Sunday, April 29, 2018
Last week, H.R. 200, the so-called Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fishery Management Act, received its Congressional Budget Office score.
That’s not good news.
H.R. 200 is a very bad bill, that contains broad exceptions to current requirements that stocks be rebuilt within a time certain and that annual catch limits be established for nearly all managed stocks. Worse such exceptions are so ambiguously worded that they could arguably be applied to just about any fish stock.
One provision would exempt from rebuilding deadlines
“…one or more components of a mixed-stock fishery [that] is depleted but cannot be rebuilt within that time-frame without significant economic harm to the fishery.”
That would pretty much be the kiss of death to any chance of rebuilding overfished cod or winter flounder stocks in the foreseeable future.
Another would exempt any
“stock that has been affected by any unusual event that make rebuilding within the specified time period improbable without significant economic harm to fishing communities.”
That one creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through, because just about anything can be considered an “unusual event.”
Climate-driven ocean warming is making the Gulf of Maine less hospitable to northeastern groundfish. That’s never happened before. Sounds like an “unusual event” that justifies delaying the rebuilding of all of those species until…who knows? The bill doesn’t say. Could be forever.
At least six consecutive years of below-average spawning success are causing the summer flounder stock to decline. It’s not clear when good spawns might occur again, and it’s possible that flounder could become overfished. Such a long period of poor reproduction could seem unusual, so if overfishing occurs, under H.R. 200, the stock wouldn’t have to be rebuilt any time soon. Or, really, at any time.
And last year, the Secretary of Commerce reopened the private-boat recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, knowing that doing so would lead to overfishing and could delay rebuilding the stock by as much as six years. That was certainly unusual, since no official ever knowingly violated the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that way before. So folks could even argue, if not in good faith, that Gulf red snapper fell under the rebuilding exception, too.
H.R. 200 is written loosely enough to allow that to happen.
And H.R. is slowly making its way to the floor of the House of Representatives for a final vote.
The House Committee on Natural Resources marked up the bill last December, an action that was widely hailed by various anglers rights groups, such as the Recreational Fishing Alliance and Coastal Conservation Association, which oppose the current law’s science-based management approach. On the other hand, the committee’s favorable vote on the bill was broadly condemned by the conservation community, which called H.R. 200 “another ‘Empty Oceans Act’” because of its likely impact on fish stocks.
Since being reported out of committee, H.R. 200 has lain dormant, awaiting the Congressional Budget Office’s action. Now that it has received a favorable report—meaning that it will not have a meaningful impact on the federal deficit—the bill can be brought up on the floor for a vote.
That’s expected to happen in the next month or two, and there is little doubt that it will be approved.
Unlike previous Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bills, which represented broad bipartisan cooperation, H.R. 200 is an intensely partisan bill, written by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and other members of the House majority, with little or no meaningful input from minority members. It was voted out of committee on a party-line vote which presaged its eventual outcome on the House floor.
The good news is that no companion bill to H.R. 200 has yet emerged in the Senate, which even in today’s charged political environment maintains more of a deliberative, bipartisan nature than does the House.
Normally, that would mean that it was likely that H.R. 200, like its predecessor H.R. 1335, would bloom in the House, only to go to the Senate to die.
This year, even if no Senate reauthorization bill emerges, that might not happen. The anglers’ rights organizations, along with trade groups such as the American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, supported not just one, but two bad fisheries bills this year, H.R. 200 and something that’s formally titled the Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act, which they call the “Modern Fish Act.”
The House version of the Modern Fish Act, H.R. 2023, was a bad enough bill on its own, weakening the conservation and management provisions of Magnuson-Stevens in order to allow anglers to overfish and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks.
However, the anglers rights crowd were so desperate to increase their kill, and the industry folks were so hungry to increase their sales in the short term, that they supported folding the House Modern Fish Act into H.R. 200, regardless of the harm that the latter bill would do to fish stocks in the
In the Senate, the Modern Fish Act took the form of S. 1520, which was a somewhat better bill than its House companion. A markup that occurred in February toned it down quite a bit more, so that the bill reported out of the Senate committee was less a malign piece of legislation that would harm fish stocks and more of a mean-spirited one, that contained a number of provisions seemingly intended more to harm the commercial and charter fishing sectors than to help the recreational folks.
