Sunday, April 15, 2018
JUMPING THE GUN
Canadian cod are on the decline.
And that decline was completely predictable.
“A recent Department of Fisheries, Oceans and Coast Guard (DFO) report revealed cod stocks in the Labrador to Avalon Peninsula [Newfoundland] dropped 30 percent in 2017 over estimates on the 2015 population.”
The decline apparently caught some people by surprise, because cod in that region of Canada had been staging a comeback in recent years. Overfishing throughout the late 1900s had led to a sharp decline in abundance, but after more than twenty years of scarcity the population finally began to grow larger. And as often happens when a stock begins to rebuild, fishermen began asking the government to relax restrictions on harvest.
There was no question that a few relatively good year classes of cod had entered the population, and that the population had grown. At the same time, it was equally clear that, after such year classes were produced, cod reproduction had again slowed, and because of that, biologists inside and outside of government advised against increasing cod harvest.
Canadian fishery managers ignored the scientific advice, and heeded the fishermen’s pleas. As a result, the number of cod removed from the population in 2017 was triple the removals just two years before.
Thus, when the cod stock again began to decline, the scientific community wasn’t surprised at all. Seafood Source quoted one biologist, Sherrylynn Rowe of the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research, who said
“Last year, when it became evident that the recent burst of cod productivity had started to slow, my colleague George Rose and I wrote a paper in the journal Nature where we urged the Canadian government not to act on proposals for increased fishery access because we were of the opinion that ramping up the fishery in the face of declining productivity stood to derail the come back that we have seen of late. Unfortunately, shortly after that article was published, policymakers opted for a management plan that essentially ignored our pleas, and those by DFO’s own scientists which encouraged keeping removals to the lowest possible levels. Instead, they went ahead and changed the management plan in such a way that allowed removals in 2017 to amount to about three times what they were in 2015.
“That’s a big jump, and I’ve been of the opinion that ramping up the fishery at that rate was too much too soon. The stock, although it has made this remarkable comeback, it’s still below what we call the limit reference point. It’s well below historical normal levels of abundance…When a stock is at that stage, we really need to put conservation front and center and do everything in our ability to help encourage continued stock growth. But with pressure from the industry…and with these encouraging signs around cod, I think that there was a lot of pressure to start rebuilding a groundfish fishery in the province that I think may have been premature.”
United States fishermen, and fishery managers, will immediately see parallels with situations that they’ve faced in local waters. Here in the northeast, cod also provide some of the best examples.
For many years, cod formed the backbone of an active winter recreational fishery in southern New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic, but by the late 1980s, dwindling cod populations had largely relegated that fishery to the past, particularly off New York and New Jersey. But around 2010, a spike in winter cod abundance between Block Island and Rhode Island’s Cox’s Ledge led a lot of folks in the angling community to believe that the good times were back.
A 2011 story in the Long Island-based Newsday was titled “Montauk fishermen hooked on winter cod catch.” It reported that
“For many of the scores of party and charter boat captains who make their livelihood in Montauk, the East Coast’s premier fishing harbor, the cod fishery this winter is an unexpected bright spot. Atlantic cod landings from charter and party boats along the Northeast coastline more than doubled from 2005 to 2010, to a record 6.8 million pounds last year.
“Carl Forsberg, captain and one of the owners of the Montauk-based Viking Fleet, said the 1990s and early 2000s were tough years for cod fishing. But that began to change four years ago, and the Viking Fleet was quick to capitalize. ‘Now, it’s like a blessing for us in the winter,’ he said.
“He attributes the increased activity to fishing regulations that protect not only cod, but the baitfish such as herring that they feed on.
“For Montauk, the increase means more than just a welcomed winter fishery. The cod fishing has also brought boats and their crews to the harbor from New Jersey, Hyannis, Mass., and western Long Island…
“While most party boats are enforcing a 10-fish limit per person (and a 22-inch minimum size), there’s a regulatory loophole this year that has made cod fishing even more attractive. Recreational boats fishing in federal waters like those around Block Island east of Montauk Point have no limit on the number of cod that can be taken…”
And so, a lot of cod were taken in those years of abundance.
But perhaps fishermen should have showed some restraint.
A 2014 paper, “Stock identification of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) in US waters; an interdisciplinary approach,” published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, observes that cod off southern New England, on Cox’s Ledge and in the Mid-Atlantic spawn from December to April, which is exactly when the resurgent fishery, reported in Newsday, was taking place.
More importantly, the paper noted that
“Several studies indicate that cod exhibit spawning-site fidelity and return to the same places to spawn each season…
“One a spawning site has lost its resident population, it may remain barren even when spawning cod are present on neighboring grounds…”
Thus, both Montauk and the region’s recreational cod fishery might, in the long term, have been better served if fishermen hadn’t swarmed to the area and taken as many fish as the sea, the boats and the regulations allowed, but gave the newly resurgent body of fish an opportunity to spawn and reestablish a larger breeding population.
