Thursday, November 30, 2017


Summer flounder, scup and black sea bass have always been at the heart of the southern New England/upper Mid-Atlantic recreational fishery, and thus have always been lightning rods for fishery management disputes.

In recent years, an abundance of scup has made that species’ management much less controversial.  On the other hand, consecutive years of below-average spawning success has complicated summer flounder management, and that has, in turn, impacted the black sea bass fishery.

At the same time, as more and more anglers have trouble finding summer flounder, effort has shifted into the black sea bass fishery, forcing managers to increase size limits and reduce bags, despite the black sea bass’ high levels of abundance.

As the 2017 season wore on, many anglers wondered about what 2018 regulations would look like, and whether they might even be more restrictive than they were this year.  Yet at the same time, the relatively poor fishing throughout much of the region—summer flounder were scarce and black sea bass, while plentiful, were mostly too small to keep—coupled with often inclement weather apparently discouraged anglers from fishing as much as they usually do.

In the five states between New Jersey and Massachusetts, which account for a substantial majority of all summer flounder, scup and black sea bass landings, fishing effort was down for the first eight months of this year.  Compared to 2016, effort through August 31 was off by 16% in Massachusetts, 53% in Rhode Island, 9% in Connecticut, 46% in New York and 17% in New Jersey, and down 29% for all five states combined.

In the case of summer flounder, some reduction was expected.  The three states that account for the lion’s share of recreational summer flounder landings, Connecticut, NewYork and New Jersey, were supposed to reduce their summer flounder harvest byabout 30% (although New Jersey’s actual reduction was expected to be significantly less than that, thanks to the Commerce Department’s wrongheaded decision), so the portion of the 2017 reduction in landings that would theoretically be attributable to a reduction in effort would be about 25%.

Black sea bass landings were expected to be about flat (although a reduction had originally been required, based on some questionable late-seasonlandings data), so the 18% reduction can be attributed to reduced effort overall, although both the landings and the number of directed black sea bass trips jumped in New Jersey, by 196% and 146%, respectively.  That increase, compared to decreases in other states, is probably attributable to the fact that New Jersey’s minimum size is a mere 12 ½ inches, compared to 15 inches for the other four states, meaning that New Jersey anglers would be able to retain black sea bass that anglers from the other states would have to release.

Now, the big question is, how will those low landings numbers impact 2018 regulations.

Generally, regulations are judged on their performance.  If they successfully constrained landings at or just a bit below the recreational harvest limit, regulations will normally remain unchanged in the following year, provided that the recreational harvest limit also stays the same.  However, if regulations either allow harvest to exceed the harvest limit, or cause much of the recreational quota to remain unfilled, a modification can usually be expected.

Typically, such regulatory changes are based solely on harvest, with no consideration to whether harvest was or is likely to be impacted by the effects of weather, year classes entering or leaving the fishery, effort shifting between fisheries or similar, non-landings-related matters.

That is a particular concern in 2018, for should regulations be liberalized due to this year’s low landings, either coastwide or in any particular state, next season, and effort returns to 2016 levels, significant overfishing would inevitably occur.

In the case of summer flounder, the recreational harvest limit is going to be increased by about 17% in 2018, which will provide some buffer against any increase in effort.  Even so, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council staff noted that

“the very low landings thus far in 2017 appear to be consistent with declining trends in nearly all fishery independent indices of abundance used in the assessment.  Staff recommend using precaution in pursuing substantial changes to measures given summer flounder stock status, uncertainty in the recreational data, and the large variation in observed harvest resulting from very similar management measures in recent years.  Summer flounder biomass is estimated at 58% of the target biomass.  Declining trends in most indices did not appear to improve with the 2017 data update, and several declined further, a potential indication that projected increases in biomass in 2018 [on which the 17% harvest increase was based] may not be realized…”
Based on such factors, Council staff recommended that ASMFC

“maintain largely status quo management measures given the uncertainty of recreational data,”
although that recommendation didn’t foreclose the possibility of returning to an 18-inch minimum size in the states landing most of the summer flounder.

It will be interesting to see whether that advice is heeded. 
I have little doubt that, there in New York, the same angling industry that rails against the Marine Recreational Information Program, and constantly cries out that “the numbers are wrong,” when the data results in more restrictive regulations, will embrace the current estimate, showing a 73% reduction in landings, and use it to demand a substantial liberalization of size limit, bag limit and season.  

Although I believe that state managers will do their best to resist the most extreme requests, it will be interesting to see just how much liberalization will be allowed.

In the case of black sea bass, Council staff recommended that the recreational harvest limit remain the same, but specifically states that such recommendation is not necessarily an endorsement of status quo management measures, and specifically recommends a reduction in the federal bag limit, which would allow managers to eliminate the current mid-September to mid-October closure of the federal fishery, which often conflicts with state regulations.

