Thursday, May 31, 2018


I was thumbing through the pages of Billfish Magazine, the in-house publication of The Billfish Foundation, when a small article caught my eye.

It was titled “Fishing outside the U.S. might bite you upon returning,” explained how international agreements limit U.S. recreational landings of Atlantic marlins (blue and white combined) to just 250 fish, and warned boat owners who hold Highly Migratory Species permits that such limit applies to their catch even when fishing in the waters of another nation or on the high seas.

It further advised that

“If U.S. vessels are responsible for landing more than 250 Atlantic marlin [overseas] or in U.S. waters, all billfishing in U.S. waters and by U.S. vessels, whether in a tournament or not, will be switched to a release format.  If the number significantly exceeds 250, the all-release format could be extended for more than 12 months.”
The piece specifically mentioned fish caught in the Dominican Republic, which made sense because, as noted elsewhere in the magazine, some U.S. sportfishing boats staging out of Dominican ports and fishing around Dominican fish aggregating devices have gotten into conflicts with local commercial fishermen, who view them as competition for the billfish resource.  The U.S. boats have resolved such conflicts by allowing the locals to gaff and retain the sport-caught marlin, which apparently made the Dominican fishermen happy, but created the regulatory issue described above when they ended up killing too many marlin.

Billfish Magazine went on to note that a lot of the marlin caught in such fashion are small, meaning that the U.S. boats may be literally robbing the nursery when they catch the fish and let the locals kill them.

That should be reason enough to stop the practice. 

But it wasn’t the reason The Billfish Foundation gave.  

Instead, it warned

BOAT OWNERS:  If you desire to fish “big money” tournaments in U.S. waters, make very clear with your team that landing Atlantic marlin or handing a hooked one off to a local may eliminate your opportunity to win a large tournament purse in the U.S…
“If the big money U.S. tournament purses for the largest Atlantic marlin are important to you, its best to catch, resuscitate, and release each billfish when fishing in other nations’ waters.  Protect your option to win the big purse at home by helping to keep the number of Atlantic marlin landed in all waters to a minimum.”
In other words, don’t release the marlin you catch somewhere else because it’s the right thing to do for the stock.  Don’t do it because it’s probably the only way that your kid or your grandkid might be able to catch their own billfish someday.  Instead, release the marlin you catch off other nations’ shores to preserve your ability to kill marlin over here, so you can show them off at the dock, maybe collect a tournament purse, and leave them to rot in an American dumpster…

Not a very nice message when put it in those words.

Yet I don’t blame The Billfish Foundation for using the language they did.  They’re one of the better organizations out there, dedicated to using the best science available—or paying the tab to develop needed science when it’s not available—and an advocate for better billfish conservation. 

I was a member for about 25 years; not one of the high-roller members that keeps the organization alive, but just one of the minor contributors who might have kept the office air conditioning running for a few hours each year.  I joined out of guilt after I put one of my anglers on a first-place white marlin in a kill tournament back in 1990 (for the record, that fish was eaten, not thrown away), but stuck around because I liked the work that the foundation was doing.  I’m no longer a member because of their support for the Modern Fish Act, but should they ever rethink that position, I’d likely join again.

In issuing their recent warning, I suspect that The Billfish Foundation was just trying to appeal to the mindset of big-boat tournament anglers, and trying to get them to do the right thing.  

I’ve been fishing offshore for many years, and went through my tournament phase; I fully understand the bravado, the sort of “Look at ME!” “Mine is bigger than yours” attitudes that afflict today’s big-boat tournament crowd.

Tell them that their actions are hurting marlin populations, and many will laugh in your face.  Tell them that they might not be able to pose in tournament photos with a dead marlin, their girlfriends and a horde of hungry flies, or collect a big tournament check, and they’ll listen and start getting serious.

And that’s too bad.  But it’s what happens when cash, and not fish, become the center of tournament efforts.

It wasn’t always that way.

In what some call the “Golden Age” of salt water fishing, the years immediately before and after the Second World War, fishing tournaments were all about sportsmanship and big fish, and not about money at all. 

