Sunday, October 29, 2017


Anyone who pays attention to salt water fisheries matters knows that a coalition of anglers’ rights groups and fishing tackle and boatbuilding trade associations are trying to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act(Magnuson-Stevens).

The effort is rooted in their assertion that Magnuson-Stevens, with its prohibitions on overfishing, its annual catch limits and its mandate that overfished stocks be promptly rebuilt, isn’t good for recreational anglers, although it’s fine for managing commercial fishermen. A generally unspoken assumption, underlying such claim, is that anglers, as a group, catch fewer fish than commercial fishermen do.
That was hinted at in comments made by Dr. Larry McKinney, who believes that Magnuson-Stevens “was developed for larger commercial fisheries based on biomass extraction and not for access—what recreational fisheries need. [emphasis added]” (Dr. McKinney is the Executive Director of the Harte Research Institute (HRI) at Texas A&M University; HRI is home to the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation, which has received at least $500,000 in support from the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the organizations leading the effort to weaken Magnuson-Stevens).

However, the ultimate effort to convince policymakers that anglers don’t catch many fish was made by Mike Nussman, the president of the American Sportfishing Association.
According to the blog of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Nussman gave a speech impugning Magnuson-Stevens. As he spoke, “In one hand, he held a glass pitcher filled with gumballs, which represented the total amount of saltwater fish caught by commercial fishermen. In the other hand, he held a pitcher with two gumballs. That represented the total number of saltwater fish caught by recreational anglers.”

Was Nussman right? Do commercial fishermen really account for such a large proportion of all fish landed?
The answer is clearly yes and, just as clearly, no.
It all depends on what species of fish are considered.
U.S. commercial fishery landings and recreational harvest estimates for 2015 support the gumball analogy. Commercial fishermen dominated the landings, harvesting nearly 9.8 billion pounds of fish in that year, while recreational anglers are thought to have landed less than 170 million pounds.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Much of the commercial harvest is made up of only a few species, such as walleye pollock (3.26 billion pounds), menhaden (1.63 billion pounds) and Pacific cod (699 million pounds), which are not generally pursued by anglers (in 2015, recreational fishermen landed about 1.2 million pounds of menhaden, which was probably all used as bait; there are no recorded recreational landings of either Pacific cod or walleye pollock, although a handful of cod were undoubtedly caught).
So yes, commercial fishermen catch a lot of fish, but most are fish that anglers don’t care about very much. If Nussman had only considered species pursued by anglers when he put on his show, he would have had far, far more gumballs in the recreational jar.
Commercial fishermen still harvest most of the groundfish up in New England, accounting for at least 90% of all Atlantic cod, pollock and haddock landings. In the Mid-Atlantic, they caught 79% of the scup and 69% of the summer flounder (although the commercial percentage probably dropped below 60% in 2016); in the South Atlantic, they landed about 78% of the Spanish mackerel, and roughly 59% of the kings.
On the other hand, recreational fishermen dominate their share of fisheries, too.
When only federally-managed fisheries are considered, Atlantic-coast anglers landed 95% of the wahoo, 94% of the cobia and 90% of the dolphin. In the South Atlantic, recreational fishermen accounted for 89% of the mutton snapper harvest and 86% of the yellowtail, along with 64% of the greater amberjack, 60% of the red grouper and 52% of the black grouper. In the Mid-Atlantic, anglers landed 74% of both the black sea bass and the bluefish.
State-managed fisheries on the Atlantic coast show a similar pattern. Recreational fishermen were responsible for 95% of the red drum landings, 89% of the tautog (blackfish), 84% of the black drum, 83% of the spotted seatrout, 81% of the sheepshead, 77% of the striped bass and 60% of the pompano. Commercial fishermen harvest 54% of the weakfish.
It’s more difficult to come up with comparable numbers for the Gulf of Mexico, as not all Gulf states cooperate with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Recreational Information Program. However, in 2016, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council published a blog post titled “2016’s Most Wanted Fish,” which included pie charts depicting recreational/commercial allocations.

It turns out that in the Gulf, anglers are given about 80% of the gray triggerfish 75% of the greater amberjack, 65% of the king mackerel, 60% of the gag grouper and 55% of the Spanish mackerel. Commercial fishermen get about 75% of the red grouper and a bare majority, 51%, of the red snapper. However, the recreational sector overfishes red snapper with such regularity that it has actually been responsible for most of the red snapper landings over the past decade.