While that would be a positive change in the regulations, the risk again arises that state regulations could be excessively liberalized; that is again a particular concern in New York, where landings for the first eight months of the year fell by 78%, and there will undoubtedly be heavy pressure to reduce the size limit, lengthen the season and increase the bag. 

Unfortunately, if the size limit is reduced, many of the smaller fish that New York anglers had to release in 2017 would be harvested next season, and New York’s 2018 landings, and New York’s 2018 effort, could well spike in the same way that New Jersey landings and effort spiked this year, with overfishing the likely result.

That would not be good.  Scup may present a similar case, but for a very different reason.  

Council staff advised that

“Based on the projected 2017 landings estimate of 4.49 million pounds, it is assumed that status quo measures will result in a 39% underage compared to the 2018 [recreational harvest limit].”
Such advice seems reasonable, and will likely result in regulations being relaxed in 2018.  The only problem with such relaxation is the simple fact that fish grow.

In a typical year, the four states between New York and Massachusetts account for at least 95% of the recreational scup landings.  In 2016 and 2017, about the same number of fish were landed—2.7 million fish and 2.6 million fish, respectively.  However, MRIP data shows that the scup landed in 2017 averaged quite a bit smaller.  New York for-hire captains I’ve spoken to provided anecdotal support for that conclusion, observing that there weren’t many big fish being caught this season.  Thus, the poundage of the scup caught in the four-state region dropped about 22% this year, compared to 2016.

Council staff’s prediction of a 39% underage assumes that the scup caught in 2018 will, on average, be the same size as the scup caught this season.  But if most of the scup caught this year were relatively small, it is certain that next year, the average size of the fish will increase, meaning that regulations adopted to erase all or most of a 39% underage based on weight will very probably lead to overfishing.

Thus, in the case of all three species—summer flounder, scup and black sea bass—arguments could be made for increasing either federal or state regulations, based on unexpectedly low 2017 landings.  

Yet in the case of all three species, there are reasons to believe that significantly relaxed regulations could easily result in sharply increased landings next year, which will inevitably lead to much more restrictive regulations, and substantial angler discontent, in 2019.

So yes, there may be room for an 18-inch summer flounder, a longer black sea bass season or a small increase in the black sea bass bag.

But beyond that, managers should let prudence prevail, and relax the rules slowly, to better assure that hidden pitfalls don’t cause good intentions to lead to an unnecessarily bad outcome.

Sunday, November 26, 2017


Bluefin tuna and I go back a long way.

I saw my first bluefin in the summer of 1960.  I had just turned six years old, and my family was on its annual vacation, that year to Provincetown, at the end of Cape Cod.  We were walking along the fish pier, looking at the party boats that we might be fishing from the next day, when we came across the Inca.

Unlike the chunky, workmanlike party boats that took dozens people each day out to the ledges where cod, pollock and similar bottom fish swam, the Inca was a thoroughbred, a sleek, black charter vessels that carried a handful of anglers out to blue water, where they pitted their heart and their muscles and lungs against the great gamefish of the open sea.

And that day, the anglers were successful, for the Inca’s cockpit was filled with two giant bluefin, fish so large that their bodies dwarfed those of the anglers who caught them.

The next day I went out on my first codfishing trip, when I could barely hold up my rod and keep reeling against the pull of a pretty small cod.  Even so, thoughts of those giant bluefin hung heavy on my mind.

It wasn't until fifteen years or so later that I first crossed paths with a living bluefin.

There was a chop on the ocean south of Rhode Island, as whitecapped green waves churned underneath an overcast sky.  But the whitecaps couldn’t hide the explosions of spray pushed up by a school of feeding giants.

We weren’t equipped for such fish.  Sharks were our target that day, not warm-blooded fish that weighed a quarter-ton or more and were strong as bulls.  Even so, lines were set into outrigger clips, and our boat turned to cut off the foraging school, the biggest lures on board trailing in its wake.

I happened to be standing next to the rod that the bluefin chose.  I stood still, startled, as its tip arched toward the water and 80-pound mono began to peel off its spool.  I had just snapped out of my momentary paralysis, and was trying to get the rod out of its holder, when the tip snapped back up and the fish was gone.

It was probably just as well, because without a fighting chair and kidney harness, had the hook held, the fight probably would have ended badly.

The next time, I was better prepared, with a 130-pound rod, harness and chair.  Even so, I was a bit intimidated when the boat’s captain tested the fit of my harness by grabbing the rod with both hands and lifting his feet off the deck so that I was supporting all of his weight with my back and legs.

But by then, the bluefin’s post-1974 decline had begun, and 
no tuna tested me further.

