Sunday, May 29, 2016


I think that last Thursday might have been “National Say Something Stupid About Cobia Day,” because a lot of folks were certainly celebrating.

It started when I was flipping through Facebook, and came to the page of a local group called Save the Great South Bay.  One of the regular posters had reprinted a news release issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which announced that the cobia season for the Atlantic migratory stock, which includes those that are very occasionally caught here in New York, would be shortened this year.  A commenter came back with the one-word reply

Curious about the summary dismissal, I was drawn to the commenter’s page.  There was a photo of him with a fluke, so it appeared that he fished, at least a little.  But there was no indication that he had any familiarity at all with cobia, cobia fishing, cobia management or fisheries management on either a theoretical or practical level.  His comment appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction to the very existence of the regulation, and perhaps the fact that the fishing season was shorter this year, with no thought at all to the when or the why underlying the rule.

All of which made his comment, and not the regulation, the truly ridiculous thing…

But when it comes to just plain being dumb, that person’s comment isn’t even in the same league with an article recently published in the Beaufort (North Carolina) Observer.

I can probably give you an idea about how bad it was by noting that it came up in a search for “catch shares”.

As you probably know, “catch shares” are used to manage some commercial fisheries, in which each participant is given a share of the overall annual catch limit, based on such participant’s landings history.  When used correctly, catch shares can go a long way to end overfishing, and allow fishermen to space out their landings over the course of the year in response to market demand, rather than landing all of their catch during a short open season, often glutting the market and depressing prices at the same time.

Catch shares are used in a number of fisheries, including New England groundfish, Mid-Atlantic golden tilefish, South Atlantic wreckfish and Gulf of Mexico red snapper.

They are not, however, used in the South Atlantic cobia fishery.

But don’t tell that to whoever writes editorial comment for the Beaufort Observer, who misinformed readers that

“[T]he approach the [North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission] used was what is called euphemistically as ‘catch shares’…Under the guise that certain species of fish are ‘overfished’ they impose regulations on different kinds of fishermen according to what group you belong to…commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen and even in some instances imposing different regulations (amount that group can catch) on charter boats, while if you fish in the surf different rules apply…”
While that passage doesn’t describe catch shares at all, it may be one of the more accurate statements in the entire article.

For example, the article contains the usual rants attacking the science and the management system, presented from the standpoint of the outraged victim, but these were so ludicrous and beyond the pale, they might have come right out of this year’s presidential primary.  (Is it possible that the author has orange hair?)  

Just read them out loud, and listen to the stupid…

“As we have previously published, the ‘science’ upon which the politicians pretend to base their decisions on is about as accurate as you guessing how many brown M&Ms there are in a five gallon jar.  They count the fish caught, not the number of fish in the water...
“As we have previously said, there is no credible science that shows how effective these regulations are…
“We suggest the reason they have no data of effectiveness is that they don’t care how effective their system is.  That is because the system is not designed to maintain a certain level of sustainability.  The system, again, is purely a political game of picking who gets favored and who gets shafted.  The fish don’t really matter.
“We have been unable to find a single person who can point us to a valid and reliable, neutral study that shows what impact the number of fish caught have on the number that remain in the water…”
Maybe somebody ought to teach the guy how to use Google, because when I googled “cobia” “stock assessment” I had no trouble at all finding the 2012 SEDAR report, a peer-reviewed document of nearly 500 pages which estimates the biomass of the population, establishes a figure for the target size of the spawning stock and extensively reviews the impact of removing fish from the population, which allowed it to also establish a fishing mortality target and an overfishing threshold. 

The SEDAR report was prepared and reviewed by biologists with no particular axe to grind, under the aegis of the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, so it should meet any reasonable criteria for being “valid,” “reliable” and “neutral.”

Yet as outrageous as the attacks on the science and the management system may have been, the real piece de resistance in the Beaufort Observer article was the comment that

“And once again, we would challenge anyone to disprove this assertion:  If all the regulations were abolished, it would have a statistically insignificant impact on the number of fish in the water.  Why?  Simply because the Law of Conservation becomes the operative factor.  That is, if the actual population declines the amount caught would decline also.  If the supply drops the demand will ultimately drop.  How much demand is there for buffalo steaks at the Food Lion?...
“P.S.  We are not actually advocating zero regulation.  We acknowledge that the Feds have to police off shore catch by huge factory fishing ships, but we stand firm that neither the commercial fishermen nor the recreational fishermen in our inland waters (3 miles and inland) can have a statistically significant impact on the sustainability level of any species…”
Again, I suggest that the author turn to Google, and look up a few things such as “striped bass,” “tautog,” “river herring,” “American shad,” “glass eels” and “southern New England lobster” if he would like a world-changing jolt of reality.

