Sunday, January 29, 2017


For the past six months or so, some folks in the media have said that we’re all living in a “post-truth world.”

“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Based on that definition, fisheries management has existed in a post-truth world for a very long time, far before such a world was conceived by the general population.

Fisheries management is a science-based, data-driven process, but any time that new regulations are proposed, at least some of the affected fishermen will inevitably reject biologists’ conclusions, merely because such conclusions don’t mesh with the fishermen’s perceived interests and/or beliefs. 

That’s true regardless of species or coast, although it’s possible that New England fishery managers have been living in a post-truth world a bit longer than the rest of us.  

Nothing illustrates the post-truth world of fisheries management better than a 2014 stock assessment update of Gulf of Maine cod, and the reaction that such update provoked.

The news revealed by the update was dire.

“The Gulf of Maine Atlantic cod stock is overfished and overfishing is occurring.  Spawning stock biomass…levels are the lowest ever estimated and are at 4% or 3% of the [proxy for spawning stock biomass that will produce maximum sustainable yield].  The 2013 fully selected fishing mortality…is more than 6 times greater than  the [proxy for fishing mortality at maximum sustainable yield].   Fishing mortality is near all time highs despite the fact that fishery catches are at the lowest levels in the time series.  The Gulf of Maine cod stock is in poor condition.”
In a truth-based world where public opinion was driven by objective facts, such a report would have driven everyone, including fishermen, to demand that managers impose regulations capable of stemming the decline and beginning the cod’s long road to recovery. 

But in the post-truth world of fisheries management, just the opposite happened.  Fishermen actually started arguing that the cod stock was increasing in size.  According to the Portland Press Herald, fishermen believe

“that scientists are using a mathematical model that is ‘corrupted’ by the use of cod-landings data that does not take into account increasingly stringent regulations that make it harder for fishermen to catch cod…As a result, the smaller catch volumes represent the impact of those regulations rather than the numbers of cod.”
While scientists haven’t found any such flaw in the model, fishermen claim that they are seeing more cod.  It is possible that some of them are; however, they’re not willing to accept that they may only be seeing more fish because

“When populations of schooling fish species, such as cod, plummet, the survivors ‘hyper-aggregate’ in a concentrated area, creating the impression of abundance there while vanishing everywhere else”
yet that is exactly what occurred off Newfoundland three decades ago, just before that stock collapsed and led to a moratorium that,twenty-five years after it was imposed, is just beginning to show some positiveresults.

Such facts do not persuade fishermen, who instead reinforce one another’s beliefs that their views are right, and the science is wrong.

But at least cod had the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act on their side, which requires fishery managers to rely on hard science, and not just fishermen’s beliefs, when preparing fishery management plans.

Southern New England lobster have not been so fortunate.

“Current abundance of the [southern New England] stock is the lowest observed since the 1980s and exploitation rates have declined since 2000.  Recruitment has remained low in [southern New England] since 1998.  Given current low levels of spawning stock biomass and poor recruitment further restrictions are warranted.”
In response, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Lobster Technical Committee investigated the causes and possible remedies for the southern New England stock’s decline, and in April 2010 released their report, Recruitment Failure in The Southern New England Lobster Stock.  Such report found that the stock was “critically depleted,” and stated that

“Overwhelming environmental and biological changes coupled with continued fishing greatly reduce the likelihood of the [southern New England] stock rebuilding…
“In addition to environmental drivers, continued fishing pressure reduces the stock’s potential to rebuild, even though overfishing is currently not occurring…
“Given additional evidence of recruitment failure in [southern New England] and the impediments to stock rebuilding, the [Technical Committee] now recommends a 5 year moratorium on harvest in the [southern New England] stock area…”
That report was peer reviewed by a panel of independent experts.  Two of the three panel members endorsed the Technical Committee’s recommendation for a 5-year moratorium, while the third, who was concerned about the socio-economic impacts of such a closure, recommended that effort be cut by at least 50-75%, and did not entirely dismiss the possibility of a complete closure.

Such were the objective facts.

”Mr. Grimshaw [a Connecticut lobsterman], no surprise, disagrees with the diagnosis and the remedy…
“What happened?  He cites lots of things, including the resurgence of predators, like cod, stripers, dogfish, skate, bluefish and seals; the use of pesticides that many lobstermen still blame for the die-off a decade ago; and an oil spill off Rhode Island.  Catches are down in part, he says, because there are fewer fishermen, and in part because of increasing size requirements for harvested lobsters…
“’It’s a multitude of things,’ Mr. Grimshaw said.  ‘We play such a small factor, it’s not even funny.  But we’re the only thing they can regulate.  They can’t regulate water temperature, can’t regulate the fish stocks, can’t regulate the oil spills.  They’re still spraying the pesticides.  This is very speculatory [sic] science…”
Unlike federal fisheries managers, whose decisions are somewhat insulated from the post-truth world by Magnuson-Stevens, ASMFC resides squarely in a post-truth environment, where beliefs and emotion, rather than facts, can determine decisions. 

