Sunday, January 28, 2018


Regular readers of this blog know that I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and more particularly, of the conservation and management provisions of that act which prohibit overfishing and require the timely rebuilding of overfished stocks.

Those regular readers also know that I am a frequent critic of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and other state management systems, largely because they don’t have such legally-enforceable requirements, and often make decisions in which economic, political and social considerations are elevated above the need to maintain and restore healthy fish populations. 

To that end, it’s probably worth noting that ASMFC’s former vision statement

“Healthy, self-sustaining populations for all Atlantic coast fish species or successful restoration well in progress by the year 2015”
has been abandoned, and has been replaced by

“Sustainably Managing Atlantic Coastal Fisheries.”
All mention of “healthy”populations and “successful restoration”, much less “by the year 2015”, has been deleted, which probably makes sense from ASMFC’s standpoint, as the aspirations expressed its previous vision statement, while certainly noble and worthwhile, were never matched by the organization’s real-world accomplishments, largely because the lack of legally-enforceable standards made it easy for ASMFC’s various species management boards to avoid making the kind of hard, but always unpopular, decisions that are often needed to successfully restore badly depleted fish stocks

ASMFC’s management process was criticized once again last November. 

Such votes came as a surprise to many in the conservation community, including both the professionals at various non-governmental organizations and the many concerned individuals who thought that Management Board failed to properly represent the public’s interest in a healthy menhaden stock, and instead bent over backward to accommodate the demands of both the Commonwealth of Virginia, which had previously been granted about 85% of the overall menhaden harvest, and Omega Protein Corporation, which harvests an overwhelming majority of the Virginia allocation.

During the many post-mortems that took place after the Management Board met and made its decisions, some folks blamed the outcome on ASMFC’s legally unfettered approach to fisheries management, and argued that the outcome would have been quite different had menhaden been managed under Magnuson-Stevens.

It’s an interesting argument, and one worth a bit of thought.
Although Magnuson-Stevens is a long and complicated law, its strength and effectiveness as a conservation tool can be boiled down to a few key provisions.

One is the concept of “optimum” yield, which for purposes of this discussion can be defined as

“…the amount of fish which will provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems [and] is prescribed as such on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor…”
Such key provisions also include National Standards One and Two, which require that

“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry,”

“Conservation and management measures shall be based on the best scientific information available.”
Finally, to assure that healthy stocks are maintained at sustainable levels and that depleted stocks are returned to health, Magnuson-Stevens requires that each regional fishery management council

“develop annual catch limits for each of its managed fisheries that may not exceed the fishing level recommendations of its scientific and statistical committee or the peer review process…”
and that

“for a fishery that is overfished, any fishery management plan, amendment, or proposed regulations…shall specify a time period for rebuilding the fishery that shall be as short as possible…and not exceed 10 years, except in cases where the biology of the stock of fish, other environmental conditions, or management measures under an international agreement in which the United States participates dictate otherwise…  [internal numbering omitted]”
ASMFC isn’t legally bound by any of those guidelines, so the question to be asked is, had menhaden been federally managed rather than managed by the states through ASMFC, would the outcome have been any different?

“Based on the current adopted benchmarks, the Atlantic menhaden stock status is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.  In addition, the stock is currently below the current fishing mortality target and above the current [fecundity] target [an estimate of the eggs produced by the stock, used in place of a biomass reference point].  The fishing mortality rate is currently at F65% which is the lowest [fishing mortality rate] in the time series.”
That being the case, even if the menhaden stock was federally managed, or if ASMFC was bound by the language of Magnuson-Stevens, neither the overfishing prohibition in National Standard One nor the 10-year rebuilding requirement would have prevented managers from making the same decisions that were made in November.

However, that still leaves open the question of whether the annual catch limit adopted by the Management Board would constitute “optimum” yield as defined in federal fisheries law.  Arguments can easily be made that it would not.  But those arguments would not reflect a consensus on what the optimum yield ought to be; factions supporting either a higher or a lower annual catch limit would each be able to cite language and data that justifies their positions.