Despite the incomplete Gulf data, it’s clear that anglers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts not only kill a lot of fish in absolute terms, but also are responsible for most of the landings of many popular species. That being the case, it is also clear that the proposed Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act of 2017, which would allow anglers to avoid the discipline imposed by annual catch limits and the accountability measures that apply when such annual catch limits are exceeded, could easily jeopardize many important fish stocks.

Commercial fishermen do land the lion’s share of many fish stocks, but there is no credible effort to abolish the annual catch limits that affect them, or to relieve them of accountability if they overfish a particular stock of fish in any given year.
Looking at the matter objectively, it is difficult to justify treating recreational fishermen any differently. When anglers are responsible for landing 70%, 80% and sometimes more than 90% of many fish stocks, they are clearly capable of doing substantial harm to such stocks should they overfish. Thus, it is only prudent to constrain their landings with annual catch limits, and hold them accountable to the public should they exceed such limits.
Last August, Shannon Carroll, deputy director of the Alaska Conservation Council, testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Magnuson-Stevens, held in Soldotna, Alaska. He addressed the argument that recreational fisheries are somehow unique, saying “We may agree that [anglers] have different objectives, but the end result of both sectors is really the same—it’s the harvesting of a public resource. I would urge this committee to assure that sound science and individual accountability are the foundation of any new proposal.”

That makes a lot of sense. Both the recreational and the commercial sector have the capability to overfish many fish stocks, and both have a responsibility to limit its landings to sustainable levels. Both recreational and commercial fishermen should be held accountable if they engage in overfishing.
For a dead fish is a dead fish, and it has the same impact on the stock, whether it is killed by a recreational or a commercial fisherman. If the recreational sector kills the greater percentage of any fish stock, the greater responsibility for the health of that stock should be placed on its shoulders as well.


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

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Over the past few years, we’ve heard a number of organizations such as the Center for Sportfishing Policy and the Coastal Conservation Association argue that states manage fishery resources better than do federal fishery managers.

“State managers are better equipped to manage recreational fishing and have a proven track record of finding a balance between conservation of marine resources and reasonable public access,”

“supports driving management of marine resources to the lowest level of government possible.  That position is staked in the belief that the states simply have a better grasp of how to manage these resources in ways that assure their health and stability.  At the same time, state agencies have proven their expertise in providing the greatest access to those resources and maximizing the benefits of those resources for their citizens.”
It all sounds benign.

But if you look behind the curtain of smoke that these folks are blowing, as they try to obscure your view of reality by saying seemingly benevolent things such as

“Recreational fishing and boating are two of America’s oldest and most beloved pastimes.  They are family-friendly activities that connect people to nature and help them develop an abiding respect for our natural resources,”
you’ll find a much uglier reality that reveals another of America’s oldest pastimes—pure power politics—and is anything but natural resources-friendly.

Americans recently got a look at that ugly reality when, in response to a lawsuit brought by two conservation groups challenging the reopening of the private boat recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, the Commerce Department released a number of documents that clearly show how the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industry influenced the decision, and that the Secretary of Commerce was fully aware that the extension was contrary to law.

At the end of the meeting, Ross asked the attendees some questions, and asked that they provide answers at a later date.

“Speciale’s first request was about more red snapper for Gulf of Mexico anglers.
“’…we must return to a recreational red snapper season of no less [than] the 60 days for the 2017 and 2018 seasons,’ he wrote.
“’I understand that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and the regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries in the southeast region will present obstacles to this initiative, but they must be overcome so that we may restore a sense of fairness for recreational anglers.’
“Speciale continued:  ‘Excessive precaution and fear of frivolous litigation from the environmental industry has created a massive bureaucrat [sic] roadblock that has been unfair to anglers and stifled our industry.’
“’We ask that you overcome these obstacles at the regional fishery management councils and Regional Administrators’ offices.”
At the same time, the Center for Sportfishing Policy, which includes the American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association and National Marine Manufacturers Association (to which both Yamaha and Maverick belong) among its members, has long been working a parallel track with state fisheries agencies and members of Congress, in an attempt to sidestep the constraints imposed by science-based federal red snapper management.

All of those efforts finally came together in June, when the Commerce Department extended the private boat red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, knowing full well that such extension would lead  to overfishing and so violate federal law.  The documents produced as a result of the conservation groups' lawsuit demonstrate just how blatant that knowing violation of the law really was.