But the seemingly harmless S. 1520 could easily become a Trojan horse that leads to the defeat of the current federal fishery management system.
Should a majority of senators be convinced by the anglers’ rights groups’ blandishments that the bill is benign, and S. 1520 is passed, it is not at all unlikely that the Senate bill would be sent to conference along with H.R. 200, as the 115th Congress’ version of Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization.
At that point, all of the truly bad provisions of H.R. 200, including the more extreme House version of the Modern Fish Act, would be back in play, and could easily be included by the majority into an ostensible “compromise” bill that might be passed by both House and Senate.
Should that happen, Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization, and a wholesale weakening of the key parts of current law, would be achieved through a back-door maneuver that provided little or no meaningful chance for consultation, deliberation and debate on the Senate side.
We could end up with a very bad bill becoming law, largely by default.
Thus, despite all of the upbeat propaganda about S. 1520, it is important that conservation-minded anglers contact their senators and let them know that those who speak in favor of S. 1520 do not speak for them.
S. 1520 may seem harmless, but appearances can be deceptive. In reality, it is a dangerous tool.
It is a tool that critics of Magnuson-Stevens would use to pry open the doors of Congress, so that all that is bad in H.R. 200 can enter and destroy key provisions of federal fisheries law.
There is one way to keep that from happening.
To end the threat of H.R. 200, S. 1520—the Modern Fish Act—must not pass.
Thursday, April 26, 2018
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is preparing to put together a new benchmark stock assessment for striped bass.
That’s not unexpected, and it’s not a bad thing.
Back in 2013, when the last benchmark stock assessment was completed, managers had already announced their intention to do a benchmark assessment of fishery at the end of the 2017 season. Such regular assessments are the only way for fishery managers to learn whether the stock is doing well, or whether it’s having problems and management needs to change in order to put it back on the right track.
That’s what happened after the last assessment, which informed managers that they had to substantially lower the fishing mortality reference points—the target and the overfishing threshold—to keep the stock from becoming overfished and allow it to rebuild.
The reference points used to manage a fishery can be based on a number of factors. Most often, they are based on the productivity of the stock.
In federal fishery management plans, the fishing mortality threshold (Fthreshold) is normally the upper limit of sustainable harvest; that is, the level of fishing mortality that produces maximum sustainable yield. Fishing at any rate above Fthreshold would be unsustainable, and would eventually cause abundance to decline; when fishing mortality exceeds Fthreshold, overfishing is said to occur. The fishing mortality target (Ftarget) is typically set below Fthreshold; that can be done for many reasons, including to create a buffer that accounts for scientific and/or management uncertainty, to produce a greater abundance of fish and/or larger fish than would be available at Fthreshold, to allow more older fish to remain in the spawning stock, etc.
The biomass target (Btarget) generally represents the minimum number of fish needed to produce maximum sustainable yield; because it is a measure of productivity, and only mature fish can reproduce and perpetuate the stock, it is often expressed as a spawning stock biomass target (SSBtarget). Fish populations fluctuate naturally, and seldom remain at or very near Btarget (or SSBtarget) for long; they are usually somewhat above or below that mark. However, there are times that, usually because of fishing activity, populations fall to unusually low levels, and are deemed to be “overfished.” The level at which that occurs is the biomass or spawning stock biomass threshold (Bthreshold or SSBthreshold, respectively).
In the case of striped bass, things work a little bit differently. They are managed by the states through ASMFC, and not by federal fishery managers pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Thus, there is no legal provision that protects the striped bass from overfishing—that is, a harvest level that exceeds maximum sustainable yield—or, should the stock again become overfished, requires that it be rebuilt. That being the case, there is no requirement tying Fthreshold or Btarget to maximum sustainable yield, or Bthreshold to an overfished stock.