“In the 1930s, two fishing clubs located roughly 34 miles apart threw down the gauntlet for giant bluefin tuna bragging rights in a two-boat-only event that featured a team from Freeport, New York, and one from Manasquan, New Jersey.  Without giant dock parties and fanfare, captain’s meetings, or beer sponsors, the two teams fished head-to-head and exchanged their catch weights via a landline telephone.  Tournament tuna fishing had begun.
“Getting an invite to compete in the USATT and a chance to catch giants was a highly sought after prize for anglers.”
As one angler quoted in the article said,

“In comparison with today’s tournaments, the USATT was much different.  It wasn’t commercial, we fished for trophies and bragging rights.  No prize money was involved, it was all about honor.”
All about honor.

We could use some of that honor in our fishing these days. 

Then maybe we wouldn’t need lie detectors to test tournament winners.  

And The Billfish Foundation wouldn’t have had to make releasing Atlantic marlin all about money, when it’s already the right thing to do.

Sunday, May 27, 2018


The National Marine Fisheries Service released its latest report on the state of America’s fisheries, and the news was good.  Thanks to the effective management measures imposed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the number of overfished stocks has been whittled down to just 35, while the number of stocks subject to overfishing is now only 30.

Six stocks were removed from the “overfishing” list, and six from the “overfished” list.  Only one stock, Georges Bank winter flounder, was removed from both, meaning that eleven separate stocks showed real improvement in their status over the course of the past year.

That sounds pretty good, and it’s even almost true.  But the fact of the matter is that while eight federally-managed stocks really did improve their status, in the case of three others, the improvement was due less to biology, meaning a real increase in abundance or decrease in fishing mortality, and more to bureaucracy and the way NMFS determines stock status.

Witch flounder provide the clearest example.  The stock is unquestionably overfished, and managers previously determined that overfishing was occurring.  However, a 2017 update to the witch flounder stock assessment found that

“stock status is overfished and overfishing is unknown due to a lack of biological reference points  [emphasis added]”
In other words, witch flounder were not taken off the “overfishing” list because overfishing had ended, but because biologists lack enough information to determine whether the stock is suffering from overfishing or not.

The situation with Western Atlantic bluefin tuna is similar, if a bit more complicated by debates over age at maturity, a possible decline in the stock’s recruitment potential and the rate if mixing between the Western Atlantic and Eastern Atlantic stocks.  Still, the Western Atlantic bluefin’s removal from the “overfished” list can be attributed primarily to a 2017 bluefin tuna stock assessment conducted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which determined that there was insufficient information available to determine the current status of that stock.

Thus, the removal of both witch flounder and Western Atlantic Bluefin tuna from the “overfishing” and “overfished” stocks, respectively, merely represent NMFS’ recognition of the fact that there is insufficient information available to make a determination as to stock status.  Such removal represents admirable intellectual honesty, although listing both stocks among others that have truly shown signs of improvement, in a generally upbeat press release, is a sort of bureaucratic red herring and agency puffery that suggests that the progress made in conserving fish stocks was somewhat greater than it actually was.

Even such semi-kind words can’t be said about the removal of Gulf of Mexico red snapper and gray triggerfish from the “overfished” list, which was more a feat of political legerdemain than of any sort of management prowess.

That bit of slight-of-hand was achieved through a document known as Amendment 44 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico, also titled Minimum Stock Size Threshold (MSST) Revision for Reef Fish Stocks with Existing Status Determination Criteria.

For many years, Gulf red snapper and gray triggerfish, along with five other species, were managed using a minimum stock size threshold—that is, the threshold used to determine when a stock was overfished—that was calculated using each stock’s natural mortality rate and the biomass needed to produce maximum sustainable yield.  Both the red snapper and gray triggerfish stocks were deemed to be overfished pursuant to such criteria.

Their answer was Amendment 44, which replaced the science-based minimum stock size threshold with a politically pragmatic one, adopting a new threshold of 50% of the biomass needed to produce maximum sustainable yield for all seven species, most particularly including red snapper. 

It’s possible that any such effort would have failed in previous years, when the seats on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council were relatively balanced between state fishery managers, commercial fishermen, for-hire boatmen and recreational interests.  But 2017 appointments to that council favored the recreational sector, which was proud to announce that, in making such council appointments, the

by appointing their favored candidates.  Such additional recreational appointees, when teamed with existing anglers already sitting on the council and state managers who often sided with the well-heeled and politically active anglers’ rights organizations, allowed the blatantly political measure to get a favorable vote.