“the [Management] Board was presented with information indicating that raising the [total allowable catch] to 220,000 metric tons would result in absolutely no risk of the fishing mortality target being exceeded and raising the [total allowable catch] even higher would result in only a small risk of exceeding the target…The Board raised the [total allowable catch]  by 8%, setting it at 216,000  metric tons…
“In sum, the Board’s decisions on the [total allowable catch and other, related matters]…are excessively restrictive and unnecessary for the conservation of the menhaden fishery, should not be allowed to persist.  Virginia believes that the Interstate Fisheries Management Board should instead order that the total allowable catch be set at 220,000 metric tons…”


The question is whether a higher catch limit would provide “the greatest overall benefit to the nation,” and that’s a debatable question.  

Certainly, a larger harvest would, at least in the short term, provide a greater economic benefit to menhaden fishermen and the menhaden industry, so in that respect, a 220,000 metric ton annual catch limit would provide a greater economic benefit than one of 216,000 metric tons.

However, setting optimum yield requires that factors other than just economic gains be considered.  

In determining “the greatest overall benefit to the nation,” managers are directed to give particular consideration to “food production and recreational opportunities.”  Neither such factor is directly relevant here, although the argument could be made that abundant menhaden and other forage fish sustain and concentrate important food and recreational fish species, and in that way enhances both food production and recreation.

But ecological factors also come into play.  In determining optimum yield, managers are directed to “[take] into account the protection of marine ecosystems” and are authorized to set optimum yield at some level below maximum sustainable yield if justified by any “ecological factor.”

The conservation community and the vast majority of those who submitted public comments made just those points:  That interim ecological reference points were needed, and no harvest increase should have been considered, because of menhaden’s importance to the marine ecosystem as a forage fish.

Based on those arguments, had menhaden been federally managed, there is good reason to believe that interim ecological reference points would have been adopted, and the annual catch limit would not have been increased—provided that the requirements of National Standard Two were met:  Such interim reference points, and such lower catch limit, would have to be justified by the best available science.

And that’s exactly where things fell apart at the Management Board.

While few fisheries managers seriously doubt the important ecological role played by menhaden, and the effort to calculate menhaden-specific environmental reference points received wide support, the interim reference points preferred by most of the public, including me, turned out to be badly flawed, in a way that we all originally missed.

The preferred interim points, designated “Option E” in a draft document released by ASMFC, would have set a target menhaden biomass at 75% of the biomass of an unfished stock, and set a threshold biomass at 40% of a virgin population.  Remedial management action would only be required if biomass fell below the threshold level.

The problem with those reference points is that biomass includes all individuals in the population, immature fish as well as spawning-age adults.  And in the case of relatively short-lived forage fish such as menhaden, which are eaten by just about every larger predator that swims in or flies above the coastal sea, a lot of the biomass is made up of individuals that are too young to reproduce, while most of the fishing effort targets the sexually mature fish.  As a result, as explained at the November meeting,

“if you were to ramp up fishing mortality to the level that would allow you to achieve that threshold level, the vast majority of the biomass exists in [zero year old fish] and [one year old fish]  and then as you enter the [two year old fish] the population really starts to decay for fishing and natural mortality and all of those reasons.
“That is why the foible of that particular part of the [environmental reference points] exists, and that is you can really whack those older ages and drive them down to near zero; but you still have enough biomass in the zeros and ones and twos to meet that metric.  But if you were to then compare it to your fecundity metrics that you had been using that is where you would see the big difference.”
Thus, had menhaden been federally managed, it’s possible—but by no means certain or perhaps even probable—that the annual catch limit would not have been increased. 

On the other hand, the preferred interim ecological reference points would still have been doomed.  National Standard One prohibits overfishing, and overfishing occurs when

“[the] level of fishing mortality…jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis.”
And since, as explained at the November meeting, the level of fishing mortality proposed in the favored interim reference point would have sharply reduced the fecundity of the stock, to a point where the spawning stock biomass would be “driven down to near zero,” such interim reference points would not meet the minimum standard established by Magnuson-Stevens.

Thus, the fate of such interim reference points would have been no different had menhaden been federally managed.

However, as this discussion demonstrates, what Magnuson-Stevens would have brought to the table is an orderly set of standards that could have been used to evaluate the various management options, a sort of structured analysis that is often absent at ASMFC.

While, with respect to menhaden, the result would probably have been the same regardless of the management body, that is often not the case, and it is difficult to argue that the ASMFC process would not be improved and made more effective if the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was bound by the same sort of objective legal standards that bind federal managers.