“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing…  [emphasis added],”
as soon as the Commerce Secretary decided to move forward after receiving such information, his intent to violate federal law was clear.

But what is even more startling is how cynically the federal bureaucrats went about evading the law.

“An action to extend the summer season to 46 days (3 days a week through June, July and August with 4th of July and Labor Day included) would be very well received and would reset the relationship with the States.  It would result in overfishing the stock by six million pounds (40%), which will draw criticism from environmental groups and commercial fishermen.  However, NMFS agrees that the stock could handle this level on a temporary basis.
“Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act a court can’t issue a temporary restraining order, so your action would remain in effect for at least 45 days before a court could act…”
In other words, “sure, extending the season isn’t legal, but because of a loophole in the law, we can get away with it anyway, at least for a while…”

“will result in the overall catch limit for this year being exceeded by 30% and 50% [depending on how many additional fishing days were provided].  NMFS has assessed the impact of such an overage and agrees it does not threaten the health of the stock.  It may slow rebuilding of the stock, but so far the stock is ahead of schedule.  Either option would mean that, absent Congressional action to modify the Magnuson-Stevens Act requirements for the Gulf, the recreational season next year would be significantly reduced.  All the state fishery managers know this, but agree that coordinated action has the greater long term benefit.
“…Proceeding with either option will be opposed by the commercial fishermen and the charter operators, even though neither of their seasons will be affected this year.  Their concerns will be that overfishing by the recreational sector will result in an overall reduction in the catch limit for next year, and hence a reduction in commercial and charter catch limits next year… 
Either option will almost certainly draw a lawsuit, either by the commercial sector or the environmental community, or both.  As discussed, they cannot get a temporary restraining order (TRO) because the Magnuson-Stevens Act prohibits them…” 
Federal officials are supposed to try to obey federal law, not try to find ways to frustrate clear directions from Congress, but that’s not the way things seem to be working on the fisheries front these days.

“The Center for Sportfishing Policy’s role is to affect public policy related to the conservation of marine resources with broad abilities to pursue political solutions.  The organization is non-partisan and focuses on having an impact in the national political arena, principally Congress and federal regulatory agencies.
“The Center is organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code; accordingly, donations are not tax deductible.  Additionally, the Center has established the Center for Sportfishing Policy Political Action Committee (Center PAC), so that its members can fully participate in elective politics…”
“Fully participate in elective politics,” of course, means spready as much money as reasonably possible around to the folks on Capitol Hill.  

Over the past few election cycles, the Center has handed out at least $332,800 to federal legislators likely to support its legislative goals.  Included among those receiving the Center’s largess are the sponsors of one of the its favorite pieces of legislation, H.R. 2023, the so-called Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act of 2017, which would water down Magnuson-Stevens’ conservation provisions as applied to recreational anglers, including Rep. Garret Graves (R-Louisiana), Rep. Robert Wittman (R-Virginia), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), six of the ten legislators who introduced the bill.

Such “full participation” is hardly unusual, or even new. 

As I’ve mentioned in this blog from time to time, I was inside the fishery management process for quite a while, as a director of one of the big angling advocacy groups.  Some time ago, maybe it was in the late 1990s, or if not, in the very early 2000s, all of us attending a national meeting were handed what almost seemed like a shopping list; in one column was a list of federal legislators, in another a suggested dollar amount—which ranged into the thousands for important folks, like subcommittee chairmen, but was as little as $500 for freshman legislators—that we were asked to have our state members donate, in their  own names, to the appropriate parties.

It was made very clear that there was to be no quid pro quo of any sort—the donations were just a way to gain easier “access” to the legislators in question.  Still, just as “access” stands as a euphemism for “more dead fish” in today’s recreational fisheries management debate, it’s not unlikely that “access” in the case of those donations also implied the hope of receiving some sort of benefit benefit at some point down the road.  

However, even with such “access,” and despite some of the angling and boatbuilding industries’ recent successes, affecting federal fishery management policy can be a very difficult thing to do.  That’s particularly true at the agency level, where a strong Magnuson-Stevens Act helps to keep the bureaucrats in line, and offers public advocates, in and outside of government, the chance to bring litigation when the law is violated (which, of course, is why groups such as the Center, CCA and ASA are trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens).

Thus, we see the effort to move fishery management to the state level, to “the lowest level of government,” as CCA puts it, where both bureaucrats and legislators are easier to influence. 

