Thursday, March 30, 2017


It’s the end of March, and my boat should be in the water.
At one time, it would have been.
Despite cold and wind, I’d have been waiting for the weekend, because March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—was the unofficial start of the winter flounder season. I, and a horde of other anglers all across New York’s Long Island, would have been buying sandworms, bloodworms, mussels and clam chum, and gassing up our boats for our first trips of the season.
Down at Captree State Park, on the shores of Great South Bay, some of the party boats would have been sailing since the first weekend in March, carrying a few eager anglers willing to probe the still-cold bay waters for the first few flounder of the year. But on St. Patrick’s Day, all of the boats would have sailed; even if it was a weekday, they would have been crowded with fishermen who knew, without doubt, that at the end of the trip they’d be taking fish home.

Today, my boat sits on the asphalt, still shrouded in its shrink-wrapped winter cocoon. There’s no rush to slice through that cover, no need to put up with March winds while painting the bottom and waxing the hull. I probably couldn’t launch it now, even if I wanted to, as it sits amid other vessels, all of them covered and none of them likely to go into the water at any time soon.
Most of the flounder are gone, their numbers so depleted that inbreeding has become a threat. The season, which once ran all year, has been shortened to a mere 60 days, and for most of that time, an angler can still fish all day and have trouble putting together a two-flounder limit.

We used to bring them home by the pailful, and sometimes a bushel basket or big burlap sack was too small to hold a day’s catch.
And that, of course, was the start of the problem. Too many flounder were taken, leaving too few in the water to maintain a sustainable stock.
Anglers weren’t the only cause of the flounder’s decline; New York’s commercial fleet netted them up by the untold thousands each year, landing 3.26 million pounds of flounder in 1966, its highest landings on record. But anglers killed more, accounting for 6.8 million pounds in 1984. The average weight of the angler-caught fish was less than a pound, so we were killing them when they were still fairly small and had few chances to spawn.

And when fishery managers first tried, in the mid-1980s, to put in regulations to halt the flounder’s decline, they ran into stiff opposition from the recreational fishing industry, which argued that anglers wouldn’t go fishing if they didn’t have the “perception” that they could still bring a lot of fish home, if they happened to catch them.
Even after a 2008 stock assessment found that the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic flounder stock (which is the stock we fish on in New York) had shrunk to just 9% of sustainable levels, and fishing in federal waters was closed in response, the angling industry opposed a similar closure in state waters.

One industry attorney, speaking at the February 2009 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Management Board (Management Board), acknowledged that winter flounder were in trouble, saying “we have an extreme situation here; there is no doubt about it.”

But then he opposed emergency action to close the fishery in state waters, arguing that “the partyboat industry in particular is a fishery giving an opportunity more so than guaranteeing bringing fish home…There are several partyboats that still make a living at this. Even though they don’t catch a lot of fish, they’re providing an opportunity for people to come out in the spring and wet a line. There is an economic impact here.”
In the end, such arguments carried the day. Today, some New York party boats still sail for winter flounder. However, as the flounder disappeared from our bays, the flounder fishermen disappeared as well, so many other boats stay tied to their docks and the ones that do sail often carry only five or six fares when they once carried dozens.
So yes, there was “an economic impact” in the Management Board’s decision, and it was bad. By refusing to take the steps needed to stop the flounder’s decline, the Management Board condemned the party boats and the tackle shops, the gas docks and the rowboat rentals, to a continuing decline in business at the same time that they condemned New York’s winter flounder to possible extirpation.

And the saddest part of that story is that winter flounder are not alone.
It wasn’t very long ago that New York’s anglers didn’t have a closed season. After the last striped bass of the fall left for their wintering grounds, whiting and ling (more properly called silver and red hake, respectively) moved in close to shore. Party boats docked in western New York and Northern New Jersey sailed twice, sometimes three times per day, filled with anglers willing and able to load up on the good-tasting fish.
Even shore anglers got in on the action. The Coney Island Pier in Brooklyn was a well-known night-fishing hotspot. Folks with a taste for whiting didn’t even need a rod and reel; they merely had to walk along a barrier island at night and gather up “frostfish” that had beached themselves while chasing bait in the curl of a retreating wave.

But that is all history now; the inshore whiting are gone, and ling numbers are down. No one can say why for sure, although many strongly suspect that the same small-mesh squid nets that devastated populations of immature scup, and led to the creation of “gear-restricted areas” intended to stop the scup’s decline, devastated the whiting as well. But unlike the scup, the whiting did not return once managers finally got the squid nets under control.
The once-vibrant fishery died.
In response, New York Bight anglers shifted to the winter tautog (locally known as “blackfish”) fishery. Fishermen had long known that tautog abounded in areas such as “17 Fathoms” off the northern New Jersey coast, but that fishery was eclipsed by the abundant whiting and ling. Once those disappeared, most of the angling effort shifted to tautog, and for a while, fishing was good. But tautog don’t grow or mature very quickly, and the increased recreational effort, coupled with a new commercial fishery spawned by a demand for live fish in urban markets, quickly depleted the population.

