Sunday, August 28, 2016


Marine conservation groups are working hard to convince the White House to create a national monument at the edge of the continental shelf off New England, primarily to protect colonies of deep-water corals.

However, salt water conservation issues are never resolved easily, and there is actually vocal opposition to the proposal, as well as substantial support.

“achieve optimum yield from the nation’s fishery resources and may negatively impact jobs and recreational opportunities.”
According to the Hartford Courant, such opposition is also based on the belief that

“creation of the marine monument could shift fishing operations to less sustainable areas, and that any designation of a protected marine habitat needs to have lots of open consideration and public input of the kind that regional councils already provide.”
However, given that Magnuson-Stevens defines optimum yield as

“the amount of fish which—
(A)    will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems;  [and]
(B)   Is prescribed as such on the basis of maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social or ecological factor…  [emphasis added]”
the optimum yield argument rings pretty hollow.  

It’s likely that the Hartford Courant nailed the real reason for the councils’ opposition when it refers to “open consideration and public input of the kind that regional councils already provide;” in essence, the councils likely view any White House involvement in the deep-sea corals issue as an unwelcome invasion upon the councils’ turf.

“If the President chooses to use the Antiquities Act to protect deep-sea corals, the Commission requested that the designated area be limited to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects being protected.  Additionally, the Commission requested the area be limited to depths greater than 900 meters and encompass any or all of the region seaward of this line out to the outer limit of the exclusive economic zone.”
ASMFC’s concerns first arose at a meeting of its American Lobster Management Board.  They do not seem to have a scientific or political basis; instead, they seem to reflect a concern that the creation of a marine monument might impact the handful of lobster boats that fish in the area that might become part of the proposed monument.

ASMFC’s speed in reacting to and effectively opposing the proposed marine monument makes an interesting contrast with the glacial slowness which has characterized its management of the declining southern New England lobster stock.  Although fears of the stock’s collapse first surfaced in a 2010 stock assessment, ASMFC has yet to take meaningful management measures that might help to halt the decline.  Such delay amply demonstrates ASMFC’s strong institutional bias which leads it to oppose any sort of conservation measures, rather than to adopt them.

Thus, both the councils’ leadership’s and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s opposition to the proposed marine monument seem to be based on essentially frivolous grounds.  However, others have concerns that can’t be so easily dismissed.

“In our fishery, federal regulations require all commercial and recreational vessels to catch each fish, one at a time, exclusively using hook and line or harpoon…
“The greatest difficulty ABTA has with the Atlantic monument proposal is the fact that it contains a prohibition on all forms of fishing including the types of fishing gear used by our fishermen.  In this connection, we cannot state more emphatically:  our fishing methods cannot possibly have a negative effect on deep sea coral or any other sea bottom attributes because we are using ‘surface’ and ‘sub-surface’ fishing gear, sustainable fishing methods that do not come into contact with the sea bottom…”
A similar point was raised, in a more hysterical fashion, by the American Sportfishing Association, the trade association that represents the recreational fishing tackle industry.  In a statement intended to mobilize anglers against the proposed marine monument, ASA wrote

“Do you view recreational fishing as an extractive activity on par with oil drilling and commercial bottom trawling?  Of course you don’t.
“But that’s just how anti-fishing groups are trying to label us.  They are trying to block all fishing—recreational included—in a newly proposed Marine National Monument off the coast of New England,  even though there is no evidence that recreational fishing impacts the habitat in these areas…”
ASA’s appeal is pure hyperbole, intended to grab anglers by the gut instead of the brain, and spur them into a knee-jerk reaction.  And therein lies its danger, not just to the proposed marine monument, but to the overall cause of marine conservation.

The marine trades publication Trade Only Today observed that

 “The controversy has exposed deep fault lines between commercial fishermen fiercely opposed to the new federal restrictions on their industry and many recreational fishermen who argue that the preserve would benefit fishing in the region.”
Illustrating that theme, the Hartford Courant quoted a Norwalk, Connecticut recreational fisherman, Taylor Ingraham, who supports the marine monument proposal, calling the area

“incredibly unique, incredibly diverse,”
noting that the region hosts

“the largest collection and density of whales and dolphins in the northern Atlantic,”
and observing that

“If we damage it, it would take decades and decades to come back, if it ever would come back.”
Marine conservation groups can’t pay enough to buy that kind of support.  Thus, they should take care not to alienate recreational (and commercial) fishermen who currently are and always should be their allies.