Thursday, January 25, 2018


A couple of weeks ago a local fishing club invited me to one of their meetings and asked me to give them an update on how angling regulations were likely to change this year.  As the talk was winding down, one of the members asked me what organizations anglers should support, to assure that our fishery resources would be properly conserved and managed.

I gave an answer that I didn’t like.

I said that I didn’t know.

While there are plenty of conservation groups out there that are made up of sportsmen, and are dedicated to the conservation and management of everything from brook trout to mallards, mule deer and wild sheep, the organizations that claim to represent salt water anglers seem to pay little attention to keeping a lot of live fish in the water, and concentrate most of their efforts on putting more dead fish on the dock.

The sad thing is, it usually didn’t start out that way.

From what I’ve seen over the years, there are a lot of anglers who care about conserving salt water fish stocks, although their concept of what “conservation” is may vary quite a bit.  Some see it simply as “getting the nets out of the water” or making some prized species, such as striped bass or red drum, a “gamefish” that may not be legally sold; others have a more nuanced view that recognizes that both commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as habitat loss and other non-fishing-related influences, can have a detrimental effect on finfish stocks.

But most anglers that I know understand that if folks don’t do something to limit the number of fish removed from the water, eventually there won’t be any fish in the water for them and their decendants to catch.  And they realize that is not a good thing.

Whatever that triggering event may be, anglers get together and form an organization to better fight against the threat.  And in forming that organization, they also found a popular movement, filled with ideals and worthwhile goals.

The start of a movement is a heady time.  I’ve been caught up in such things on an occasion or two, and can recall all of the excitement as we all went out into the world, spreading our message and seeking like-minded souls who would volunteer their time, their knowledge and other resources to help us achieve our common aim.

If the movement’s founders have truly tapped the mood of the community, they will soon find themselves with a host of members, with fiscal resources and maybe even with someone who looks like an employee or two.  They may have hired attorneys, perhaps a lobbyist and maybe an administrator to keep track of all the moving parts.

At that point, what began as a good idea needs to take some sort of formal shape.  Most likely, a not-for-profit corporation is formed.  Leaders, likely first appointed by acclamation, are formally invested as corporate officers, guided by a corporate board.  Bank accounts are opened, newsletters formally published, a website created to further spread the word.  If there weren’t any employees before, about this time, at least one will be hired.

With luck and hard work, some of those original goals will also have been achieved, so the newborn organization will also have earned a bit of a reputation, but also has a little less demanding mission.

It is a time of transition, when what had begun as a movement driven by high-minded individuals, driven by what they, at least, view as noble ideals starts to look a lot like a business.

It is a dangerous time.

It is dangerous because once you take on a payroll, and commit to lease office space, buy the necessary insurance policies and such, money starts to matter a lot more than it did before.  With the initial goals of the organization achieved, unless the organization can clearly articulate a new and inspiring mission, it can get a lot harder to recruit new members, to keep many of the old ones, and to bring enough donors on board.  

Cash flow can get frighteningly thin.

If enough years have gone by, the initial, idealistic founders of the organization, who believed in its founding principles, will also start to retire, and hand over leadership to a new generation that was not in the original fight, and might not be quite as dedicated to the organization’s original mission.  If those founders did their job well, the organization would have grown, and is probably managed by professional staff who don’t necessarily share the mission or principles at all, and are far more interested in meeting payroll—most particularly their own—than in achieving noble goals.

It is at this time when the founding principles of the movement, and its original mission, often become subordinated to the business’ need to grow membership and keep the money flowing in.

It is at this time when the movement often dies.

I’ve seen it occur a number of times.

Once was here in New York, in 1995.  The angling community had knitted together an umbrella organization that included a wide array of fishing-related groups, including everything from fishing clubs to trade associations to the state Sea Grant program, in the hopes of affecting the legislative and regulatory process, and improving the political and natural environment in ways that benefitted both the fish and recreational fishermen.

For a while, it all worked quite well.  The organization grew, an executive director was hired, an office was opened, and some good work was done.  But in 1995, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission declared the formerly collapsed striped bass stock was fully recovered, and problems arose.

Normally, the recovery of a species would be viewed as good news.  But with the bass’ recovery came the opportunity for states to relax striped bass regulations.  New York’s striped bass anglers, and the clubs that represented them, largely opposed any change in the rules; they argued that the current regulations, which permitted anglers to take home one striped bass per day, provided that such fish was at least 36 inches long, would help prevent a future collapse while providing the opportunity to take home the occasional fish.