While the recent, unfortunate reopening of the red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, and the equally recent, and equally unfortunate,decision by the Commerce Department to override the Atlantic States MarineFisheries Commission’s decision to sanction New Jersey for failing to complywith ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan, can be viewed as temporary aberrations, facilitated by an administration particularly and constitutionally hostile to the concept of natural resource conservation, federal bureaucrats, in most federal administrations, usually have more of a tendency to respect the law.

At the state level, where Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t apply, there is normally no overriding law to respect; there are few if any legal obstacles to prevent state fishery managers, and state legislators, from making politically expedient decisions.  It is a situation that relatively small blocs of people can manipulate relatively easily.

If you want to convince an agency to issue a regulation that you favor, and your own efforts aren’t bearing fruit, your next step is to find someone within your groups who went to college with the relevant bureaucrat, or belongs to the same golf club, or maybe married his or her sister-in-law, and can arrange an introduction.  That gives you access to the decisionmaker.

Or maybe you know the governor’s favorite fishing guide, and use that contact to get your argument heard in the Executive Mansion.

Political contributions remain an important tool.  While many advocacy groups (unlike the Center, but like some of its member organizations) are “501(c)(3)” organizations, which could easily lose their tax exemption if they donated to a political campaign, nothing prevents one of their members from holding a fundraiser at their home, at the member’s expense, where a bunch of big donors show up wearing the advocacy group’s hats or jackets and making it clear that while the donations come from their individual accounts, they all belong to and support the goals of that particular organization.

You can imagine how, if the folks holding such event were big players in the Gulf oil industry or maybe major-league real estate developers down in Florida, their donations might impact state policy with respect to, say, recreational red snapper management…

And that helps you to see why such folks might prefer to have states, rather than NMFS, manage their fisheries.

Which is why the current fight over the future of Magnuson-Stevens is so important. 

Right now, we have a choice. 

Do we want to have our fisheries managed by professional fisheries managers, in accord with good science and standards established by law?

Or do we want them managed at the whim of political donors, who are likely to show the same respect for our living marine resources that other donors have shown for our public lands, once-clean waters and air?

Which do you choose?

Sunday, October 22, 2017


I came back from a trip out of town a few days ago, to find the November/December issue of Sport Fishing magazine waiting on the kitchen counter.

I picked it up and turned to the Editorial page, as I usually do.  It’s always worth reading.  Doug Olander, Sport Fishing’s editor, is a thoughtful, reasonable sort of writer, who is willing to look well beneath the surface of the issues that impact salt water fishermen and the stocks that they pursue.  Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t, but his thoughts are always well-presented and worth real consideration.

The editorial in the November/December issue was no exception to that rule.

The topic was the current, fraught relationship between many salt water anglers and the conservation community. 

Olander noted three recent alleged “wins” for the recreational fishing community—the Commerce Department’s decision to extend the private-boat recreational season for Gulf of Mexico red snapper, its decision not to enforce the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s determination that New Jersey was out of compliance with ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s decision not to list Pacific bluefin tuna under the Endangered Species Act and observed that sportfishing suddenly seems to matter in decisionmakers’ eyes.

He also noted that the conservation community has recently been very visible opposing legislation supported by elements of the recreational fishing community, which would amend the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs fishing in federal waters.

At that point, Olander could have entered into the kind of rant that has become all too typical in the angling press, condemning the conservation community and accusing them of trying to push anglers off the water and forcing them to stop fishing.  But that’s not how he operates.  Instead, once again, we got something thoughtful.

“I realize that many of my fellow fishermen consider such groups as an evil-incarnate enemy.  Vilification and hating are the easy responses.  But more reasoned voices realize that, at the least, the end goal of these environmental groups is one that everyone supports:  safeguarding our marine-fish populations.
“The issue, of course, and where the disagreement comes in, is how best to do that…
“I recall, back in the 1990s, when some large environmental groups really did reach out, trying to find common ground.  But in the past 15 or so years, mistrust and outright hostility have increased to toxic levels…
“Tearing down the walls to find common ground for cooperation represents an extraordinary challenge, but stranger things have happened.”

For while there were other parts of the editorial where Olander made it clear that he wasn't necessarily a fan of the various conservation groups, he had the integrity to admit that at least their end goal was the right one—healthy fish populations.  

That admission alone could cause some of the more militant anglers’ rights advocates to make him a target of their typically vitriolic attacks.