And in the case of southern New England lobster, they have.  Not only was the recommended moratorium never seriously considered, but effort, and landings, were never significantly contained.  As Addendum XVII to Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Lobster, adopted after nearly two full years of debate, almost sheepishly admits

“The American Lobster Management Board first initiated this Addendum to reduce exploitation on the [southern New England] stock by 50 or 75% in order to initiate stock rebuilding in 2010.  At the August 2011 Board meeting, the Board changed the document’s purpose to reduce exploitation by 10%.  [emphasis added]”
Because that’s the sort of thing that can happen in a post-truth world, where facts don’t control the debate.

Yet even in such a world, the facts still determine the ultimate outcomes.  In 2015, a new benchmark stock assessment for American lobster was released.  It found that the southern New England stock

“declined steeply through the early 2000s to a record low level in 2013.  Closer scrutiny reveals the inshore portion of the [southern New England] stock has clearly collapsed…It is believed the offshore area of [southern New England] depends on nearshore settlement as a source of recruits.  Therefore, the offshore is also in jeopardy and the Technical Committee and [Independent Peer] Review Panel believe the stock has little chance of recovering unless fishing effort is curtailed…[B]y any reasonable standard, it is necessary to protect the offshore component of the stock until increased recruitment has been observed.  [emphasis added]”
Again, the objective facts are clear.  

The stock is still plummeting downhill.

“If I were an offshore fisherman, I’d want to know how close [the assessment] is to having it nailed that the faucet has been shut off inshore and the flow of water to the offshore fishery—you know, your fate is sealed.
“Is that really what is going on or is there some sort of dynamic out there that makes the offshore stock self-sustaining; so I think they really need that kind of information.  Right now I think a lot of them feel like it is an inshore problem; it is not our problem.” 
Five Management Board meetings have passed since the new benchmark assessment, which found that the inshore portion of the southern New England stock had “clearly collapsed” and that the offshore portion was “in jeopardy” was released.  No concrete measures to curtail fishing effort have yet been made, although the Management Board has committed to creating an addendum that would “address” (but, by specific vote and amendment, not necessarily “minimize”) stock decline, and finally require binding regulations by June 1, 2019, nearly four years after the 2015 benchmark assessment sounded its dire warning.

For in a post-truth world, there is no need for urgency…  

Although those two examples arose out of New England’s commercial fishery, it would be a serious mistake to assume that only New England fisheries, or only commercial fishermen, exist in a post-truth world.  

Recreational red snapper fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico have led a post-truth existence for at least the past decade.

The problem is that, while the Gulf red snapper stock has come a long way from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was close to collapse, it is still very far from rebuilt.   But fishermen who have never experienced a completely healthy red snapper stock are seeing more fish than they have ever seen before in their lifetimes, and mistake that increased abundance for a full recovery.

The science is clear.  

Objective facts are not hard to find.

They tell fisheries managers that recreational fishermen catch a lot of red snapper and that, given the heavy angling pressure, restrictive regulations are necessary to prevent overfishing,  

That didn’t go down well with “anglers’ rights” organizations and folks who sell bait and tackle, so instead of supporting science-based management, they are pushing hard for management that instead reflects their beliefs.

Such organizations have created and promoted a belief that, by taking away NMFS’ authority to manage red snapper and handing such authority over to the states, recreational fishermen will be able to kill more red snapper each year, without having any negative impact on the stock

They convinced Congressman Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) to introduce legislation that would hand red snapper management authority over to the states.  According to a press release issued by Coastal Conservation Association Louisiana, Graves has said

“For years, the federal government has restricted our anglers access to a public resource, limiting the ability of private citizens in South Louisiana and across the Gulf Coast to enjoy red snapper.  When I was growing up, we could fish snapper year round; this year’s recreational season was just 10 days.  Our state-based approach will eliminate failed fish management that saw only one weekend of red snapper fishing in federal waters, while preventing overfishing.  [emphasis added]”
Exactly how the states can allow more fish to be killed, while still preventing overfishing, was never explained by the Congressman. 

Folks living outside his post-truth world might suspect that no explanation was given because none exists; however, those who live a post-truth existence see no problem at all.  Jeff Angers, President of the Center for Coastal Conservation (since renamed the Center for Sportfishing Policy) endorsed Congressman Graves’ actions, saying

“For too long, the federal government has relied on outdated and inaccurate information to unfairly limit Gulf red snapper fishing to just a single weekend a year.”
Apparently, in Mr. Angers’ eyes, the fact that the federal government relied on a comprehensive, peer-reviewed stock assessment didn’t prevent that information from being “inaccurate,” and the fact that such assessment was completed in 2013, and updated in 2014, didn’t prevent the information from being “outdated” when Mr. Angers made his statement in 2015.

Such is the power of belief over facts…

But as bad as things are in the Gulf, they don’t hold a candle to the post-truth world of the mid-Atlantic summer flounder fishery.

Summer flounder, often called ‘fluke,” are a mainstay of the inshore private boat and for-hire fisheries along a broad swath of the East Coast, from Virginia all the way to Rhode Island.  They are heavily fished, and any change in regulations has a significant economic impact on coastal businesses. 

As is the case with Gulf red snapper, biologists have no shortage of objective data that they can use to manage the summer flounder fishery.

But that doesn’t stop the affected fishermen from seeking belief- and emotion-based management instead.

Representatives of the fishing industry immediately responded.

