Thursday, December 15, 2016


Fishermen, and fisheries managers, are very conservative folks, opposed to most forms of change.

I was reminded of that just yesterday, as I was drafting some comments for tonight’s hearing on the latest proposed amendment to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s menhaden management plan.

The proposed amendment contains some cutting-edge thought, including a plan to manage menhaden, an important prey species that ranges along the entire Atlantic seaboard, for its value to the coastal ecosystem, where it serves as food for a wide variety of fish, birds and marine mammals, and not just as an industrial commodity to be caught, processed and included in things such as lipstick, chicken feed and WD-40.

At the same time, it contains other ideas that are stuck in the past, particularly its approach to allocation.  Currently, menhaden are allocated to the coastal states based on such states’ reported landings in the period 2009-2011.  The Public Information Document for the new addendum says

“Amendment 2 divides the total allowable catch into jurisdictional quotas based on average landings between 2009 and 2011…
“The reference period created by Amendment 2 does not consider history prior to 2009, nor recent changes in the fishery…In revisiting state-by-state quotas, the [ASMFC Atlantic Menhaden Management] Board must decide if these three years are the most appropriate timeframe on which to base allocation.” 
The document then goes on to encourage the public to comment on the current base years and on others, including 2012-2016, or an undetermined longer series of years, which might stretch back at least to 1985.

I opted for none of the above.

That's because all of the options contained the same fatal flaw.  They only addressed what the fishery looked like in the past, and take no account of what the fishery should look like in the future.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The past was a great time.

I’d love to go back to the ‘80s again, when I was far younger, newly married and no longer near-broke, and most of the great adventures I’ve had were still somewhere in my future.  

I’d relive the good times, correct some mistakes…

But I can’t go back; time relentlessly pushes us forward.  

The good times are still memories.  The mistakes were hopefully lessons that keep me from making the same errors again.  Whatever I learned over the years will, with luck, give me the edge that I’ll need to confront new problems and new situations.

Fisheries management should work the same way, but mostly it doesn’t, at least with regard to allocation.  Instead of learning from history, as most people do, fisheries managers too often seem bound and determined to blindly repeat it, mistakes and all.

Atlantic menhaden provide a good example of that. 
The current allocation gives Virginia the lion’s share of the harvest, more than 85%, based on past landings.  Most of that is caught by a single industrial harvester, Omega Protein CorporationOmega employs about 300 people at its Virginia facility, and according to information provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the average price paid for Virginia menhaden in 2015 was less than $0.08 per pound, one of if not the lowest prices paid for menhaden anywhere on the coast.

That turns out to be a pretty good deal for Omega, but perhaps not for the rest of the coast where, based on historical (2009-2011) harvest patterns, three states are granted no menhaden landings at all, while six more each receive less than 0.10% of the coastwide quota. 

Virginia’s neighbor, Maryland, may land just 1.37% of the quota, but Maryland menhaden sold for nearly $0.14 per pound, about 175% of the price in Virginia.  Here in New York, which receives a miniscule 0.06% of the quota, and must go begging for transfers of additional quota from neighbors, menhaden also sold for about $0.14 per pound. 

In addition, menhaden in New York and Maryland, and everywhere else but Virginia and, to a lesser extent, in New Jersey, are caught by small-scale operators that each land far fewer fish than does Omega Protein, meaning that a lot fewer fish benefit a lot more people, and the income derived from their menhaden sales ultimately all goes into the pockets of the fishermen themselves, and not into the coffers of corporate management, as is the case with Omega.

Thus, from both an economic, highest-return-per-pound-landed standpoint, and also from the standpoint of spreading the economic benefits of the resource around to as many fishermen as possible, allocating fish away from Virginia and toward states that are currently given just a tiny share of the fishery probably makes sense, regardless of historical harvest patterns.

However, fishermen are generally unwilling to give up allocation, no matter how justified a new allocation might be.

That has become manifest in the summer flounder fishery.

As the summer flounder population rebuilt, and as waters warmed, the center of abundance for the species began to shift north.  Since the 1960s, such center of abundance has shifted about 19 miles northward every 10 years.