Later, fishing first from charter boats and later from my own vessels, I caught my share of bluefin, and put anglers on others, although none of those fish were as large as those that first inspired my quest.  I watched the population shrink, until I couldn’t, in good conscience, try to catch any more.
In recent years, it seemed that the stock was rebuilding, enough so that I returned to the fishery, targeting bluefin last summer for the first time in a decade.

But this month, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas decided, based on very uncertain evidence, to halt its successful rebuilding effort and increase bluefin tuna mortality on both sides of the Atlantic.
Such action was not taken arbitrarily, but was instead based on advice contained in the October 2017 report of ICCAT’s Standing Committee on Research and Statistics, which did a masterful job of pairing substantial uncertainty with a lack of information, and weaving them together into a recommendation to halt the recovery effort and increase the bluefin tuna kill, in both the eastern and western Atlantic.

The October SCRS report to ICCAT states that

“Recent assessments of both the eastern and western stocks have attempted to develop Kobe plots and matrices [hyperlink added] depicting the status of the stock relative to certain reference points, despite a consensus that they did not adequately reflect the true range of uncertaintiesThe long-term recruitment in particular is unknown and probably changes over time…
“…In the absence of such knowledge…[t]he reference point of choice for the Eastern stock has been F0.1 [hyperlink added] since 2008. The 2017 Committee considers F0.1 to be a reasonable proxy for the western stock as well...Yields associated with F0.1 can be higher or lower than [maximum sustainable yield]-based yields, depending on the spawner-recruit relationship…  [emphasis added]” 
pparentlys, because of uncertainties about future recruitment and the spawner-recruit relationship, ICCAT’s SCRS was willing to adopt a management approach that could lead to a harvest greater than maximum sustainable yield, rather than opting for a more precautionary approach that would better ensure the sustainability of the bluefin stocks.

The impact of ICCAT’s actions was greatest in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, which will still impact bluefin tuna fishermen on this side of the Atlantic, because the eastern and western Atlantic bluefin stocks cross the ocean basin, and quite a few of the tuna that we catch over here are spawned somewhere east of the Pillars of Hercules.

ICCAT decided to sharply increase eastern stock bluefin quotas by phasing in 4,000 metric ton annual increases over the next four years, which will raise the overall quota from 24,000 metric tons in 2017 to 36,000 metric tons in 2020.  

Such increase was adopted despite the fact that

“there was still concern over the performance of the [virtual population analysis model used to assess the stock], notably the unstable estimation of total biomass (i.e. the estimating of a substantial overall increase in biomass with the addition of only the last year of data) and that the size composition of many eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets is poorly characterized for a number of years before…2014.”
However, the increase was in line with explicit, although somewhat schizophrenic, SCRS advice.  The SCRS said that

“catches up to 38,000 t or 36,000 t have a greater than 60% probability of maintaining [fishing mortality] below F0.1 in 2020 or 2022 respectively.”
Thus, the ICCAT action would have a somewhat better-than-even chance of preventing overfishing, as ICCAT chose to define it, although it would not necessarily keep harvest at or below maximum sustainable yield.  However, the SCRS also advised that

catches of 28,000 t or less have a higher than 50% probability of allowing a continue [sic] increase in the stock.  [emphasis added]”
To the extent that F0.1 results in a harvest that exceeds the maximum sustainable yield, the stock could even start shrinking again.  However, the SCRS didn’t seem to be particularly concerned about a shrinking stock, as it recommended that

“Given the abundance increase evident for the stock, the Committee advises that the Commission should consider moving from the current rebuilding plan to a management plan.”
ICCAT didn’t explicitly take such action, but given the SCRS’ predictions, it appears that the prospects for future rebuilding are pretty much nil.

Predictably, the conservation community wasn’t pleased with ICCAT’s actions.  The Pew Charitable Trusts noted that the new quota is

“the highest ever for the population and one that risks returning catch to the levels seen when the stock was in crisis a decade ago.”

“WWF is angered that ICCAT has chosen short-term economic profit when we had hoped for a long-term conservation victory.”

“there was still room for a higher [harvest].  Our fishermen have faced hefty cuts over the past years in their quotas which led to a successful recovery of the stock; yet again their efforts are not duly rewarded by the international community.,”
That only proves that not only can fisheries managers fail to please everyone, for despite their best efforts, they can often fail to please anyone.  Thus, it probably makes more sense for managers to concentrate on conserving and rebuilding fish stocks, and not worry about who they offend.

In the case of western stock bluefin, the harvest increase will be much smaller—about 17%, compared to more than 50% for the eastern stock—but the decision to bump up the kill is in some ways more disturbing, because it comes at the end of a 20-year rebuilding plan that, according to a National Marine Fisheries Service scientist who headed up the bluefin stock assessment panel a few years ago, was working pretty well, although it was still far from achieving its goals.