But the point of this essay isn’t merely to demonstrate that the world is filled with really dumb people, and that the world of fisheries management reflects that trait in spades.  Unfortunately, we all learned that a long time ago.

What is truly troubling is the ignorance seems to feed on itself, growing ever larger as it does so.

For example, the false notion that “catch shares” means establishing different regulations for different sectors of the fishing community wasn’t dreamed up at the Beaufort Observer.  Instead, it seems to have first appeared in another article on cobia, published in the Outer Banks (North Carolina) Voice, where it was attributed to a waterman named Britt Shackleford.  The Beaufort Observer apparently picked it up from there and added their own, more irrational spin to the whole thing.

And the Beaufort Observer piece is being quoted in those particular incubators of ignorance known as fishing chat boards, where the idle and the underemployed spend their time complaining about the unfairness of life in general, and fisheries regulations in particular.

It would almost be funny if the mobs of the misinformed and ill-intentioned didn’t sometimes have a real impact on the fishery management system, convincing state managers to do the wrong thing in order to keep the unthinking masses content.

Folks who know better can only shake their heads, and try to get the truth out to people who might be willing to look at the facts and make up their own minds.

In the meantime, this serves as one more example of why good fisheries management requires good fisheries laws, such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which set out clear requirements for conserving and rebuilding fish stocks.

Without such laws, state fisheries regulators can be too easily swayed by the mobs who take no time to think for themselves, but are content repeating someone else’s mistakes.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


When the biologists don’t give any relief, call out the lawyers.

That seems to be the approach being taken by the industrial fishing fleet on the East Coast, which is doing its best to impede efforts to manage forage fish stocks.  

Most recently, two attorneys from the Washington D.C. office of Kelley Drye and Warren LLP, a firm that frequently carries water for Omega Protein and other large-scale forage fish harvesters, have placed an article in the June issue of National Fisherman, in which they try to cast doubts on current efforts to manage what we know as “baitfish.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that the opinion piece appeared just as the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council was preparing to further refine its proposed Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment.  

As you read this, hearings on the amendment are being held.

This isn’t the first time that Kelley Drye tried to roil the forage fish waters on behalf of the industrial fleet.  Back in 2014, acting on behalf of Omega Protien, the firm submitted a letter to the Mid-Atlantic Council, in which it tried to derail early efforts to protect the region’s forage fish base. 

That effort failed, and the Council decided to move forward with the Omnibus Amendment.  Now, it appears that Kelley Drye is again trying to convince the Council to leave forage species vulnerable to the firm’s corporate clients.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has long recognized the importance of healthy forage fish stocks, noting in its National Standards Guidelines that

“consideration should be given to managing forage fish stocks for higher biomass than Bmsy [the usual biomass target in fishery management plans] to enhance and protect the marine ecosystem.”
That statement alone should be sufficient to put forage fish management on the front burner for federal fishery management councils.  However, the document that has had the greatest impact on the past few years were not NMFS’ Guidelines, but rather a report entitled Little Fish, Big Impact, which was issued by the Lenfest Ocean Program in 2012.

That so-called “Lenfest Report” has inspired conservation advocates to initiate efforts to adequately protect the ocean food web, which efforts generally promote the report’s recommendation that

“Targets and limit reference points for forage fish need to be more precautionary than those that have been relied upon in the past (such as maximum sustainable yield)…establishment of a minimum biomass threshold is an essential element of sustainable forage fish management…temporal and spatial measures are also important tools for protecting forage fish and their predators.  Ecosystem-based management of forage fish will most likely require a blend of strategies to assure that policies are sufficiently risk-averse, and to prevent significant impacts to both the forage fish population and its dependent predators.”                                 “
The report recognizes that, in an ideal world, management measures would be tailored to perfectly fit each different forage fish stock.  However, it also recognizes that fishery managers lack both the time and the data to achieve such perfection.  Thus, the report presents an approach to forage fish management that

