Thursday, March 15, 2018
IN MEMORIAM, ON ST. PATRICK'S DAY
This isn’t the blog that I was planning to write today.
But as I started to put together the data that I needed to write what I had originally intended, I came across some other numbers that made me stop in my tracks, particularly because Saturday is St. Patrick’s Day.
To many of those reading this, that may make Saturday a day for parades, corned beef and beer. But once, for many of us, St. Patrick's Day would have been the unofficial start of the winter flounder season.
If early March had been kind, and gave us a few days to get our boats painted and into the water, we fished from them, trying to hide from the wind in a sheltered place, where the dark mud bottom would trap the heat of the sun and spur the flounders to feed. Lacking our own boats, we’d rent a skiff or jump on a party boat, or maybe just fish from a dock or a local shore, where we expected some fish to be waiting.
Over the course of the year, we caught a lot of flounder.
Anglers in the northeast took home an estimated 13,685,628 of them in 1981, and that number stayed fairly steady through 1985, when an estimated 16,306,302 winter flounder were landed.
Those are impressive numbers. They turned out to be too impressive to be sustainable.
Over the past five years, recreational winter flounder landings were estimated to fall in a range between 50,603 and 133,426 fish—less than 1% of what we were landing in the early 1980s. And even those dismal numbers don’t tell the whole story, because these days, between 80% and 90% of the landings are coming from a small area around Boston, Massachusetts, with almost nothing being taken anywhere else.
Here in New York, for example, anglers landed 7,384,229 winter flounder in 1984, compared to a whopping 492 last season.
So my boat is still resting under its winter cover, and on Saturday, I’ll be staying indoors, dry and warm, at the Long Island Fly Fishing Expo, listening to people talk about fish, instead of getting cold and windburned out on Great South Bay, and actually catching them.
But I’d rather be out in the cold. My world’s a little smaller with the winter flounder gone, and they’re not likely to fill it again.
And winter flounder aren’t all we have lost.
As I perused the data, I noted that that we used to catch a lot of cod in the '80s, too—between about 1,400,000 and 4,400,000 per year, compared to 30,000 to 390,000 per year since 2013.
Cod are another one of those fish that I feel special ties to, and miss quite a bit. They played a part in family vacations since I was six years old, when all of us started trundling onto party boats up in New England seeking them and other groundfish.
Those were the days when I saw my first whales and first knew the excitement that comes from dropping a line into unknown waters, where who-knew-what swam. As I grew into my early teens, I began codfishing with my father and his friends, then with him alone, on trips that burn bright in my memory as I reflect on times and people that have both passed on.
And when I remember those things, the loss of the cod hurts badly, too.
And then there are pollock.
If flounder marked the start of my angling voyage and, for many years, the start of each new season, and if cod were my introduction to the ocean and, through fishing, to the adult world, pollock marked the start of the sort of adventures that would mark most the rest of my years, when I ran small boats over long distances, sometimes to unknown waters, just to find a good bunch of fish.
For those who don’t live in the northeast, and aren’t familiar with pollock, think of them as sort of like cod, version 2.0.
While cod are a tasty, slow-moving groundfish, perfectly willing to suck crabs off the bottom if the herring play hard-to-get, pollock are a stronger, sleeker animal, willing and able to chase food in the mid-waters and sometimes—though not too often—right to the surface as well. And they still taste good. Maybe not as good as cod, but still good enough to make the chase worthwhile.
Back in 1981, pollock still ran strong in the spring off Block Island, Rhode Island, so a few of us convinced ourselves to run a smallish outboard boat the 100 or so miles from its dock in Cos Cob, in western Connecticut, to the Block Island pollock grounds.
The trip involved a night-long transit in pea-soup fog, followed by a too-close encounter with a surfacing whale, and involved a leaking boat that we feared, for a while, might sink from beneath us. It was capped off by a long trip home in the face of a stiff west wind and a steep, pounding chop that made us all happy when, hours later, finally returned home.
I loved every minute over it, including the fact that a very small portion of the 1,400,000 pollock caught by anglers that year came home with us. Inspired by that success, I've spent most of four decades running small boats out beyond the horizon, in search of fish and less tangible things. And I have. many times, reaped the rewards.
But the pollock, too, are a thing of the past, with 2017 recreational landings only about 17% of what they were in 1981. While that’s not as bad as the decline in winter flounder or cod, the fish have all but abandoned southern New England, and Block Island’s spring run ended long ago.
Yet some of us can still remember, and mourn the loss.
I offer these tales as a warning.
Don't repeat the mistakes of the past.
We didn’t have to lose the flounder, the cod or the Block Island pollock run. There was plenty of time to avoid it, if the people in charge of such things had the political will.
“The general conclusion…was that the abundance of winter flounder in all stocks has declined and may be near historically low levels. This is supported by data from a variety of data sources collected by both federal and state agencies.”