In 1996, biologists “recommended an immediate reduction of fishing mortality to avoid a collapse of the fishery resource,” and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) adopted a plan to reduce fishing mortality to sustainable levels. ASMFC stated, “The management measures of [the] plan will preserve a recreational fishing opportunity and all of the associated economic benefits that would be lost if stocks were allowed to collapse,” and also made a nearly identical comment with respect to the commercial fishery. It acknowledged that “any economic losses that may result from proposed fishing effort reductions will be recovered by allowing a valuable fishery to continue for future generations.”

But shortly after making that statement, ASMFC allowed the needed harvest reductions to be delayed, then delayed again. The last tautog stock assessment, completed in 2015, indicated that fishing mortality remained at twice the target level that had been established nineteen years before. New York’s tautog remain both overfished and subject to overfishing.

Not too many people fish for tautog anymore. Tackle shops and fishing stations haven’t been selling many fiddlers or green crabs—both popular tautog baits—in recent years, and the party boats are looking for something to fish for in both late spring and fall.

I could tell other stories about summer cod at Coxes Ledge or spring pollock at Block Island, but they would sound much the same, tales of formerly abundant fish stocks that, for want of timely and adequate management measures, have been fished down to crumbs too scant to nourish an industry, or even most anglers’ efforts.
They are stories of loss, not only of angling opportunities, but economic opportunities as well, in which the healthy and sustainable fisheries that should be our birthright were exchanged for greater short-term gains that led, inexorably, to long-term depletion.
They are stories that we still haven’t learned from.
With winter flounder, tautog, and whiting all diminished or gone, legislators have introduced a bill that, if passed, would place summer flounder at risk, while representatives of the angling industry are fighting to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Magnuson Act, which protects fish stocks on all of America’s coasts.

They say that less restrictive rules will be better for business.
Winter flounder, tautog and whiting say that they’re wrong.


This post first appeared in "From the Waterfront", the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which may be found at

Sunday, March 26, 2017


The way things are supposed to go, fisheries managers compile their data.  Then they wade through the numbers, and with the information provide, adopt a policy for managing the relevant fishery.

I’ve long said that if you clear your mind, and let the numbers do the talking, they’ll tell you just what to do.

However, there are folks out there who want to turn things upside down.  Instead of creating a policy based on the data, they try to create data that supports their favorite policy, whether or not it makes sense to anyone else.

We saw that recently with summer flounder.

Just last week, an article appeared in The Fisherman titled “A Case for Change in Fluke Management.”  It was written by someone named Tom Smith who, according to information accompanying the article, is a corporate numbers-cruncher, but seems to lack any training or experience in the science of fisheries management.  

It’s telling that the piece was subtitled

“New and exciting data could indicate that NOAA Fisheries efforts to save the summer flounder fishery may actually be contributing to the recent decline, an argument that could bear fruit in [Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund’s] ongoing efforts,”
since Mr. Smith is apparently a devotee of one of the newer fads in summer flounder management, the notion, promoted by the aforementioned Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund, that a decline in the summer flounder biomass is directly attributable to higher size limits that focus recreational harvest on female fish, and thus cause the female spawning stock to shrink below sustainable levels.

Mr. Smith had already advanced that position in a comment letter that he sent to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission earlier this year, when he wrote, with regard to proposed 2017 regulations

“…So if we were to maintain a 5 fish limit similar to ’16 but change the mix, establish a slot limit of maybe three smaller fish combined with 2 fish at the existing 18” limit.  Give breeders a few more years to help the overall biomass…”
In such comments, he didn’t mention how reducing the minimum size for three of the fish in his proposed 5-fish bag limit--and thus make it easier for anglers to find legal-sized fish--would help reduce 2017 landings by 41% compared to landings in 2016, as ASMFC was then attempting to do, without radically shortening the summer flounder season.

Such omission suggests that Mr. Smith either overlooked that critical issue, which is somewhat troubling, or didn’t fully understand the implications of the proposal that he was submitting, which is even more troubling, given that he is writing magazine articles on fisheries management.

However, his comments do suggest that in writing the recent article for The Fisherman (which had previously been published in the newsletter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, another advocate of such reduced size limits), he was attempting to justify a position that he already held, rather than trying to analyze available data in order to discover the proper management policy.

Such supposition is supported by the fact that the premise of the article in The Fisherman is highly dependent on a variable that Mr. Smith refers to either as “SSB recruitment strength” or “reproductive strength”. 