I have a lot of sympathy for what Olander said, because I have long had a foot in both worlds.  I caught my first fish when I was barely able to walk, and have been an angler ever since.  And I fished through the striped bass collapse of the 1970s and ‘80s, when I watched fisheries managers dither instead of trying to stem the decline. I have been an advocate for strong and effective conservation measures ever since.

Over that time, I’ve also seen both conservation groups and anglers do stupid things.

The recreational angling community, feeling that they would be shut out of some of their most productive fishing grounds, immediately felt threatened by the proposed closed areas, and mobilized to oppose the conservation groups’ efforts.

While it’s true that some environmental groups reached out to anglers during that time—Doug Olander and I both attended a meeting with various such organizations, hosted in New York City by the Norcross Wildlife Foundation—there wasn’t much meeting of the minds going on.  It was more the environmental folks telling anglers what they were planning to do, and why, and anglers pushing back.

“…If the enviros had bothered to communicate with sportsmen, they could have avoided a war, gained allies, and learned what kind of [marine protected areas] are genuinely beneficial to fish.”

Instead, Williams relates, the then-responsible American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, responded to the conservation groups’ heavy-handed tactics with a press release warning that

“Extreme Environmentalists Offer Misleading Statements on [Marine Protected Areas},”

“Mostly, though, the ASA has maintained its cool.  Not so the otherwise savvy, effective CCA (Coastal Conservation Association).  For example, I and my fellow members received the following communication from President David Cummins.  ‘Recreational fishing is under attack as never before…attack by the feds and the radical environmentalists…Environmental extremists are conspiring with federal bureaucrats to take away our freedom to fish…These No Fishing Zones are a power grab; they’re all about control of the citizens, not protection of anything…Now picture this:  the fish-no-more map proposed by these well-funded environmentalists.  I’ve seen it, and I can tell you what it looks like.  You’ll be stunned.  All along the Atlantic, from Maine on south, wherever there are aggregations of fish, they’re proposing to ban fishing…’”
Cummins’ letter, which was intended to drum up donations for CCA’s Legal Defense Fund, contained far too much hyperbole.  However, I sat on CCA’s National Executive Board at the time, and I was a Vice-Chair of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee, so I know that the fear of no-take marine reserves expressed in that letter wasn’t feigned.  Everyone was afraid that we anglers were going to be permanently forced off the water.

However, the conservation groups’ clumsy efforts to create marine reserves ended up doing real harm, driving a wedge between groups representing anglers and the conservation community, giving real credibility to claims, previously uttered only by the extremist fringe of the angling community, that the “environmental industry” was attacking recreational fishermen, and rendering anglers far more likely to believe such assertions.

The wound that wedge created continued to fester.  In 1996, angling and conservation organizations worked together, successfully urging Congress to pass the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which finally added enforceable conservation and stock rebuilding provisions to Magnuson-Stevens.  They worked together again when Magnuson-Stevens was being reauthorized in 2006, to keep those provisions strong, but the relationship was strained, with the angling groups not really trusting the environmental folks.

Today, the wound opened back in 2000 has done more than festered; gangrene has set in.  While the conservation groups have learned a good lesson from their earlier error, and are trying to reach out to anglers, groups such as ASA and CCA have completely changed course, and have adopted policies that are completely opposite the positions that they took a decade ago.

In Something’s Fishy, Ted Williams observed that in 2000,

“[Michael] Nussman [president of ASA] and his predecessor, Mike Hayden, have managed to convince the tackle industry that the best way to improve sales is to preserve and restore fish stocks; it was an idea that hadn’t previously occurred to it…”
And as I mentioned before, I was very involved with CCA back then, and know from personal experience that the leadership there, at that time, were very committed to the idea of “putting the fish first.”  As late as 2010, CCA put out a document, which I helped to write, explaining why there was no need to amend (read “weaken”) Magnuson-Stevens in order to give the law more “flexibility.”

Since then, such organizations have taken far less enlightened positions.  

In June 2015, both ASA and CCA praised the House of Representatives passing H.R. 1335, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, a bill that would undo much of the good work that such organizations did in 1996 and 2007, and add the sort of “flexibility” to Magnuson-Stevens that CCA opposed in 2010.