Instead, the fishery managers at ASMFC have set SSBthreshold for striped bass at the level of the estimated SSB in 1995, when the once-collapsed stock was formally declared to be rebuilt; SSBtarget was arbitrarily set at 125% of SSBthreshold. Ftarget was the fishing mortality rate calculated to maintain SSBtarget; Fthreshold was the rate calculated to keep the population at or above SSBthreshold.
Such set of reference points was in accord with the goal of Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which is
“To perpetuate, through cooperative interstate fishery management, migratory stocks of striped bass; to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock; and also to provide for the restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat.”
Thus, it was a bit perplexing when, at the October 2017 meeting of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, Ms. Nicole Lengyei, while presenting the report of the Striped Bass Technical Committee, said
“…The current F target and threshold are those that will maintain the populations at the SSB target and threshold.
“Again, you can see…that F is well below both the target and threshold, as of the 2016 assessment. There is a tradeoff between preserving spawning stock biomass and allowing fishing. As we just heard, the Board has raised concern that the current biological reference points may be too conservative; for various biological, ecological, and socioeconomic reasons, and may be restricting fishing unnecessarily. The current management objectives and acceptable risk levels were laid out in Amendment 6 to the striped bass FMP back in 2003. The [Technical Committee] and [Stock Assessment Subcommittee] posed to the Board several questions. Is the Board satisfied with the current management objectives, and acceptable risk levels, as laid out in Amendment 6? Does the Board want to manage the stock to maximize yield, maximize catch rates, maximize the availability of trophy fish, and what is the acceptable level of risk when it comes to preventing stock collapse?”
Ms. Lengyei, speaking for the Technical Committee, suggested that the Management Board
“Develop and issue a survey for the Board to seek preferred direction for management, and preferred balance between spawning stock biomass and F…”
The results of such survey could then be used to provide guidance to those preparing the stock assessment, who might retain the current reference points, should that be the guidance, or instead develop less conservative reference points, should the guidance be to place greater emphasis on current harvest, and less on maintaining the long-term health of the stock.
There is no question that the Management Board has the power to change the goals and objectives of the striped bass management plan. But one can easily question whether it is currently following the appropriate path to do so.
As noted by Capt. John McMurray, the legislative proxy from New York, in an objection raised at the meeting,
“…[I]f we do decide to revise the goals and objectives that were established in Amendment6, and put an emphasis on yield at the expense of opportunity, I’m pretty sure that needs to be at least an addendum, possibly an amendment…
“My concern here is that the public get a chance to weigh in on this; because I could tell you with some certainty that the New York recreational fishing public is not going to be okay with taking on more risk. We really do need to consider the public when we do nd
However, McMurray’s concerns were given little consideration, they were essentially brushed off with the comment that
“The meetings will be open to the public, so as you go through this process they will have input through the process for that.”
But that’s not really true.
There’s a big difference between traveling perhaps hundreds of miles to sit in the audience at a Management Board meeting (most are held in Alexandria, Virginia), where you will be given a very limited opportunity to provide any comment at all, and being given a full opportunity to provide written and oral comments at a site reasonably close to home, as would be the case if an addendum or amendment was proposed.
If the Management Board is considering an action that may very well alter the core philosophy of the fishery management plan, and abandon management principles that have been in place—after long debate and deliberation—for fifteen years, the public should be allowed every possible opportunity to weigh in.
That’s particularly important now, because it seems that the Management Board itself doesn’t know what it wants to do. The survey contemplated last October was in fact prepared and sent out but, as ASMFC reports,
“the survey was unable to identify an overwhelming majority regarding overall satisfaction with management of striped bass under Amendment 6 (including the management triggers), or with the current reference points.”
“Across all respondents, ‘managing F to maintain an age structure that provides adequate spawning potential to sustain long term abundance of striped bass populations’ stood out as the most important management objective. ‘Broad age structure with high abundance of larger, older fish’ and ‘high abundance of market size fish’ were among the top three factors of a quality and viable fishery across all respondents.”
