After spending over 50 years on and around the water, I have realized that without strong fisheries laws and effective conservation measures, the future of salt water fishing, and America's living marine resources, is dim. Yet conservation is given short shrift by national angling organizations and the angling press. I hope that this blog will incite, inform and inspire salt water fishermen to reclaim their traditional role as the leading advocates for the conservation of America's fisheries.
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 atCaptree 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.
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
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 for6.8 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) hadshrunk 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 theFebruary 2009 meetingof 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 theycondemned New York’s winter flounder to possible extirpation.
And the saddest part of that story is that winter flounder are
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. TheConey Island Pier in Brooklynwas
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 samesmall-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. Buttautog 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 planto 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.”
Not too many people fish
for tautog anymore. Tackle shops and fishing stations haven’t been selling manyfiddlersorgreen 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 arefighting to weakenthe Magnuson-Stevens Fishery
Conservation and Magnuson Act, which protects fish stocks on all of America’s
They say that less restrictive rules will be better for
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 http://conservefish.org/blog/
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.
“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
“…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.
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
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.
“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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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…
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.
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
Remember the percentage standard error, or PSE, that gauges
the precision of the recreational harvest estimates generated by MRIP? It tells the whole story.
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
“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
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.
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.
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
“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.
“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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
toH.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 orderthat 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,commercialstriped bass fishing in the EEZ would
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 Commercealreadyhas powerto 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.
Such reduction is necessary
because summer flounder recruitment—the number of new fish entering the
population—has beenbelow 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
“the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished,which could happen as early as next
yearif increased efforts to
curb fishing mortality are not undertaken [emphasis in original].”
Yet Rep. Pallone appears to
befocused 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
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 optionthat
wouldreduce 2017 recreational harvest by 28 to 32 percent, when
compared to 2016. That is a significantlylesserreduction than the 41 percent regional
reduction that NMFS had called for.
Rep. LoBiondo also madea number of questionable statementswhen 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 willinclude New Jersey in a regionthat also includes Connecticut and New
York, which hasbeen 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.
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 http://conservefish.org/blog/