“I’m about to tick you off.
“Seriously, reading any further is just going to make you incredibly angry.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat this, the coastwide quota for summer flounder (fluke) in 2017 is going to be cut by about 40%.  That means a shorter season, lower bag, an increase in size limits, or any combination of the three.
“Pardon my French, but I told you that you’d be pissed!”
The author didn't mention why such greater restrictions were needed until later on in the piece, after the reader’s emotions had a chance to kick in.  And even then, the facts were presented as slim slices of meat sandwiched between thick layers of indignation that were completely in harmony with their post-truth environment.

The data itself gets an emotional flogging, with statements such as

“So, are you happy with our federal government?  Do you trust the data?  Think one more cutback in the recreational harvest will be the last?...
“I could tell you to make some reasonable argument about fluke population dynamics, the ‘fatally flawed’ [Marine Recreational Information Program] data, or the inherent issues with NOAA’s trawl survey methodologies…”
The Fisherman writer ignores the fact that the Marine Recreational Information Program was never deemed “fatally flawed” by anyone other than such writer and his cronies; MRIP was designed to improve on and replace the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, which was deemed ‘fatally flawed” by the National Academy of Sciences—the same National Academy of Sciences thatjust gave MRIP a very positive review.  

He also ignores the fact that, as the benchmark assessment and 2016 update indicate very clearly, the data that suggests poor recruitment and a declining stock isn’t provided merely by NOAA’s trawl survey, but by thirteen separate surveys conducted by the federal government and by every state between Massachusetts and Virginia.

Those are the objective facts.

But the author, by his very words, makes it clear that he lives a post-truth existence, where facts may be casually ignored.

As you probably realize by now, that’s pretty typical in the fisheries world.

And that’s not a good thing.

For as a lot of folks are learning, the post-truth world is a dangerous place.  When you let emotion and personal belief trump objective facts, unexpected and bad things can happen.

So maybe it’s time to return fisheries management to a facts-based plane of existence.

If any such place still exists.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


The long, winding path of menhaden management is approaching another crossroads.

On the afternoon of February 1, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board will meet for a scheduled three hours.  One of the topics that the Management Board will discuss is the proposed Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden, which has the potential to initiate a real sea change in the way menhaden are managed.

Atlantic menhaden are almost certainly the single most important forage fish—that is, fish that other fish (and other animals) eat—on the East Coast.  While other species such as sand eels and mullet may, in some times and places, assume greater significance, no one fish has the same impact when all waters between northern Maine and southern Florida are considered.

However, current menhaden management doesn’t emphasize the species forage role; instead, it is managed in the same manner as high trophic level predators, with the emphasis on maintaining high but sustainable levels of harvest.

Amendment 3 to the management plan has the potential to turn that around; the Management Board is considering the adoption of ecological reference points that would allow the species to fulfill its role as a primary forage species by leaving more menhaden alive in the water to serve as food for various fish, birds and marine mammals, rather than allowing such menhaden to be caught and turned into various industrial products, including the dried fish food used in Chinese fish farms.

The process of amending a fishery management plan is long and complex, and the final version of Amendment 3 is, at best, many months away.  Since last November, ASMFC has been holding public hearings to determine how folks would like to see menhaden managed.  The concept of ecological reference points has achieved wide support, which crossed traditional lines to be shared by many commercial and recreational fishermen, along with conservation groups, whale-watching operations, birders and others concerned with the overall health of the marine environment.

A summary of the public comment prepared by Meagan Ware, ASMFC’s Fishery Management Plan Coordinator for Atlantic menhaden, reveals that out of 25,554 letters received by ASMFC, all but one supported some form of ecological reference points.  25,530 of the letters supported adopting menhaden-specific ecological reference points once the data needed to determine such reference points are developed, and adopting more generalized ecological reference points in the interim, 8 did not support using interim measures but did support menhanden-specific reference points and 7 supported managing menhaden with reference points generally appropriate for forage species. 

226 of the letters supporting ecological reference points were written by individuals, 71 were submitted by various organizations and 25,248 represented individuals who signed on to one of 10 different form letters. 

The sole letter supporting the status quo came from Seafreeze Ltd., a Rhode Island-based commercial fishing operation that specializes in catching large quantities of relatively low-value fish, many if not all of which are important  forage species.  

Omega Protein Corporation, the only industrial harvester and processor of menhaden on the East Coast, was remarkably, and perhaps ominously, silent on the issue.

Other issues are also being considered in the draft Amendment 3, but from a purely conservation standpoint, the adoption of ecological reference points is the big issue.  If the Management Board ultimately goes the wrong way on that one, its actions on the other issues will have relatively little import.  On the other hand, if ecological reference points are adopted, none of the other issues, no matter how they’re decided, can do the resource all that much harm.

Thus, February’s meeting is important, not because a final decision will be made at that time—it certainly won’t be—but because the Management Board is expected to decide which options will be included in—or left out of—the next draft of the Amendment, which will probably be released for public comment in late winter or early spring.

Despite strong public support for ecological reference points, there is undoubtedly other folks politicking behind the scenes.  