And while CCA’s former president, David Cummins, complained back in 2000 that “Environmental extremists are conspiring with federal bureaucrats to take away our freedom to fish,” today in 2017, documents obtained through discovery in a lawsuit brought by two conservation organizations, the Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, reveal that

“A letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from Ben Speciale, president of Yamaha Marine Group, was sent on April 3, less than a week after Ross met with Speciale, Mike Nussman, Scott Deal and Pat Murray to discuss the need for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries administrator who had experience with the recreational sector…
“Nussman is president of the American Sportfishing Association, Deal is from Maverick Boats and Murray is from the Coastal Conservation Association…
“Speciale’s first request was about more red snapper for Gulf of Mexico anglers…”

Apparently, “conspiring with federal bureaucrats” is OK if CCA is among the conspirators…

It’s not surprising that the conservation groups were upset about that, and eventually sued.  CCA dismissed the lawsuit with the comment that

“It’s no surprise.  We figured they would sue when this first happened because it’s what they do.  Basically, anytime that there’s something positive for anglers, anti-angler groups like these step up and file lawsuits.”
The CCA representative who made that comment, David Cresson, identified as “CEO” of CCA’s Louisiana chapter, failed to explain how substantial overfishing and delayed stock rebuilding was “positive for anglers,” possibly because no one asked, and possibly because there is no good answer to such a question.

So yes, in the end I agree with Doug Olander, that it’s in everyone’s best interests for angling organizations and the various conservation groups to come together to protect the health of marine fish populations.

Certainly, most anglers want and benefit from healthy and abundant fish populations when out on the water; fishing on a mostly empty ocean quickly loses its appeal.

But before those groups can reunite, organizations like CCA and the Recreational Fishing Alliance have to finally realize that having healthy fish stocks for the foreseeable future, and not more dead fish on the dock for a couple of years, is really in the best interests of their members.

And industry groups such as ASA need to remember what they once knew:  that the best way to sell more fishing stuff is to have more fish in the water for anglers to catch, because without those fish, there’s little need for an angling industry.

It’s probably up to the anglers themselves to bring that awareness about, by making it clear that they don’t want to fish on meager, half-depleted stocks when much greater abundance stands within their reach.

And if the angling groups don’t listen, then it’s time for the anglers themselves to work with the conservation community, bring the needed cooperation to life, and leave the organizations that no longer represent their best interests behind.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Right now, up on the Alaskan coast, something very special and very rare could be in very deep trouble.

This season, 56 million sockeye salmon returned to the rivers that feed Bristol Bay.  And the fish aren’t genetically compromised, hand-raised fish produced at great cost in some government hatchery.  They are completely wild.

“The Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska supports that largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world…
“The Bristol Bay watershed provides habitat for numerous animal species, including 29 fishes, more than 190 birds, and more than 40 terrestrial mammals.  Chief among these resources is a world-class commercial and sport fishery for Pacific salmon and other important resident fishes.  The watershed supports production of all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America:  sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum, and pink.
“Because no hatchery fish are raised or released in the watershed, Bristol Bay’s salmon populations are entirely wild.  These fish are anadromous—hatching and rearing in freshwater systems, migrating to the sea to grow to adult size, and returning to freshwater systems to spawn and die.
“…The Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, with approximately 46% of the average global abundance of wild sockeye salmon…
“The Alaska Native cultures present in the Nushagak River and Kvichak River watersheds—the Yup’ik and Dena’ina—are two of the last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world.  Salmon are integral to the entire way of life in these cultures as subsistence food and as the foundation of their language, spirituality, and social structure…
“In the Bristol Bay region, salmon constitute approximately 52% of the subsistence harvest…
“These cultures have a strong relationship to the landscape and its resources.  In the Bristol Bay watershed, this connection has been maintained for at least the past 4,000 years and is in part due to and responsible for the pristine condition of the region’s landscape and the biological resources…
“The Bristol Bay watershed supports several economic sectors that are wilderness-compatible and sustainable:
·         commercial, sport and subsistence fishing
·         sport and subsistence hunting
·         non-consumptive recreation (e.g. wildlife viewing and tourism)
Considering all these sectors, the ecological resources of the Bristol Bay watershed generated nearly $480 million in direct economic expenditures and sales in 2009, and provided employment for over 14,000 full- and part-time workers.
“The Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery generates the largest component of economic activity and was valued at approximately $300 million in 2009 (first wholesale value) and provided employment for over 11,500 full- and part-time workers at the peak of the season.”
Intact natural salmon runs.  Sustainable industries that can continue in perpetuity, in harmony with the wild nature of the land, that bring in a half-billion (more recent estimates run as high as 1.5 billion) dollars in direct expenditures and provide more than 14,000 jobs in a place where jobs can be hard to find.  Ancient cultures that can still live off the land.  Bristol Bay seems to have it all.