It should be noted that for some species, including red snapper, the original science-based thresholds may have presented a practical problem; Amendment 44 notes that

“The need for the proposed action is to provide a wide enough buffer between spawning stock biomass at maximum sustainable yield (BMSY) and [Minimum Spawning Stock Threshold], particularly for stocks with low natural mortality rates, to prevent stocks from frequently alternating between overfished and rebuilt conditions due to natural variation in recruitment and other environmental factor.”
That’s not an unreasonable concern, and could arguably justify a small reduction in the threshold to prevent frequent swings in the deemed state of certain stocks.  However, it should be noted that early drafts of Amendment 44 contained six possible alternatives, including thresholds equal to 75% and 85% of biomass at maximum sustainable yield.  At least one of those proposals should have provided buffers large enough to prevent frequent flip-flops between a stock being deemed “overfished” in one season, “rebuilt” a year or two later, and “overfished” a few years after that.

Instead, the recreationally-dominated Gulf Council elected to set the threshold at just 50% of biomass at maximum sustainable yield, which the environmental impact statement incorporated into the final version of Amendment 44 notes

“is the lowest [Minimum Stock Size Threshold] allowed under the National Standard 1 guidelines.  Relative to the other alternatives, this would result in the lowest likelihood of a stock being declared overfished, and would therefore be expected to have a greatest negative impact to the physical environment,”
and also

“the greatest negative impacts on the biological/ecological environment…”
On the other hand, the 50% threshold provided the only alternative that would take red snapper and gray triggerfish off the overfished list, and the only one that could prevent massive red snapper paybacks in subsequent seasons.

Thus, despite its potentially negative impacts on the physical, biological and ecological environments of the Gulf of Mexico, it was the alternative that the recreational representatives on the Gulf Council heartily endorsed.  (It should be noted that Amendment 44 was well underway before the 2017 red snapper season was reopened, and before the extremely high level of recreational overharvest in 2017 was confirmed.  However, the effort to increase Gulf recreational red snapper harvest, which culminated in the reopened season, had also been underway for a very long time, and it would thus be disingenuous to suggest that Amendment 44 wasn’t seen as a tool to avoid recreational paybacks being used as a means to hold anglers accountable for their continual excess overharvest.)

NMFS declaring any sort of victory because Gulf red snapper and Gulf gray triggerfish have been taken off the “overfished” list is akin to a football team claiming two touchdowns just because they had possession of the ball on the opposing team’s 45-yard line—you only need to look at some of the rhetoric of the anglers’ rights crowd to understand that they very much consider federal fishery managers to be the “opposing team”—and then managed to somehow have the goalposts moved from the end zone out to mid-field. 

Any so-called “success” wasn’t do to moving the ball forward—in the case of red snapper, the illegal 2017 season reopening probably moved the “ball” back a yard or two—but to moving the goal posts so far from where they belonged that such “touchdowns” required no effort at all.

Even with red snapper and triggerfish out of the picture, and considering the uncertainty that plagues witch flounder and bluefin tuna, 2017 represents a real victory for fisheries management and for the Magnuson-Stevens Act, as five stocks really were no longer subject to overfishing, and three were, from a biological standpoint, no longer overfished.

Still, in the future, we should be careful to assure that any claimed victories truly involve advancing the health and abundance of managed fish stocks, and not by merely allowing our goals to retreat to levels that no longer hold meaning.

Thursday, May 24, 2018


My fishing seasons begin bright with hope and filled with expectations.
Last year’s mistakes and missed opportunities have been recalled and dissected all winter; plans have been laid to assure better outcomes next time. And those next times are coming soon. The marina has promised that, sometime later this week, my boat will go into the water, and I’m caught up in an almost childlike anticipation.
And then my adult side kicked in.
It’s hard not to note that it’s the middle of May, and my boat still sits dry in the boatyard, surrounded by a legion of others. That’s something new.
Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, we tried to get our boats into the water by March, when the ice was gone from the bay and winter flounder had started to stir. Back then, St. Patrick’s Day marked the unofficial start of the flounder season, and everyone tried to get out for a shot at the first fresh fish of the year.
But flounder populations started to fall in the 1980s. When managers here in New York tried to halt the decline with more restrictive regulations, the recreational fishing industry pushed back. The party boats argued that their clients must maintain the “perception” that they could bring home a load of fish, even if they usually didn’t, while the tackle shops said that flounders were the fish that first brought customers into their stores each spring, and so remained important to their businesses, even if there weren’t many around.