Of those three preferred factors, only the last is arguably inconsistent with the current goal of Amendment 6 as well as the current reference points. Even in the case of the third factor, “high abundance of market sized fish,” it could easily be argued that the current reference points are most likely to assure continued abundance of such “market sized fish,” even if those reference points would prevent the harvest of such fish from increasing substantially.
The lack of clear majority support for any management objective inconstant with the current goal and reference points, the general agreement on the need to maintain a resilient and well-stratified spawning stock and the Management Board’s clear moral, if not legal, obligation to allow full public participation in any decision to alter Amendment 6’s current goal, militates against any change in the current reference points absent a public mandate.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that ASMFC will agree.
Thus, anglers are well-advised to stay on top of the issue, and inform their ASMFC representatives of their preferences and concerns before the Management Board meets on May 1.
Sunday, April 22, 2018
Last Tuesday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico—Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas—were granted Exempted Fishing Permits fishery, in both state and federal waters, throughout2018 and 2019.
Pursuant to such EFPs, each state will be allowed to set its own red snapper season, which will apply in the waters of such state and to private boats fishing in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, provided that such boats are licensed or otherwise authorized to land their fish in the relevant jurisdiction. Each state will have to abide by the federal 2-fish bag limit and 16-inch minimum size, and each state will be required to shut down their private boat fishery when anglers land such state’s share of the overall annual catch limit.
Federally-licensed for-hire vessels will not be impacted by the EFPs, and for-hire vessels without a federal license will not be allowed to fish outside of state waters.
On its face, the EFP program looks as if it may offer a step forward in recreational red snapper management; allowing anglers in various states the opportunity to tailor their fishing seasons to meet the needs of the local red snapper fishery, without putting the recovery of the red snapper stock at additional risk.
If that actually happened, it would be a good thing. However, there are aspects of the EFP program that are worthy of a bit more examination and comment.
The first is the inevitable and misleading spin put on the announcement by those who seek to undermine the federal fishery management system. A release issued by the Center for Sportfishing Policy, an association of industry and anglers’ rights organizations, is typical:
“…Recreational anglers and industry stakeholders are applauding this decision by NOAA Fisheries within the U.S. Department of Commerce and anticipate the Gulf states will finally be able to prove their effectiveness in managing red snapper off their coasts…
“Under the jurisdiction of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries, the Gulf red snapper has become the epitome of difficulty in managing recreational anglers under today’s federal fisheries management system…”
Let’s stop and think about those statements for a minute.
The Center of Sportfishing Policy has a long history of favoring the laxer, less data-driven approaches that characterize state fisheries management programs, which often allow anglers to overfish and fail to rebuild overfished stocks, to the science-driven federal fishery management system, which often imposes more restrictive regulations in order to assure the long-term health of fish populations. Thus, it is attempting to use the recent approval of Gulf EFPs to promote its regulatory worldview, arguing that the newly issued permits will demonstrate the superiority of the states’ management systems.
But such spin conveniently ignores the fact that all the states are doing is setting the fishing seasons, and attempting to monitor landings.
Federal managers still establish the annual catch limit, at a level intended to prevent overfishing, while allowing the stock to rebuild.
Federal managers still set the bag and size limits.
And, most important of all, federal managers approved the EFPs, which allow the states to set red snapper seasons in federal waters.
Far from proving “the Gulf states…effectiveness in managing red snapper,” what the EFPs really demonstrate is the flexibility and adaptability inherent in the current federal fishery management system, which allows federal managers to work with the states to achieve a desired result, so long as that result doesn’t impair the sustainability of the resource in question.
That's because the current language of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in federal waters, allows the sort of adaptive management approach represented by the EFPs.
The only thing Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t allow is overfishing, and leaving overfished stocks to languish instead of recover.
In fact, for those of us who fish on the Mid-Atlantic coast, the sort of federal/state collaboration represented by the Gulf EFPs is nothing new. Since 2001, states participating in the recreational summer flounder fishery have been able to set not only their own seasons, but their size and bag limits, too, so long as their final set of regulations are restrictive enough to prevent overfishing.