Although Omega Protein did not actively engage ASMFC during the public comment period, its representatives were making their opinions clear in the press.  One piece, written by Omega Vice President Monty Diehl, was posted as a rebuttal to an op-ed that appeared in The Virginian-Pilot not long ago.  There, Diehl expressed Omega’s opposition to ecological reference points, saying

“scientists believe that there are sufficient levels of menhaden left in the water for the species to fulfill its ecological role.  The fishery leaves over 93 percent of the fish in the water for just this purpose.  And while special interest activists and sport fishermen like to talk up menhaden’s role as forage for predators, a 2015 study from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found that the bay anchovy is actually the most important forage fish in the Bay.  Meanwhile, menhaden was not even in the ‘top three or four.’”
Like most Omega statements, Diehl’s is a garden of misdirection.  If scientists really believe that the number of menhaden available today is sufficient to fulfill the species’ ecological role, then the ecological reference points won’t put any crimp on Omega’s fishing at all, so there is no need to oppose them.  The only reason for Omega to stand against such reference points is that it’s afraid that too many fish really are being removed from the sea.

Certainly, Diehl’s statement that 93% of menhaden are left in the water is a meaningless figure.  The question isn’t how many menhaden we do leave in the ocean under today’s management, but rather how many menhaden should be left in the ocean under tomorrow’s new, hopefully improved management program that matters.  Let’s not pretend that Omega is leaving 93% of the menhaden in the water so that the fish can fulfill their role as forage.  They leave the fish in the water because ASMFC says that they have to, although Omega keeps trying to increase its kill.

And yes, fish in Chesapeake Bay were found to eat things other than menhaden.  If your preferred food isn’t available, you eat something else.  But one study, done at a time when small menhaden weren’t particularly abundant, doesn’t demonstrate what fish would be eating if menhaden were more abundant.

Even though Diehl’s response isn’t particularly convincing, if you’re familiar with all of the relevant data, a lot of people can be swayed by “alternative facts” if they’re presented in an appealing package.  There’s no doubt that Omega will be out there warning Management Board members that if further restrictions—which ecological reference points might or might not require—it will cause them to shut down a part of their operation, lay of fishermen, etc.

What Omega will undoubtedly leave out of that story is that the company has been doing so well that, for the first time in its history, it will pay a dividend to all of its stockholders, which means that any layoffs that might occur will be a matter of corporate priorities, not financial necessity.

So the public has sent in a lot of letters, and appeared at all of the hearings, and argued for ecological reference points.  

That’s good.

But the public must also understand that big outfits such as Omega, Seafreeze and probably others based down in New Jersey will be working in the background right up to the final vote, trying to stem the tide and keep management just as it is.  If the public quits now, ecological reference points might not make it into the next draft of the amendment.

So this is the time to make just one more push.  Go to and find out who your state’s commissioners are.  Give them a call, or send them an e-mail, and let them know that ecological reference points matter to menhaden, matter to the East Coast ecosystems and matter to you.

Ask them to keep ecological reference points—Option 1D—in the next draft.

Menhaden management is at a new crossroads, and we need managers to make the right turn.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


Ever since the National MarineFisheries Service announced that the 2017 summer flounder catch limit had to bereduced by 30% compared to the year before, elements within the East Coast angling community have been railing against the new rules, and demanding that nothing change.

The folks who are arguing for the status quo inevitably attack the quality of the science used to make the determination that harvest cuts are needed.

“the problem as I see it is not with the fish or the fishermen, but with our fisheries managers.  They set a target of having 62,394 metric tons in the spawning stock biomass (SSB) but that has never been achieved.  In fact, this number seems so high that it may be ecologically impossible to reach…”

“A few years ago [NMFS] declared the fishery recovered since spawning stock biomass came within the target range.  But once we reached a spawning biomass that large, recruitment began to decline.  As you can see from the table [of recruitment and spawning stock biomass published by NMFS], we had better recruitment when the spawning stock biomass was much lower.  I have contended, and some scientists have agreed with me, that we have reached the top of a bell-shaped curve which coincides with the highest levels of spawning stock biomass ever recorded.  The fact that we have exceeded the carrying capacity may be one of the reasons for the poor recruitment…“

“Basing harvest limits on outdated data and models is destroying the New York fishing community.  It is crucial that all federal decisions are based upon the most accurate scientific data and models.  Waiting another day for a new summer flounder benchmark assessment is one day too many.”
Such sentiments have even led to a petition asking regulators to maintain status quo summer flounder regulations in 2017, pending the completion of a new benchmark assessment (which will definitely not occur in 2017, and might not occur in 2018, either).  Proponents of the petition argue that

“What NOAA Fisheries has failed to do is update the stock assessment for summer flounder as the stock has expanded north and east.  Independent reviews found that there are significant deficiencies of [sic] the summer flounder stock assessment and that improvements should be made to the modeling approach.  It is expected that those changes could eliminate or lessen the need for quota reductions but NOAA Fisheries has no plans of updating the assessment before approving the 2017 [acceptable biological catch].
That sounds all very well and good, but one thing isn’t being considered.

What if the current science is right?

Right now, the 2016 update to the benchmark stock assessment (and yes, contrary to what you read in some of the quotes above, the benchmark assessment is not “outdated data” and NOAA Fisheries has not “failed to…update the stock assessment) tells us that the stock is at just 58% of the target biomass, and that recruitment—the number of young fish entering the population—has been below average for six consecutive years, 2010-2015.