That scientist stated, in 2014, that

“The stock has recovered to about one-half the level it was when we started tracking the data in the 1970s.”
That is more or less in accord with information provided in the October 2017 ICCAT SRCS report, which said that one of its stock assessment models placed western stock abundance in 2015 at about 69% of where it was in 1974, while another placed it at just 45% of the 1974 biomass.

Unfortunately, the October SCRS report also notes that

“the 2003 year class is past its peak biomass, recruitment has been declining for a number of years and there are no signs of a strong year class coming into the fishery.”

Under such circumstances, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for ICCAT to initiate a new rebuilding plan which would call for decreased landings in order to continue the recovery of the stock.  However, just the opposite 

As was the case with eastern stock bluefin, the SCRS recommended abandoning biomass targets, and thus the concept of recovery, completely, in favor of a F0.1 fishing mortality target—the same fishing mortality target that the SCRS acknowledged could result in landings that exceed maximum sustainable yield under some recruitment scenarios.

And the SCRS notes that western stock recruitment is declining, with no strong year class in sight…

That being the case, it doesn’t appear that the bluefin tuna’s prospects, in either the eastern or western Atlantic, will get better at any time soon.

Instead, any hopes of an increase in abundance seem to have been dashed, and the chances for harvest exceeding maximum sustainable yield appear pretty high.

Despite that, there are some folks here in the United States that will probably hail ICCAT’s decision. 

I suspect that both commercial and recreational fishermen on Cape Cod and in northern New England will praise it as well, claiming that they see plenty of western stock bluefin.  But the folks up there, near the heart of the bluefin’s summer range, always saw quite a few bluefin, just as they still do today.  It is the other historical fisheries that are hurting.

“In Rhode Island, Rosie’s Ledge and Nebraska Shoals are best known for the giants but they can be found in other spots along that rocky shore.  Montauk, N.Y. boats often head toward Block Island and the coast of Rhode Island to fish for giants.  New York City and New Jersey anglers fish the Mudhole, 17 Fathoms and adjacent areas for the big tuna.”
All of those places are close enough to shore that an angler could just about see high points of land on a clear day; it’s safe to say that few giant bluefin have been caught in such places in the last twenty years (although there are a few big fish that pass close by New York and New Jersey during December). 

ICCAT’s SCRS is having trouble defining what a fully recovered biomass would look like.  While it may be impossible to describe that recovery in terms of metric tons of tuna, it’s easy to describe the results:  When  anglers can readily catch giants again at places like Rosie’s Ledge off Rhode Island and the Butterfish Hole of Block Island/Montauk around Labor Day, and along the edge of New Jersey’s Mud Hole in November, the stock might be close to recovered.

Until then, managers have work to do, and ICCAT’s time would be far better off trying to increase the number of bluefin alive in the water, rather than working so hard to increase the number of bluefin dead on the dock.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


In 1996, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) determined that tautog (also known as “blackfish”) were being badly overfished, and that the fishing mortality rate had to be reduced to no more than 0.15. Such a fishing mortality rate would result in about 14% of the tautog being removed from the population each year.

That reduction was never achieved, and the tautog population suffered badly as a result.
When the decision to reduce fishing mortality was first made, the fishing mortality rate was estimated to be 0.54, which meant that between 40% and 45% of the tautog were removed from the population annually—three times the rate recommended by ASMFC.

Had the tautog fishery been governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which governs fishing in federal waters, overfishing could not have legally continued past 1998. However, since tautog are managed by the states through ASMFC, tautog managers faced no such deadline. Instead, they didn’t require the states to end overfishing until 1999.

But even after 1999, overfishing continued.
In 1997, ASMFC acknowledged that “The tautog resource is at low levels and will not likely rebuild without strict conservation measures. Further, another year of fishing at current levels [a fishing mortality rate greater than 0.50] will delay initial stock rebuilding, will contribute to further declines in spawning stock biomass, and could contribute to truncation of the age structure. These are important considerations given the slow growth rate and long life span of tautog.”

Despite such acknowledgement, after the states failed to bring overfishing under control by 1999, ASMFC put off the required harvest reduction for three more years, deferring it to 2002.
The primary justification for delaying harvest reductions was a lack of good, state-level data. That’s an argument that never would have prevailed under Magnuson-Stevens, which requires that fishery management measures be based on the “best scientific information available [emphasis added],” even if such information isn’t quite as good as managers would like it to be. Courts have recognized that “by specifying that decisions be based on the best scientific information available, the Magnuson-Stevens Act recognizes that such information may not be exact or totally complete.”