The first step to avoiding such alienation is remembering why the New England marine monument is being proposed. 
The purpose is to protect deep-water corals and the habitat that they create.

The various conservation groups involved with the issue recognize that the corals are threatened by “industrial fishing” operations that use “gear that contacts the bottom” and “can easily break or topple coral structures.”  One such group, Earthjustice, notes that

“With technology advancements, the deep ocean is becoming more accessible than ever to oil and gas exploration and industrial fishing.
“If these [areas] are not placed under permanent protection now, they are at risk of being destroyed by resource extraction activities, such as bottom-scouring fishing gear…  [emphasis added]”
No one is suggesting, or would be foolish enough to suggest, that deep-sea coral habitat is threatened by anglers trolling their baits or lures 1,000 feet above the seafloor, or by a commercial boat harpooning a bluefin that swims within a few feet of the surface.

So why are some conservation groups so willing to alienate important current and potential supporters by proposing that they be banned from the contemplated marine monument?

It doesn’t make sense. 

It’s not as if the fish will enjoy some collateral benefit.  No-fishing areas arguably have their place in protecting aggregations of spawning snapper and grouper, or preventing parrotfish from being stripped from a coral reef.  

But in this case, we’re talking about the great ocean wanderers such as bigeye and yellowfin tuna, which can and do travel across entire ocean basins, and bluefin tuna which, at the least, routinely migrate from the Gulf of Maine to Gulf of Mexico spawning grounds, and can make trans-Atlantic voyages from the Mediterranean Sea to North America and back again.  

No one should pretend that shutting down fishing in a few square miles of sea is going to have any impact on the health of such stocks.

Instead, what such fishing closure can and will do is provide a wedge that rabid opponents of sound fisheries management, such as the American Sportfishing Association, can drive between responsible anglers and the conservation community.  

It gives them a way to poison the waters, and successfully convince anglers that supporters of the marine monument are, at heart, “anti-fishing” and not “pro-conservation.”

No one who cares about the future health of our oceans should be willing to give them such tools, because there is far too much at stake.

Right now, there is a fight going on for the soul of the recreational salt water fisherman.

Yes, a few are just selfish slobs, but the average angler likes to think of him- or herself as a conservationist, who wants to leave his or her kids and grandkids an healthy and fish-filled ocean.  The notion of not taking more fish than one can use, of catch and release and of not wantonly killing has taken real root in the salt water fishing community.

At the same time, regulations imposed to rebuild depleted stocks have led to far stricter regulations than many anglers had previously experienced, and caused more than a little discontent.  

The American Sportfishing Association takes advantage of such discontent when it refers to conservationists as “anti-fishing groups, while the Recreational Fishing Alliance tells anglers that

“Anti-fishing groups and radical environmental interests are pushing an agenda on marine fisheries issues affecting America’s saltwater anglers.”
Arguing that the proposed marine monument be closed to all angling merely give anti-conservation organizations such as ASA and RFA credibility with mainstream anglers.  

Such credibility will come back to haunt the conservation community, as "anglers’ rights" groups convince more and more recreational fishermen to support bad legislation that would strip federal managers of the authority to manage some stocks of fish, or weaken Magnuson-Stevens and take fisheries management back to the bad old days before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 became law.

Many recreational fishermen are active supporters of the proposed marine monument.  My own letter to the White House went out weeks ago.  Yet if the conservation community wants to see such support in the future, on issues that are likely to have much greater import, in the overall scheme of things, than the marine monument does, it needs to remember that there are things that anglers also need.

Foremost among them is the need for healthy, abundant fish stocks, and the ability to freely access such stocks at any time and place, so long as it is biologically responsible to do so.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


The Ocean City, Maryland White Marlin Open fishing tournament was held a couple of weeks ago.  Now, there’s news that the first-place white marlin might be disqualified.

That’s a big deal.  Only one white marlin was caught in the event, a decent fish that weighed 76 ½ pounds.  Because it was the only white caught, because the tournament caters to high-rollers and because the winning boat was entered in all of the various prize categories, that single marlin was worth about $2.8 million to its captors—roughly $36,600 per pound.

It’s not clear why any disqualification might take place; apparently, the tournament directors are investigating a possible rules violation.  