Such variable, which Mr. Smith seems to have created solely to support his argument, is apparently derived by dividing the annual recruitment of summer flounder, expressed in numbers of Year-1 fish, by the size of the spawning stock biomass, expressed in metric tons.  Mr. Smith notes that

“The [resulting] graph shows that the reproductive strength of the summer flounder SSB has been decimated over the last 20 years or so.  The ratio peaked in 1993 [when the SSB was well below the “overfished” threshold] at ~3,243 [Year 1] fish per metric ton of SSB and reached its low in 2015 of ~644 [Year 1] fish per metric ton.  That constitutes an approximately 80% decrease in recruitment strength, the result of which has been a 13-year decline in overall SSB because as recruitment strength declines the number of fish maturing to create a sustainable SSB declines as well.”
While that conclusion may seem superficially attractive, in the end it merely serves as an illustration of why non-scientists who play with the data should always be aware of the statistician’s warning that

Before making any attempt to draw a conclusion from seemingly related numbers, it’s necessary to first make sure that there are no so-called “lurking variables” that might give rise to both sets of figures, and so create a false correlation.  

For example, there may well be a correlation between people who go to sleep with their shoes on and those who awake with a headache.  However the shoes have far less to do with their morning malaise than the fact that they went to bed stone drunk the night before, which is why they left their shoes on in the first place…

Mr. Smith fell victim to such false correlation.  Simply because he has inadequate knowledge of fisheries science, he assumed that there was a straight-line relationship between the size of the spawning stock biomass and recruitment.  In fact, no such simple relationship exists, and any stock/recruitment relationship that might occur is far more subtle.

“Beverton and Holt [who developed the basic population model currently used to assess summer flounder, and many other species] examined early data on the relationship between parental spawning stock and subsequent recruitment, and data on the early mortality rates of juvenile fish.  They noticed that the spawning stock is generally a very poor predictor of recruitment (recruitment being independent of parental abundance) except at relatively low parental stock sizes…  [emphasis added]”
Which suggests that the “SSB recruitment strength” or “reproductive strength” variable created by Mr. Smith is a meaningless figure.

That general comment by Walters and Martell is reinforced by research specifically addressing the relationship between summer flounder spawning stock biomass and recruitment.  

In a paper entitled “Larval abundance of summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus) as a measure of recruitment and stock status,” a team of biologists from Rhode Island, New Jersey and North Carolina stated that

“For summer flounder there appears to be no direct relationship between larval supply [which does seem to be related to the size of the spawning stock] and recruitment at Beaufort Inlet or Little Egg Inlet [the two study sites].  This finding implies that recruitment strength may be determined by factors later in the life cycle, likely during the estuarine juvenile stage.  [emphasis added]”
Once again, we find that “recruitment strength” is not determined by the size of the spawning stock, but “by factors later in the life cycle, likely during the estuarine juvenile stage.”  So clearly, Mr. Smith’s calculation of the so-called “reproductive strength” variable an exercise in futility.

More to the point, the entire argument that high size limits hinder recruitment by removing too many large females from the population is shown to be absolute bunk.

But we already knew that.

A while ago, I wrote about the concept of “steepness,” which is the right way to calculate the impact a reduction in the spawning stock has on recruitment.  Steepness is calculated by dividing the recruitment when the stock is reduced to just 20% of its spawning potential, and comparing that to the recruitment that would be expected from an unfished stock.

The less difference there is between the two values, the higher the steepness.  High steepness indicates a low correlation between recruitment and the size of the stock.

The steepness calculation for summer flounder was discussed in the last benchmark stock assessment.  Although biologists disagree on just what the precise value is, all agree that such value is high, meaning that it doesn’t take very many females, relatively speaking, to produce an average year class.

Which again means that the argument presented in Mr. Smith’s article just doesn’t fly.

That’s hardly surprising, given that he got the whole process backwards.

To make sense of the numbers, you first have to learn a little about the science, and how the biology of a particular species actually works.  Then you look at the data, and relate it to the biology of the relevant species.  Only after you can do that are you ready to try to make sense of the numbers, and use them to formulate a policy that can be used to sensibly manage the stock.

Do it the other way around, setting the policy first and then looking for data to support your conclusions, and you can come up with some strange ideas, the kind of mistaken notions that can give fisheries managers unneeded headaches, even if they do take off their shoes before going to sleep for the night.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


Over the past few years, anglers in New England and the upper mid-Atlantic have seen an abundance of black sea bass invade their local waters.  Unfortunately, because abenchmark stock assessment, completed in late 2011, was found to be inadequatefor management purposes, fishery managers have had to set regulations without the aid of clear biological reference points.  Do to such lack of data, black sea bass catch limits have been very restrictive, to avoid overfishing the stock.

At the same time, the abundance of fish has drawn a lot of attention from anglers, who are always eager to bring some of the good-tasting sea bass home.  Recreational black sea bass landings increased 46% between 2012, when 1.87 million fish were landed, and 2016, which saw 2.73 million black sea bass brought home. 

During that same time, the average-sized fish has been growing larger.  When measured by weight rather than numbers of fish, landings increased by 77%, from 3.18 million to 5.82 million pounds.