Scientists warn that

“the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as [2017] if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken.”
That warning was supported by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistical Committee, a panel of eighteen scientists, all possessing doctoral degrees in relevant disciplines.

The benchmark stock assessment itself, which the Mid-Atlantic Council relies on, was peer-reviewed by a panel of independent fisheries scientists, including Dr. Cynthia M. Jones of the Old Dominion University Center for Quantitative Fisheries Ecology, Dr. Robin Cook of the MASTS Population Modeling Group at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, Dr. Henrik Sparholt, the Deputy Head of the Advisory Department of the Secretariat of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), and Mr. John Simmonds, the Vice Chair of the ICES committee which provides fisheries advice.

That peer review panel analyzed the data used to manage summer flounder, including the biomass target, the stock/recruitment relationship and other relevant parameters, and found such data appropriate for that purpose.  That represents a strong endorsement.

When we look at the folks disputing the science, we find those quoted above—a retired police lieutenant, a former Army officer and an ex-charterboat captain who now serves as excecutive director of an “anglers’ rights” organization—along with a number of other party and charter boat captains, fishing tackle dealers and magazine writers, who may be very familiar with the recreational summer flounder fishery, but have no claim to being called fisheries scientists.

Think about this for a minute.

If you were worried that you might be facing colon cancer, you’d probably look for a qualified gastroenterologist/oncologist.  You wouldn’t take the advice of a plumber, even if he claimed that the colon was more or less the body’s sewer, and the same sort of thing flowed through both kinds of “pipes.”

If you broke your leg, I suspect that you’d want to get to a hospital emergency room posthaste, even if your friend the carpenter lived nearby, and assured you that he could make everything right by just tightening a couple of clamps on your calf and shin.

And if you or a member of your family had the misfortune of being accused of a serious crime, the odds are pretty high that you’d be looking to hire a lawyer, even though someone you knew back in high school spent ten years in jail, assured you that he knew the justice system from the inside out, and could tell you what to say to the judge in your own defense.

In short, when something bad is happening, you probably want the best professional advice you can find to address the problem, and not just try to wing it with amateur help.

Put in the context of the fluke fishery, the fact that the population could become overfished later this year, and that hasn’t seen a good spawn since 2009, is bad.  The fact that no one knows why recruitment has been so poor for so long only makes things worse.

So the question is, should we rely on a team of well-trained fisheries biologists to address and try to fix the problem, or should we accept the assurances of a bunch of boat captains, tackle dealers and various other untrained folks to tell us that things will be OK?

If the amateurs are right, we can maintain the status quo harvest of 5.42 million pounds, rather than dropping down to a harvest of just 3.77 million pounds in 2017.

But if the scientists are right, that 5.42 million pounds could well push the biomass below the overfishing threshold, making fluke even harder to find and depleting the reservoir of large, spawning-sized fish at a time that few young fish were entering the population.

That seems like the wrong way to go.

Anglers need to ask themselves whether they would rather catch fluke, and not bring too many home because of more restrictive regulations that are helping to rebuild the stock, or not catch fluke, and so not bring too many home, because the population has been depleted.

We worry about what feels like a small, 3.77 million pound bag limit this year, enforced by a 19-inch size limit that will force us to release a good part of our catch.

If the science is right, we probably should be worrying about pushing the population back to where it was in 1989, when the size limit was just 14 inches, but even without restrictive bag limits, anglers could only catch about 3.1 million pounds of fluke, because there just weren’t many fish to be found.

The bottom line is that if the science is wrong, and we reduce recreational landings when we could have stayed at status quo, we won’t take too many fish home, the fishing industry will have a slower year (but will also benefit from a likely relaxing of black sea bass rules and the 2011 year class of striped bass entering the fishery), and we’ll catch more fish than we expected in 2018.

On the other hand, if the science is right and we stay at status quo…


Thursday, January 19, 2017


Last week, the National Academy of Sciences issued its long-awaited report on the Marine Recreational Information Program—the program designed to estimate the catch of anglers who fish in salt water—and decided that it was pretty good.

Not perfect, granted, but pretty good, and a program that had “yielded significant progress…in providing more reliable catch data,” and had made “major improvements to the statistical soundness of the survey design” when compared to its predecessor, the much reviled—and perhaps deservedly so—Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, more commonly known as “MRFSS.”

The generally positive report was good news for scientists, who needed good recreational catch data to prepare stock assessments; for fishery managers, who need the same data to craft effective angling regulations; and for fish and fishermen, which both benefit when stocks are properly assessed and properly managed.

But it wasn’t good news for that portion of the angling community who have long made a virtual cottage industry out of attacking data-based regulations, and who used MRFSS’ shortcomings as one of the core components of their assault.

Those folks were flying pretty high in 2006, after the National Academy of Sciences performed a similar review of MRFSS, and one of the reviewers went so far as to deem that survey “fatally flawed” on the day the report was released.  
However, the new report, if taken at face value, pretty well grounded them, and left a lot of us, who are involved in the management process, wondering what approach they’d take next.

It didn’t take long to find out.