The state’s fishing industry, on the other hand, saw things differently.  ASMFC was allowing the coastal states to amend their regulations, so that anglers could keep two bass each day, and reduce the size limit to 28 inches.  With the key summer flounder population still badly overfished, and other food fish such as scup and black sea bass not doing much better, tackle shops, party and charter boats saw the chance to harvest more and smaller striped bass as a revenue opportunity, that would provide “meat fishermen” with a new species to target.

Despite nearly unanimous opposition from its member clubs, the leadership of the umbrella group sided with the industry position.  I was one of the louder members of the opposition, so the then-president of the group took a chance to take me aside and explain that the organization “needed about $40,000 a year to pay the bills.  We need these [industry] people’s donations.  Without them, we won’t have enough money to run.”

And faced with an argument like that, it was pretty clear where mission and principles stood in the order of things…

So that’s when another “movement” began.  Striped bass anglers abandoned the old organization wholesale, and began looking for other options.  Eventually, we decided to harness our star to that of a national angling group that, at the time, was doing outstanding conservation work elsewhere in the country.

Again, it was a time of passion and selfless dedication to a cause.  We worked for more than a year, trying to prove that we were good enough to be made a state chapter of the national group, a national group that, at the time, was proud to number “putting the fish first” among its guiding principles.  

Eventually, they let us in the door.

And, again, we grew.  In time, we were the seventh- or eighth-largest of fifteen local chapters, even larger than some that had started up years before.  We hired an executive director, and rented out an office.  Membership grew.

And as part of that membership effort, two of our local chapters decided to put on a lavish, light-tackle tournament as a way to attract both members and their money.  It was a successful event, that undoubtedly helped us to work toward our conservation goals here in New York.

But only for a while.

After a few years, things got turned on their heads.  Instead of the tournament supporting the organization and its goals, folks began to tell us, the organization should be changing the way it does things, and the public positions that it took, in order to support the tournament.  We should be putting on kids’ fishing clinics and cleaning beaches and such, because those generated good publicity, but we shouldn’t be getting involved in hard conservation issues, because “Conservation is controversial,” and conservation advocacy led to conflicts with the industry, fewer donations and bad comments in the local angling press.

From a business standpoint, they were probably right, but there seems little point in running a conservation organization that doesn’t support conservation issues, so their point seemed a little moot.  Most of use decided to adhere to the then-expressed principles of the national group, and let the other folks stalk off with their tournament and go home.

And that was good for a while.  But then business considerations began to intervene at the national level, too.

It all probably started when a fisheries issue in the South Atlantic started to raise a public outcry.  At first, the folks on the ground tried to do the right thing, but their leadership began to fear that a local magazine with a big readership and a cranky publisher would criticize them for taking a pro-conservation, rather than what he might deem a “pro-angler” position, and do real harm to—yes, of course—membership and the money that those members generate.

Conservation principles were compromised while business principles prevailed.

Despite a unanimous vote by member reps to keep putting the fish first, other fisheries problems along other coasts, criticism in the press and in on-line forums and related membership concerns led even the national group to eventually abandon its “fish first” principles, ally itself with industry and adopt an “anglers’ rights” agenda that is contrary to much of the work that it did before.

At that point, I just walked away, a bit wiser and far more cynical than I had been at the start.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by such outcomes.  

A week or two ago, I came across a quote that says it all.

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
It is attributed to someone named Eric Hoffer, and his book The Temper of Our Time.

Hoffer was one of those folks who, like the writer Louis “Studs” Terkel and folk singer Woody Guthrie, knocked around in—and got knocked around by—various occupations during the Great Depression, a time when both movements and rackets were thick on the ground, and came away with insights that are still worth considering today.

Fisheries conservation is certainly a “great movement,” that shows many faces, and attracts many new followers even in today’s increasingly jaded world.  And the angler-based fishery “conservation” groups are certainly all about business, their actions and political positions making it clear that they care about money and members far more than they seem to care about the future health of fish stocks.

But a racket?

Clearly, the answer is yes.

That comes in the form of the “Modern Fish Act,” more formerly the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act.  

A host of angling-related organizations are trying to con you into supporting that bill, which would let them escape our current science-based management system in order to kill a few more fish—mostly red snapper—and sell a few more boats, rods and reels, over the next few years--while mortgaging the future of our public fish stocks and leaving it up to your descendants to pay off their bill.