Since the fish was the only white marlin caught over the course of the event, if it is disqualified, some of the prize money will slop over into the blue marlin division, which also saw a single fish weighed (although, since the boat that caught the blue marlin was not entered in all of the categories, the full $2.8 million apparently won’t be awarded).

The blue marlin wasn’t without controversy either.  Sometime between when it was gaffed and when it was weighed, it seems to have lost its tail, probably from being towed to the dock.  Because of that, some feared that it might also face disqualification as a “mutilated fish”; however, because the damage occurred after the fight was over, it was deemed a legitimate catch that was eligible for a prize.

From every report, the tournament directors have done everything right, and are working very hard to keep things honest, aboveboard and fully transparent.  It’s just that when you run fishing tournaments, sometimes things happen, particularly when there’s lots of money involved.

News quickly spread on the dock that a really big fish—it turned out to be an 883 blue, the largest fish ever weighed in the history of the event—had been caughtn.  The angler and the rest of the boat’s crew were up on Cloud 9, probably wondering how they were going to spend the $900,000 first prize, when word came out that one of the boat’s mates hadn’t had a fishing license when the big fish was caught.

Since tournament rules required that all participants comply with all state and federal laws and regulations, disqualification loomed.

That case went to court, going from the trial court through two rounds of appeals, which resulted in the matter being remanded to the trial court to begin the proceedings all over again.  Before trial began, the parties agreed to settle on unknown, but mutually agreeable, terms.

Again, the size of the prize led to lots of conflict.

That’s pretty understandable when prize money gets close to seven figures, but bad things can go on when there’s far less on the line.

Here on Long Island, there used to be a big shark tournament that runs out of Freeport on Father’s Day.  These days, it’s still a pretty good-sized event, but nothing like it was in its heyday, when it regularly maxed out at 300 boats, and the winning team might take home $30,000 or so when all of the side bets were taken into account.  

The event made things crazy enough offshore that I usually stayed inside and fished for fluke when it was held, instead of putting up with all of the tournament boats clogging up every piece of structure, anglers scanning their chum slicks with dollar signs in their eyes.

One year, bad weather postponed the tournament for a couple of weeks.  I forgot about the new date, and ran south of Shinnecock, to one of my favorite early-summer shark spots near the wreck of the Coimbra.  We were maybe 60 miles west of the tournament site, and not too many of the participating boats were likely to run that far.

Things were atypically slow for that time of year, and as we drifted, waiting for a fish, I turned on the VHF radio to see whether anyone else was having a more productive day.  It wasn’t long before a voice came over Channel 68.

“We just put a nice mako in the boat, 250, maybe 300 pounds.  We’re not in any tournaments, so if anyone wants the fish…  Best offer who comes up with the cash can come over and get it.”
I’d always heard about such things—the guy who buys a swordfish or bigeye off the deck of a longliner when there’s enough money on the line—but always wondered whether that sort of behavior was more rumor than real. 

That day provided my answer.

The boat with the mako ended up holding an on-air auction, changing the VHF channel every half-minute or so, to make it less likely that anyone would catch on.  With nothing else to do, I was following the proceedings across the dial until the bid got up to $2,500, at which point a fish finally picked up one of our baits and I lost track of the action.

Even so, I was morbidly curious to see the tournament results, and find out whether a 250 or 300 pound mako made the leader board; I admit that I was relieved to learn that anglers fishing way to the west found a bunch of big threshers, and that whoever bought the mako won nothing at all.

I used to do a lot of tournament fishing, and cashed more than my share of tournament checks, but as time went on, I just didn’t like the way things were headed.  A lot of good fish were hung on the scales, but there was little sportsmanship displayed anywhere.

I think the final straw came on the last day of a weekend-long tournament.  We put a 144 pound bigeye on the board maybe half an hour before they shut down the scales, and the guy that we knocked out of second place protested our fish on frivolous grounds, unsuccessfully trying to get it disqualified so that he could pocket the prize.

His protest went nowhere, but left a bad taste in my mouth.  I left my competitive days behind.  It just wasn’t fun anymore.

Contestants’ hunger for prize money, no matter how small, has spun out of control.  

A couple of weekends ago, a local club posted the results of their three-day tournament.  Included among the first-place finishers were an 89-pound mako and a tiny tiger shark that weighed a mere 123 pounds.  It turned out—yes, I asked—that neither fish won prizes, as they didn’t meet the 125-pound minimum weight; it's not clear why they were listed.