A combination of low catch limits and increasing recreational landings have forced fishery managers to impose very restrictive regulations in an effort to avoid overfishing.  Such regulations often angered anglers, who couldn’t understand why the rules needed to be so restrictive given the abundance of fish.

Thus, the angling community eagerly awaited the results of anew benchmark stock assessment, which was completed late last year.  Last January, rumors began to spread that the assessment had successfully passed through the peer-review process, and would allow the annual catch limit to be substantially increased.

It wasn’t long until the rumors were confirmed; the 2017annual catch limit for black sea bass would be increased by 52%, compared tothe year before.  For a brief time, anglers were happy. 

Then word got out that the estimate of 2016 recreationalblack sea bass landings was actually higherthan the 2017 recreational harvest limit, even though that limit had been increased by about 50%.  Recreational regulations would not be relaxed after all; based on the available numbers, regulations actually needed to be a bit more restrictive, to reduce landings by 8%.  The National Marine Fisheries Service actually gave anglers a break by waiving such additional restrictions, and maintaining the 2016 status quo.

However, anglers didn’t feel like they were getting a break; they expected some regulatory relief. 

And things got worse when the original estimate of landings in November/December of 2016 was replaced by actual figures from the Marine Recreational Information Program, which showed that landings in the last two months of the year were far higher than expected; now, anglers were very possibly facing regulations tight enough to reduce landings by over 20%.

So the question is, given that the population of black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina is currently more than twice the number of fish needed to produce maximum sustainable yield, and given that the recreational harvest limit has been increased by roughly 50%, why are anglers looking at more restrictive regulations in 2017?

The answer lies in the uncertainty surrounding the harvest estimates provided by the Marine Recreational Information Program .  The problem doesn’t arise out of MRIP itself, but in the way the MRIP numbers are used.  Managers try to apply the landings estimates on too small a scale, and by doing so, introduce a high level of uncertainty into their predictions of how effective management measures will be.

“The size of sampling error depends upon the sample size, the sample design and the natural variability within the population.  As a general rule, increasing the sample size decreases sampling error.
“…the more samples you draw, the more precise your estimate will be.”
The MRIP Handbook also notes that

“In MRIP, sampling error is reported as percent standard error or PSE which expresses the standard error as a percentage of the estimate.  The lower the PSE the greater the confidence that the estimate is close to the population value.”
That being the case, managing a fishery on a coastwide basis, using annual landings estimates, would provide the largest sample size, the most accurate estimate of black sea bass landings and regulations, based on such landings estimate, that are most likely to constrain harvest to or below the annual harvest limit.

Unfortunately, that’s not how black sea bass are managed.

While NMFS does establish size limits, bag limits and seasons for federal waters, it is the states, acting through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which establishes regulations for each state.  And it is those state regulations that create the real problems.

Most black sea bass are landed in the states that lie between Massachusetts and New Jersey.  None of those states shared the same regulations in 2016.

In New Jersey, anglers could keep 10 black sea bass, at least 12 ½ inches long, from May 23 through June 19.  Then the season closed for a few days, to reopen on July 1; from then until August 31, the bag limit dropped to just 2 fish, although the size limit remained the same.  After that, the season closed for nearly two months, reopening on October 22 and remaining open for the rest of the year; however, during that period, the bag limit increased to 15 fish, and the size limit increased to 13 inches.

Confused yet?  And that was only one state…

New York was a little better.  It maintained a 15-inch minimum size throughout the year, but steadily increased its bag limit from 3 between June 27 and August 31, to 8 in September and October and 10 in November and December.  

On the other side of Long Island Sound, Connecticut had the same 15-inch size limit, but its season ran from May 1 through December 31.  For most anglers, the bag limit was 5 fish per day, but if they fished from a party or charter boat, the bag limit increased to 8.

In Rhode Island, the sectors were all treated the same, and a 15-inch minimum size prevailed throughout the season.  However, the bag limit changed with the seasons, from 3 fish from June 24 through August 31 to 7 fish from September 1 through the end of the year.

Out of all the five northern states, only Massachusetts had one simple set of regulations—a 5-fish bag, 15-inch minimum size and a season that ran from May 21 through August 31.

When you look at the widely varying regulations between neighboring states that, in many cases, share the same waters, you can’t help but wonder how such a hash of regulations can properly manage the fishery.  And the truth is, they don’t manage it well at all.

Remember the percentage standard error, or PSE, that gauges the precision of the recreational harvest estimates generated by MRIP?  It tells the whole story.

If we look at the estimate for all black sea bass caught in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region in 2016, without breaking the estimate down by state, sector or wave, we find a PSE of 8.3.  That’s reasonably precise, and provides a pretty good basis for management measures. 

But if we start breaking that down into states—say, the estimate for Massachusetts, which maintained consistent regulations throughout the year—the PSE jumps to 18.5, which is still adequate for management purposes, but lacks the precision of the regional estimate.  Regulations based on state-by-state catch estimates, rather than the regional estimate, will embody greater uncertainty, and are somewhat less likely to achieve their management goals.