However, because commercial summer flounder allocations were based on landings that occurred back in the 1980s, when the population was overfished and waters were cooler, northern states such as New York and Connecticut are given very small allocations that have proven very difficult to change.  As noted by David Simpson, Connecticut’s marine fisheries director,

“We have these allocations state by state that are fixed in yesteryear.  How do you convince four people with a vote on the Mid-Atlantic Council from North Carolina that they should acknowledge all the fish are 20 miles south of Montauk now and that Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island now should have a bigger share than them?  It’s not going to happen…”
Jerry Schill, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, proved David Simpson’s point when he objected to any revision of the allocation, saying

“This is an opportunistic reason for using climate change or whatever the heck reason they want to use.  The northern states would like to get some of our quota.”

“States have established their fisheries based on what’s been allocated, so they’ve established the infrastructure to go along with that.  A change to allocation could have a big impact on economies and infrastructure.”
“A lot of us are having trouble with these complaints about low allocations and low trip limits.  These are situations that have not just arisen in the last couple of years.  I don’t think it is justifiable.  Even if all the fluke moved off of Connecticut and Massachusetts, I don’t think that would be a compelling reason to re-evaluate the quotas.”
“No change in state allocation.  Infrastructure and coastal economies were built on that allocation.  North Carolina fishermen created the lion’s share of quota up and down the east coast…I disagree with the supposed shift in populations.  There has been a shift in effort because [Endangered Species Act] regulations [intended to protect sea turtles] have forced it.”

“Absolutely leave the state allocations alone.  We used 1980-1989, setting regulations in 1993.  That’s 20+ years built around that…People see that there’s money in this fishery and now they want to get into it.  But the people that are in it have worked hard to get it where it is.  And it’s one of the only major fisheries that we have in Virginia and North Carolina.  We don’t need to change it.”
Yet there is little question that the summer flounder fishery, and the northeastern fisheries as well, have changed since the 1980s base years.  Waters have grown warmer, summer flounder have moved north, many groundfish have either grown scarce or moved to more distant waters.

Fishermen in Virginia and North Carolina, comfortable with their large quotas, might argue that “We don’t need to change” the summer flounder allocation, but fishermen in New York and southern New England, who have seen cod, whiting and winter flounder disappear from nearby grounds, and now have only fish such as summer flounder, scup and black sea bass coming into their nets, feel that the need for change is very real.

Who is right?

The best way to decide might be to impose the fishermen’s way of thinking onto other industries, and see how things worked out.

There was a time when General Motors, Ford and Chrysler owned almost all of the United States auto market.  They had invested in plants, dealer networks, advertising, distribution systems and similar sorts of infrastructure.  The economies of towns such as Detroit, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio were heavily dependent on the auto manufacturing business.  Yet, as time went on, foreign cars began to make inroads into the market, and threatened the Big Three’s position.

Should GM, Ford and Chrysler have argued that the years 1960-1969 should be established as “base years” for the automobile market, and that all manufacturers should be required to maintain the average market share that they held in those years, regardless of the quality of the vehicles that were later produced, the costs involved, or customer preference?  

Would anyone have taken them seriously if they had?

Here on Long Island, Grumman Aircraft was once the largest single employer.  Subcontractors and other supporting businesses sprung up from Bethpage to Calverton, with thousands of people investing money and a large part of their lives in Grumman-connected work.  

Should the aircraft industry have set base years, perhaps 1941-1945, and required the United States Defense Department to guarantee a budget allocation proportionate to what it spent during the Second World War, regardless of its need for aircraft or the specifications of the planes that each manufacturer could produce?

We all know that business doesn’t work that way.  

If you run any sort of business, whether it’s a corner diner or a multinational corporation, your one constant is change; you need to tune your business plan and account for new trends in markets, economic conditions, political conditions and other factors.

So why, we need to ask, should fishing businesses be any different?  

Why, of all businesses in the United States, should fishing businesses be insulated from biological, oceanographic, demographic and social changes, with allocations set decades ago still deemed to be valid today?

It is the job of fisheries managers to use the information that they have on hand today, to create and maintain the kind of fisheries that will best serve the needs of America tomorrow, next year and throughout the foreseeable future.

Yesterday, however, is dead and gone.

Fishermen and fisheries managers should both acknowledge its passing, and allow it to rest undisturbed in its grave.

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