But prize winners or not, they were both killed.  Makos and tigers can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.  Why kill fish that small?  Particularly when the odds are very good that the tiger ended its days on a local landfill, and wasn’t even used for food.

Yet there were two anglers out there who would rather kill such small fish than lose a chance, however small, that they might pocket a check.

As anglers, it’s probably time to ask ourselves whether offshore kill tournaments still serve a purpose.

In the old days, what people sometimes call the “Golden Age” of offshore sport fishing, people fished them for bragging rights and maybe to get their name engraved on a pewter cup.  Sportsmanship mattered.  Fish were killed, yet respected.

Today, the fish are almost a sideshow, less important than the size of the prize check and the “calcuttas,” or side bets, that anglers can win.  When the tournament’s over, the once-beautiful creatures that hung in the sunlight, attracting tourists and flies, end up in landfills as food for the gulls.

I’m not going to argue that, even taken together, tournaments’ conservation impact is large.  Over the course of the season, a half-dozen longliners probably waste more sharks and billfish than tournaments do.

But that's not the point; today’s money tournaments, and the attitudes that they engender, do far too much damage to the concepts of sportsmanship and stewardship that have traditionally been a part of our sport.

Yes, there was a Golden Age, when anglers came to places such as Point Judith, Rhode Island and Wedgeport, Nova Scotia, to pit themselves against giant tuna for the sheer joy of the fight.  I wish that I had been there, and was in on the fun.

But whatever was golden in those long-past years is now tarnished and green, and feeds avarice rather than honor.  

Today’s tournaments provide little opportunity to teach a new generation of anglers about honor, honesty and sportsmanship, about respect for the fish and for fellow anglers.

It is past time for them to end.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


Most of the folks who read this blog are concerned with fisheries management, and they construe the “fisheries’ part pretty literally, limiting it to things with backbones, gills and fins that swim freely through the salt waters.

But fisheries management agencies manage some other critters, too, and even though they’re not of direct interest to anglers, the way that they are managed can reflect on the general merits of the fishery management process.

From that standpoint, it’s probably worth the time to take a look at how the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is managing—if that’s the right word—the southern New England stock of American lobster.

Before going further, I feel like I should post one of those warnings that often come up before TV hunting and nature shows:  Some of the images that will be depicted are unpleasant, and may offend some people.

Start with the truth that southern New England lobster are not in good shape.  The most recent benchmark stock assessment, which came out about a year ago, noted that

“the inshore portion of the [southern New England] stock has clearly collapsed.  The SNE stock is clearly overfished according to both the model and the stock indicators…It is believed the offshore area of SNE depends on nearshore settlement as a source of recruits.  Therefore, the offshore is also in jeopardy and the Technical Committee and Review Panel believe that the stock has little chance of recovering unless fishing effort is curtailedby any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment has been observed.  [emphasis added]”
Then remember that the current condition of the stock didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. 

All the way back in 2009, another benchmark stock assessment found that

“Current abundance of the SNE stock is the lowest observed since the 1980s and exploitation rates have declined since 2000.  Recruitment has remained low in SNE since 1998.  Given current low levels of spawning stock biomass and poor recruitment further restrictions are warranted.”

“The [Technical Committee] recommends output controls as the best method to rebuild the SNE stock...
“A quota would be the most effective way to reduce harvest of lobster in the Southern New England stock.”
Such quotas are generally unpopular with fishermen, particularly in the northeast, because they have a direct impact on profits.  Fishermen may find a way around gear restrictions, days at sea and similar “input controls,” but when you need to take your gear out of the water when a quota is reached, landings and profits are going to fall.  It doesn’t help that a lot of the reason for the declining stock can be traced to increasing water temperatures, and not fishing pressure, making fishermen even more reluctant to reduce their harvest due to factors that they can’t control.

Thus, all ASMFC’s American Lobster Management Board had to hear the Technical Committee say was

“input controls can also accomplish rebuilding, but only if latent effort (traps and permits/licenses) are minimized or removed—and actively fished traps are reduced to a level where effort and catch are linear.  Input controls are less certain in obtaining catch reductions that may lead to stock rebuilding, an additional measure is needed to act in concert with effort reduction…The [Technical Committee] believes the recommended input and output controls may have substantial socio-economic and law enforcement effects, and suggests that the Socio-Economic and law enforcement Committees investigate effects of these controls to provide guidance to the [American Lobster Management] Board,”
and all hopes of putting an annual quota in place flew straight out of the window. 