Then, when you go beyond mere state estimates, but begin to slice-and-dice the state landings by sector or by two-month “wave,” the uncertainty is compounded.

If we look at New Jersey, the PSE is 27.1 for the short May-June season and 22.8 for July and August.  It then jumps to an effectively unusable 55.8 for the few days that the season is open in September and October, and an unreliable 45.2 for November and December.  Given those PSEs, anyone who believes that the harvest estimates are reliable, or that the regulations will do much to stop overfishing is just kidding themselves.

Elsewhere in the northeast, where bag limits change but the size limit is constant and the seasons are not broken up by interim closures, PSEs are not quite so large, but still indicate a relatively low level of precision.  In New York, the PSEs are 20.9 for July and August, 28.6 for September and October and 33.0 for November and December.  In Rhode Island, the PSEs for the same periods are 21.3, 29.7 and 56.1, respectively, and 48.5 for the few days that the season was open in June.

That’s not very good.

Connecticut demonstrated that maintaining different bag limits for sectors, rather than for time of year, might only make things even worse, as 2016 PSEs were and completely useless 101.9 for shorebound anglers, 27.2 for party boats, an undependable 78.5 for charter boats and 17.0 for private vessels.

Yet no one should be surprised by such results.  Prior to the December 2015 joint meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board, the Mid-Atlantic Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee advised that it

“encourages the development of more consistent regulations between states within the regions.  The Monitoring Committee notes that the difficulty of analyzing the effects of new regulations increases with management complexity and hyper-customization of measures.  One of the intended benefits of ad-hoc regional management was to have similar regulations by region.  Complex sets of measures, including splits by mode, season, and sector, continue to be implemented, contrary to previous recommendations of the Monitoring and Technical Committees.  Additionally, MRIP data for state, wave and mode combinations is typically associated with very high PSEs that often are higher than the percentage of the landings adjustments required…”
However, the states ignored that good advice, and again adopted management “hyper-customized” management measures that, in the end, don’t represent an intent to properly manage the fishery as much as they do an effort to manipulate the data in a way that is likely to provide the longest season and biggest kill for that states anglers.

By doing so, the states gain in the short term, as the increased harvest opportunities tend to mitigate anglers’ and the angling industry’s complaints about restrictive regulations; however, such actions end up hurting the management process over the long haul, as overfishing ensues, which results in the sort of tightening regulations expected in 2017, that serve only to alienate anglers from fisheries managers.

Quite simply, the current approach to black sea bass management doesn’t work. 

It is time for the states to stop coddling the complainers who will never be satisfied with any restrictions on landings, and start acting responsibly, for the benefit of the fish, the fishermen and the fishery management process.

It is time to abandon overly-complicated regulatory schemes that stress the available data beyond the breaking point, and result in management measures that are doomed to fail.

It is time to adopt simple management measures that are consistent throughout the year, and throughout the region.  

Such approach was first tried with scup in 2004, when the states that accounted for more than 95% of the recreational landings joined together in a region that shared the same size limit, bag limit and season length.  Since then, the recreational scup fishery, which was once plagued by constantly fluctuating state harvests and resulting regulatory changes, has been remarkably stable, with abundant fish and generous bag limits.

Taking a similar approach to black sea bass management, with all states between Massachusetts and New Jersey sharing a common set of regulations, would probably be equally beneficial, and would almost certainly result in a more stable and predictable fishery than exists today.

That’s the right way to manage the fishery.  But to get there, states must abandon their narrow, partisan views, and look to the good of the whole.  

In today’s world, that’s always easier said than done.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


The White House has recently released its budget outline for the next fiscal year.  Titled America First:  A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, it charts a very different course than budgets proposed by other recent administrations.  

Whatever such budget proposal would do for, or to, other federal programs, it bodes ill for saltwater fish stocks and the fishermen who seek them.

To be fair, the budget outline calls fisheries management a “core function” of the Department of Commerce, and states that the Administration’s budget

“prioritizes and protects investments in core Government functions [and]…supporting the Government’s role in managing marine resources.”
We can only hope that will turn out to be true, and that the Administration’s approach to managing marine resources will emphasize long-term sustainability over short-term gain and long-term depletion.  However, particulars that appear in various sections of the budget outline give cause for concern.

In the northeast and throughout most of the Mid-Atlantic, one of the greatest concerns relates to the complete elimination of federal funding for efforts to improve water quality in ecologically-important regions such as Chesapeake Bay, where 70% and 90% of the Atlantic coast’s migratory striped bass are spawned each year. 

The Administration justifies such cuts my saying

“The Budget returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities, allowing [the Environmental Protection Agency] to focus on its highest national priorities.”
Such a position ignores the fact that water bodies such as Chesapeake Bay are merely a portion of far larger systems, in which water is first collected in small tributary streams, flows into larger rivers which are themselves tributary to major waterways that eventually flow into coastal bays.  Pollution can and is introduced into the water at any point along its journey, and often crosses state boundaries before it flows into salt water.