“will prove widely useful in holistic management of forage fish fisheries because it is flexible enough to be applied in data-rich situations as well as low-information scenarios.  The results and recommendations contained within [the] report advance scientific understanding and provide necessary and credible guidance for applying an ecosystem-based approach for management of forage fish species.”
  The key to the Lenfest Report’s approach is the notion that

“Precautionary management is necessary for three fundamental, but not mutually exclusive, reasons:
·         Forage fish abundance can be difficult to quantify, and they exhibit large variations in abundance over space and time.
·         Forage fish are prone to booms and busts with large associated impacts on dependent organisms.
·         Single-species quotas have shortcomings that are most apparent when applied to this group.  For example, despite massive landings, even these apparently prolific fish are susceptible to population collapse when the effects of fishing and unfavorable environmental conditions act together.”
As the Mid-Atlantic Council moves toward adopting meaningful measures to protect forage species, it would appear that Kelley Drye’s strategy to derail such efforts involves discrediting the Lenfest Report.

The tactics they use will be familiar to anyone who remembers the O.J. Simpson trial.  There’s an overwhelming body of evidence against the attorneys’ clients—in this case Omega and the industrial fleet—so they can’t present a fact-based argument and hope to prevail.  Instead, they take snippets of fact, separated from the context in which they originally appeared, that appear to contradict the notion that forage fish management is needed, and hope to create enough doubt in Council members minds to scuttle the effort.

For example, the authors of the Kelley Drye opinion piece write that

“Regarding application to specific species, it is important to first highlight there is no common definition of ‘forage fish.’  It is, rather, a loosely formed concept, given how many marine organisms (and not just finfish) can be labeled important prey species for a given ecosystem or for just one species.”
That’s hardly reason to impugn the Lenfest Report, given such report’s stated intent to provide framework flexible enough to manage forage species in a host of situations.  

The report specifically states that

“We understand that every ecosystem is unique and would benefit from tailor-made solutions that account for individual characteristics, management structure, and research capacity of each system.“
and goes on to explain that its intent was not to address species- or ecosystem-specific recommendations, but to devise an approach that would be generally applicable to forage fish stocks. 

Then the Kelley Drye lawyers try to cast doubt on the report’s recommendations—which, it should again be noted, are in line with NMFS guidelines—to manage forage fish with higher abundance targets than those used for predator species, by citing an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission report that rejects some biomass guidelines included in the Lenfest document

“in part because menhaden do not exhibit the stock-recruit relationship assumed in the Lenfest paradigm.  (That is, menhaden recruitment is driven by environmental factors, rather than spawning stock size.)”
But that statement, too, casts more doubt on the lawers’ comprehension of the report than on the Lenfest Report itself, as the report clearly noted that

“steepness…is defined as the recruitment one obtains at 20 percent of the unfished biomass…
“[I[n light of the recognition that the biomass of forage fish fluctuates considerably, it is more appropriate to think of steepness conditioned on the environmental regime.”
Which means that the Lenfest Report already contemplates, and has incorporated, exactly the situation confronted by menhaden managers; the example cited by Kelley Drye further actually provides greater validation for the report’s conclusions—although that clearly was not the lawyers’ intent when they raised the issue.

Other criticisms follow similar lines, creating straw men that the Kelley Drye authors can then knock down, and hopefully (from their point of view) create doubt as to the wisdom of forage fish management.

I’m an attorney myself, so I can sympathize with what they are doing, trying their best to advance the dubious cause of a client on the wrong side of the facts.

And I can understand why they’re doing it, too.  They’re the mouthpiece for Omega Protein, which makes millions of dollars each year by killing millions of pounds of menhaden (just in Virginia, commercial menhaden landings in 2014 were more than 325 million pounds, the vast majority of which were caught by Omega). 

Should conservationists succeed in reducing menhaden landings, Omega might well need to dispatch its boats after other forage species that it will also turn into oil and fish meal, to be sold to chicken farmers and aquaculture operations here in the U.S., and exported to similar buyers in China and elsewhere.

Commercially, forage fish don’t bring a lot of money per pound (the Virginia menhaden mentioned above were worth less than 8 cents per pound), so they have to be killed in vast numbers to be profitable.  Only Omega and some of the other big fisheries corporations have vessels capable of that sort of high-volume harvest.  Those are the same sort of corporate clients that can afford Kelley Drye.