In the Senate, the bill is S. 1520, and there’s an all-out push for anglers on every coast—and even largemouth bass fishermen in the heartland—to support it.  Advocates claim that it would be good for everyone, but you only need to read the allocation section,

“Not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Commerce shall enter into an arrangement with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico mixed use fisheries—to provide guidance on criteria that could be used for allocating fisheries privileges…and to develop procedures for allocation reviews and potential adjustments for allocations.  [emphasis added; internal numbering omitted]”
to understand that the anglers’ groups pushing the hardest for such legislation--all headquartered in the South--care as much about anglers in New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the Pacific as they care about whether there will be anything left for your kids and your grandkids to fish for, after they have all had their fun.

Which is to say, they seem to care nothing at all…

In the House, most provisions of the Modern Fish Act bill, H.R. 2023, have been incorporated into H.R. 200, the latest iteration of what conservation advocates have dubbed the “Empty Oceans Act,” a bill that may very well undo most of the progress that has been made in rebuilding fish stocks over the past twenty years. 

That, too, tells us all we need to know about how sincere anglers’ groups are about real conservation.

Thus, when I answered that question the club member asked, my “I don’t know” came with a lot of frustration and sadness, because it made me admit how badly at least one part of a “great movement,” and a part that I once was very much involved in, has failed.

But that doesn’t mean that fisheries conservation itself is a lost cause.

On every coast, grassroots groups have made a difference in the future of a number of species, ranging from cobia to tarpon to striped bass.

So please, join that movement.  Work with other anglers to fight for the fish that you care about.

Organizations, on the other hand, aren’t worth fighting for.  

They’re just a tool designed for a purpose.  When that purpose is done, it’s better to put them aside and discard them, lest someone else comes along with some racket, and ends up vandalizing the good work that others, before them, have done.


Sunday, January 21, 2018


As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of Doug Olander, the editor of Sport Fishing magazine, and the thought that he puts into each editorial that appears in that publication. 

He doesn’t pump out the usual “conservation is a PETA plot,” “regulations are bad,” “they’re all trying to push us off the water” tripe that you see far too often in the saltwater press, and particularly in some of the regional rags.  Instead, he actually tries to inform his readers, presenting the facts as he believes them to be and giving fair consideration to both sides of an issue before reaching a reasoned conclusion.

The fact that I might or might not agree with that conclusion isn’t particularly relevant; what matters is that he consistently authors an honest piece that treats his readers with respect, and maybe even encourages them to really think about issues in a way that they hadn’t thought about them before.

The editorial in Sport Fishing’s February 2018 was no exception. 

In it, he related how Sport Fishing had posted a question on Facebook, “What would your fishing be like without fisheries regulation?” and how the responses fell into two camps.  It’s worth clicking on the link in the previous sentence to get a real feel for all the responses, but for those not so inclined, Olander reported that

“quite a few of the dozens who responded to this Question of the Day posted replies saying, in so many words, ‘if you think fishing sucks now, try it without regulations.'”
He notes that

“’Nonexistent’ was mentioned in many replies,”
and that

A disaster [was] another oft-repeated opinion.”
He also informed readers that

“some fishermen feel quite differently.  Lots of respondents figure no regulation and no fisheries laws are exactly what we need.”
A few of the anti-regulations folks said that without regulations, fishing would be

The same as 50 years ago,”
with one declaring that

I’d spear every goliath grouper I saw,
while another, who clearly never made it through the first year of law school, opined that

“I fish for food, not sport.  I have every constitutional right to do so without their interference.”
But then Olander made what was probably the most important observation in the piece.  He wrote that

“when it comes to antipathy to fishing laws, the greatest concern of anglers is fairness.”
He went on to provide a few examples of comments supporting that observation, including

I would keep as many fluke as I want because I see the commercials doing it every day!

Members of NOAA owning commercial boats in the Gulf.  Conflict of interest much?
Those two comments, among all the rest, stood out, because they led to another thought that went a step beyond Olander’s observation:  If “fairness” is a key to anglers accepting regulation, then education and an open mind are the keys to anglers’ understanding of “fairness.”