Unfortunately, it also has mineral deposits that, if exploited, have the potential to destroy everything else.  Again, turning to the EPA for an explanation,

“The potential for large-scale mining development within the region is greatest for copper deposits and, to a lesser extent, for intrusion-related gold deposits.  Because these deposits are low-grade—meaning that they contain relatively small amounts of metals relative to the amount of ore—mining will be economic only if conducted over a large area, and a large amount of waste material will be produced as a result of mining and processing.
“The largest known deposit and the deposit most explored to assess future mining potential is the Pebble deposit.  If fully mined, the Pebble deposit could produce more than 11 billion metric tons (1 metric ton = 1,000 kg, approximately 2,200 pounds) of ore, which would make it the largest mine of its type in North America.”
Such a huge mine would clearly not be “wilderness-compatible,” and mining by its very nature is not a sustainable activity—mining companies merely rip the ore from the earth and move on, leaving “a large amount of waste material” behind.  Should the Pebble deposit be mined, the scars, abandoned structures and discarded equipment that remain on the site would permanently degrade the countryside, and  make it less appealing for those interested in wildlife watching and other ecotourism uses.

Yet that would be the least of the problems that such a mine would cause.

“Quinn’s concerns are based on his years researching the bay, which were incorporated into a 2014 EPA report on Bristol Bay under the Obama administration.  The report, which was also based on Pebble’s filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, estimated the total mine size could be larger than Manhattan and nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon.
“Such a mine ‘would result in complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering, and fragmentation of streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources’ in some areas of the bay watershed, the EPA found after three years of peer-reviewed research.  In particular, the EPA estimated that 22 miles of streams and more than 6 square miles of wetlands and other habitats that are important to salmon and other fish would be lost to a large-scale mine.
“’All of these losses would be irreversible,’ the agency said.”
Thus, the Environmental Protection Agency knows that Bristol Bay is a very special place, which hosts a spectacular run of sockeye salmon that has sustained native peoples for at least four millennia, and continues to provide sustenance, jobs and economic benefits today.  It knows that development of a mine on the Pebble deposit would cause irreparable harm to both the nature of the region and to its irreplaceable salmon runs.

Even so, CNN reports,

“Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt met on May 1 with the CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership [which wants to mine the Pebble deposit]…Little more than an hour later, according to internal e-mails, the administrator directed his staff to remove Obama-era protections for Bristol Bay…”
Apparently, Pruitt had met with his corporate masters, gotten his marching orders, and proceeded to put one of the most unique natural treasures of this nation on the auction block, to be mined by a Canadian company which, when it is done, will almost certainly have destroyed most of the salmon as well as the 14,000 American jobs that they support, salmon and jobs that otherwise could have survived throughout the foreseeable future.

While the final decision has not yet been made on the Pebble mine—the permitting process must still be completed—the fish, the people and the very character of the Bristol Bay watershed have never been more directly threatened.  

The current administration seems to have little concern for environmental values; its recent, wrongheaded decisions with respect to Gulf of Mexico red snapper and New Jersey summer flounder certainly make it clear that the health of America’s fish stocks are not an Administration concern.

The EPA is no longer accepting public comment on its decision to roll back protections for Bristol Bay; the window for that closed yesterday.  But there should be additional opportunities to comment during the permitting process itself, and even if the EPA grants the permits needed to mine—as Pruitt’s EPA almost certainly will—it’s a near-certainty that people who care about Bristol Bay and value its wild abundance will bring suit to challenge any such decision.

It’s important that all of us take whatever opportunity is offered to protect a national treasure, and to support the folks fighting for its survival.

“Bristol Bay’s thousands of fishing jobs and way of life cannot be put at risk by Pebble.  Pebble Mine will always be the wrong mine in the wrong place.
“Fish first.  Pebble never.”
Pebble never.

We should do all we can to make those words come true.