So when we see folks down in the Gulf celebrating the approval of EFPs, which permit an even more modest application of that approach, our first thought is likely to be “What took you so long?” perhaps followed by the admonition that “This just shows what you can do if you try to work within the federal system, instead of spending most of your time trying to subvert it instead.”
It’s pretty clear from the Center for Sportfishing Policy’s statement that the full implications of the EFPs’ approval haven’t yet set in, for on one hand the Center is praising federal managers—“applauding this decision by NOAA Fisheries”—while in the same press release complaining that “Under the jurisdiction of…NOAA Fisheries, the Gulf red snapper has become the epitome of difficulty in managing recreational anglers…”
Thus, the Center is effectively thanking NOAA Fisheries, operating under today’s federal fishery management system, for helping them secure a victory, in the form of the EFPs, against NOAA Fisheries and today’s federal fishery management system.
No, it doesn’t make very much sense. But this is, after all, the Center. And this is not the first time…
For example, up until now, the Center and its component organizations haven’t much liked EFPs. When Louisiana proposed an EFP last summer to examine new ways that the state could manage red snapper, two of its founding members, the American Sportfishing Association and the Coastal Conservation Association, quickly and aggressively condemned it, as it did not accord with their vision for the Gulf red snapper fishery.
Moreover, the initial text of S. 1520, a bill very strongly endorsed by the Center, would have made timely issuance of the Gulf EFPs nearly impossible. Although the bill’s language was significantly modified during a committee markup earlier this year, the original, Center-endorsed text would have required that before any EFP could be issued,
“…the Secretary of Commerce shall—
(1) direct a joint peer review of the application for the exempted fishing permit by the appropriate regional fisheries science center and State marine fisheries commission; and
(2) certify that the Council or Federal agency with jurisdiction over the affected fishery has determined that—
(A) the fishery activity to be conducted under the proposed exempted fishery permit would not negatively impact any management measures or conservation objectives included within existing fishery management plans or plan amendments;
(B) the social and economic impacts in both dollar amounts and loss of fishing opportunities on all participants in each sector of the fishery expected to occur as a result of the proposed exempted fishing permit would be minimal;
(C) the information that would be collected through the fishing activity to be conducted under the proposed exempted fishing permit will have a positive and direct impact on the conservation, assessment, or management of the fishery; and
(C) the information that would be collected through the fishing activity to be conducted under the proposed exempted fishing permit will have a positive and direct impact on the conservation, assessment, or management of the fishery; and
(D) the Governor of each coastal State potentially impacted by the proposed exempted fishing permit, as determined by the Secretary, has been consulted on the fishing activity to be conducted.”
Looking at that list, it’s not at all clear that the Gulf red snapper EFPs would have been issued had such a law been in effect. And even if a joint peer review, and the other data necessary for NOAA Fisheries to provide the required certifications, had been brought together in time, additional language in the bill would have caused the EFPs to lapse after only one year; for them to apply to the 2019 season as well, NOAA Fisheries would have been required to jump through all the same hoops in order to have them renewed for another season.
It’s always dangerous to presume to speak for someone else, but I somehow doubt that the Center, would have been very happy with that.
Once again, they seem to be confused about their intentions, supporting the Gulf EFPs on one hand, but trying to thwart EFPs in the more general context of S. 1520.
But again, it’s not the first time that sort of thing has happened…
Now that the EFPs are in place, the only question remaining is whether they will work. The biggest obstacle that the states have to overcome will be estimating recreational landings quickly enough, and accurately enough, to avoid overfishing the red snapper stock.
Louisiana and Mississippi seem well-positioned to accomplish that task. Louisiana’s LA Creel program, which has been certified by NOAA Fisheries, is an example of how good a landings estimates program can be, if decisionmakers are willing to devote enough time and money into designing something that really works. Mississippi’s “Tales n’ Scales” catch reporting program also appears to be rigorous enough to give good recreational landings estimates in something close to real time.
Elsewhere, there is less reason to be confident of the states’ ability to produce accurate, timely estimates of anglers’ red snapper harvest.