But in the end, we should all be aware that the Mid-Atlantic Council’s forage fish effort doesn’t rely on the Lenfest Report.  Nor is it currently trying to impose any specific management scheme on any forage fish stock.  So all of Kelley Drye’s writing sort of misses the point.

Right now, all that the Council is trying to do is “freeze the footprint”; that is, it is trying to prevent Omega Protein or anyone else from embarking on a large-scale slaughter of forage fish before biologists have had an opportunity to determine how any such fishery will affect both the forage fish and the ecosystem as a whole.

The intent is to protect the forage fish stocks from harm before it is done, rather than repairing what could be substantial damage.  Existing fisheries will not be shut down, but new fisheries will have to be conducted pursuant to scientific oversight that will prevent them from exceeding optimum yield, whatever that is ultimately determined to be.

It’s a wise and rational plan.

Whatever you might fish for—bluefish or bluefin, striped bass or sharks—they certainly need forage fish to thrive.  If you’re a whale watcher or pelagic birder, well, those critters need forage fish, too.

So you’re well advised to go to the Mid-Atlantic Council’s website, take a look at the Public Hearing Document for the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment, and send in some supporting comments before the June 17 deadline.
Because sure, the industrial fleet is blowing smoke, trying to obscure the need for forage fish conservation.

But nothing clears away smoke better than a breath of fresh air, and that’s what your comments can provide.

Sunday, May 22, 2016


I’ve been traveling quite a bit this spring, so while I’ve been catching my share of fish in waters as distant and diverse as the snapper banks of the Gulf of Mexico and the Champlain Canal in upstate New York, I haven’t been putting in too much time on local waters.

Unusually inclement spring weather has also hampered my efforts, with a stiff east wind, often running against the tide, making conditions virtually unfishable even when I’ve had time to get my own boat out onto Long Island’s Great South Bay.

Yesterday, that finally changed.  I was out of the house while the stars were still shining, in my boat and on the water before the smallest sliver of sun crept over the eastern horizon.

Conditions were perfect.  The bay was barely ruffled by cats’ paws from a light southeast breeze.  The water temperature was around 62; the incoming tide had begun to carve furrows around buoys marking the channels, but hadn’t yet started to run fast enough to lay them over onto their sides.

And I was the first boat out on the grounds.

It was the third weekend in May, my favorite time for fishing the bay.  I target weakfish although, in the course of the morning, any number of species might latch onto my slowly-fished jig, including scup and black sea bass, fluke (also called “summer flounder), striped bass, sea robins and even the occasional oyster toadfish. 

Bluefish are a virtual certainty; a typical May sunrise finds them shattering the surface as they attack pods of baitfish all over the bay.

But yesterday wasn’t typical.

I ran my boat slowly, heading east in the deep channel that runs north of Fire Island, passing the communities of Atlantique, Ocean Beach and Point O’ Woods.  I scanned the surface, looking for signs of feeding bluefish.  There were none.

I scanned the horizon, looking for of other boats.  There were none.

I scanned the sky, looking for clusters of hovering, feeding seabirds.  There were none.

And I scanned the screens of my depthfinders, both the narrow-beamed color machine that searched the water right under my boat, and the brown-shaded display of the side-scan, that reached out thirty yards abeam of my vessel.  I was not only looking for the large, sharp marks that indicated gamefish, but also for the fuzzier, more amorphous blobs that represent balls of baitfish holding tightly together, in fear of predators that hovered nearby.  But there were none.

All I saw was the occasional soft color change that marked handfuls of baitfish swimming in loose formation, not fearing immediate attack.

The weakfish population is badly depressed, largely for reasons other than fishing, although too much fishing pressure at the wrong time certainly never helped their cause.  I knew that catching one was unlikely; I fish for them partly because of the challenge, partly because I have always done it and partly because, in my mind, fishing for weakfish defines the month of May.  There’s just nothing I’d rather do at that time of year.

So I began searching the water, letting my bucktail sink to the bottom before retrieving it in the series of short hops that had always worked before.  A plastic worm that might look like a sand eel or maybe a spearing, or perhaps just like an unknown something that weakfish eat, curled and undulated above the bottom as I slowly crept it back to the boat.

But nothing—nothing at all—showed any interest.