Sunday, October 15, 2017


I grew up in the southwest corner of New England’s coast, where fog was hardly unknown. I learned how to operate a boat in pea soup conditions when I was still a boy.
Running a boat in the fog can be an eerie, disorienting experience. You are surrounded by soggy gray walls that display a constantly shifting pattern of light and dark patches. Your eyes keep trying to make sense of it all, trying to convince you that every shadow is an island, a bridge or another vessel looming out of the murk. With visibility reduced to a few dozen yards, sometimes to a few dozen feet, all perspective is lost; a floating beer can might be mistaken for a buoy, and a barely-submerged reef may remain undetected until it’s too close to avoid.
One of the first things that I learned was that, under such conditions, you have to go slowly, to give yourself enough time to spot any hazards and, if other boats are nearby, to give them time to spot and avoid you.
Moving ahead carefully, when you’re not sure what’s ahead, might not get you to your destination as quickly as you would like, but it gets you there far more quickly—and more surely—than a reckless speed that results in collision, or that causes you to run hard upon a hidden shoal.
Slowing down and making sure that you know just where you are and where you are going is a hallmark of prudent navigation when the way ahead is obscured.
Managing data-poor fisheries can also be disorienting. Signals are mixed. Fishermen might be finding a lot more fish than the biologists’ surveys are. Spawning stock biomass might seem fairly high, while young-of-the-year fish counts stay low. Unusual environmental conditions might lead to below-average spawning success, or cause a stock to produce an unusually high year class. Without reliable data relating to a species’ life history, its reproduction and historic abundance, biologists lack the perspective to evaluate the current health of the stock.
Fishermen will tell them that “there are plenty of fish out there, you just have to know where to look,” and there is a natural desire to believe them. At the same time, their own sampling is telling them that abundance is headed downhill.
In such situations, where the data is ambiguous and the path ahead not completely clear, biologists are as unsure of their position as any navigator locked in a fog bank. And they ultimately have the same choice—move slowly and deliberately, and give themselves enough time and space to get out of trouble should something go wrong, or race ahead, increase harvest, and risk wrecking the stock due to some unknown hazard.
Thus I was dismayed when I heard Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, and tell the assembled lawmakers that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) was flawed, because “when scientific information is poor or unreliable for a stock, setting the annual catch limiting [sic] is done with a considerable amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to precaution which can result in a significant downward adjustment to an annual catch limit.”

His language suggests that fishery managers should use best-case assumptions when data is weak, setting catch limits high regardless of any uncertainties that might exist; it’s the biological equivalent of running full-speed into a fog bank, trusting that all will be well.
There’s not a better way to crash and sink a boat—or a fish population.
Black sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic region provide a good example of how the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), acting pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens, can prudently manage a fishery and maximize angling opportunity when the available data is poor.
Both anecdotal evidence and NMFS’ trawl surveys suggested that the population was increasing. However, a benchmark stock assessment completed in 2012 failed to pass peer review, with all three of the panel members agreeing that such assessment was not adequate for management purposes. While managers believed that the stock was neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, they were left with little guidance on what actions to take in the future.

Faced with such uncertainty, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) opted to make no changes to the annual catch limits for 2014.

Fishermen, who were seeing more black sea bass, were extremely critical of the decision not to increase the annual catch limits.The Jersey Coast Anglers’ Association complained that managers were unnecessarily restricting harvest on a species so abundant that it was “now considered by many to be the new nuisance fish.”

Fishery managers searched for ways to address the data deficit before the next benchmark stock assessment could be prepared. In 2015, a team of biologists developed a new approach to setting annual catch limits for data-poor stocks. Thanks to such approach, the MAFMC could safely recommend increasing the allowable biological catch (ABC) by more than 20%, from 5.50 to 6.67 million pounds.

In 2017, after a new benchmark assessment passed peer review and was deemed adequate for management, the ABC was increased again, by more than 50%. The recreational annual catch limit was increased by 52% as a result.

Thus, between 2013 and 2017, prudent management allowed the black sea bass ABC to nearly double, from 5.50 to 10.47 million pounds and, between 2013 and 2016, allowed recreational black sea bass landings to more than double, from 2.45 to 5.19 million pounds (as anglers regularly overfished their quota). Abundance is more than twice the target level, making the species an attractive and readily available alternative as the summer flounder population declines due to poor recruitment.

Despite this, those seeking to weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens still refer to black sea bass as a “problem” fishery, that can only be fixed by amending the law.

It’s a strange proposition.
For it might have been possible to ignore the uncertainties, and increase sea bass landings a few years ago, without doing harm to the stock.

Just as it might be possible to speed across a fogbound bay, without running into another boat, reef or bar.

But should anyone bet the future on “might,” when they can slow down a bit and be sure?

This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront”, the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at