In recent years, ASA has been a leading voice in the effort to weaken federal fisheries laws, and has spoken out against data-based regulations imposed on anglers seeking various species, including summer flounder and Gulf of Mexico red snapper.  The National Academy of Sciences’ MRIP report threatened to hinder ASA’s efforts, and I was interested to see how the trade group would respond.

Not surprisingly, that response was generally negative, although ASA did admit that the “report is generally complimentary of progress made recently under MRIP.”  But that was about the only positive statement made.  Everything else in the editorial could fairly be classed as either anti-management spin or the sort of things that are passed out as "facts" in today’s post-truth world.

The problems begin with the very headline of the editorial, which mischaracterizes the intent and findings of the National Academy of Science’s report by announcing that

“Report Raises Questions of How Recreational Fishing Is Managed.
“A prestigious scientific organization casts doubt on whether managing recreational saltwater fisheries in the same manner as commercial fisheries is working.”
That’s because neither the report, nor the National Academy of Sciences, did any such thing.  

The sole topic addressed by the report is the suitability of MRIP for its intended purpose—estimating recreational fishermen’s catch.  It does not cast any light on the broader question of “how recreational fishing is managed,” nor does it, anywhere in its 160-plus pages, opine on whether commercial and recreational fishing are managed in a similar manner or on whether the current approach to recreational fishery management is “working.”

To understand why the American Sportfishing Association is made such unsubstantiated claims, it’s probably necessary to go back to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, which was issued early in 2014.  That report, which was strongly endorsed, and influenced, by ASA, presents the argument that recreational anglers, unlike commercial fishermen, should not have their catch limited by annual quotas.

That argument was echoed in ASA’s recent editorial, in which it notes that a comment, buried deep in the middle of the National Academy of Science’s report, states that “analysts, managers, and stakeholders” had expressed concerns about MRIP’s use to monitor anglers’ compliance with annual catch limits, and recommends that NMFS “evaluate whether the design of MRIP is compatible with the in-season management of annual catch limits.” 

On the basis of that simple comment, ASA proclaimed that

“The inability of MRIP to allow for in-season adjustments exposes one of the core flaws of the saltwater-fisheries-management system.
“…NOAA Fisheries should look to the states for proven for proven recreational-fisheries-management approaches that don’t constrain managers to attempt to enforce quotas in real time without the data to do so.”
It is essentially arguing that federal fishery managers shouldn’t rely on MRIP catch estimates, or annual quotas, at all. 

When you stop to think about it, it’s pretty clear that any suggestion that fish can be managed without some sort of limit on annual harvest, whether expressed as a hard-poundage quota or as the rate/percentage of fish that can be removed from the population each year (which amount to the same thing, described in two different ways; a sustainable rate of removal, multiplied by the size of the stock, gives you a hard-poundage quota, while a hard-poundage quota, divided by the size of the stock, will ultimately yield the acceptable removal rate) is just not true.

But that's not the only assertion in the editorial fails the truth test.

For example, it states that, pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act,

“when [the annual catch] limit is reached, the act requires that the fishery be shut down.  If the limit is exceeded, punitive measures go into effect in future years.”
The problem is, Magnuson-Stevens says no such things.

What it does say is that each fishery management plan, for each species subject to management , must

“establish a mechanism for specifying annual catch limits in the plan (including a multiyear plan), implementing regulations, or annual specifications, at a level such that overfishing does not occur in the fishery, including measures to ensure accountability.”
That’s quite a bit different from requiring a fishery to be shut down when an annual catch limit is exceeded.  In fact, the Omnibus Recreational Accountability Measure Amendment adopted by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in 2014, which covers the recreational fisheries for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, bluefish and Atlantic mackerel, among other species, specifically prohibits in-season closures when annual catch limits are exceeded.

The Omnibus Amendment also specifically contradicts any assertion that accountability measures imposed as a result of an annual overage must be “punitive.”  It explains that

“the Council is reconsidering its former position that paybacks of (estimated) recreational overages be mandated under all circumstances.  The Council is recommending that, given the uncertain nature of recreational fishery data collection and management, that these primarily punitive accountability measures be limited to cases where stock condition and the nature of the overage merit a punitive response.  In those circumstances where there is no pound for pound payback, the Council will use its system of adjustments to fish bag, size and season to be responsive to fishery performance by both reducing and increasing fishing opportunity as needed to ensure stocks are harvested sustainably.  [emphasis added]”
Court decisions also contradict the claim that recreational accountability measures be punitive, even in egregious cases of chronic recreational overharvest.  In one of the few, perhaps the only, court decision to address the recreational accountability measure issue, Guindon v. Pritzker, the court found that NMFS had to impose accountability measures in order to end years of recreational overharvest of Gulf of Mexico red snapper.  However, despite the many years of anglers overfishing the stock, the court did not require “punitive” measures to be imposed.  Instead, it said

“The Court will not dictate precisely which accountability measures NMFS should have required, or should require in the future.  That decision is best left to the expertise and discretion of the agency tasked with carrying out the statute.  NMFS need not implement so many accountability measures that overharvesting and overfishing become utterly beyond possibility.”
That's reasonable, because accountability measures primary function is not to punish fishermen, but to protect fish stocks.

