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.

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