Regulations tough enough to protect the fish were thus never adopted, and now the flounder are just about gone. In March and April of 1989, New York anglers brought more than 1,500,000 of them home; in 2017, they kept around 650.

Cod are just about gone, too. There are fewer red hake (we call them “ling”) on the wrecks, and the April mackerel run doesn’t run any more. There are so few fish around in the early season that there’s no longer much of a need to put the boat in before May.
And even May fishing seems to be under siege.

Right now, we can still find some striped bass. This year, there should be a lot of small ones around, ten-pound-class fish from a good spawn in 2011, and a bunch of real runts from 2015. But the big, fecund females that produce the most, and the most viable, eggs will be scarce. The last big year class spawned before 2011 was produced in 2003, and its abundance has been whittled away by years of fishing pressure. Older fish, from the big 1993, 1996 and 2001 year classes, have been subject to even more years of harvest, and are even harder to find.

A recent stock assessment update revealed that the striped bass stock is very nearly overfished.

Despite that fact, and the many recent below-average spawns—2012 was the worst ever recordedthe Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is thinking about changing the “reference points” used to manage the stock. Some ASMFC members have already proposed an increase in the allowable fishing mortality rate and a reduction of the spawning stock biomass target. If such changes are made, even fewer of the old, fecund females will be left in the stock to ensure the bass’ future, and get the stock through those times when adverse environmental conditions hamper spawning success.

Yet, although I enjoy fishing for striped bass, I spend most of May fishing for weakfish, a beautiful and iconic species that has entranced generations of Long Island anglers. In recent years, I’ve caught very few; the population is badly depleted. Increased natural mortality, from causes unknown, seems to be a big part of the problem. In 2009, biologists suggested that a complete prohibition on harvest would help the stock recover should natural mortality decline, but ASMFC decided to allow continued harvest. Nearly a decade later, there are few signs that a recovery will occur.

Still, when the weakfish are scarce, there are usually bluefish. Blues are the traditional day-saver, the fish that May anglers can always catch when they can’t catch anything else.

Last year, though, there weren’t many blues in the bay. A stock assessment released in 2015 indicated that abundance had declined to 85% of the target level, and some anglers, who are seeing fewer fish, have expressed concern. Even so, the ASMFC and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) have initiated a process that could further reduce bluefish abundanceby reallocating fish currently caught and released by recreational anglers, to the commercial sector.

And then there’s summer flounder.
Our season opened on May 4th this year, and with little else to fish for, anglers are already focusing most of their efforts on whatever summer flounder there are, even though at least six consecutive years of poor spawning success has caused a decline in summer flounder abundance.

That decline has been significant. In 2016, the MAFMC’s Science and Statistical Committee warned that “the stock biomass is dangerously close to being overfished, which could happen as early as next year if increased efforts to curb fishing mortality are not undertaken.” Fishery managers heeded that warning and reduced the summer flounder catch limit for 2017.

But just one year later, both the MAFMC and ASMFC chose to ignore the advice of the MAFMC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Monitoring Committee, which recommended that recreational regulations not be relaxed in 2018, fearing that New Jersey’s failure to comply with ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan, along with changes to recreational effort estimates, have added significant management uncertainty to the recreational fishery.

So the future of the summer flounder appears cloudy as well.

Going into this season, I can’t help tempering my anticipation with the fear that the health of our fish stocks is headed downhill, knowing that even if the fishing this year isn’t very good, it might be the best fishing we’ll see for a while.
At the same time, I caught my first fish in 1956, and one of the advantages of spending years on the water is that you gain a bit of perspective.
While the immediate future of some of our fish stocks looks grim, I know from experience that things can also get better.
I fished through the collapse of the striped bass stock in the late 1970s and 1980s. I also fished through its recovery to its peak of recent abundance a decade after that. So I know that declines in abundance can be reversed.