Alabama requires all anglers to report their red snapper fishing activities through the state’s Snapper Check Program. Unfortunately, angler compliance with such supposedly mandatory reporting system is disappointingly low. State officials believe that the compliance rate never got much above 30%, and such rate fell as low as just 7% during the 2017 state red snapper season. Such a low level of compliance places Snapper Check’s reliability into real doubt; the state program consistently provides lower estimates of recreational red snapper harvest than does the federal Marine Recreational Information Program, but whether those low numbers are due to a more accurate state survey or mere underreporting remains an open question.
Florida has eschewed mandatory reporting completely, and instead asks anglers to voluntarily submit red snapper catch cards.
Although the state hopes that such program will provide the needed information, there is no reason to believe that any voluntary reporting system will see angler participation exceed the low numbers experienced in Alabama’s supposedly mandatory program. Thus, the likelihood of Florida being able to assess recreational landings in time to avoid overfishing is probably dismal.
Texas will also rely on voluntary reporting, through the so-called “iSnapper” smartphone application.
However, while Florida at least participates in the federal Marine Recreational Information Program, and will have that program’s estimates available to retrospectively backstop any shortcomings in its red snapper catch cards (MRIP estimates would not be prepared in time to allow an early closure of Florida’s proposed 40-day season, even if overfishing did occur), Texas lacks even that, as it is not an MRIP participant.
“…the Texas Marine Sport Harvest Monitoring Program…year runs in two 6-month seasons from May 15 to May 14, and estimates are also produced for each of the two 6-month periods. Annual estimates are available 6 months after year end.
“The…survey began 5 years before the MRFSS [survey which MRIP was designed to replace] and was never integrated into the MRFSS/MRIP survey framework…
“A full review of the Texas Marine Sport Harvest Monitoring Program is beyond the scope of this report. However, based on a presentation to the committee and on discussions with regional partners and stakeholders it is questionable whether the results produced by Texas are comparable to those of MRIP. At the very least, it is highly advisable that the Texas survey should be reviewed by an independent panel so that its applicability to regional fisheries assessment and management can be objectively assessed.”
In other words, the Texas program is older than even the oft-reviled MRFSS, does not produce timely estimates and is of dubious accuracy. While Florida is unlikely to estimate red snapper landings promptly enough to avoid overfishing, the possibility of Texas accomplishing that task is far, far worse—although its obsolete methodology may miss so many red snapper landings that overfishing is never detected.
Thus, it is far from certain that the EFPs will achieve their supposed goals of allowing a longer recreational red snapper season while, at the same time, constraining anglers’ actual harvest to or below their annual catch limit.
But even if the EFPs fall short of such goals, the program will not be a failure. The very purpose of EFPs is to try out new things, to see what does and what doesn’t work.
Should the Gulf EFPs not work out, managers—and hopefully stakeholders--will realize that they represent a dead end, and that red snapper management needs to take a different route.
And that, in itself, would be progress.
Thursday, April 19, 2018
On March 28 and 29, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), with the cooperation of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service (ASMFC), held the in Alexandria, Virginia.
Such summits have been held every four years or so. I’ve attended the last few, and in previous years was underwhelmed, as the programs have too often been used by various organizations to coopt anglers’ voices, and .
That was a particular problem in 2014, when various organizations affiliated with what is now known as the Center for Sportfishing Policy (Center) their recently-issued manifesto, (Vision Report) to kick off their campaign to (Magnuson-Stevens), and promote the legislation that they call the
I’m happy to report that the 2018 summit was quite a bit different. Diverse viewpoints were represented, and no one agenda dominated the discussions.
At first, it didn’t look like that was going to happen. The agenda seemed freighted with Modern Fish Act talking points, and the keynote speaker was Bill Shedd, Vice Chairman of the Center, who immediately began urging anglers to support that legislation.
Fortunately, and contrary to at least , that was the last time that the Modern fish Act was mentioned by any of the presenters. Instead, attendees had the opportunity to hear from panels of experts that were drawn from everywhere between the Atlantic Coast and American Samoa, who brought a wide range of perspectives to all of the issues addressed.
