Thursday, May 10, 2018


Fishery management meetings can be very mundane, on those rare days when there’s no one disputing the data, allocations aren’t being contested and the need for management measures is clear. 

Or they can be bare-knuckled brawls, which pit sectors against sectors, regions against regions or conservationists against the fast-buck crowd.  At those times, tempers flare, pointed comments are thrown and the lambent hostility seems to thicken the air in the room—and that’s just at the management table.  The mood of the audience can make a lynch mob seem tame.

Yet hostility seldom solves problems, and often makes it far more difficult for people to find workable solutions.  While it may be immediately satisfying to posture and make a lot of hostile noise, particularly when cronies are cheering out in the crow, such posturing only causes folks on the other side of an issue to dig in their heels, and be less willing to forge any sort of compromise.

Often, the louder you yell, the less you are heard.

Thus, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held its spring meeting a little over a week ago, it was refreshing to see a particularly thorny black sea bass debate resolved through well-crafted diplomacy, rather than by forcing votes that, regardless of the outcome, were likely to lead to more problems.

Allocation was the key issue, and as anyone familiar with fisheries issues knows, allocation squabbles can be very bitter, and are some of the most difficult fights to resolve.

A recent benchmark stock assessment divided the stock into northern and southern components, and recognized the northern shift in black sea bass abundance.  However, regulations remained mired in past patterns, allowing the southern states, that used to have a lot of fish, to maintain very liberal management measures, while forcing the northern states, where most of the fish now are found and are caught, into ever more restrictive regulatory regimes as their anglers  merely caught the fish that teemed at their doorstep.

That was true even though such benchmark assessment found that

“Relative to F40% (0.355 in the north, 0.365 in the south) [which represents the fishing mortality threshold], the retro adjusted [fishing mortality] in the north (0.14) is well below the threshold wheras retro adjusted [fishing mortality] in the south (0.39) is slightly above…”
meaning that the southern states were arguably overfishing their local black sea bass population (although, since one set of reference points are used for the entire stock, such local overfishing does not trigger any sort of remedial action).

The northern states—those between New York and Massachusetts—believed that the historical approach to black sea bass led to an inequitable result, and tried to correct the problem.  Unfortunately, when the issue ultimately came to a vote, the southern states remained deeply committed to their outdated catch histories, and were unwilling to adopt a new allocation that fully reflected the current distribution of black sea bass.  Because there are more southern than northern states, which lets them control ASMFC’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Management Board, the northern states were forced into a so-called “compromise” that compelled them to increase restrictions on harvest once again.

“I don’t need to go to two decimal places to count 6 to 4.  That is my problem.  I do appreciate the fact that we just spent a lot of time trying to cooperate.  When you’re bargaining from a losing position to start with, it really doesn’t make you all that comfortable…”
In the end, the northern states appealed the Management Board’s decision to ASMFC’s Policy Board, and that’s where the diplomacy came in.

At first, it appeared that the northern states had only two choices.  They could take an appeal on the merits of their case and, if the appeal was not successful, they could go out of compliance with ASMFC’s black sea bass management plan, as New Jersey defied ASMFC on summer flounder last season.

Neither option was all that palatable. 

Historically, appeals to the policy board usually failed; there was no assurance that a black sea bass appeal, however meritorious, would fare any better. 

And going out of compliance could have led to even worse outcomes than the Management Board’s decision imposed.  

Ultimately, the states would have to justify their noncompliance to the Secretary of Commerce who, if he ended up dismissing their arguments, had the power to shut down their black sea bass fisheries until they complied.  On the other hand, if the Secretary found their noncompliance justifiable, such finding, combined with the similar finding made with respect to New Jersey’s summer flounder fishery last year, could have emasculated ASMFC’s enforcement powers, and caused serious long-term harm to East Coast fisheries.

Fortunately, the northern states found a more diplomatic approach to their problem, and like most good diplomacy, it involved both a carrot and a stick.

So the stage was set for a true compromise that would give everyone some sort of win in 2018. 

But the really big win for the northern states will come in the future, as the Policy Board directed the Management Board to base 2019 recreational measures and, eventually, commercial measures as well, on current patterns of black sea bass abundance, and not on obsolete historical data.

That just shows what diplomacy—and hard work—can do.

But that was never going to happen.  Those who claim otherwise are just fooling themselves—or, perhaps, trying hard to fool someone else.  There are real limits to what the fishery management system allows, and changing that system takes time.

But change, for black sea bass, is coming next year, thanks to the effective diplomacy of fishery managers in the northern states.

For that, they deserve a big round of thanks.

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