Striped bass isn’t the only stock that I’ve seen rebuild. Two or three decades ago, summer flounderscup and black sea bass were all badly overfished, and bluefish were getting scarce. But those fish, too, were restored to abundance by hard work, good fisheries laws and effective regulation.

I’ve learned that good fishing and good management go hand in hand, and that the best way to get good fishery management is to stand up and demand it. If anglers don’t want more striped bass killed, or their bluefish allocations cut, they need to turn out for the hearings that will be coming up, contact their state fishery managers and their representatives at the MAFMC and ASMFC, and make it clear that such changes are bad for the fish, and for fishermen as well.
And anglers need to make sure that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), the law that rebuilt the summer flounder and bluefish, the black sea bass and scup, remains strong and effective. They must resist the blandishments of the snake-oil salesmen who support legislation such as the Modern Fish Act or, worse, H.R. 200, and would trade the future health of fish stocks for a bigger short-term kill.

Fish populations have gone downhill before. Bad management decisions have also been made.
But Magnuson-Stevens, and dedicated fishery managers, have a solid track record of rebuilding fish stocks. So long as we keep that law strong, and insist that managers focus on long-term abundance, not on short-term landings, the problems we face going into this season—which are very real—are problems that can be solved.

This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at

Monday, May 21, 2018


Sometimes, it’s the most obvious things that catch you by surprise.

Last Thursday, I was driving west through central New York, headed up to Lake Ontario to meet with some friends and do a little freshwater fishing before the saltwater season took over my life for the next several months.

Somewhere past the Catskills and maybe twenty-five miles east of Binghamton, I passed a sign that I didn’t expect.  It said

“Entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”
Chesapeake Bay?

That borders Virginia and Maryland, not the State of New York.  A quick check on revealed that there are 261 road miles between Binghamton and Baltimore, so what does Chesapeake Bay have to do with the cow and corn country of New York’s Southern Tier?

The answer to that question lies—or, more accurately, passes—under the highway, in the form of a fairly small, slow-moving stream that is no wider, and seemingly far less interesting, than the various  trout streams I had passed a while before.

The Susquehanna’s watershed extends far beyond New York and the river’s immediate banks; the entire drainage basin encompasses 27,510 square miles, including parts of New York, about half of Pennsylvania, and much of northern Maryland.  Anything that occurs in that extensive watershed that affects the health of the river will, ultimately, flow downstream and impact the health of Chesapeake Bay. 

That, in turn, matters to anglers, as Chesapeake Bay is an important producer and nursery area for a host of fish species, most particularly the striped bass that ultimately migrate out of the bay and migrate up to New York and New England.  The Bay’s health can thus influence the health of fish stocks many miles away.

And the Bay’s health isn’t as good as it should be.

“The Bay’s hypoxic (low-oxygen) anoxic (oxygen-free) zones are caused by excess nutrient pollution, primarily from human activities such as agriculture and wastewater.  The excess nutrients stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which then sinks and decomposes in the water.  The resultant low oxygen levels are insufficient to support most marine life and habitats in near-bottom waters, threatening the Bay’s crabs, oysters and other fisheries.”
Rob Magnien, director of NOAA’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research, notes that despite some progress,

“more work needs to be done to address nonpoint nutrient pollution from farms and other developed lands, to make the Bay cleaner for its communities and economic interests.”
As a practical matter, that work can only be accomplished at the federal level, or at least with federal coordination of state efforts.  While Maryland can certainly regulate activities that occur within the state, and try to keep them from harming the Bay’s waters, it has no effective way to prevent farmers in Pennsylvania or municipalities in New York from allowing pollutants to run into the Susquehanna, and then into Chesapeake Bay. 

While New York, with its long coastline and significant commercial and recreational fishing industries, might have a real incentive to protect its portion of the Susquehanna watershed, there is little practical reason for essentially landlocked Pennsylvania to elevate the well-being of coastal fisheries above the economic interests of its own farmers (and yes, Pennsylvania does host a small striped bass fishery, but it is comprised of fish spawned in the Delaware River, not in Chesapeake Bay).