At ASMFC, however, such incomplete information can justify a delay in imposing needed management measures, even if such delay can lead to “delay[ed] initial stock rebuilding, …declines in spawning stock biomass, and…truncation of the age structure” of the stock.
Because of such delays, the fishing mortality rate in 2001 was still far too high. At 0.41, it was nearly triple the original target of 0.15. However, additional data, made available to ASMFC’s tautog managers in 2002, led them to abandon their original target fishing mortality rate in favor of one twice as high. They believed that the higher fishing mortality rate would result in a tautog stock that retained about 40% of the spawning potential of an unfished population, a level that managers considered sustainable.

Yet the tautog managers never established a deadline for achieving that spawning potential, and never adopted a plan to hold states and their fishermen accountable should fishing mortality exceed the new target. Lacking such safeguards, the stock never rebuilt.
In 2007, ASMFC admitted that “The trend in total stock biomass and spawning stock biomass has been generally flat and at low levels since 1994.”

Ten years of supposed management, highlighted by ASMFC’s managers dithering and delaying needed management measures instead of taking decisive action, accomplished no rebuilding at all.
In an effort to spur stock growth, tautog managers reversed course, reducing the target fishing mortality rate to 0.20; for the first time, they also set a spawning stock biomass target of 26,800 metric tons and a spawning stock biomass threshold, which defined an overfished stock, at 20,100 metric tons. When such actions were taken, the spawning stock stood at about 10,600 metric tons, and so remained very badly overfished.

Once again, the managers failed to establish annual catch limits to prevent overfishing, and never set a rebuilding deadline for the stock. Once again, they failed to hold fishermen accountable when they overfished. And once again, they failed to rebuild the tautog stock.
In 2011, the spawning stock biomass was still estimated to be just 10,533 metric tons. The fishing mortality rate was 0.38, nearly twice the 0.20 target.

At that point, ASMFC’s tautog managers came full circle, and found themselves where they were fifteen years before, recommending a target fishing mortality rate of 0.15.
Unfortunately, once again, they adopted no mechanism to prevent overfishing and no hard target date for the recovery of the stock.
And so once again, the tautog stock languished.
In 2016, the tautog stock assessment was updated. The new assessment revealed that, on a coastwide basis, the lack of annual catch limits and the failure to hold fishermen accountable yielded the expected results: the fishing mortality rate hadn’t changed. It was still at 0.38, more than twice the fishing mortality target. The stock remained badly overfished, as well.

Although the new stock assessment bore the same dismal news, it recommended a new approach to tautog management. Instead of managing the species on a coastwide basis, it suggested that tautog be managed as four separate, regional population, to account for the fact that they don’t make long, coastwise migrations. At first, the new management approach gave fishermen reason to hope that ASMFC would, finally, get tautog management right.
All four of the local populations were overfished, but the two at either end of the species’ range—the tautog off Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and those off Delaware, Maryland and Virginia—were not subject to overfishing. While tautog found in the ocean off New York and New Jersey were subject to modest overfishing, those found in Long Island Sound between New York and Connecticut were suffering from overfishing so severe that a 47% reduction in landings would have only a 50-50 chance of ending the problem.

Unfortunately, a 47% reduction was far more of a cut than some in the angling community were willing to accept. When ASMFC held a public meeting in New York to take public comment on the question, representatives of the party and charter boat industry weren’t even willing to let the ASMFC representative speak. Soon after the start of the meeting, one Montauk captain told her that “We don’t care about your science. Your science is bullcrap.” That set the tone for the rest of the event, which was more mob scene than meeting, as captain after captain rejected the biological data and demanded that the regulations remain unchanged.

Another meeting held in Connecticut saw attendees that were somewhat more orderly, but held similar opinions.

Such truculence seems to have worked, for at its August meeting, ASMFC’s Tautog Management Board chose to defer action on Long Island Sound harvest reductions. When action was finally taken in October, ASMFC opted to reduce Long Island Sound harvest by only 20.3%, far less than needed to achieve the fishing mortality target. Once again, it did not establish any deadlines to end overfishing, and chose not to set any final rebuilding date for the stock.

Thus, it seems that after twenty-one years of failure, ASMFC’s tautog managers have still failed to learn that without hard annual catch limits to prevent overfishing, without measures to hold fishermen accountable when they do overfish and without a firm rebuilding deadline to guide the rulemaking process, tautog are unlikely to be rebuilt.
Managers seem more intent on avoiding politically unpopular management measures than on rebuilding the stock. They seem more willing to hope that a couple of strong year classes in Long Island Sound will restore the local population, and less willing to take affirmative actions that will make such a recovery far more certain.

