Sunday, March 25, 2018


It doesn’t matter what species we’re talking about, or what fisheries are involved.  Once all of the available fish are fully utilized, and landings approach optimum yield, fishery management becomes a zero-sum game. 

In order to give more fish to one sector, managers have to take fish away from someone else. 

There’s just no getting around it, because if you let someone take more, and don’t cut back elsewhere, overfishing will result.  Let that happen, and everyone will end up with less whatever the allocations may be.

For those not familiar with the black sea bass fishery, it’s one of those  confounding situations where what should have been a great success story—black sea bass abundance is close to twice the target level, and fish have become available to anglers in numbers and places that are unique in the memory of most fishermen now alive—is turning into something that looks like disaster, as various factors converge to complicate the management process.

At the same time, beginning in 2010, summer flounder reproduction went into a tailspin, and hasn’t yet recovered.  That meant that around 2014, when the 2011 black sea bass year class were entering the northeastern fishery in big numbers, fewer legal summer flounder were available to anglers. 

As anglers tend to target whatever is most available, summer angling effort began to shift from summer flounder onto sea bass.  Here on the South Shore of New York’s Long Island, a lot of that shift manifested itself not in what anglers were supposedly fishing for, but instead, in where they were fishing.  Effort shifted from the bays, inlets and sand humps offshore to hard structure such as wrecks and artificial reefs, places where they knew they could, at least, put a few black sea bass in the cooler if the summer flounder didn’t show.

As a result, anglers started catching a lot of black sea bass, and because the stock was healthy, a lot of those sea bass were pretty big.  In 2006, for example, anglers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic landed about 1.3 million black sea bass, and the average fish weighed about 1.4 pounds; ten years later, in 2016, landings had increased to 2.5 million fish, with an average weight of 2 pounds.  With those sort of numbers, anglers could land their annual catch limit quickly, even as that catch limit increased in response to the abundance of fish.

At the same time, the warming oceans were seeing the center of black sea bass abundance shift north.

For many years, recreational black sea bass landings were dominated by the states between New Jersey and Virginia, with far fewer fish caught in the north.  Prior to 2003, when black sea bass were still badly overfished, those states accounted for more than 80% of black sea bass landings, with states between New York and Massachusetts accounting for the rest.  But the southern share began to decline in 2004; in 2009, for the first time, northern states accounted for a majority of the landings.  By 2016, the situation was entirely inverted, with 83% of the recreational sea bass landings generated by states between Massachusetts and New York.

Unfortunately, regulations hadn’t kept up with the trends in abundance.  They kept bag limits high and size limits low in the southern states, where the fish used to be, and were seldom caught any more (Virginia anglers, for example, landed about 450,000 black sea bass in 2000, and just 29,000—about 6.5% of 2000 landings—in 2016), and forced northern states, where the fish were present in far larger numbers, to adopt ever-larger size limits and ever-shrinking bags in a fruitless effort to constrain their harvest (landings in New York tripled, from 335,000 to over 1,000,000 million fish, during the same period).

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission tried to address that problem in 2018, grouping the states into regions that might better reflect the origins of the fish that they catch (the latest benchmark stock assessment, released late in 2016, broke the population into northern and southern components, with Hudson Canyon, located off New York and New Jersey, and the demarcation between the two).

“Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose…

“…Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself                             
But don’t take too much…

That became clear when ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board met in February, to finalize the regions and allocate recreational black sea bass landings for 2018.

They had a few choices to make.  They could have established two regions, which would have grouped New Jersey, which shares many fishing grounds with New York, with the four northern states, and required it to have similar size and bag limits.  However, because New Jersey straddles Hudson Canyon, that didn’t happen; ASMFC established a northern region that only includes the states between New York and Massachusetts, which will share the northern component of the population, based on their historical landings.

And ASMFC had to decide which historical landings to use.  A five-year time period, encompassing landings between 2011 and 2015, provided the “cleanest” data and would have fully captured the northern movement of the stock.  But here’s where Billie Holiday, the “crust of bread” and injunction “don’t take too much” comes in.

Because, as I mentioned at the start of this piece, fishery management is a zero-sum game, and the southern states, who were definitely in the “them that’s got category,” didn’t want to base the allocations on recent landings, which would give northern states—“them  that’s not”—more than a “crust of bread” out of the southern state’s larder.  Instead, they favored a 10-year period that also included seasons when the south dominated the fishery, even though the fish weren’t off their shores in such abundance these days.