Consider how the potential affect on striped bass spawning in Chesapeake Bay.

“Eric Schaeffer, a former director of the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] Office of Civil Enforcement, said the federal agency’s enforcement authority plays a crucial role in negotiations among the six states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, particularly those like Pennsylvania that contributes a significant portion of the agricultural pollution but lack bay frontage.”
Absent federal involvement in Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, it could become very difficult for the states of Maryland and Virginia, where the striped bass spawning rivers are located, to prevent Pennsylvania farmers from allowing pollutants, whether in the form of pesticides, fertilizers or livestock waste, to run off into waters that will eventually flow into and degrade the bay.

“Larval striped bass are…very susceptible to toxic pollutants like arsenic, copper, cadmium, aluminum and malathion, a common pesticide.  Studies showed that chlorination of effluent from sewage plants and electric power stations adversely affect zooplankton, leading to starvation of newly hatched striped bass that feed on it.”

“A 10-year study of Chesapeake Bay fishes by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science provides the first quantitative evidence on a bay-wide that low-oxygen “dead zones” are impacting the distribution and abundance of ‘demersal’ fishes—those that live and feed near the Bay bottom.
“The affected species—which include Atlantic croaker, white perch, spot, striped bass, and summer flounder—are a key part of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and support important commercial and recreational fisheries…
“Low-oxygen conditions—what scientists call ‘hypoxia’—form when excess loads of nitrogen from fertilizers, sewage, and other sources feed algae blooms in coastal waters.  When these algae die and sink, they provide a rich food source for bacteria, which in the act of decomposition take up dissolved oxygen from nearby waters.”
Thus, the proposed budget’s defunding of the Chesapeake Bay program would create a double-barreled threat to striped bass.  It would take away the EPA’s ongoing enforcement effort, making it easier for out-of-state polluters to degrade water quality, and it would remove money available to clean up pollution sources.  That clean-up money is critical, for as the Richmond Times-Dispatch also noted,

“Since 1983, the [Environmental Protection Agency] has been the lead federal partner to work to reduce agricultural and other pollution in the bay, a relationship that has achieved resurgent clam and oyster populations, renewed growth of the underwater grasses that shelter them, and decreased ‘dead zones,’ or areas of oxygen-deficient water.  About two-thirds of the federal funding goes to direct pollution-reduction grants to farmers and municipalities.  The rest goes to monitoring the bay’s water quality.”
And anything that degrades Chesapeake Bay’s ability to produce and sustain healthy year classes of juvenile striped bass will also degrade the commercial and recreational striped bass fishery in every state between Maine and North Carolina.

Up in New England, striped bass aren’t the only important species threatened by the proposed budget.

“Since 2004 the [Gulf of Maine] has warmed faster than anyplace else on the planet, except for an area northeast of Japan, and during the ‘Northwest Atlantic Ocean heat wave’ of 2012 average water temperatures hit the highest level in the 150 years that humans have been recording them.
“As a result, many native species—boreal and subarctic creatures at the southern edges of their ranges—are in retreat.  Lobster populations have been shifting northward and out to sea along our coast as they’ve abandoned Long Island Sound almost entirely.  Many of other commercially important bottom dwelling fish—including cod, pollock and winter flounder—have been withdrawing from Maine and into the southwestern part of the gulf, where the bottom water is cooler.”

“A team of marine scientists found that rising temperatures in the [Gulf of Maine] decreased reproduction and increased mortality among the once-plentiful Atlantic cod, adding to the toll of many decades of overfishing…
“[The scientists] speculate that the warmer waters might result in young cod starving from a lack of prey or dying from increased exposure to predators before they reached maturity.  The cod, they say, might move from shallow to deeper waters where more predators lurk, and earlier seasons might extend predation.  The researchers also report a link between temperatures and mortality in adult fish, though some other scientists question that finding.”
Yet, despite the clear connection between rising water temperatures and the abundance of fish stocks, the proposed Administration budget would do away with funding related to climate change.  Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, baldly stated that

“Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward.  We’re not spending money on that anymore.  We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.  So that is a specific tie to his campaign.”
New England fishermen, who are watching ocean ecosystems mutate before their eyes, might not agree that investigating the impacts of climate change is “a waste of your money,” but it’s not clear that anyone cares about their opinion.

But at least there is research suggesting a connection between cod an climate change, and between striped bass and pollution.  The Administration’s proposed budget would also eliminate funding for important fisheries research, so we not even be aware of what we don’t know.  The budget outline notes that the Administration’s budget

“Zeroes out over $250 million in targeted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education including Sea Grant, which primarily benefit State and local stakeholders.”