Realizing that, one might wish that there were some sort of accountability measures in place to prevent folks from making assertions unsupported by facts when debating the management of America's fisheries...

However, reality and the First Amendment conspire against such a dream, leaving the anti-regulation crowd free to argue that managing fish with political pressure and a wild-ass guess is as good as using hard quotas and data.

Hopefully, in the end, such arguments will be rejected, for quotas and good data are essential elements of a successful fishery management plan.

And now that the National Academy of Sciences’ report is out, we know that MRIP will help managers to get the data that they need.

Even though it casts no doubt on how federal recreational fisheries are managed.

It casts no doubt at all.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Time passes quickly.

I still remember being a boy, obsessed with fishing, waiting each month for the new magazines to come out.  I read the “big three”—Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, Field and Stream—beginning when I was in grade school, finding dreams and adventure, as well as how-to, on every poured-over page.

I fished in salt water since I learned to walk, catching flounders and eels, tomcod and young-of-the-year “snapper” blues, fish that would never make the pages of a glossy national publication.  Although they sometimes held stories of bonefish or marlin, fresh water fishing and hunting were their primary subjects—novel subjects to me, since my family did neither one.

So I read the folks who wrote about those different worlds.  

And because I knew nothing about them, I ended up trusting the writers.

OK, I was a 10-year-old kid, still young enough to take adults’ words on faith.  At least if those adults were in a position of authority, which the various writers seemed to be.

Still, regardless of age, there is a tendency to believe that anyone who writes for publication possesses at least the authority conveyed by knowledge, and that the fact that something is published suggests that it might be true.

Intellectually, we know that’s not true, as the current “fake news” imbroglio, which has both sides of the political spectrum pointing fingers, demonstrates to our dismay.  Even so, we have a tendency to accept what we read as true; at least we do unless it conflicts with one of our closely-held beliefs.

Thus, to avoid betraying such trust, writers have an obligation to fully inform their readers, taking care to present all of the facts to the extent that they can be known.  Even in opinion pieces, where the author is trying to convince readers to come to a particular conclusion, facts should not be concealed. 

After all, if knowing all the facts might lead a reader to disagree with a writer, perhaps the writer is wrong…

Taking that sort of forthright approach is particularly important when addressing technical subjects, where data and science drive the issues, and writers must act as interpreters, presenting the facts to their readers in language that the readers can readily understand.

Outdoor writers frequently find themselves in that role when addressing conservation and wildlife management issues.  While some topics, such as the harm caused bycoal mines that remove entire mountaintops and dump the debris into Appalachian brook trout streams, can be understood without much technical knowledge, others require writers to provide more detailed explanations.

That’s particularly true of marine fishery management issues, which tend to revolve around complex stock assessments and population models, along with concepts such as maximum sustainable yield, biological reference points, recruitment and acceptable biological catch, none of which are part of most anglers’ everyday conversations.

When addressing such concepts, that are foreign to so many readers, a writer must be careful to define each term used, let readers know why it is important, and then explain to the reader how it applies to the issue at hand, so that the reader can understand the factors that go into making a decision, and the consequences that any likely decision might have on the species or population being managed.

If writers truly want their readers to understand how various species are being managed, they need to ensure that such readers are fully informed of why fisheries management decisions need to be being made as well.

On the whole, they do that pretty well, at least when freshwater fish are involved.  We can read plenty of articles supporting no-kill sections in trout streams, or warning of threats toBristol Bay’s salmon from the so-called Pebble Mine.

But in the salt water world, things are a bit different.  There, far too many writersactually tell anglers that conservation efforts are bad.  

It seems that there are folks in the recreational fishing industry who think that conservation is bad for business, and that magazines’ primary duty is convincing readers that all is well with our fisheries, and that they should be out buying more boats, rods and reels.

If I ever had any doubt about that—and I never did—it would have been cleared up by a series of private messages that I received on Facebook a couple of years ago.  The sender will remain unnamed, although I will say that  he was employed in the industry, most recently (as of the time when the messages were sent) by a tackle company based in New Jersey.  

The guy started out by criticizing something that I wrote, finishing his first message by saying

“It’s a very important topic, but I’m not sure your take on it is the correct one for our industry (recreational).  [emphasis added]”
The exchange went on.  I was criticized for wanting to prosecute poachers, and for other positions that I’d taken.  

And then things began to get threatening.

“So how do you reconcile your stance with the advertisers who support your writing?
“…Your stance is not popular with a lot of folks on the rec side who are also well informed and whose businesses support many.
“You are certainly entitled to your position, but it galls some of us quite a bit that you promote it while being active in a recreational fisheries publication.  That is not opinion, it is a fact.  [emphasis added]”
In other words, if I want to keep writing for the angling press, I’d better concentrate on keeping advertisers happy, and not on keeping readers fully informed.

Which makes sense, for knowledge is power, and industry—any industry—never likes the public to have enough power to get in that industry’s way. 

Better to keep the plebs dumb.  Don’t let them question the industry’s line…

Now, outdoor writers who cover saltwater issues are going to have another opportunity to put their integrity to the test.

For years, when the recreational fishing industry attacked proposed regulations, one of their primary arguments was that the estimates of the fish killed by anglers was far too high.  A recent article in The Fisherman, which criticized new restrictions on anglers’ summer flounder harvest, is typical.