The angler who complained about commercial fishermen keeping as many fluke (more properly known as “summer flounder”) as they want certainly had a very incomplete understanding of fluke regulations, and how the commercial rules work.  For yes, commercial boats can keep far more fish each day than anglers can, but “as many fluke as [they] want” is very far from the truth.

Commercial fishermen in some states, including North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have been awarded very large fluke quotas, and can kill a lot of fish in a single trip.  On the other hand, commercial fishermen in other states have much smaller quotas, and are subject to much smaller trip limits. 

Last year in New York, for example, the summer flounder trip limit never exceeded 70 pounds, even for the largest trawler, which makes it pretty hard to make a profit, once all of the expenses for the trip are paid (although the chance to combine daily trip limits into a single-trip weekly limit helps a bit).  

And commercial fishermen in Delaware have it even worse.  Because they exceeded their annual quota in a previous season, their 2017 annual quota was a negative 48,493 pounds; not only weren’t they permitted to land a single summer flounder last year, but it’s not at all clear when they will be allowed to land any summer flounder again. 

From the perspective of a Delaware commercial fisherman, an angler complaining about the “fairness” of recreational regulations, and suggesting that commercial fishermen could take all of the fluke that they want, would seem not just unreasonable, but completely irrational.  Particularly when one considers that when anglers overfish their summer flounder quota, as they have in some recent years, they merely face more restrictive regulations in future years, and don’t have their quota reduced, as commercial fishermen do, to account for any such overage.

But that’s the problem about “fairness,” as anyone who spends time with children can attest.  The kid who gets the bigger share of the birthday cake never starts wailing “You’re being unfair!  He got a smaller piece…”

And that’s a fair analogy, because anglers seldom address “fairness” issues as rational adults, who try to understand the full picture.  That’s not entirely their fault; there are certainly plenty of folks who could be shedding some light on the issue, but instead choose to keep much of the picture obscured.

That’s probably best illustrated down in the Gulf of Mexico, where various organizations keep whining about the “unfairness” of the red snapper regulations.  

“While private recreational anglers—those who purchased a boat, fishing gear, fishing license, fuel, ice, etc.—were limited to a three-day red snapper season in federal waters this year, charter boat operators were granted a 49-day season and commercial fishermen were granted a 365-day season.”
Taking that statement on its face, as most anglers and probably most non-anglers would, it would seem that a great inequity had, in fact, taken place.  That’s what happens without education.

Because when you learn all the facts, facts that the leadership of the angling community down in the Gulf seems very reluctant to clearly provide to either their members or to the public, a very different picture emerges. 

That knowledge turns the Center for Sportfishing Policy’s complaint on its head. 

Once state seasons are part of the picture, it becomes clear that, depending on where they’re fishing, private boat anglers may fish for Gulf red snapper for no less than 67, and perhaps as many as 365, days of the year, not merely for three.  

On the other hand, charter and party boats with federal reef fish permits—and, more importantly, the anglers who don’t own and maybe can’t afford a boat, and so depend on those for-hires to access the red snapper resource—are still stuck at 49 days, because federally-permittedvessels aren’t allowed to fish in state waters when the federal season is closed.

So once again, “fairness” is all a matter of perspective, tempered by knowledge
The same thing is true when it comes to the Center’s complaints about the 365-day commercial season.  

For yes, it’s true that the commercial fishery is allowed to operate for 365 days of the year, but it’s also true that the commercial fishery agreed to management measures that strictly limit each fisherman’s share of the overall harvest, and that thanks to such measures, the commercial sector hasn’t overfished its quota in more than a decade. 

So tell me, who is really being “unfair?”  NOAA Fisheries, or the so-called “leadership” of the recreational fishing community, who seem ready and willing to take fish away from the commercial and for-hire sectors, who don't overfish, and give them to private-boat anglers, who overfish on a regular basis, but also seem unwilling, and perhaps even afraid, to tell anglers, and the members of their organizations, all of the information that they need to make a fully-informed decision about whether the management system works as it should?

That’s the sort of question that needs to be asked when we look at another complaint of “unfairness” quoted in Olander’s editorial:  “Members of NOAA owning commercial boats in the Gulf.  Conflict of interest much?”

A quick Google search didn’t turn up any NOAA employees who own commercial boats fishing in the Gulf of Mexico (although that doesn’t necessarily mean that such folks don’t exist), so for purposes of this discussion, I’m making the (possibly false) assumption that when the commenter said “Members of NOAA,” he meant members of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, and not full-time NOAA employees.