In the end, the states compromised on an allocation that amounted to an average between what each region would get under each of the two allocations.  I call that a “compromise,” but it was the kind of compromise that someone makes when a bayonet is just starting to pierce that soft triangle of flesh at the base of his throat.  As one northern state rep noted at the meeting, “It’s 6 to 4,” favoring the south, and it was clear how things had to end.

So, in contrast to the southern states “that’s got” both the allocation and the votes, the northern states “that’s not” did lose, having to collectively surrender about 100,000 black sea bass that their anglers would have been able to land if allocations were based on the more recent five-year period.
The northern states all voted against ASMFC’s bastard averaging approach, and they did in fact lose, by the predicted 6-4 margin.  They will bring a formal appeal at ASMFC’s May meeting, but their chances of success are not overwhelming.

So all of the states are going to have to set black sea bass regulations that look something like a 15-inch minimum size, 4-fish bag limit and a season that runs from mid-June through mid-October.

Which brings us back, the long way, to New York’s public meeting and the zero-sum game.

Although all of the northern states are required to adopt similar regulations, the rules don’t need to be exactly the same.  They merely have to have “conservation equivalency” to the model set of rules meaning that a state may not adopt regulations that would result in a larger harvest than the model rules would.  Still, state discretion isn’t unlimited; the size limit must be within one inch of the model, and the bag limit can’t vary by more than three; there is unlimited discretion on the season, so long as it won’t allow too many fish to be caught.

New York decided that it would keep the 15-inch minimum size, but proposed keeping its current 3-fish bag limit during July and August, when private-boat anglers typically dominate the catch, and allow anglers to keep 5 black sea bass (down from 8 in September and October and 10 in November and December) through the rest of the year.  That would allow New York anglers the longest possible season, beginning it on July 1, while retaining the September through December fishery that’s important to the for-hire fleet.

No, the proposal isn’t perfect, but it’s a reasonable compromise that provides at least some sort of directed summer fishery, while giving the for-hires and the more serious private-boat anglers a chance to catch black sea bass when waters cool in the fall.

But a bunch of the for-hires aren’t happy with that.  They’re demanding that the proposal be changed to give them more fish in the fall.  They claim that they “need” those fish for their business.

The problem is, there is only one place they can get those fish from, and that’s to take them away from the private boat fleet.  Because it is, in the end, a zero-sum game, and New York’s anglers are only allocated a limited number of fish.  For the for-hire boats to get more, the private boats must get fewer.  There is no other way.

And New York’s private boat anglers are already losers in their own right when it comes to black sea bass.

At the March 2016 meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, the Council was given a number of possible black sea bass regulations, and asked to vote for their preferred alternative.  The choice ultimately came down to two proposals, which were identical in all respects, except that one alternative would open the season on June 27, and reduce the bag limit from 8 fish to 3 from then until vthe bag limit from 8 fish to 5 during July and August.

Representatives of the party boat fleet present at the meeting were split, with those from eastern Long Island preferring the later opening, while those from the rest of New York insisting on the earlier season, despite the sharp reduction in bag limit.  The Marine Resources Advisory Council, on a close vote, preferred the later start and 5-fish bag; however, their advice was rejected by the Department of Environmental Conservation, which opted for the earlier start.

So the party boats on western and central Long Island got their 11 extra days of season, but effectively paid for it by taking fish out of the coolers of the private boat fleet, which normally dominates black sea bass landings before Labor Day. 

It is, after all, a zero-sum game.

As a private-boat angler who is active in the black sea bass fishery—and used to be a lot more active, when the bag limit was large enough to have a directed fishery in the summer, before a lot of the wrecks and other structure was picked over by the party boat fleet—I wasn’t happy about that decision, but the folks manning the agency are paid to use their best discretion, and on the whole, they do a fine job, even if all of us can second-guess one of their calls every now and again.

But now, that early start apparently isn’t important to the western party boat fleet any more, because they’re demanding more fish in the fall.  Once again, managers are playing a zero-sum game, so the only way that the west end boats are going to get those fish is to delay the start of the season and take fish away from the private boat fleet once again, and in doing so also take them away from their own early-season customers, who apparently don’t “need” fish at that time of year any more.  (Of course, given the compliance—or lackthereof—with the rules on some of the boats, maybe they just figure that changing the early rules won’t impact customers all that much).

Hopefully, the state will stick to its guns, and implement the regulations that it originally proposed for 2018.

If the western party boats get their way, and are again allowed to snatch fish from the private boat fleet, something is very, very wrong.

Fisheries management might be a zero-sum game.  But that doesn’t mean that the state should make the private boat anglers pay, again, for the party boats' hunger.  

There is more than enough pain for us all to share.

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