fortunately, the Senate has not yet been foolish enough to introduce anything like H.R. 1335, but they could do so at any time.  So it might be worthwhile to take a look at just what just might occur if they do.

Proponents of H.R. 1335 might try to argue that not many bad things would occur, and that the moniker “Empty Oceans Act” is merely empty hyperbole.  However, it’s easy to test that claim.  We can go back to the days before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 put those provisions in place in the first place—or, perhaps better, before the court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley upheld the key points of the law—and take a look at how fishing was then.

For convenience, I’ll look at fish in my home waters, for no better reason than the fact that I was familiar with them in the years before the Sustainable Fisheries Act became law.
I’ll start with summer flounder, because in New York, it’s arguably the most important commercial and recreational fish of them all

In the late 1980s, the fishing was pretty bad.  I bought a new boat in 1988, so the year stands out in my mind.  My fishing club, which had about 250 members back then, held a summer flounder contest one weekend in June.  It planned to offer prizes for the eight largest fish caught, but on Sunday evening, after the scales were awarded, all of the anglers combined could only bring seven legal fish to the scales, and the smallest of those weighed a mere 15 ounces.

That pretty well set the pattern for the season.  New York anglers harvested about 3 million pounds of summer flounder in 1988, but about 94% of those fish were less than 18 inches long.  The minimum size limit was a mere 14 inches back then, but 15% of the landings failed to meet even that meager mark.

Killing large numbers of small summer flounder, just as they became old enough to spawn, didn’t do the stock any good, and made it very vulnerable to years when recruitment was poor.  In 1989, for example, recreational landings dropped sharply, to less than 0.7 million pounds.

Other bottom fish weren’t doing very much better.  New York’s anglers only landed about 0.25 million pounds of black sea bass in 1988, and most of those fish were little “pins.”  Nearly 75% were less than a foot long, and 25% were under 9 inches (I don’t recall what the size limit was back then, it was either 9 inches or 10).  Not a single sea bass more than 17 inches long was reported.

The story was similar in the case of scup.  New York anglers caught a little less than 0.6 million pounds in 1988, and few were particularly large.  Roughly 85% were less than 10 inches long.

NRDC v. Daley was decided in 2000, and required fisheries management plans to have at least a 50% chance of successfully rebuilding stocks within the deadline established by the Sustainable Fisheries Act. 

In 2001, regulations began to reflect the court decision’s impacts.  That year marked the true beginning of the rebuilding process, and the opening of a new era of fisheries management.

Yet, despite the court’s findings, fishermen weren’t ready to embrace conservation.  In the Mid-Atlantic region, fights against new, more restrictive rules were long and bitter, with the most intense arguments centering around summer flounder.  However, the National Marine Fisheries Service stayed the course, and the results speak for themselves.

In 2015, despite two years of poor spawning that reduced the number of fish available, New York’s anglers still managed to land over 1.5 million pounds of summer flounder.  That’s a lot fewer fish than  they landed in 1988, when unsustainable numbers of fish were killed.  However, the restraint has paid off with far larger fluke in the population. 

In 2015, about 15% of the fluke killed by anglers were still undersized, but the size limit had been raised to 18 inches, so even the “shorts” were a lot bigger than they were in 1988; the smallest fish reportedly retained by anglers IN 2015 would have been legal back then.  2015 saw 85% of the fish landed measuring at least 18 inches long, with 6% over 24 inches and a few as large as 30 inches—a size that was all but inconceivable in 1988.

Black sea bass and scup tell even more striking success stories.

New York’s 2015 recreational black sea bass landings were over 1.25 million pounds, five times the landings in 1988.  In addition, the average fish were much larger.  

The minimum size had been increased to 14 inches, so it should come as no surprise that virtually all of the fish landed measured 10 inches or more.  Noncompliance remained high—roughly 20% of all black sea bass retained were undersized. 

However, the increased average size of the fish landed was striking.  Not only were about 80% of the black sea bass landed in 2015 at least 14 inches long—a striking contract to 1988, when nearly 75% were under 12 inches—but more than 10% measured more than 18 inches long, a size completely unknown back in ’88.

Again, the scup followed a similar trajectory.  New York recreational scup landings exceeded 2.3 million pounds in 2015, quadrupling the 1988 figure.  And, like black sea bass, the size of the fish had increased substantially.  A significant majority—more than 2/3 of all fish harvested—was more than 10 inches long.

The numbers speak for themselves.  Looking at them, it is difficult to understand why any rational fisherman would want to turn back the clock, and weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, which were added when the Sustainable Fisheries Act became law.

For we already know what an emptier ocean looks like.  We have no need to see one again.

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