As the 2015 stock assessment demonstrated, all such input controls failed miserably in their intended purpose of rebuilding the stock.  Instead, the inshore component of the stock collapsed and the offshore component is badly imperiled.

But ASMFC did not change its song.

Today, one year after the 2015 assessment came out, no additional restrictions have been placed on lobster harvest.  No one is acting quickly or imposing emergency measures, despite the assessment’s clear tone. 

At the August 2016 Management Board meeting, there was no hint that such Management Board had learned from its mistakes of the past.  Although it began moving forward with a new Addendum XXV to the management plan, supposedly in response to the benchmark assessment, it ignored the assessment’s conclusion that fishing effort had to be curtailed if the stock was to have any hope of recovery.
Instead, the Management Board decided that the goal of Addendum XXV was

“to respond to the decline of the SNE stock and its decline in recruitment while preserving a functional portion of the lobster fishery in this area.”
In addition, the new Addendum was only viewed as “an initial response” to the impending collapse of the stock.  So it’s pretty clear that no one is in a hurry to inconvenience the lobster fishermen while there’s still a few bucks to be made.

Although the both the Technical Committee and the panel which peer reviewed the stock assessment agreed that fishing effort must be curtailed if there is to be any hope of restoring the stock, the Management Board refused to heed that advice.  The American Lobster Plan Development Team was instructed to draft a proposed Addendum XXV to the management plan, which would instead concentrate on increasing egg production.  Options to increase egg production anywhere from 0% to 60%--but no higher—will be considered, which is a fairly modest goal given that managers are dealing with a stock that is already partially collapsed.

And even those measures, whatever they might be, will be phased in over a two-year period, which won’t begin until after Addendum XXV is adopted by the Management Board, a process which, if it even occurs, could easily take a full year.

So, in the face of a collapsing stock, ASMFC is only willing to make an “initial response” that won’t be fully implemented until roughly three years from now.

That’s no way to rebuild a fishery, although it is reminiscent of the ASMFC dithering that ultimately led to the collapse of northern shrimp, another stock adversely affected by rising water temperatures.

On the other hand, if ASMFC was truly serious about trying to rebuild the stock, it should take its Technical Committee’s advice, offered seven years ago, and impose a hard quota on the southern New England lobster fishery that would guarantee whatever reduction is harvest is needed—back in 2010, independent biologists suggested 50 to 100 percent—to give the stock a half-decent chance to rebuild.

It would be a simple thing to do, given that commercial lobster landings are recorded by the affected states.  Merely take each state’s recent annual landings, and reduce them by the annual percentage.  Once the lobster quota is reached, all traps have to come out of the water.

Given the impact of the needed cuts on lobster fishermen, it would also make sense to pair such quota with a catch share system, which gives each fisherman within a state a set percentage of that state’s overall quota, which shares may be freely sold or leased to other fishermen within the state.  Under such a system, while the quota remains low, some fishermen would be able to make money from their shares without incurring the expenses of running a boat, while others would be able to profit directly from their participation in the fishery, which would be made economically practical by their ability to lease other fishermen’s shares.

It’s an obvious and very workable solution to the southern New England lobster problem. 

But knowing ASMFC, and its aversion to pinching any fisherman’s profits, it’s a solution that will be studiously ignored.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


It’s hard to argue that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the most successful, and most comprehensive, fisheries law in the world. 

Thanks to unambiguous language that requires federal fisheries managers to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks, Magnuson-Stevens has, in less than twenty years, fully rebuilt 39 once-depleted fish populations.  Because of the law, just 38 fish stocks are overfished today, compared to 92 in 2000; during the same period, the number of stocks subject to overfishing declined from 72 to a mere 28.

No other fishery management program in the United States, or in the world, has come close to doing as well.

Even so, Magnuson-Stevens has its detractors, mostly drawn from the ranks of those who, directly or indirectly, profit from the harvest of fish.  Commercial fishermen are the first folks that come to mind, but many of the largest and most successful commercial fishing operations support the law, realizing that their profits are directly linked to an abundance of product. 