I combed the bottom, drifting over the holes from shallow to deep back onto the shelving shallows again, without a single touch.  I fished the undulations where channels merged, but my lures did not draw a strike.  I combed the channels, starting deep and sliding over the edges, moving a few yards uptide and doing it over again, so that the track displayed on my GPS screen looked like the teeth of a ripsaw.

Except for a single large sea robin, nothing paid my offerings a modicum of attention.

The bay’s surface remained unbroken.  In the past, I would always see pods of bluefish feeding on the surface, sometimes so many that there weren’t enough birds to hover over them all.  Yesterday, I saw nothing but some drifting weed, and some long lines of foam.

In the past, when the weakfish were in, boats were often so thick that they had to consciously avoid drifting into other vessels or drifting over hooked fish.  Yesterday, at first, I was completely alone.  Later, a few other fishermen happened by but, from what I saw, caught nothing.  Instead, their boats bunched in the good spots, separated and searched, then bunched up again in the way that boats do when they’re catching nothing at all.

I cast for nearly four hours, constantly moving, observing and trying different things, believing, as anglers must do, that the next cast, the next retrieve or the next move would pay off.  But yesterday, that never happened.

I like to fish alone, because the solitude and the quiet give me time to think, free of distractions. 

Yesterday I thought, “This is what an empty ocean looks like.” 

And I thought about the fish that weren’t there, and about what that meant for both anglers and the businesses that they support.

In the days when I caught (and almost always released) twenty weakfish in a couple of hours, or when fewer, but larger, yellow-finned “tiderunners” engulfed my lures, the east-west channel would be filled with boats that overflowed onto the flats and into the channels that extended north to mainland Long Island.  I don’t know how many there were, but if you think of a vast mooring field a half-mile wide and maybe two miles long, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it looked like.

All of those boats bought fuel, tackle and bait or lures, and maybe some drinks and food.  That made the May weakfish fishery pretty valuable to the coastal economy.  Yet when it began to decline, you didn’t hear many folks who ran marinas, tackle shops or gas docks calling out for regulations to protect the stock.

Anglers did, along with a lot of the light-tackle guides, but the businesses, by and large, were not on board.  I recall the words of Tom Fote, New Jersey’s Governor’s Representative to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, when he opposed a proposed moratorium on weakfish harvest after the stock collapsed. 

“I’m looking at a solution that doesn’t basically shut down a complete fishery and basically allow the person, if he catches the weakfish of a lifetime or something like that or the kid on a beach actually catches a weakfish on that rare occasion, they can go home with one weakfish.
“..At least they’ll have, you know, one fish to take home, maybe one winter flounder and one weakfish.  That’s about your whole catch nowadays.  How do you keep an industry going? [emphasis added]”
In response, I ask:  How do you keep an industry going when there are so few fish in the bay that anglers don’t even bother to try anymore?  

How do you keep an industry going when a fishery, that used to have perhaps two hundred, boats headed out on a Saturday morning, now only attracts half a dozen old-time anglers too stubborn to admit that the good times are completely gone?

I don’t think that you can, and that’s something for the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industry should have considered before they supported HR 1335, the most recent incarnation of the “Empty Oceans Act.”  And it’s something that those industries should think about before pushing the Senate to pass an ill-conceived companion to HR 1335, which will do real and substantial harm to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, arguably the only truly successful marine fisheries management law in the world.

For the strict regulations needed to rebuild a stock, even if they do burden business, will only last a short time.  And they lead to a time of abundance, and prosperity for the angling industry.  But the sort of desolation that I experienced yesterday morning can last a very long time, and benefits no one at all.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Scientists have been modeling fish populations for quite a few years.  Even so, such modeling didn’t play much of a role in fisheries management here on the East Coast until 1995, when a “virtual population analysis” developed by Maryland biologists was used to determine whether the Atlantic striped bass stock had recovered from a precipitous collapse.

