Thursday, December 29, 2016


Back on December 15, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held a hearing in New York, where it sought comments on its Public Information Document For Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan For Atlantic Menhaden.

It’s an important amendment, which could break some very new ground.  If some of the options proposed in the public information document survive, and are incorporated into the final amendment, ASMFC will manage menhaden not merely for whatever economic benefits it might provide, but also for its role in the coastal ecosystem.

By adopting so-called “ecological reference points,” ASMFC would try to assure that there will be enough menhaden in the water to serve as forage for all of the predatory fish, birds and marine mammals that have historically made the species an important part of their diets, even if doing so means that harvest has to be reduced.

That’s pretty remarkable.

But perhaps it's not as remarkable as what went on at the hearing that night.

By the time the hearing began at 6:30 p.m., the room was just about full; more chairs had to be brought in from elsewhere in order to seat everyone who came.

The crowd was pretty diverse.  There were representatives of national and local conservation groups, whale-watching operations, fishing guides and commercial and recreational fishermen.  And I think that there were some just-plain-citizens, too, who were concerned about the health of the marine environment and wanted to have a say.

It was the sort of mix that, at most fisheries hearings, would have been volatile.  All it needed was a match, in the form of an unconsidered or perhaps just unpopular word, to blow up the folks in the room.

Except…that didn’t happen.

I’m still not completely sure why.

I could be bright-eyed and optimistic, and say that, for whatever reason, everyone decided to put their own interests aside and try to do right by what is, by any measure, a keystone species in our marine ecosystem.

Or I could be my cynical—but here, still strangely optimistic—self, and say that everyone in the room was still putting their interests first, but for whatever reason finally understood that their best interests and the best interests of the resource were one and the same.

Whatever it was, in thirty-five or so years of attending fisheries hearings, this was the first time that I sat through a meeting that was completely without rancor, when recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, environmental groups and everyone else in the room spoke with passion, yet softly, to do what was right for the fish.

Admittedly, menhaden are special.  They travel up and down the coast in such great numbers that no one in the room was trying to take fish away from anyone else who was there. 

The recreational bait fishery is so small that it doesn’t compete with commercial interests—and some commercial menhaden fishermen specialize in catching recreational bait. 

The conservation groups, the whale-watchers, the anglers and the angling guides all wanted enough menhaden to stay in the sea, so that other things—whether bald eagles, striped bass or humpback whales—could eat their fill.  
There was no discord there.

And the real ogre in the story—Omega Protein Corporation, an industrial fishing operation that kills and processes hundreds of thousands of tons of menhaden each year—lives down in Virginia, so no one in the room had any problem taking fish away from them and handing them over to our local commercial fishermen, so that they could make a decent living.

Thus, it was fairly easy to reach agreement, as we all were after more or less the same thing.

Still, there were opportunities for discord that we just let pass by. 

Anglers and conservationists could easily have called for more restrictions on the commercial fishery, so that there would be more menhaden around for bluefish, striped bass and ospreys to eat, but we didn’t.  ASMFC could increase New York’s commercial quota tenfold or more, and menhaden would still abound.  So no one picked a fight that didn't need to happen.

Commercial fishermen could have insisted on a quota rollovers, so that any part of their quota that they failed to catch this year, they could legally catch in the next.  But they didn’t, saying that some years, the fish just don’t come in, and that not rolling quota was good for the stock.

Some good things were going on, and I left the hearing feeling good, but in a way that I never felt before.

Every time before, when I walked out of a hearing or fisheries, if I felt good, it was the kind of good you feel after winning a fight; you feel battered and tired and are maybe still mad, but you feel good because you feel like you beat up the other guy and carried the day.  And there were plenty of times when the other guy left with that kind of feeling, and I left licking my wounds.

But the menhaden hearing was different.  I felt good because, for the first time, we were all on the same page, and it felt as if progress could be made because of everyone else, and not despite them.

It was a very good feeling to have.

And I can’t help thinking that we can all work together on other fisheries, too, to find answers that give everyone a piece of the win, instead of creating losers and those who prevail.

On other species, it’s going to be a much harder slog, but it’s not an impossible thing to attain.

Let’s start by admitting that we all want more fish.  

Whether commercial or recreational fisherman, light-tackle guide or party boat fisherman, we want to be able to catch, and in many cases to keep, more fish than we can today.

So instead of concentrating on today, and who gets what piece of a pretty small pie, why don’t we look ahead a few years, toward a time when there can be enough fish for everyone (or, if not enough, then quite a few more) and ask what must we do to get there?  Why can’t we agree to do what is needed to give everyone a slice of a pie that is far larger than the one we’re devouring today?

Instead of jealously concentrating on each other, trying to shift allocations to benefit ourselves, why don’t we concentrate on the fish, and what needs to be done to bring them back to the sort of abundance that can support healthy commercial and recreational fisheries?

It wouldn’t be easy, and there would be plenty of chances to fail along the way.

Yet as I gird myself for 2017, and the Second Fluke Wars, the inevitable bitter attacks on the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation andManagement Act and who knows what other threats to the health of our fish stocks, I think back on the night of December 15 and the way fisheries meetings could be.

If we just cared enough about the fish to make it so.

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