“One by one, members of advocate groups like [Jersey Coast Anglers Association] and the Recreational Fishing Alliance spoke out against the data used by NOAA Fisheries in mandating the cuts, with Nick Cicero, Sales Manager of a Mahwah, NJ based national tackle distributor, noting recreational overage numbers in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are unfounded based on his tackle wholesale numbers for 2016
“’If more people went fluke fishing and more fluke were caught, more Gulp would be bought, more fluke hooks would be bought, more jigs would be bought, that’s not the truth,’ Cicero said.  ‘I can substantiate my numbers, they can’t substantiate theirs.’
“…At issue for many in the room was the status of the recreational data harvest survey…NOAA Fisheries has been working to redesign the collection methodology ever since a 2006 National Academy of Science (NAS) review deemed it ‘fatally flawed’ and desperately in need of an overhaul. 
“…not many fishermen in New Jersey seemed impressed with NOAA’s efforts thus far in their comments to [the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission].
“’I taught science for 31 years,” said Capt. Steve Bent of the Cape May based charter boat Free Spirit.  ‘If these biologists, if this is the way they gather information, and they were in my science class, I would’ve failed them.”
However, the National Academy of Science apparently disagrees with Capt. Bent.  The Academy issued a report on the Marine Recreational Information Program last Tuesday, comparing it to the former program that was deemed to be “fatally flawed.”

“Work to redesign the National Marine Fisheries Service’s recreational fishery survey program (now referred to as the Marine Recreational Information Program) has yielded impressive progress over the past decade in providing more reliable catch data to fishery managers.  Major improvements to the statistical soundness of the survey design were achieved by reducing sources of bias and increasing sampling efficiency as well as through increased coordination with partners and engagement of expert consultants.  [emphasis added]”
No, the survey still isn’t perfect, with the Academy noting that

“Some additional challenges remain for the survey program, including those associated with nonresponse, electronic data collection, and communication and outreach to some audiences.  [emphasis added]”
Still, it seems to have received pretty good marks.

Now, the question is whether writers for The Fisherman, and for all of the other publications that have criticized harvest estimates so loudly for so long, will provide their readers with balanced articles on the National Academy of Science’s report.

If they see themselves as serving the truth and their readers, they’ll admit that, while there are still improvements that need to be made, the Marine Recreational Information Program is a workable tool for providing estimates of recreational landings.  Such writing will assist NOAA Fisheries in their effort to communicate with “some audiences” that remain skeptical of the survey, and by reducing the level of skepticism and resultant nonresponse, probably increase the quality of the survey results.

If they see themselves as tools of the advertisers, they will tell their readers whatever such advertisers believe will best benefit their businesses, regardless of the impact on readers, the survey, and the quality of landings estimates.

Right now, the odds in favor of truth and full disclosure don’t look very good.

The American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, placed an opinion piece about the National Academy of Science’s report in Sport Fishing magazine.  That op ed, which will probably be read by thousands of anglers, never mentioned the Academy’s findings of “impressive progress” or “major improvements to the statistical soundness” of the data developed by the recreational harvest survey. 

Instead, it latched onto one recommendation found halfway through the full report, which said that, in order to address concerns expressed in the past by various stakeholders, NOAA Fisheries

“Evaluate whether the design of MRIP for the purposes of stock assessment and the determination of stock management reference points is compatible with the needs of in-season management of annual catch limits.”
The American Sportfishing Association then spun that simple and reasonable recommendation into a finding that

“A full evaluation of this issue would almost certainly conclude what anglers have long known.  The inability of MRIP to allow for in-season adjustments exposes one of the core flaws of the federal saltwater fisheries management system.
“Addressing this core flaw will require both alternative management approaches and alternative data-collection approaches…
“Anglers who would prefer that the NAS report simply have concluded that ‘MRIP sucks’ may have come away disappointed.  But that doesn’t get us anywhere.  Instead, we can take this opportunity to question whether MRIP is capable of fulfilling federal law’s unfortunate expectation:  to manage recreational fishing the same way as commercial fishing.”
It’s not my intention here to point out all of the flaws in the American Sportfishing Association’s editorial, although that may happen in the next week or two.  

For now, I just want to focus on tone.  And judging from the tone of the editorial, the American Sportfishing Association would have made an attempt to use the National Academy of Science’s report to condemn MRIP even if it had found the survey program to be flawless.

Because it has a bigger mission in mind, its continuing effort to undermine federal fisheries law.

Given the American Sportfishing Association’s response to the Academy’s report, it’s pretty likely that the angling industry will remain hostile to the MRIP program, and to the estimates that it produces.

That means that outdoor writers covering fishery management issues have to ask themselves one big question.

To whom do they owe their allegiance? 

Is it to their readers, who have come to know them through their writing and have come to trust them over the years?  Do they have an obligation to keep those readers fully and accurately informed, regardless of the consequences?

Or is their allegiance solely to their advertisers’ bottom lines?

And having made that decision, I suspect that a lot of folks are going to have to ask themselves one more thing.  

Are they going to keep on shaving, and be forced to look themselves in the eye every morning when they face the mirror, or will it be easier, and less conscience-jarring,  to just grow a beard?