In Amendment 5 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission announced that

“personnel from Maryland Department of Natural Resources developed a model to estimate the total weight of sexually mature striped bass females in Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast…The model can also estimate future relative population size under given regulatory programs.
“The predictive abilities of the [spawning stock biomass] model are its true utility.  Managers can examine the effects of proposed regulations (e.g. minimum sizes, F rates) and biological factors (e.g. recruitment variability) on the adult female population.  Since female biomass is the currency of reproductive potential in the population, the model’s output describes the past, current, and future ability of the stock to replenish itself through annual reproduction.  Additionally, the comparison of current SSB estimates to historical high reference levels (estimated from 1960-1972) allows managers to evaluate the relative health of the population and its rate of recovery (or decline).”
ASMFC’s strong endorsement of the Maryland population model was a bit premature; time has demonstrated that many changes had to be made before it truly reflected the state of the striped bass population.  Yet today, a little more than 20 years after Amendment 5 was released, ASMFC’s words do ring true.  The current version of the model now provides a powerful tool that can be relied upon when managing one of the most popular, and certainly the most scrutinized, fisheries on the East Coast.

While using a virtual population analysis to manage striped bass seemed novel in 1995, such model-driven management seems to be the norm today.  Thanks to the success of the striped bass model, we sometimes tend to accept the conclusions of all of the population models without too much question.  However, some models have proven to be better than others, and some haven’t worked at all.

The question managers must then ask is, what do you do when a model fails?

Such failure isn’t as unusual as one might believe.  Some fish have life histories that make them difficult to model, some data used in models can be ambiguous and some models can be internally flawed.

The mid-Atlantic stock of black sea bass has proven notoriously difficult to model.  There are a number of reasons, including the fact that the fish is a protogynous hermaphrodite, with most fish beginning life as females but each having the potential to transition into a male at some point in their lives.  The stock also appears to be comprised of three separate sub-stocks that inhabit distinct areas of the coast during the summer, with little or no mixing, but frequently mix on the offshore grounds during the winter.

Such factors were apparently not adequately addressed in the most recent stock assessment, which was completed in late 2011.  As a result, a peer review panel found such assessment inadequate for management purposes, leaving the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and state fisheries managers in a quandary as to how to manage the stock.

They opted for prudence, adopting a constant-harvest approach that they recognized was overly conservative but, given the lack of good data, was needed to assure that overfishing would not occur.  At the August 2015 Mid-Atlantic Council meeting, biologists presented a new approach that, while still conservative, allowed managers to increase harvest levels without putting the stock at risk.

Some fishermen complained that even the new approach was far too conservative, claiming that there was an abundance of black sea bass in local waters and that the stock could easily sustain a higher harvest. 

They may be right. 

However, there is also a chance that they may be wrong; given the choice between harvesting too few fish because regulations don’t permit fishermen to fully exploit an abundant resource, or harvesting too few fish because the stock has been overexploited and the fish just aren’t there any more, I’d prefer the former situation every time. 

It’s always best to err on the side of caution.

Of course, that’s not always what managers do.

In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service conducted an assessment of Gulf of Maine cod.  Taken on their face, the numbers looked good, and strongly suggested that the stock was on its way toward recovery.

But when folks looked a little deeper, things weren’t so clear.  The evidence of growing abundance wasn’t reflected in all of the trawl samples used to evaluate the stock.  Instead, many such samples showed very meager abundance, while just one or two caught an abundance of fish.

At that point, biologists had to make a decision.  Did the samples that caught very few cod reflect the true state of the stock, and were the two trawls loaded with fish merely an anomaly?  Or should the results of all of the trawls be considered together, and the combined result used to evaluate the stock.

In the end, biologists chose the latter option, and time proved that they had erred.  For in 2011, NMFS conducted an update to the 2008 assessment, and discovered that the Gulf of Maine cod population hadn’t been increasing as they believed; instead, it had declined significantly.

Managers’ failure to make the more risk-averse assumptions had come back to haunt them, and to severely stress the New England groundfishing community.

Today, fishery managers along the South Atlantic coast are facing another perplexing situation.  This time, it is arising out of ASMFC’s most recent benchmark stock assessment for red drum.

“abundance of young fish for both the northern (NJ-NC) and southern (SC-FL) stock complexes have remained relatively stable since 2000.  The stock assessment concluded that sufficient numbers of young fish are surviving to move offshore and join the adult spawning population, indicating that overfishing is probably not occurring.”
However, the data which went into such assessment was limited.  The 2014 SEDAR report noted that

“The last benchmark stock assessment…was able to provide reliable estimates of spawning potential ratio and escapement, but estimates of abundance and biomass  were considered too uncertain for advice to manage the two red drum stocks.”
Thus, in preparing the 2014 benchmark assessment, a new model was used, which seemed better suited to the data available.  However, in practice, the new model did not yield stable results.  Reliable runs that accurately reflected the state of the two stocks could not be produced.  Instead of analyzing the suitability of the assessment for fishery management purposes, SEDAR’s review workshop could only recommend steps for improving the modeling effort.