Fishermen may often overlook the value of Sea Grant programs, and I admit to being a sometime critic of Sea Grant researchers being too focused on the desires of the fishing industry, and not focused enough on doing independent research.  But I’ll also admit that Sea Grant researchers here in New York have done valuable work that affected both the recreational and commercial fisheries.

During the 1990s, Sea Grant biologist Mark Malchoff did extensive work to determine the survival of fish released by recreational anglers; his study on the survival of released summer flounder led to a substantial reduction in the estimate of discard mortality, and thus let anglers enjoy more liberal recreational fishing regulations.  He also helped to prepare information that was distributed to anglers, telling them how to better assure the survival of fish that they released.

Such research, impacting fisheries on every coast, will be lost if the proposed budget’s cut to Sea Grant funding is made.

Regulators would thus lose a source of information that is important to the regulatory process; however, the regulatory process itself has little value unless regulations are enforced.  The proposed budget would hinder enforcement as well.

Yet if planned cuts to the Coast Guard budget go through, enforcement would be compromised.

According to the New York Times, the Administration intends to slash 14% from the Coast Guard’s budget in order to pay for its much-ballyhooed border wall and increased immigration enforcement.  

Any reduction in Coast Guard patrol capabilities would, ironically, make it harder for the agency to intercept Mexican lanchas that sneak into American waters of the Gulf of Mexico to poach the already fully-utilized red snapper, protect striped bass in federal waters from illegal harvest and conduct other fishery enforcement efforts.

And we need to remember that the Coast Guard doesn’t just protect fish; it protects fishermen, too.  I’ve spent decades running to offshore shark and tuna grounds, and often found myself taking my boat to the edge of the continental shelf, many miles and many hours from shore.  

When you’re out there, no matter how well you prepare, anything can happen (a few years ago, someone I know was running along the East Wall of Hudson Canyon, about 80 miles from port on a dead-calm and seemingly empty sea, when a fin whale surfaced beneath his boat, lifting it from the water and completely destroying his running gear, but fortunately leaving the vessel water-tight).  There is something very reassuring in knowing that the Coast Guard is standing by in case of emergency, ready to respond to the first signal from an emergency beacon.

Should the proposed budget go through in its current form, some of that reassurance will no longer be there.

The good news is that there is virtually no chance that the Administration budget will make it through Congress unscathed.  As the Seattle Times recently observed,

“Presidential budgets rarely get approved.”
It’s far easier for a president to propose budget cuts than it is for a member of Congress to approve them, as each of those cuts—to the Chesapeake Bay programs, to Sea Grant, to the Coast Guard—affects real people in districts that those members of Congress represent.  Constituents’ opinions matter.

And, as a practical matter, it will take 60 votes to pass a budget in the Senate, where 48 Democrats, and hopefully some Republicans, won’t easily be convinced that climate change spending is “a waste of your money.”

The Administration’s proposed budget is the first step in a long process of negotiation with Congress, which will try to strike a balance between President, party and constituents.  

Striking that balance is a hard thing to do.

Our job is to make it harder, and to let our Representatives and Senators know that portions of the proposed budget are bad for the fish, and bad for us.  And that we would be very upset if those bad proposals somehow became law.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


Fisheries management is a complicated endeavor.
Before issuing regulations that will prevent overfishing and maintain healthy fish populations, managers need to consider multiple factors.

They must estimate the size of fish populations, and decide whether such populations must be rebuilt. They must determine how many fish are lost to predation and other natural causes each year, and how many new fish, from the most recent spawns, are being recruited into the population. And they must determine how many fish are removed from the population by commercial and recreational fishermen each year.
Other considerations also come into play. Is abundance increasing or decreasing at current levels of harvest? Are environmental conditions, such as warming water temperatures, having an impact on the stock? Is fishing pressure constant, or are fishermen shifting effort away from one species and onto others?
Stock assessments can be extremely complex and based on data obtained from multiple surveys conducted at the state and federal level. Some surveys will be “fishery-dependent,” meaning that they are surveys based on fishermen’s effort and catches, while other will be “fishery-independent,” when conducted solely for research and management purposes.
Managers know from the outset that, even under the best conditions, there will be some uncertainty in their assessments, and therefore in the regulations that result. However, they do their best to identify the sources of possible error, and to make allowances for both “scientific uncertainty” and “management uncertainty” when setting each year’s rules.