In their actions, ASMFC’s tautog managers demonstrate why state fishery managers, who aren’t required to end overfishing or rebuild overfished stocks, have so consistently failed to restore depleted fish populations.
Their failure stands in marked contrast to the successes of federal fisheries managers who are required, by the provisions of Magnuson-Stevens, to set annual catch limits for each managed species, hold fishermen accountable when they exceed those limits and rebuild overfished stocks within ten years or, if that is not feasible, then by the earliest possible date.
If tautog were federally managed, fishermen might have been enjoying the experience of fishing on fully-rebuilt stocks today. Because they are managed by ASMFC, tautog fishermen, more often than not, merely experience disappointment.

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017


I’m an active shark fisherman.  I have been for decades.  And though, over the years, I’ve caught, and helped other anglers to catch, a wide variety of species, here in the upper Mid-Atlantic, when you head out to do some shark fishing, you’re usually targeting makos.

They are an exciting fish to hook into.  They’re fast, often fly out of the water in spectacular, tumbling leaps and can grow big enough to cause some serious sweat and pain before they’re finally brought alongside.  

And they’re a good-looking fish, the embodiment of everything people first think of when they hear the word “shark;” sleek-bodied, with a pointed snout, strong lunate tail and a mouthful of teeth that resemble nothing so much as bent nails.  Their indigo backs fade to silver-blue sides that flash as the fish rolls in the sunlit water, and when they roll next to the boat, they look up at you with the flat black eye of God.

Unfortunately, our North Atlantic makos seem to be in real trouble.

Looking back on my forty years in the fishery, it’s not hard to see the problem coming on.  Over the years, I’ve seen the makos’ average size, abundance and season length shrink badly enough that I stopped bringing them home in 1997.  Since then, every one that we’ve caught has been tagged and released, as part of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Cooperative Shark Tagging Program.  This fall, I had a chance to take the tagging process one step further, helping some researchers from Stony Brook University implant three makos with acoustic tags as part of a multi-year project.

For a long time, the available data suggested that makos were faring pretty well; the last stock assessment, conducted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (which, despite its name, deals with shark and billfish issues as well) in 2012, found the stock to be healthy.

Unfortunately, that has now changed. 

“Traditionally, the data obtained to determine the rate of fishing mortality, a key parameter used to help gauge the health of shark stocks, has depended largely on fishermen self-reporting any mako sharks they may have caught.  The challenge is that not all fishermen report the same way or some may underreport or not report their mako shark captures at all, so the these [sic] catch data are known to be of questionable reliability.”
The satellite tags, on the other hand, report in near real-time, and make it obvious that a shark has been caught and killed.

ICCAT scientists, using unrelated data sets, have also come to believe that harvesting shortfin makos at the current rate will lead to a further decline in the North Atlantic population, and that fishing mortality would have to be reduced by nearly 80% to keep the stock from shrinking any more.  However, such a reduction, to 1,000 metric tons, probably wouldn’t do much to rebuild the North Atlantic’s shortfin mako population.  There is only a 25% chance that such a cut would halt overfishing and restore the stock to healthy levels of abundance by 2040.

ICCAT is now meeting to decide what management measures should be imposed on fishermen wishing to retain shortfin mako sharks in the North Atlantic.  The ICCAT group considering the problem has noted that

“releasing animals brought to the vessel alive could be a potentially effective measure to reduce fishing mortality as studies indicate post-release survival is likely to be about 70%.  Following best practices to correctly handle and release live specimens could therefore further increase post-release survival.  However, at this time the Group does not have enough information to assess if the adoption of live releases alone will be enough to reduce landings to 1,000 t or less and stop further stock decline.”

“As you know, the new ICCAT population assessment for Atlantic shortfin mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus) has revealed alarming trends.  In particular, the North Atlantic population has been significantly depleted, and overfishing continues.  In order to have a reasonable chance (54% probability) of rebuilding by 2040, catches must be cut to zero.  Accordingly, ICCAT’s Standing Committee on Research and Statistics (SCRS) has recommended a “complete prohibition on retention” as an immediate step to stop overfishing and begin the long recovery…
“With leadership from NMFS scientists, the SCRS Shark Working Group has conducted Ecological Risk Assessments (in 2008 and 2012) that rank shortfin mako high with respect to vulnerability to ICCAT fisheries.  ICCAT has since banned retention of many other shark species, while skipping makos.  Moreover, for nearly a decade, response to specific SCRS calls to cap or reduce mako fishing mortality has been wholly inadequate.”
Anyone familiar with how things work at ICCAT knows that scientists there rarely call for a complete prohibition on harvesting any fish that has commercial value, so when the SCRS makes such a recommendation with respect to North Atlantic makos, it’s a sign that tougher management measures are desperately needed.