In response, Addendum II to the benchmark stock assessment was drafted, and presented to ASMFC earlier this month.  Addendum II showed both stocks to be at lower abundance levels than previously believed; the spawning potential of each was below such stocks’ threshold levels.

Other anglers characterized the assessment as “junk science,” or fell back on conspiracy theories, calling the assessment an effort to reduce the harvest in Georgia, which has the most liberal regulations anywhere on the East Coast.

ASMFC’s South Atlantic State/Federal Fisheries Management Board had enough doubts about the accuracy of the assessment that, in a unanimous vote, it refused to accept the stock assessment for management purposes, and instead tasked its Technical Committee to answer a series of questions and present additional data related to its conclusions.

And that leaves red drum in an uncomfortable place.

If the stock assessment is, in fact, correct, both the northern and southern stocks of red drum are badly overfished, and in immediate need of tougher management measures.  By delaying such action, the Management Board may have put both stocks at risk of even more serious depletion.  Red drum could follow the path of Gulf of Maine cod.

On the other hand, if the stock assessment is flawed, the delay will have prevented imposing unnecessarily harsh restrictions on recreational harvest, in effect preventing red drum anglers from experiencing the same sort of frustration that black sea bass fishermen in the mid-Atlantic are now having to bear.

So the question ultimately comes down to one of weighing the risks.  

Is it better to place the fish stock in jeopardy, and perhaps cause it to fall to levels that will require a long and painful rebuilding process? 

Or is it better to frustrate a few fish-hungry anglers, forcing them to go home with somewhat lighter coolers until the issues can be resolved, at which point they will be able to go back to enjoying a healthy and abundant fish stock?

I would have chosen the latter course.  ASMFC’s management board chose the former.

We can only hope that they were right.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


Today, red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico may be the most bitterly debated issue in fisheries management.
By 1990, the stock was badly overfished. Abundance had fallen so low that the population retained only 2.6% of its spawning potential. Since then, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) implemented a successful recovery plan. Spawning potential has more than quadrupled, and is now at about half the level that, managers believe, will support a sustainable fishery in the long term.
NMFS had to overcome three separate threats to the stock: recreational overfishing, commercial overfishing and bycatch of juvenile red snapper in shrimp trawls. A lawsuit brought by a number of angling and conservation groups helped to resolve the bycatch issue.

Commercial overfishing ended in 2007, after NMFS adopted a catch share program, which assigned a portion of the harvest to each fishermen, based on their landings history.
That left recreational overharvest as the last problem that managers needed to fix. Unfortunately, it proved to be the most intractable problem of all.
The conventional management tools, bag limits, size limits and seasons, just did not work. Managers continually imposed tighter regulations, going from a 7-fish bag limit, 13-inch minimum size and no closed season in 1990 to a 2-fish bag limit, 16-inch minimum size and 9 day season in 2016. However, predicting the pace and size of recreational landings proved to be as difficult as catching mercury in a sieve. It just couldn’t be done.

States compounded the problem by adopting regulations that were far more liberal than the federal rules. Because all red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico are managed as a single unit, fish caught in state waters when the federal season is closed are still counted in the overall catch, and force federal managers to adopt even more restrictive regulations.

State fishing seasons also provide an opportunity for anglers to poach red snapper in federal waters. A shortage of enforcement agents makes it very unlikely that they will be seen slipping over the state/federal boundary; whilea few of them do get caught, the penalties imposed are relatively light.

Recreational overharvest grew so bad that a group of commercial fishermen sued NMFS in 2014, demanding that the agency hold anglers accountable for their excess landings. The judge in that case, Guindon v. Pritzker, ultimately ordered the agency to hold the recreational sector accountable for its overfishing.

But long before the judge handed down her ruling, people close to the red snapper issue realized that traditional means of regulating landings—bag limits, size limits and seasons—would not be enough to end recreational excesses.
In 2009, the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) presented a paper entitled “Is there a better way to manage U.S. shared commercial and recreational fisheries?” to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council), which proposed doing away with the traditional notions of commercial and recreational allocation. 