However, none of those persons actually “[own] commercial boats in the Gulf”; even Ms. Bosarge is only an employee of her family’s business, and doesn’t actually own any of the shrimp boats that she manages.

But, having looked at the number of Gulf Council members who might feel some natural affinity for the commercial fisheries, it’s only right—only “fair”—to look at Council members who might, for one reason or another, feel some bias for the recreational side.

It’s difficult to deny that, of all the anglers’ rights groups railing against federal fisheries management in the Gulf of Mexico, the loudest voice belongs to the Coastal Conservation Association, which has called federal management of Gulf red snapper

said that

and even complained that

“stock ownership in Sea Star Solutions, a maker of boat steering and accessory components,”

“I believe that Sea Star Solutions may be active in Recreational Fishing advocacy”
and that

“I am a consultant to Yamaha Marine Group,”

Thus, any angler who believes that Gulf management decisions are “unfair” because someone owning a commercial fishing boat might sit on the Council ought to take a look at the other side of the ledger, and see how the deck is stacked in favor of certain recreational interests and against the current science-based management system.

That gives “fairness” a whole different appearance.

And that’s why “fairness” is such a difficult criteria to employ when dealing with fisheries management.  Many fishermen are quick to complain that things are “unfair” when a single set of circumstances might militate against them, but like the child who gets the bigger piece of the cake, never worries about “fairness” when things go their way.

Thus, when it comes to federal fisheries management, perhaps we’d all be wise to stop thinking just about ephemeral concepts like "fairness" and instead think about some of the closing words of Doug Olander’s editorial.

“I think those of us in the recreational-fishing community need to continue to make our voices heard to make fisheries laws better, not abolish them.”
Although Olander didn’t go any farther than that, I would suggest that the way to make fisheries laws better is to insist that such laws put the fish first.  For when fish are abundant, we don’t need to squabble about whether laws are fair.  Whether we are commercial or recreational, there will be more fish available for all of us.

But if we put ourselves first, and like the coddled two-year old believe that everything resolves around Me…MeeeMeeeeeeeee!, and not the resource, fish will never return in abundance.

And that, in the end, would be the most unfair occurrence of all.

Thursday, January 18, 2018


When I was growing up in 1960s Connecticut, the line between “recreational” and “commercial” fishermen was faint and ill-defined.

We all knew that the draggermen further up in New England clearly fell into the commercial camp, and that the families fishing for snapper blues under the Route 95 bridge were just as clearly recreational, but between those two extremes, the distinction was a little vague.

My father didn’t sell fish, and neither most of the other guys who hung out at the town dock most nights, talking about stripers and bluefish, and days long gone by, while I and the other kids watched the killies swarm along the seawall and threw the occasional rock at any water rat unwise enough to stick its head out from between the stones.

But every now and then, someone else would walk by, either going down to their boat to fish through the night, or laboriously climbing up the ramp that led to the landing, a trash can filled with bluefish and maybe some stripers in tow.  

Everyone knew them, and they got a solemn nod and maybe a word as they passed, but they weren’t a regular part of the nightly gathering. 

And after they passed, someone would often mutter, while maybe shaking his head, “He’s selling those fish.”

A lot of that disapproval came from the fact that, even back then, Connecticut had outlawed the sale of locally-caught striped bass, so any sales were clearly illegal—even if a restaurant less than five minutes from the dock, notorious for buying every bass such folks wanted to sell, was never visited by the folks who enforced that particular law.

The rest came from a general notion that sportsmen didn’t sell their catch.  And make no mistake—the fishermen who were selling their bass and bluefish would never have called themselves “commercial.”  They were tree trimmers, electricians and butchers and such, people with small businesses or regular 9-to-5 jobs, who never towed a trawl or set a gill net, but figured that they could make a little cash on the side by selling their excess fish.

The fact that no license was required, even when they sold legal catch such as porgies or blues, made separating the commercial from the recreational fishermen a little more confusing.

I eventually learned that in most other states, where striped bass sale was legal, anglers routinely sold their excess catch, but still considered themselves to be recreational fishermen.

As I grew older, and took a summer job in a tackle store, things didn’t get any simpler.  The shop had a lot of wealthy customers who came from all over the New York metropolitan area, and kept their boats in the nearby harbor.  Some of them regularly ran their boats, many of them the sort of big, expensive Bertrams and Hatterases that college kids like me only fished from in our dreams, out to Montauk, Rhode Island or even Nantucket, were they fished offshore for tuna, swordfish and marlin.

