Thursday, July 14, 2016


There are seldom enough fish to go around.

Most of the time, things aren’t that easy, and some difficult decisions need to be made about who gets how much of the harvest.  

That “who” might be a sector, either recreational, commercial or for-hire.  It might  be a sector subset, such as fixed-gear commercials as opposed to the trawlers, or even shore fishermen pitted against folks in boats.  Or it could be fishermen in one state or region, who are advantaged—or disadvantaged—when compared to folks somewhere else.

Usually, such conflicts are resolved without too much pain, leaving everyone’s feelings a bit raw and bruised, but no one all that annoyed.

But sometimes, when fish are few and demand is high, allocation fights can get a bit brutal as emotions run high and people on all sides of the issue become particularly quick to take offense.

It doesn’t help that the laws provide fishery managers with little guidance on how to allocate landings.  Managers are pretty well running blind.

The guidelines that they’re supposed to follow typically sound a lot like the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s National Standard 4, which provides, in part, that

“…If it becomes necessary to allocate or assign fishing privileges among various United States fishermen, such allocation shall be (A) fair and equitable to all such fishermen…”

“in the event that fishery conservation and management require actions that result in resource allocation impacts, the state shall endeavor to assure such allocation impacts are distributed equitably among user groups, giving priority to existing fisheries within the state.”
But just what does a concept such as “fair and equitable” mean?

A kid who gets the “bigger half” of a cookie always believes that the distribution is scrupulously “fair,” while the other kid will express real doubts about the whole process.

Maybe we should ask the apes.  

At least one study has shown that chimpanzees have developed a sense of “fairness.”  When two chimps are placed in an enclosure and given different pieces of food, the chimp that received the more desirable morsel will usually refuse to eat it, rather than take advantage of an unfair situation. 

Humans, having evolved a little further, rarely take fairness that far.

Fishermen start out as kids, and are most definitely human…

That was well-illustrated in New York this spring, during the debate over recreational black sea bass regulations.  A lot of fish had been caught the previous year, and it was clear that, if overfishing was to be avoided, a substantial reduction in harvest had to be imposed.  But who would shoulder the burden of such reduction?

The Department of Environmental Conservation proposed a plethora of possible combinations of size limit, bag limit and season, and left it up to the recreational community, and their representatives on the Marine Resources Advisory Council, to figure out which one would be the least objectionable.  In the end, the choice came down to two.

One option would increase the size limit from 14 to 15 inches, and reduce the bag limit from 8 fish to 5 for the months of July and August, while retaining the 8 fish bag limit in September and October and the 10 fish bag in the last two months of the year.  The start of the season would be moved up one week, from July 15 to July 8.

The other option was similar; however, it would decrease the July/August bag limit from 8 fish to 3, in exchange for a season that began on June 27.

Public opinion was split. 

Folks from the eastern part of Long Island thought that the 5-fish bag was the better option, while those from Long Island’s West End wanted the 3-fish bag and the longer season.  

Those who wanted the bigger bag argued that anything less than 5 fish destroyed the directed black sea bass fishery, would hurt the for-hire business and make trips out to offshore wrecks impractical.

Folks from the West End countered with claims that the early season was more productive, that 3 fish were enough to support a mixed-bag fishery and that West End party boats were competing with those in New Jersey, which enjoyed an earlier start to the season, a smaller size limit and a bigger bag.

Both sides had their points.  

In the end, the Marine Resources Advisory Council voted, 6-4 with a few abstentions, for the 5-fish bag.

And that’s when the wailing about fairness began, with people complaining that the Advisory Council vote was dominated by the council’s commercial members, and that a bare majority of the recreational reps favored the 3-fish bag and longer season.  

For a while, conversations got heated and personal.

The poor folks at DEC were screwed either way, because no matter what they decided, someone would inevitably whine.  They ultimately agreed with the West Enders, and overturned the Advisory Council’s opinion, claiming that

“DEC is moving to adopt regulations that provide New York’s anglers with appropriate and equitable access to [the recreational black sea bass] fishery.  [emphasis added]”
At which point the West Enders celebrated while the folks on the East End complained that things were unfair.

But looking at things from an east/west perspective was only one way to view the issue.  It had a seasonal aspect as well.  

Different people fish for black sea bass at different times of the year.  July and August see a lot of casual, “family” fishermen, enjoying their time on the water while the weather is nice.  A lot of them stay off the ocean in September and October, when the wind starts to blow; the late-season fishery in November and December sees even fewer casual anglers, and is dominated by hard-core bottom fishermen who board party boats venturing out to deep-water wrecks.

Under the rules that New York adopted, most of the conservation burden was placed on the shoulders of the summertime family fishermen, who saw their bag limit reduced by more than 60%, while the bag limit of the more serious anglers who fished in cooler weather wasn’t reduced at all.  

To the fair-weather anglers, “equitable access” might mean a bag limit of 3, 4 or 5 fish that ran throughout the season, from the day that it began until December 31.

Yet the party boats would deem that “unfair,” because fewer people would sign up for deep-water trips if the bag limit was cut from 10.

As I said, the DEC was screwed from the start.  Whatever they did would make someone unhappy.

Which helps to explain why “fairness” and ‘equity,” as nice as they sound, aren’t really good standards at all.  The recreational fishery is not monolithic, but fractured in all sorts of different ways.  Finding a solution that everyone accepts as “fair” is nearly impossible.  Even so, state and federal statutes both currently require that managers try.

The law should embrace more realistic solutions.  Favoring existing fisheries, as mentioned in New York’s Environmental Conservation Law, is one way to go.  So is finding a solution that works for the greatest number of anglers.  And if neither of those is appropriate, then maximizing the economic value of the fishery could be the right option.

Whatever the answer, laws ought to be changed, because trying to be “fair” is a very poor way to manage a fishery.

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