Instead, CCA suggested that managers

“Issue individual non-reusable tags for red snapper that would account for the [Total Allowable Catch],”
and then
“Place all of [the] tags, perhaps clumped into variable units of 10 to 100, up for public auction every year. Let anyone who so desires to place their best bid and distribute to the highest bidders…”
Each tag would entitle the holder to land one red snapper, and there were no restrictions on what could be done with the tags or the fish. According to the CCA paper,
“Those who buy tags can use them any way they desire—take the fish home and eat it, give them as Christmas presents, sell them, take their fish to a market and sell them.”
Needless to say, anyone who failed to place a high enough bid would be locked out of the fishery for that year.

CCA and other “anglers’ rights” organizations then began trying to strip federal managers of their authority to regulate red snapper, and hand that authority over to the states, which wouldn’t have to abide by the conservation and stock rebuilding requirements imposed by federal law.

Others worked within the federal system to expand public access to red snapper, without threatening the recovery of the stock. They came up with an entirely new concept, which blends aspects of both recreational and commercial fishing.

The so-called “catch share experience” superficially resemble a traditional charter boat trip. Anglers go out with a licensed captain, and catch their snapper on rod and reel. However, they don’t pay the captain for taking them out, and they can’t take any of the fish that they catch home. Such fish don’t count against the recreational quota, and recreational rules do not apply.
Instead, all fish caught count against the commercial quota. The anglers fish as unpaid crew, pursuant to commercial regulations, and all fish landed are sold to a fish dealer at the end of the day. Anglers may purchase some of the fish from the fish dealer if they so choose. The boat must have a limited-entry reef fish permit, and the operator must have purchased or leased commercial red snapper quota before going out on a trip.
Before leaving the dock, the boat must call in to NMFS, as required by law, to let them know that it was making a commercial red snapper trip. From that moment until the boat returns to the dock, its location is continually tracked by a satellite-based vessel monitoring system. The boat must notify NMFS before returning, and provide both an estimate of the fish on board and the time and place where they will be landed, so that NMFS could, if it wished, inspect the catch.
Once fishing begins, every red snapper is kept, if of legal size. That can feel wrong to anglers, until they realize that all of the fish are counted against the commercial quota, and that such quota is going to be caught, almost in its entirety, at some point before the year’s end.
However, the practice of keeping all of the fish eliminates a wasteful practice that is reportedly common in the recreational fishery, that of “highgrading,” in which anglers keep their two snapper limit but then keep on fishing, and repeatedly dump smaller, dead snapper overboard as they catch a larger ones to take their place.
Once the fish are brought in and offloaded, the vessel operator must promptly download the day’s landings to a NMFS website, which automatically deducts them from the boat’s catch share quota. NMFS also charges 3% of the value of such landings, to help fund the catch share program.
It seems to be a classic win-win situation.
Anglers can, if they choose, catch red snapper throughout the year accessing part of the commercial quota without affecting the recreational quota at all. They can also take home a reasonable number of fish, at a cost no greater than what they would pay for a traditional charter trip.
The captains offering the trips profit by selling their fish, while; the fish house makes money by selling some of those fish to the anglers, and packing out the rest.
Perhaps most important of all, the red snapper wins because all of the fish caught are counted, and can’t lead to more overfishing.
For that reason, some members of the conservation community applaud catch share trips. There seems to be little or no opposition from commercial fishermen. However, there has been some push-back from the recreational sector.

“It’s the ultimate blurring of the line between recreational and commercial. Under this scenario, that distinction doesn’t exist as it all just deteriorates down to who owns the fish, and it isn’t the public anymore.”
It’s a curious comment coming from an organization that once suggested that NMFS auction off the right to catch snapper to the highest bidder.

Both Venker and Bob Zales, who operates a Florida-based charter boat, express concern that the catch share trips will lead to for-hire vessels purchasing catch shares from the commercial sector, and such purchases leading to catch shares for charter boats at some point down the road.
What neither explains is why making more fish available to the recreational sector, through a process that would match willing buyers with willing sellers, would be a bad thing, when those fish would otherwise remain completely outside anglers’ reach.
There is little doubt that catch share experience trips will generate additional debate in the future, but there should be no doubt at all that, right now, they allow anglers to access red snapper that they had no access to before.
There should also be little doubt that catch share experience trips are just one example of what can happen when bright and creative people try to work within the federal management system to make things better, instead of just trying to tear the system down.


This post first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at