Because these days, in Montauk as up in Canada, landings are, once again, down. The same Viking Fleet that called winter cod fishing “a blessing” when quoted by Newsday seven years ago is telling a very different story today.
Outside of one week in January, when the fishing again seems to have been good, the fleet’s reports for the winter of 2018 were filled with comments such as
“…fishing today was extremely slow. We searched a lot of spots but never found anything to work on.”
“…decent action today on the Viking Star. We brought aboard some keepers and there were a bunch of throwbacks to keep everyone busy. High hook had three… [emphasis added]”
which was a big difference from just a few years before, when many of the boats voluntarily limited their anglers to no more than 10 cod, because it was so easy to catch many more.
Perhaps the entire fishing community should have paid more attention to some federal fishery managers, one of whom, as reported in Newsday, warned that
“Increased landings numbers aren’t the same as actual fish population surveys, the most recently available of which showed declines in cod numbers to 2005.”
The problem is that fishing, by its very nature, is about catching fish, and when fishermen see a lot of fish in front of them, most are going to want to go out and catch at least as many as the law allows, regardless of what fishery managers say. If anything, they are likely to discount the advice of professional biologists, and rely on the evidence presented by their own eyes, without worrying about whether such current local abundance reflects the actual health of the overall stock.
That very natural reaction makes managing recovering stocks, even stocks in early stages of recovery, one of the most challenging jobs in fishery management. Fishermen always want to jump the gun and cash in on current abundance, regardless of what that might mean for the future.
Such behavior isn’t limited to cod fishermen.
Mid-Atlantic anglers will recall the rhetoric that accompanied federal fishery managers’ efforts to rebuild the summer flounder population; year after year, there were calls to allow higher landings than the scientists recommended, based largely on the argument that the summer flounder population was bigger than it had been for years. This excerpt from a Jersey Coast Anglers Association newsletter was typical.
“NMFS is suggesting that we reduce the proposed 33 million pounds to 23.9. What is truly amazing is that the quota for 2002, 2003 and 2004 was 26 million pounds. With these quotas the stock continued to rebuild. The spawning stock biomass and total biomass is larger than it has been in over 25 years. Even with a 30 million pound quota recruitment in the last four years. The recruitment has been at average or just below average for the last four years and the stock has continued to rebuild…”
Fortunately, fishery managers held the line and kept harvests low enough to let the stock rebuild, because over the past six or seven years, summer flounder have seen a “drastic decline in recruitment” for reasons that have yet to be determined. If such low recruitment had occurred before the stock had been rebuilt, the population would almost certainly be in far worse shape today. Instead, at least up until now, managers have been able to maintain it at a reduced, but still relatively sound, level.
Southern fishery managers are facing the same sort of issues as they work to restore red snapper stocks.
In the Gulf of Mexico, the red snapper stock had lost 98% of its spawning potential; the spawning stock was no longer large enough to sustain the population. Fishery managers set out to rebuild the spawning stock to a level that it considered healthy, when it would have a spawning potential equal to about 26% of that of an unfished population. The last time the population had been at such presumably healthy level was in 1960.
As a result, when managers began to successfully rebuild the stock, and anglers began seeing more red snapper than they had seen before, they began to demand that recreational regulations be relaxed. Quotas were steadily increasing, but they weren’t large enough to satisfy anglers, who wanted to kill more fish than federal fisheries managers deemed prudent. That led anglers’ rights groups to make patently false statements about the health of the stock, including one claim that
“By almost any account, red snapper are more abundant now than perhaps at any point in history.”
Eventually, such claims convinced the Secretary of Commerce to illegally extend the Gulf red snapper season, even though he knew that overfishing would result; anglers ended up harvesting 212% of their total allowable landings in 2017.
Such an overharvest was not unexpected; the Secretary of Commerce knew that the season extension would inevitably lead to overfishing, and delay the final rebuilding of the red snapper stock by as much as six years.
Yet he yielded to fishermen’s entreaties anyway.
His doing so illustrates why a strong federal fisheries law, which prohibits overfishing and requires the timely rebuilding of overfished stocks, is so important to the health of the United States’ marine resources.
Fishermen want to fish; industry and anglers’ rights groups have unabashedly called for changing the law, so that
“Instead of having a fixed deadline for stocks to be rebuilt…the regional councils and fisheries managers set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
The problem is that fishermen—and fishing-related businesses—are so adverse to such impacts that they would likely demand that managers allow fish stocks to recover so gradually that we see no improvement at all. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s management of tautog is a case in point.
And they will keep asking fishery managers to jump the gun and allow larger harvests before the science and prudence can justify such action.
It’s only human to do so.
And so it’s only reasonable to keep the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act strong, and its firm rebuilding deadlines intact, to offset such impulses, and to keep the United States’ recovering fisheries from going the way of Canada’s cod.