Such folks were multimillionaires, back in the day when that term denoted far more wealth than it does today.  And yet, I was shocked to learn, they regularly sold their tuna “to pay for the trip,” and felt adamantly entitled to do so, although they would have been mortally insulted if anyone had suggested that they were “commercial fishermen.”

Things began to change in, if I recall correctly, the late 1970s, when Massachusetts became the first northeastern state to require anglers who sell their catch to buy a license.  Today, that requirement hardly seems shocking, but at the time, it was viewed as a radical change from the norm, radical enough that Salt Water Sportsman magazine published an article “To Sell a Fat Fish”, which explored the implications of the state turning what was still viewed as recreation—despite the fact that fish were being sold—into a business.

I was already living on Long Island when New York began requiring a similar license, back around 1985.  And I remember the indignant responses from many members of the offshore fishing club I had joined.  In particular, I recall the response of one member, a part-time outdoor writer who held a good job at a Manhattan bank, when he learned that none of the folks who he regular fished with had purchased a commercial license.  

It was something like “Well, one of us better get one.  Watch!  We’re going to catch a big mako, and won’t be able to sell it…”

But he, like so many “recreational” anglers, didn’t consider himself “commercial” at all and, in fact, frequently blamed full-time commercial fishermen for our fisheries’ various ills.

In time, New York’s laws tightened up.  The number of foodfish licenses was capped by statute, and an income requirement, limiting licenses to those who depended on fishing for at least a substantial part of their livelihood, was adopted, although early license buyers had been grandfathered in.  Such limitation allowed better allowed limited resources, and limiting commercial quotas, to be caught and sold by people who depended on fishing-related income for the basics and life, and didn’t just use it to help pay back the loan on a $250,000 fishing machine.

Today, the requirements have generally been embraced by New York’s commercial fishermen, who recognize that providing everyone with open access to the fishery would mean, given current harvest quotas, that just about no one would catch enough fish to survive.

While New York took the commercial licensing process to its logical conclusion, other states are still trying to figure out how to best address the issue.  In recent weeks, a controversy has broken out in North Carolina, where officials discovered that, although it issues about 7,000 commercial fishing licenses, only about 3,000 of the licensees are actually selling any fish to dealers. 

There is speculation that the majority of the license buyers are merely trying to escape restrictive recreational bag limits, or are otherwise abusing the license privilege.  Thus, the state is considering changes to the law that would impose qualifications—suggestions include requiring that license holders earn 50% of their income from commercial fishing, provide trip tickets proving that they made at least 36 commercial fishing trips in one year and/or earn no less than $10,000 from commercial fishing—on license holders, to weed out those using the commercial license for an inappropriate purpose.

North Carolina commercial fishermen appear split on the issue. 

It also discloses the fact that about one-third of the licensed “commercial fishermen” who don’t report any annual landings are either actively fishing with commercial gear or harvesting fish in commercial quantities.  While no conclusions were drawn from that fact, it seems obvious that such fishermen were either evading restrictive recreational regulations in order to harvest more fish for personal use or—probably the far more likely scenario—were bypassing licensed fish buyers, and evading both catch and income reporting requirements, by selling their catch illicitly and undercutting the sales of more reputable commercial operators.

About three-quarters of the 5,000 or so license holders allegedly report no landings at all.  A decade ago, Paul Diodati, then the then the director of Massachusetts’ Division of Marine Fisheries, noted that

“The commercial fishery has also changed by attracting thousands of non-traditional participants who are lured by the thought of subsidizing an expensive hobby,”
so-called “recre-mercial fishermen who, like the bluefin tuna fishermen I ran into in my summer job, merely want to underwrite the price of their trips, and don’t need the money to provide family income.

Fishermen I know up in Massachusetts tell me that such legislation has little to no chance of passage. 

That may be a shame.

For as a fisherman wrote in that North Carolina Watermen thread, a more restrictive definition of “commercial fishermen” wouldn’t hurt the people who actually make their living on the water.  Instead,

“bank VPs in Dare County or pharmacists from Kinston will no longer be able to sell their fish.”

And in these days of declining stocks and shrinking quotas, that would not be a bad thing at all.