On the other hand, some recreational fishermen, and much of the recreational fishing industry, haven’t yet digested that message, and are more interested in a bigger short-term kill than in healthy fish stocks and a sustainable long-term harvest.

The organizations that represent such recreational fishermen, along with a big piece of the fishing tackle and marine trades industries, sound like some of the least enlightened commercial fishermen in the country—folks like the New England trawlers who are driving the last nails into the coffins of southern stock winter flounder and Georges Bank cod—as they try to weaken the conservation and rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens.

Their chosen vehicle is a bill known as H.R. 1335, named the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.”  It’s a bill so bad that its author, Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska), had to reassure his constituents—some of the most enlightened fishermen in the nation, who know what conservation is worth—that their regional fisheries management council could keep on doing the good work that it’s currently doing, and needn’t adopt the sloppy and ineffective sort of management that H.R. 1335 would allow.

When you support a bill that bad, you can’t help but play a bit loose with the truth, in an effort to support your position.
I was reminded of that the other day, as I thumbed through the July/August issue of Tide, the in-house publication of the Coastal Conservation Association, and came across a piece called “Fixing the Magnuson-Stevens Act,” written by Matt Paxton, CCA’s federal lobbyist.

I know Matt, and there are few people on Earth who know more about Magnuson-Stevens.  He was once a member of the late Senator Ted Stevens’ staff, and drafted a good part of the 2007 Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill.  But he’s in private practice now, and has clients who pay him to try to undo his earlier, very good work.

Speaking for such clients, he wrote that

“Never before in the last two major reauthorizations of the MSA or over the 40 years of the Act’s existence has the entire recreational fishing community come together to speak with one voice.”
That statement is patently untrue, of course.

There are something like 8,800,000 recreational salt water fishermen in the country, and probably only 100,000 or so—about 1% of the total—belong to CCA, which is probably the largest salt water fishing organization in the United States.  

Even if affiliated recreational organizations, all also trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens, double, or perhaps triple, that number, it’s a pretty big stretch to say that “the entire recreational fishing community” is on the same side.  No matter how hard you spin the numbers, 3% is a very long way from “entire”…

Still, the story sounds good, regardless of whether it’s true.  

And I suppose they hope that if they keep repeating the same story long and loud enough, people won’t notice just how far out of the mainstream they really are.

Which brings us to the gentle dance that Matt performed when writing about the changes that H.R. 3094 would make to Magnuson-Stevens.  He describes them as

“providing certain exceptions for establishing annual catch limits to help ensure healthy fisheries are not unnecessarily closed.”
When you think about it, that statement just doesn’t make sense.

Magnuson-Stevens prohibits overfishing, which is defined as

“a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis,”
and requires all fishery management plans to contain

“annual catch limits…at a level such that overfishing does not occur in the fishery.”
It’s hard to argue that measures that prevent putting a fish population’s productivity in jeopardy are “unnecessary,” 

And, of course, annual catch limits are also an integral part of fishery management plans intended to rebuild overfished stocks.  It’s tough to explain how a stock in need of rebuilding can be described as  “healthy.”

But if folks don’t really think about what they read, they might still believe it just because it’s in print…

People who do think about what they read tend to be a nightmare for the Magnuson-Stevens reformers, particularly if what they read includes the text of H.R. 3094.  It’s impossible to read that bill and not know that it bodes nothing but ill for the future of recreational fishing.

Although it contains a number of offensive provisions, the heart of H.R. 3094 is a set of loopholes that would allow managers to delay—perhaps forever—the rebuilding of overfished stocks.  Under one provision, rebuilding could be delayed indefinitely if

“the cause of the stock being depleted is outside the jurisdiction of the Council or the rebuilding program cannot be effective only by limiting fishing activities.”
So if you’re managing salmon that run up dammed rivers, or winter flounder that spawn in state-managed estuaries, rebuilding times are whatever you want them to be.  And let’s not even talk about species—Atlantic cod, black sea bass, etc.—impacted by warming waters…

A second  loophole would put short-term economic gain above the long-term health of fish stocks, by providing relief from the rebuilding deadlines if

“one or more components of a mixed-stock fishery are depleted but cannot be rebuilt within the time-frame without significant economic harm to the fishery…”
That would pretty well doom the cod stocks, so long as there were still haddock to kill.  It’s easy to see the same provision being applied to halt the rebuilding of red snapper and various deep-water grouper that are now in pretty bad shape.