We were scheduled to address four general topics over the four days; the first was “Innovative Management Alternatives and Approaches,” a concept seemingly similar to the “alternative management measures” that were extensively discussed in the Vision Report and are a regular . However, when the conversation began, it was refreshingly objective.
Kenneth Haddad, an advisor to the American Sportfishing Association, clearly wanted to move fishery managers away from poundage-based annual catch limits, but failed to propose any clearly viable alternatives.
He admitted that two proposed approaches, using annual catch (removal) rates instead of hard-poundage limits, and restricting anglers to fishing inside a designated depth contour or distance from shore, were “not extensively researched,” and that the former would require managers to expend substantial resources to develop the annual recruitment indices and abundance estimates needed to make a rate-based management program work.
He mentioned other possible approaches, virtually all beset by problems, although one idea—setting optimum yield well below maximum sustainable yield to increase fish abundance and better support fisheries for species that are often released, such as king mackerel—seemed to be both a practical and a desirable management option.
However, Mr. Haddad clearly misspoke when he said that Magnuson-Stevens placed a “stifling pall” on such innovative management measures because of its “prescriptive nature,” and suggested that managers “needed to push the envelope or push change to test and allow new management approaches.” As made clear in the published , the law already allows the use of many so-called “alternative” management measures, specifically including managing by catch rate, and no changes to current law are needed to put such approaches in place.
That point was driven home by Alan Risenhoover, the Director of the Office of Sustainable Fisheries at the National Marine Fisheries Service. He emphasized the considerable flexibility already allowed in the National Standard One guidelines, and also emphasized one point that, although obvious, often gets lost in the alternative management debate: “Preventing overfishing keeps everybody in business.”
Other speakers addressed issues such as the need to develop data that would allow fishery management decisions to be made more quickly, so that managers could make timely adjustments in response to changes in fish abundance, and developing innovative ways to purchase quota from the commercial fishing industry, in order to assure a sufficient supply of fish for the for-hire fleet and its customers.
After the initial panel discussion, we moved to a more general discussion of items that were particularly relevant to each section of coast. Not surprisingly, improving the timeliness and accuracy of fisheries data was an overarching concern; although it was not really an alternate management approach, everyone recognized that good data was the key to good fishery decisions. Attendees also generally recognized that obtaining good data required adequate funding of data-collection efforts.
Beyond that, anglers suggested a wide range of “alternative” management measures. Ecosystem-based fishery management and the preservation of forage fish populations were mentioned, as was the need to recognize catch-and-release as a legitimate use of recreational allocations, and not merely a reason to reallocate unharvested recreational quota to the commercial sector.
Eliminating annual catch limits from some or all recreational fisheries, as proposed in some versions of the Modern Fish Act, generated very little enthusiasm at all.
Anglers also seemed to have little enthusiasm for the second discussion topic, Socioeconomics in Recreational Fisheries Management. Only 60% of attendees responding to a pre-meeting survey thought that the topic deserved “high” or the “highest” priority, placing it last among the four topics discussed. Still, the panel presentation was comprehensive, and competently addressed a number of socioeconomic issues.
In the general discussion that followed the panel presentation, some of those present, who had served on regional fishery management councils, observed that biology, and the need to avoid overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, drives most management decisions; socioeconomics, while considered, is rarely if ever a decisive factor. Thus, anglers pay socioeconomics relatively little heed.
But if attendees were generally indifferent to socioeconomics, they were deeply interested in helping NMFS improve its data collection. Fully 80% of the attendees listed it among their top priorities; no other topic got a higher rating. Even when the other topics were being discussed, data issues always managed to wriggle into the conversations, and rise to the top of anglers’ concerns.
We were asked to consider how anglers could contribute to the data-gathering process; it’s not as simple a question as it might seem, since the key is getting a statistically-valid sample. Anglers seem loath to report their catches; even in the case of Atlantic bluefin tuna, where reporting is required by law, only . In Alabama, where anglers are required to report their red snapper catch, , and for some periods, was as low as 7%.