Despite the need, there are undoubtedly a lot of people living on my stretch of coast who don’t want to see such a prohibition take place.  Seafood dealers pay swordfish longliners well for their shortfin mako bycatch, and there are plenty of offshore anglers who look forward taking some mako steaks home for the grill.  Shark tournaments are still big local events, and generate big dollars for the marinas and various organizations that sponsor and promote them; the money that competitors pay for dock space, fuel, food, fishing tackle, bait and chum goes directly to small businesses and boosts the economies of small coastal towns.  Folks who profit from a fishery rarely if ever support shutting it down.

Such attitudes prevail in other nations, too, so a closure of the mako fishery will almost certainly face some level of international opposition.  Thus, despite the scientific advice, it’s not at all certain that ICCAT will act to halt the mako’s decline.  But it would be unfortunate if it did not.

There’s a trident-shaped scar on my right thumb, memorializing the day when a small female mako objected to my hand passing close to her face while I was setting her free.  I salute her spirit.  The beauty, the strength and the unpredictable speed of the mako are one of the recreational shark fishery's biggest attractions.

Which is reason enough to hope that ICCAT follows the science and does the right thing.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


Let’s not try to sugar-coat things.

This week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board handed conservation interests a significant defeat, when it bowed to the demands of Omega Protein, supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and failed to adopt ecosystem-based reference points for Atlantic menhaden, arguably the single most important forage species on the Atlantic coast.

Adding insult to injury, the Management Board also increased the menhaden quota by 8%, and failed to allocate an equitable share of the menhaden resource to the various coastal states, instead allowing Virginia, and thus Omega, to monopolize about 80% of the menhaden harvest.

While Omega’s ongoing efforts to preserve and enhance its income stream inspired most of the resistance to the ecosystem-based reference points, that effort was only successful because a number of factors directly or indirectly supported Omega’s position, and helped to undercut the position of the conservation community.

History always repeats itself, and more important debates, involving menhaden and many other species managed by ASMFC, loom in the future.  Thus, it is worth taking some time to dissect the factors underlying this defeat, so that the lessons learned can help conservation advocates achieve better results in the future.

1)  Change is hard

Right now, at ASMFC and at the federal level, single-species management is the norm.  Managers concern themselves solely with whether harvest is maintained at sustainable levels (“overfishing is not taking place”) and whether the stock is large enough to maximize long-term, sustainable yield the stock is not overfished”).  Even though every species is a part of and interacts with its environment, such interactions, including predator/prey relationships, are not explicitly considered.

The proposed adoption of ecosystem reference points for menhaden, whether the interim reference points rejected earlier this week or the menhaden-specific reference points that will hopefully be adopted in 2019, marks a paradigm shift for fishery management.  By placing emphasis on menhaden’s ecosystem role, and not merely focusing on sustainable harvest, ecosystem reference points would have shifted managers’ focus away from maximizing harvest—and thus profits—and toward restoring healthy and fully-functioning coastal food webs.

The possibility of such a shift frightened Omega Protein, by far the biggest player in the menhaden fishery, as it very possibly could have led to reduced landings and reduced income, and at the very least would place a low cap on how far landings could increase (the menhaden industry is alreadycomplaining that the 8% increase was far too low, and that they should havebeen allowed to kill more).  

No one likes to force people out of work, so that sort of campaign tends to be very effective at defeating conservation initiatives at ASMFC.  Unless the case for reducing landings is completely iron-clad, and sometimes not even then, ASMFC managers tend to avoid taking any actions that might impose economic hardship on the fishing community.  Thus, they were susceptible to Virginia’s/Omega’s arguments that the interim reference points were not menhaden-specific, and imposed inappropriate constraints on the fishery; such arguments were made more credible by an industry-funded study which questioned the need for forage fish management and cast doubt on the science supporting such reference points.

In the end, with the menhaden stock neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, the Management Board felt no urgent need to change its management approach.  

2)  The conservation community asked for too much

Realistically, there was little to no chance that the Management Board would have actually set a quota that reduced fishing mortality to the proposed target rate.  The economic impact would have been far too high.  With menhaden neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, they would almost certainly have allowed the status quo to prevail, with perhaps even a slight increase in quota, and focused on preventing overfishing by maintaining a fishing mortality rate below the threshold level.  

Everyone sitting on the Management Board was very cognizant of that fact.

But while the proposed target fishing mortality rate would have called for a quota that was, from a political standpoint, unrealistically small, some at the meeting argued that the threshold fishing mortality rate would have permitted the harvest to increase substantially before overfishing occurred. 