But if those two provisions aren’t enough to keep harvests too high, there is always a final catch-all provision, which would permit managers to delay rebuilding if

“the stock has been affected by unusual events that make rebuilding within the specified time period improbable without significant economic harm to fishing communities.”
It’s a great bit of drafting if you’re trying to avoid the burden of rebuilding stocks, since the marine environment is constantly changing, making “unusual events” of some sort an annual occurrence.  Whether we’re talking about rising sea temperatures or an outbreak of red tide, an upwelling of cold water, a lack of baitfish or a spike in the number of predators, there’s always going to be an “unusual event” of some sort that folks can use to excuse a delay.

So when Matt talks about “certain exceptions to establishing annual catch limits,” he’s not wrong, because with provisions such as the ones quoted above, we can all be very certain that there will always be exceptions to the requirement that annual catch limits be adopted and that stocks be promptly rebuilt.

Though I’m not sure that’s exactly what he was trying to say…

But perhaps the biggest Magnuson-Stevenson fable is the assertion that states can manage fish stocks better than federal managers can.  Such claim is being used in an effort to pull species, most particularly Gulf red snapper, out from under Magnuson-Stevens’ aegis, so that folks can kill more.  
That particular untruth doesn’t appear in the Tide article, but shows up pretty often in the propaganda that the Magnuson-Stevens “reform” folks put out, where you see things such as

“Although there are some who want to make state-based management a controversial issue, they don’t know the states like we do.
“If you’re a Florida coastal angler, ask yourself how many times you couldn’t fish for spotted sea trout because it was ‘overfished’ and had to be closed?...”
While Florida anglers might not be able to recall too many problems with sea trout, a few miles west, in Mississippi, spotted sea trout anglers are having real issues with their state-managed stock.

It turns out that Mississippi’s sea trout, usually called “speckled trout” or just “specks,” have, in fact, become overfished.  While no one yet knows whether there will be a closed season, much more restrictive regulations are certainly needed.

“speckled trout in the Magnolia State are receiving too much fishing pressure, and regulations need to be tightened to rebuild the stock…
“Current spawning potential ratio of Mississippi’s speckled trout population is 10.2 percent…During a [Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources] debate on raising the SPR of speckled trout to 20 percent, biologist Matt Hill said it could be done, but some significant changes would have to be made.
“’It would then be considered a population that is overfished,’ he said.  ‘To stop that, we would basically have to cut the harvest in half.’”
The same article notes that

“Between 1981 and 2013, Louisiana’s [speckled trout] SPR value ranged between 8 and 20 percent, with a median value of 11 percent.  Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries fisheries biologist Jason Adriance told Times/Picayune in July the current SPR is 10 percent.”
So it looks like the state-managed specks in Louisiana are overfished, too.

Suddenly, state management programs aren’t looking so good--unless, of course, you believe that fishing stocks down to overfished levels is fine.

We can only wonder whether speckled trout stocks would have fallen so low if states such as Mississippi and Louisiana managed fish the way federal managers do. 

Would the stocks still be overfished if the states had established annual catch limits designed to assure that overfishing would not occur?  

Would the stocks have declined so badly if state regulators imposed greater harvest restrictions when anglers exceeded their hard-poundage quotas, to keep such quotas from being exceeded again?

It’s a pretty good bet that the answer to both questions is no, and that the speckled trout stocks would be in much better shape if state managers did the same sort of things that federal managers do.

Because despite all of the stories that the Magnuson-Stevens reformers tell, the truth is that Magnuson-Stevens is working, and that federal fisheries are, on the whole, the healthiest fisheries in the nation.

Figures, not fables, prove that is so.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council held its August meeting.  That meeting is often a raucous affair, because it’s the time when the Council sets annual specifications for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and bluefish, and one or more of those species is always a lightning rod for discontent.

Such specifications were set at the meeting, and there was certainly some comments made.  However, the big news coming out of the Council wasn’t about the usual “big three” species—summer flounder, black sea bass and scup—that usually generate most of the controversy.  Nor did it involve bluefish, which looked like it was going to be a hot issue a few weeks ahead of the meeting.

