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.

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