The combination of an unrealistically low menhaden quota, if the stock was managed at the target rate, and the threat of an undesirably high menhaden harvest, if the stock was fished near the threshold rate, was enough to convince some Management Board members that the conservationists’ preferred option wasn’t a viable alternative.  An option that set a more realistic interim target mortality rate, and prevented quota from increasing much above the status quo, might have fared better, if it had been available.

3)  The Management Board is not engaged in a democratic process

Public comment is certainly relevant to ASMFC decisions, and people should be urged to comment on any issue that they care about.  However, it’s not the Management Board’s job to count votes.  They are tasked with reviewing the biological and, yes, the social and economic information available, and making their decision on that basis

Hundreds of fishermen, who are active participants in the fishery and take the time to come out to hearings, submit their own comments and perhaps even show up at the management board meeting will sway some commissioners’ decisions, because they speak with some personal knowledge of all three of those factors.  Thousands of preprinted e-mails, sent by folks who have no obvious connection to or knowledge of the menhaden fishery and who failed to make the effort to come out to a hearing and speak for themselves, are a different story.  While not worthless, as a practical matter, they count for a lot less.

When faced with choices that are each supported by some valid data, a management board’s actions are often decided by interpersonal and interstate relationships that extend far beyond the issue in question.  Virginia will always walk in lockstep with Omega Protein, which has long been an economic and political presence in the state.  The current administration in Washington, which controls both the National Marine Fisheries Service’s and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s votes, will always favor short-term profit over healthy natural resources.  Few states are prone to take actions which will cause significant economic dislocation in another jurisdiction, because everyone knows that, one day, the wheel will turn again and they may be the state pleading for a little understanding.

It is clear that the great majority of people wanted to see interim ecological reference points adopted.  However, when commissioners were faced with conflicting data regarding that issue, and realized that  both federal agencies would oppose ecosystem reference points, overwhelming public comment in favor of that outcome was not enough to prevail.

While advocates should never stop seeking public involvement, they would probably do well to spend more time building personal relationships with the commissioners that will make it easier, in the future, to convey the reasons why their positions are the right ones and, in turn, understand the obstacles to those commissioners voting the right way.

4)  Commerce Secretary Ross has done severe harm to the interstate management process

Right now, Wilbur Ross has folks at ASMFC running scared.

Prior to July 2017, ASMFC had a powerful tool to keep states in compliance with its fishery management plans.  The Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act provides that, should a state fail to comply with an ASMFC fishery management plan, ASMFC can formally find that state out of compliance and forward that finding to the Secretary of Commerce.  The Secretary must then, provided that he or she both agrees that the state is out of compliance and finds that compliance is necessary for the conservation of the relevant species, shut down the fishery for such species in the noncompliant state until that state complies.

For more than twenty years, that system ensured the integrity and the effectiveness of ASMFC’s fishery management efforts, as the Secretary of Commerce never failed to support ASMFC’s findings.  

Last July, however, things changed.  The current Secretary of Commerce condoned New Jersey’s failure to comply with ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan, and overruled ASMFC’s noncompliance finding.  The precedent established by that action put ASMFC’s authority to manage coastal fish stocks in jeopardy, as states now have reason to believe that, should they decide to go out of compliance, the Secretary of Commerce will again elevate profits over the well-being of coastal resources, and overrule ASMFC.

Virginia, and reportedly New Jersey, played that card at the Management Board meeting this week, making it clear that if ASMFC took an action that they didn’t like, they would ignore it in the belief that they Secretary of Commerce would take their side.  NMFS’ opposition to interim reference points reinforced the perception that the Secretary would not uphold them if adopted by ASMFC.  That sent a message to a number of commissioners, who decided that support for the interim reference points would ultimately be pointless.  It also reportedly concerned some commissioners, primarily state fishery directors, who are concerned for the long-term survival of ASMFC and feared that another incident of the Commerce Secretary overruling an ASMFC action will put a stake through the Commission’s heart.

Faced with the likelihood of a secretarial override, commissioners accepted the inevitable and voted against the conservationists’ preferred option.

The question now is what happens in 2019, or whenever the menhaden-specific ecological reference points are developed, and are considered by the Management Board.

Omega Protein isn’t going anywhere.  There is no reason to suspect that they will endorse any ecological reference points that are adopted.  They will only change the arguments that they use to support the status quo.

The Administration in Washington won’t be going anywhere, either, at least not before 2021.  The same shark fin soup-slurping opponent of just about anything that promotes conservation will be sitting in the Oval Office, and if Wilbur Ross is no longer the Secretary of Commerce, it’s pretty certain that someone else at least as hostile to conservative, science-based fishery management, and as friendly to short-term exploitation, will be.

Which makes the menhaden’s future pretty unclear.  All that we can do is learn from this loss, and try to prepare a bit better for next time.

And hope that it pays off.