“identifies the necessary pollution reductions of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment across Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia and sets pollution limits necessary to meet applicable water quality standards in the Bay and its tidal rivers and embayments.  Specifically, the TDML sets Bay watershed limits of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year—a 25 percent reduction in nitrogen, 24 percent reduction in phosphorus and 20 percent reduction in sediment…”
In order to assure that the states hold up their part of the bargain, the process includes measures

“to ensure accountability for reducing pollution and meeting deadlines for progress.  The TDML [was] implemented using an accountability framework that includes [Watershed Implementation Plans}, two-year milestones, EPA’s tracking and assessment of restoration progress and, as necessary, specific federal contingency actions if the jurisdictions do not meet their commitments.”
In all, the TDML plan represented a massive effort that, while nowhere near complete, got off to a good start, and stood a fair chance of improving the health of Chesapeake Bay.  

Unfortunately, it may never get the chance to do so.

In 2017, the Trump administration proposed a budget that would have stripped all funding from the Chesapeake Bay Program.  Fortunately, from the Bay’s point of view, that budget was never adopted, and the continuing resolutions that kept the government funded recognized the Bay Program’s value, and provided sufficient funding to keep it viable.

The administration’s 2019 budget again seeks to defund the Chesapeake Bay Program, slashing that portion of the EPA’s budget by 90%, from nearly $73 million this year to just $7.3 million in 2019.  At such a low level of funding, the Chesapeake Bay Program Office would just barely be able to monitor Program progress, but would not be able to make any meaningful contribution to the effort.

That wouldn’t bode well for a host of fisheries, whether for the depleted and sessile oyster to the migratory striped bass that spend their first years of life in the Bay’s waters.

Other important, but troubled, water bodies on every coast, including the Gulf of Mexico (which has a dead zone the size of New Jersey), Long Island Sound, San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound and the Florida Keys/Everglades region (along with the strictly freshwater regions of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain) would also see important funding either completely eliminated or slashed to token amounts that would make any real progress impossible.

That’s a bad thing, for to both the fish and the fishermen who pursue them, nothing is as important as water.  For as W.C. Fields noted, when explaining why he never drank the stuff,

“Fish [fornicate] in it.”
They swim in it, feed in it, breathe in it and grow in it too; without water clean enough to support such activities, fish—and fishing—won’t survive very well.

And as we all know, “stuff” flows downstream.  Any pollutants that end up in the water will, in time, end up in our bays and estuaries, the nursery areas and feeding grounds that are critical to coastal fisheries.

That being the case, as the budget debates heat up again this fall, anyone concerned with the health of our fisheries need to stay on top of this issue, and let their representatives know that clean water is worth paying for.

Yes, we usually worry about bag limits, seasons, size limits and such.

But those things only matter if there are fish in the water, and that means that, most of all, we need water that is fit for those fish to live in.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


There are a lot of people out there who are trying to figure out the dynamics of marine fish populations, and how best to manage them. 

Some work for the states, some for the federal government.  Some are academics, who teach and do research at colleges and universities; some are employed by organizations, on both sides of the conservation debate.  Some have even gone out on their own, providing consulting services for both private and government clients.

And all of those people have one thing in common:  They’re doing their best to develop and use the science necessary to conserve and manage our coastal fish stocks.

That being the case, they’d probably be dismayed to learn—OK, let’s face it, they already know—that the people that they’re trying the hardest to help, the folks who depend on having healthy fish stocks in order to support themselves and their families, don’t think much of their efforts, and generally think that science is—to use their own words—nothing more than “bullshit.”

“scientific bullshit is putting our black sea bass fishery in the toilet.”
That comment didn’t seem to have much to do with winter flounder (although the piece that I wrote did heavily rely on, and made frequent reference to, “scientific bullshit” to make its point), but probably referred to a then-recent meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, where I relied on the information provided by state biologists, rather than the blathering of the crowd, when deciding how to vote on proposed black sea bass regulations.