With respect to cod, the assessment found that
“Survey indices, commercial [catch per unit effort], changes in age composition and other factors all point to significant declines in stock abundance. The stock appears to be growth overfished and perhaps in danger of recruitment overfishing.”
Pollock posed a problem for the stock assessors, as the data was somewhat confounding. However, signals were clear enough that they could conclude that
“Short-term projections based on 1985 stock levels indicate a probably reduction in stock biomass and catch in the near future regardless of the level of fishing mortality applied. If [fishing mortality] is held at the 1985 level (0.73) through 1987, landings will decline by 54% and age 3+ stock biomass will be reduced by 42% from the 1985 level. If [fishing mortality] is reduced to 0.33 by 1987, landings will decline by approximately 73% and stock biomass will decline by 35% from 1985 levels.”
In other words, none of those stocks were in very good shape.
Unfortunately, back in 1986, stock assessments of New England groundfish didn’t add very much value to the debate, simply because the fishermen who comprised the majority of members of the New England Fishery Management Council, which managed all three stocks, more-or-less ignored them
Back then, ten years before passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which required federal fishery managers to end overfishing and rebuild stocks, the existing law of the land was the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, which required managers to get “optimum yield” out of fish stocks. And in that law, optimum yield was defined as
“the amount of fish—which will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, with particular reference to food production and recreational opportunities; and which is prescribed on the basis of the maximum sustainable yield from such fishery, as modified by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor. [emphasis added; internal numbering deleted]”
So the stock assessment might suggest that overfishing was taking place, and that landings exceeded the maximum sustainable yield. However, all the New England Council needed to decide was that fishermen could make more money if allowed to overfish even an already overfished stock, and such an “economic factor” allowed them to set an optimum yield that was too high to be sustainable.
Even after the Sustainable Fisheries Act put an end to explicitly allowing overfishing, and supposedly required that landings be no higher than the maximum sustainable yield, the New England Council got around the requirement by not adopting annual catch limits for groundfish stocks.
Instead, they used alternative management measures that appeared to work on paper, and have at least a 50-50 chance of preventing overfishing, such as establishing limits on how many fish could be harvested on any trip, and limiting the days that any one permitted vessel could be at sea.
Alternative management measures didn’t work. Without hard-poundage annual catch limits to instill discipline in fishermen, overfishing continued and the stocks of all three species continued to decline.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act, which governs all federal fisheries, was reauthorized in 2006, and largely because of the New England Council’s failures, annual catch limits were finally required for nearly all managed stocks. However, for cod and winter flounder, it was already too late.
The most recent operational assessment of the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock, the stock of flounder found in waters between southern Massachusetts and New Jersey, remains badly overfished, with abundance just 18% of the level that would produce maximum sustainable yield. The last benchmark assessment had is too little data to determine whether that is also true of the Gulf of Maine stock. Given that the overall catch has fallen 95% since the 1980s, there’s little reason to believe that it’s doing well.
Cod stocks are in far worse condition. The Gulf of Maine stock is still subject to overfishing, and is badly overfished, languishing at somewhere between 5% and 8% of the biomass needed to produce maximum sustainable yield.
Data problems make it impossible to fully assess the Georges Bank stock, but it, too, is believed to be overfished, based on the “poor stock condition.”
Pollock still present a challenging problem, due to uncertain data. However, they do not appear to be either overfished or subject to overfishing. At the same time, the loss of the spring run at Block Island suggest that they are no longer as abundant as they once were.
Although the improvements to Magnuson-Stevens, made over the last twenty years, came too late to assure that many New England groundfish populations will rebuild at any time soon, they have led to the recovery of 44 other once-overfished stocks (including a few in New England), and they have relieved the overfishing that once plagued a number of others.
Yet today, there is legislation in Washington that would threaten to repeat the mistakes of the past.
H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fishery Management Act, is the worst of them in that regard. It would again allow economics to be a consideration in establishing annual catch limits, and would create many exceptions to the current requirement that annual catch limits be included in management plans. It would also create a number of exceptions to the requirement that overfishing be ended and fish stocks rebuilt within a time certain, some so broadly worded that they could apply to just about any fish, and delay rebuilding indefinitely.
H.R. 200 also contains elements of H.R. 2023, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act, which would largely exempt anglers from the strictures of annual catch limits, which it would replace with "alternative" measures, even when anglers cause most of the fishing mortality in a particular stock. H.R. 2023 would also delay stock rebuilding and severely water down the requirements for the “best science available.” It's Senate companion, S. 1520, is much less malign in its current form; still, it can’t become law without being reconciled with whatever passes in the House, and the result only be something bad.
Thus, conservation minded folks should stand opposed to them all.
Which brings us back to St. Patrick’s Day.
We can’t fish for flounders any more.
But after you raise your glass of Bushmills, and drink a mournful toast to the Last Feast of the Fianna, and another to the martyrs of the Rising, fill it once again for the flounder and other fisheries that we have lost.
Then swear an oath by the sun, moon and wind that you will do all in your power to see that our laws remain strong, to keep us from losing any more.