Managers also realize that a universal, mandatory reporting requirement is impractical. Not only would the data from millions of anglers overwhelm the processing system, but requiring anglers to report every family fishing trip, no matter how casual, would take a lot of fun out of the fishing experience just when NMFS and the states are trying to get more people out on the water.
Yet if angler reporting is voluntary, how will managers be able to keep bias out of the system? Bias can come from a lot of sources. Will all anglers, of all experience and interest levels, choose to report at the same rate? Or will some very engaged anglers report on all of their trips, others report only those trips where they were very successful, and others not report at all, because they don’t want fishery managers to know what they’re catching? Or will some of those mistrustful anglers actually make false reports, hoping to manipulate the management process, and produce a result they desire?
It quickly became clear that the data-gathering process was a lot more complicated than anyone believed, yet at the same time everyone offered suggestions ranging from smart-phone apps, to government-sponsored “brag boards” where anglers could show off their catch to the creation of rewards-based reporting systems, trying to make things better.
Like data, using conservation measures to improve angling was a high-priority issue, at the top of 75% of the attendees’ lists. And like data, it engendered a wide-ranging conversation that revealed how complicated the topic really is. Some of the issues, such as ecosystem and forage fish management, that were discussed in the initial, innovative management section, arose again. The related need for stable, intact habitats was also mentioned, coupled with the need for government agencies to cross jurisdictional boundaries and address such things as clean water issues that arise inland, but can have a marked effect on the coast.
Other suggestions were also made, such as crafting fishing seasons to minimize barotrauma problems, keeping them closed during those times of the year when fish reside in deep waters. But the most important thing probably wasn’t the suggestions themselves, although NMFS will hopefully find some of them useful. It was the fact that anglers from every coast, with different opinions and outlooks, were willing to come together to spend two days poking and prodding the management process, putting their egos and their special interests aside in the hope of making that process work better for everyone.
The only discordant notes, when they came, came not from the anglers, but from what was said, and not said, by some high-level government officials.
Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was clearly proud of his agency’s record of repealing what he called “burdensome fishing regulations”; he bragged that NOAA’s 50 deregulatory actions “were an order of magnitude larger than at other agencies.” He didn’t mention conservation at all.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross struck a similar tone when he addressed the assembled anglers and fishery managers. He assured us that “The Trump Administration is working hard to support your right to fish,” and that he “intends to cut billions of dollars in burdensome regulations” affecting our fisheries. He said that he was committed to “maximizing sustainable yield.”
He proudly listed what he viewed as his list of accomplishments for recreational fishermen: with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s summer flounder management plan (which injected turmoil and uncertainty into what had been a successful interstate management system), reopening the private boat red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico (, and was contrary to explicit provisions of Magnuson-Stevens) and in the South Atlantic (even though the Science and Statistical Committee of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council ).
As was the case with Rear Admiral Gallaudet’s talk, the need to maintain the health and abundance of U.S. fish stocks was not mentioned in his presentation.
Despite that, we left on a good note. The last non-agency speaker to address the event was New York charter boat captain John McMurray, whose closing statement offered a stirring counterpoint to Bill Shedd’s opening statement.
Where Shedd aggressively promoted industry and anglers’ rights organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association and Coastal Conservation Association, holding them out as catalysts of change, Capt. McMurray talked about the legion of conservation-minded anglers who had no public representation at all, since the big national organizations have abandoned their conservation heritage, and now seek to weaken federal fisheries laws.
Where Shedd called for , and was willing to accept whatever risks that entails, to “grow the marine resource pie,” Capt. McMurray talked about growing the pie the old-fashioned way, through conservative management measures that create the sort of abundant fish stocks that anglers, and charter fishing businesses like his, need to survive.
Some of the fishermen present clearly agreed; others most likely did not. But speaking to anglers after the meeting, I got the impression that many took Capt. McMurray’s message to heart.
That’s good. We can only hope that NMFS took his message to heart as well.
This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/