Instead, the truly important story was that of the Council approving the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment, which will directly protect not the popular species that we all fish for, but the many small species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans that anchor the Mid-Atlantic’s food web and keep those popular species alive.

The amendment wasn’t intended to protect fish already covered by regional or federal fishery management plans, such as menhaden or Atlantic herring.  Instead, it was intended to “freeze the footprint” of fisheries targeting important forage species, and prevent the creation or expansion of any such fishery until enough data can be gathered to demonstrate that such new fishery will be sustainable, both in the individual species and in an ecosystem context.

The amendment broke new ground on the East Coast, although a similar amendment has already been approved by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Quite honestly, when the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment was first proposed some years ago, I wished the effort well, but didn’t give it much chance of succeeding.  

There was institutional inertia to be overcome; there had never been an amendment for largely unfished species approved by the Mid-Atlantic Council before, and it is always difficult to convince people to do something that’s new and different.

In addition, the concept of forage fish management didn’t sit well with owners of industrial fishing fleets, who were used to wringing substantial profit out of high-volume fisheries for low-value species.  

Omega Protein Corporation, a company responsible for the lion’s share of the menhaden harvest, both on the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, had its outside legal counsel prepare a “white paper” for the Mid-Atlantic Council, in which Omega did its very best to cast doubt on the value of forage fish management, and stop the Council effort in its tracks.

Fortunately, the members of the Mid-Atlantic Council saw through the smoke screen.  Through Council meetings and public hearings, through discussions in the press and in social media, they doggedly fought on to keep the Mid-Atlantic’s food web intact.

Thanks to their efforts, we’re not going to have to endure the sight of a big New England trawler, pushed off its traditional grounds by the collapse of cod and other groundfish stocks, deploying fine-mesh midwater trawls and scooping up tons of the sand eels that we need to support fisheries for everything from fluke to bluefin tuna, and selling them to fish meal plants for export to China.

Thanks to their efforts, the chub mackerel that have been so important to Long Island’s bluefin tuna and shark fisheries this season will, for the first time, be subject to real harvest restrictions, instead of being a part of a growing free-for-all that has seen more than 50 million pounds of completely unregulated landings hit the dock over the past five years.

Thanks to their efforts, well, we just don’t know what harm to the food web we won’t be seeing, as the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment prevents the creation of unsustainable and ecologically unwise fisheries for over 50 named species.

Yet the amendment is more than a closed and locked door that forever prevents the creation of new and potentially valuable fisheries.  Should someone want to move forward with a forage fish fishery, and can get over the first hurdle of demonstrating that, so far as scientists can tell, such fishery will not cause ecosystem damage, they will be able to apply for an Exempted Fishery Permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, that will give them further opportunity to prove that the contemplated fishery is sustainable.  If that fact can be proven to the satisfaction of NMFS, the fishery will be allowed to move forward.

Thus, the amendment takes a balanced approach to the forage fish issue, opting for precaution and protecting the ecological status quo in the first instance, but allowing fisheries to be created if they are demonstrably benign to the food web.

But the Unmanaged Forage Fish Amendment is important not only for what it says on paper, which is substantial in its own right, but about what it says about the mindset of Mid-Atlantic fisheries managers:  That they are ready to move on from traditional, one-size-fits-all single species management, and expand into the new and more challenging world of managing fisheries on an ecosystem basis, where the impacts on an entire network of life, rather than just commercially and recreationally valued fish species, will be part of the management equation.

That was confirmed later in the week, when the Council approved an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management Guidance Document, which defined such approach by saying

“An ecosystem approach to fishery management recognizes the biological, economic, social, and physical interactions among the components of ecosystems and attempts to manage fisheries to achieve optimum yield taking those interactions into account.”
The Guidance Document stated that the goal of an ecosystem approach is

“To manage for ecologically sustainable utilization of living marine resources while maintaining ecosystem productivity, structure, and function,”
and defines “ecologically sustainable utilization” as

“utilization that accommodates the needs of present and future generations, while maintaining the integrity, health and diversity of the marine ecosystem.”
That’s a very big step forward.

Taken together, the forage fish amendment and ecosystem approach guidance document represent a real watershed moment, and a lot to get done in a single meeting.  The annual summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and bluefish specifications pale in comparison, whatever they happen to be.

And once again, the members of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council prove themselves to be leaders, who pioneer new paths that the rest of the coast ought to follow.