For most sources of uncertainty, that works out pretty well. However, there is one sort of uncertainty that fisheries managers can’t control and can’t account for in their assessments no matter how hard they try.
That’s the uncertainty that results when politicians get involved in the management process.
Unlike scientific or management uncertainty, political uncertainty isn’t related to any sort of data at all. It is not subject to quantification, and it is unpredictable. Political uncertainty arises not out of surveys, biology or any sort of fact, but out of some combination of emotion abetted by legislators who are so eager to help their constituents that they sometimes do not stop to think about whether it’s the right thing to do.
Such legislators sponsor bills that replace well-considered, data-driven fisheries management with arbitrary measures that, in just about every case, conflict with biologists’ advice and threaten the long-term health of the fisheries that they address.
Two recent bills introduced into the House of Representatives by congressmen from the mid-Atlantic region illustrate that principle all too well.
The first of those bills is H.R. 1195, the so-called “Local Fishing Access Act,” introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY).
H.R. 1195 would permit the Secretary of Commerce to open certain federal waters north and west of Block Island, Rhode Island to striped bass fishing. The bill is substantially similar to H.R. 3070, legislation, which Rep. Zeldin introduced in 2015. However, while H.R. 3070 addressed only recreational striped bass fishing in federal waters, H.R. 1195 contains no such restriction, and so would presumably allow commercial striped bass fishing in federal waters as well.

That presents a problem because, on October 20, 2007, President George W. Bush issued an executive order that outlawed commercial fishing for striped bass and red drum in federal waters (the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ). Thus, unless H.R. 1195 contained language specifically overriding such executive order, even if the Secretary opened up all or part of the EEZ to striped bass fishing, commercial striped bass fishing in the EEZ would remain illegal.

That’s a clear oversight, but one that provides a good example of why fisheries management should be left up to professionals who are intimately familiar with the details of the process, and not to legislators who, at best, have a more limited knowledge of the issues and can sometimes be too quick to crank out bills merely to please a vocal constituency.
In the end, Rep. Zeldin’s legislation is relatively harmless. The Secretary of Commerce already has power to allow, or to continue to prohibit, recreational striped bass harvest in the EEZ. A bill such as H.R. 1195, which merely provides that “The Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, may issue regulations to permit and regulate Atlantic striped bass fishing” in the EEZ doesn’t change the legal status quo at all.

That’s not the case with another recent proposal.
On February 23, Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) announced plans to introduce legislation that would prevent the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) from implementing its planned 30% reduction in the annual catch limit for summer flounder.

Such reduction is necessary because summer flounder recruitment—the number of new fish entering the population—has been below average for six consecutive years, causing the biomass to drop to just 58% of the level needed to produce the largest sustainable harvest. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistics Committee has warned that “the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken [emphasis in original].”

Yet Rep. Pallone appears to be focused solely on short-term economic concerns, saying, “These cuts are a body blow to the recreational fishing industry in New Jersey and that is why Congress has to take action. The recreational fishing industry contributes over $1 billion to our state’s economy and directly supports 20,000 jobs…”

Rep. Pallone appears to give no thought to what will happen to the recreational fishing industry in the event that NMFS is right, which appears very likely. In such case the proposed legislation would cause the stock to shrink further, making summer flounder harder to catch, something which would hardly be good for New Jersey’s fishing industry.
He also made the curious statement that “The cuts for New Jersey are greater than what NOAA had required for the region,” which is patently untrue. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) ultimately adopted an option that would reduce 2017 recreational harvest by 28 to 32 percent, when compared to 2016. That is a significantly lesser reduction than the 41 percent regional reduction that NMFS had called for.

Rep. LoBiondo also made a number of questionable statements when he referred to “draconian cuts to New Jersey fishermen which allow neighboring states to freely pillage our waters at more favorable limits,” and complained that “the use of questionable methodologies and outdated science by NOAA bureaucrats will cut our fishing industry off at the knees.”

The option selected by ASMFC will include New Jersey in a region that also includes Connecticut and New York, which has been the case since 2014. All states in the region will have the same 3-fish bag and 19-inch minimum size. All will share the same season length. And the region that includes Delaware, New Jersey’s southern neighbor, will adopt regulations that are less restrictive than New Jersey’s. Thus, Rep. LoBiondo’s statement about “cuts…which allow neighboring states to freely pillage [New Jersey] waters at more favorable limits” is just plain wrong.

His claims of “questionable methodologies” and “outdated science” are equally dubious.
The methodologies that were used to prepare the 2013 benchmark summer flounder stock assessment was peer-reviewed by a panel of internationally-recognized fisheries scientists, none of whom found such methodologies “questionable.” And even though the benchmark assessment was completed in 2013, it has been updated annually, with the last update completed in June 2016. That hardly qualifies as “outdated science.”

Thus, any legislation that the two congressmen might propose to block NMFS’ summer flounder management efforts would be based on a host of false premises and a clear desire to override science-based management measures. While such legislation might bring short-term economic relief, the science indicates that it would do so at the expense of the summer flounder stock and, ultimately, at the expense of businesses which depend on a healthy summer flounder stock for their very survival.
Legislators can be many good things. Sometimes they are lawmakers; at other times they are advisers, who help constituents navigate an often-confusing federal bureaucracy. Over the course of their careers, they may at times be orators, philosophers, dealmakers or even, when at their best, the conscience of the entire nation.

But they are not trained fisheries managers. When they try to be, and replace the scientists’ reasoned analysis with their own political passions, they enter waters that they are not trained to navigate. Mishap is the likely result.
This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at