It seems that the fishing industry doesn’t place a lot of weight on information provided by biologists, whether they be state, federal or otherwise employed.  That became obvious about a year ago, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held its New York meeting to discuss what was then the Draft Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Tautog, and an angry mob filled the meeting room to oppose any new regulations needed to manage the stock.

The Draft Amendment called for a substantial reduction in tautog landings, particularly in Long Island Sound.  The industry didn’t care for that idea, so as the presentation began, they didn’t wait very long to respond.  The speaker—again a state biologist, as the ASMFC representative was delayed by a late flight—wasn’t five minutes into his presentation when one of the mob interrupted, saying

“We don’t care about your science.  Your science is bullcrap.”
Which, I suppose, was more socially acceptable than the comment responding to my winter flounder piece, but didn’t do much to raise the level of discourse.  

They weren’t having any of that “science” stuff.  Not when it meant that they would have their harvest cut back.  They know that any science that calls for cutbacks just has to be wrong.

But that doesn’t mean that the industry folks think that all of the science is bad.  

“The 2015 combined retrospective adjusted total biomass was (32,010 mt) was much greater than the BMSYproxy (17,256 mt) and biomass threshold of 8,628 mt.  In addition, the combined retrospective adjusted [spawning stock biomass] of 22,176 mt was well above the SSBMSY proxy of 9,667 mt and SSB proxy threshold of 4,834 mt.  Therefore the stock is not considered overfished.”
That’s clearly good news.  Black sea bass abundance, at the end of 2015, was very high.  Spawning stock biomass was about 230% of the target abundance level, and overall biomass was at 185% of target.  Those are very good numbers.

In fact, they were such good numbers that the same folks who usually refer to fisheries science as “bullshit” latched onto those figures and held them close to their hearts.  They started talking about abundance being 230 percent of target, and interpreting that to mean that regulations were far too restrictive, completely missing the point that annual catch limits were based on a target fishing mortality rate, which could be converted into a percentage of fish that could safely be removed from the population each year.

The high current abundance was already being considered as regulations were set.  But they didn’t want to hear about that part…

In the same way, the folks who were transfixed by the “230 percent above target” language either failed to read or failed to comprehend other portions of the stock assessment.  For example, the assessment noted that

“Total spawning biomass peaked in 2014 at 17,148 mt then declined in 2015 to 16,552 mt (value not adjusted for retrospective bias) as the [very large] 2011 cohort abundance declined.”
In other words, the bloom was already off the rose, and abundance had passed its peak.  The assessment clearly stated that

“FMSY projections suggest that spawning biomass would decline to 11,849 mt [123% of target] by 2019…FSQ projections suggest that combined area spawning biomass would decline to 15,349 mt [160% of target] by 2019…”
Those are still very good numbers, but they did indicate that black sea bass numbers were deceasing a bit, which meant that the recreational catch limit would have to go down as well.  In 2017, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council projected that spawning stock biomass would decrease to 14,183 mt in 2018, made the appropriate adjustments to the recreational harvest limit

But the new devotees of science weren’t having any of that.  

The stock assessment said that spawning stock biomass was 230% of target in 2015, and by God, 230% it was going to stay, regardless of the passage of time or the decline in actual abundance. 

“The black sea bass fishery has been restored to more than 2 ½ times the levels that regulators consider sufficiently rebuilt.”
That “2 ½ times” number has been echoed in other places, by writers who should have known better.  Apparently, the boatmen have grown so enamored with fisheries science that the were no longer happy to just accept what biologists told them; they had gone on to make up even better (for them) “science” as they went along.

But that’s not how fisheries science works.  It, like the fish populations that it addresses, is dynamic and ever-changing.  Black sea bass spawning stock biomass really was at 230% of the target level a few years ago, and it may grow that large in the fairly near future, as the big 2015 year class gets older.

But right now, the science tells us that the spawning stock is a lot smaller than it was a few years ago, and everyone needs to deal with that fact.  

Of course, some people will still refuse to accept reality.

“We’ve taken fishermen on the [research] cruises with us to survey [fish abundance] and they say, ‘Wow, this is really great…I still don’t believe you, though.’”
And that unfortunately, is not bullshit at all.  

To some, the black sea bass spawning stock biomass will always be 230% above target—if not larger—no matter what the real numbers are.