Thursday, July 19, 2018


Reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is always a long and contentious process, as conservation advocates face off against those who are willing to risk the long-term health of fish stocks for higher short-term harvests and their promise of greater short-term economic returns.

This time around, things have gotten more confusing, because a coalition of anglers’ rights groups, fishing tackle industry folks and boating industry interests have become militantly opposed to the conservation and management provisions of current law.  As a result, they have convinced some federal legislators to sponsor something called the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (S. 1520 in the Senate, H.R. 2023 in the House), which they like to call the “Modern Fish Act.”

Boiled down to its very essence, the Modern Fish Act is about finding ways to let recreational fishermen kill more fish. 

It would require the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils (much of the impetus for the law arose out of ways to justify, or at least continue, recreational overharvest in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, so there are a number of provisions that apply only to states with red snapper fisheries) to look at commercial and recreational allocations, in the hope that the recreational allocation would be increased at the expense of the commercial sector.

It also seeks to relieve anglers from most of the burden of conserving fish stocks and rebuilding overfished populations, by exempting them from annual catch limits and delaying rebuilding times for overfished stocks, both measures that would allow bigger recreational kills.

I try to stay away from allocation fights, unless they have an impact on the health of the resource.  That is arguably the case here, at least in the case of Gulf red snapper, since the last time the commercial sector overfished its red snapper allocation was in 2006, while the recreational sector chronically overfishes its annual catch limit, last doing so just last year.  

The recreational sector's response, at least as expressed in the Modern Fish Act, isn’t to get its own overfishing under control, but to steal fish from the compliant commercial sector, while also promoting recreational overharvest by doing away with annual catch limits.  So just based on that one fishery alone, the Modern Fish Act looks like a bad idea.

But recently, things have gotten even worse.  On July 11, the House passed H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act.  

It’s neither a good bill nor a new one.

Nothing similar emerged from the Senate, which tends to be more thoughtful and deliberative, and is a place where bills need, as a practical matter, 60 votes to pass, something that usually keeps the very worst ideas from becoming law.

But recently, there’s been a new sort of renaming going on.

Representatives of some salt water angling groups, along with the fishing tackle and boating industry, have now declared H.R. 200, the “new Empty Oceans Act,” to be the “Modern Fish Act,” despite the fact that the bill is much different, and far worse for the health of fish stocks, than the real Modern Fish Act, H.R. 2023.  

“the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on the Modern Fish Act (MFA)—which modernizes outdated regulations that govern recreational fishing in saltwater.  In addition, the U.S. Senate is moving forward with similar legislation,  [emphasis added]”
even though a side-by-side comparison of the Senate bill, S. 1520, would quickly show that it would do relatively little damage to the federal management system, while H.R. 200 would do wholesale violence to what is arguably the most successful fishery conservation and management bill in the world.

They’re desperate to do that, because such subterfuge may be the only way that Modern Fish Act supporters can get what they want during this legislative session.

And just what is it that the anglers who support such tactics are looking for?

Maybe the best thing is to let them speak for themselves.  A recent thread on the website Stripers Online contains some illuminating comments.

One H.R. 200 supporter said that he was

“Very saddened to see so many ‘fishermen’ take such a stance on this issue.
“while this bill has been modified over the years since originally written it is still much needed to address some issues that have been very hurtful to rec fishermen.
“should we keep accepting smaller pieces of the pie till [sic] we get no pie at all?”
It’s pretty clear that, besides having an aversion to starting most sentences with capital letters, the author of that comment feels H.R 200 is a gateway to a bigger fish kill (although there are no recent examples of anglers having their allocations cut—“accepting smaller pieces of the pie”—so it’s not completely clear that he understands just what is going on).

A comment right after that one, though, makes it very clear tH.R. 200 proponent understands the bill's implications perfectly.  He wrote that

“I’ve read the bill and I’m in full support because I’m tired of regulations always getting tighter and never seeming to liberalize even though everyone keeps telling me about how healthy all of these fisheries are because of current versions of the [Magnuson-Stevens Act].
“Im [sic] sick of bad Rec catch data being used to prevent access to a healthy and rebuilt sea bass fishery.  The varying seasons, sizes, and bags is [sic] crazy.”
The post goes on for a few more paragraphs, but you get the idea.  The H.R. 200 is good because it would lead to less restrictive regulations and more dead fish.

Because, in the end, that’s what it comes down to.

Scrape away all of the expensive public relations, the sham "blue ribbon panels" and their reports, the misdirection and the push by an industry hungry for sales, and what you find is that the people who are supporting H.R. 200, and the Modern Fish Act effort, are doing it because it’s going to let them, and their customers, kill more fish.

It’s not about conservation, it’s not about “fairness,” it’s not about people being “left at the dock” because fishing seasons are closed.

In the end, it all just comes down to hunger, hunger for more dead fish in the cooler, hunger for the related profits those dead fish can bring.

Even if those dead fish also bring an end to the health of our fisheries at some point not far down the road.


On July 12, I published a blog on this site that was titled “…But Where Are the Bluefish?”

The piece noted that many anglers were reporting an absence of bluefish in the waters between Chesapeake Bay and Massachusetts (people commenting on the piece in other venues noted that the dearth of fish spread as far south as North Carolina), and speculated on possible reasons for the lack of fish.  While all statements made in the piece were based on either personal observation, NMFS data or observations made by writers in various publications, one sentence may have been misleading.

After noting that revised NMFS catch and effort figures showed that bluefish landings in recent years were between 2.1 and 3.4 times higher than previously thought, I wrote “That means that fishing mortality was a lot higher than anyone knew.” 

That statement was not worded correctly.

It should have read “That means that recreational landings were a lot higher than anyone knew.”

“Fishing mortality,” often abbreviated “F”, refers to a rate of removals from a stock of fish.  Because the revised data will require an update of the bluefish stock assessment, scheduled for early 2019, to recalculate both the size of the stock and the rate of removals, the effect of the recalculation of catch on fishing mortality is currently unknown; while F could be higher, it also could remain much the same.  No one will know until the assessment is updated next year.

However, we do know that recreational landings in recent years were anywhere from double to more than triple the earlier estimates.  That qualifies as “a lot,” and that was the message I had intended to convey.

Apologies.  I have always said that I will never knowingly mislead you, and when I was made aware of my misuse of the term “fishing mortality,” a mistake I’m embarrassed not to have spotted when I proofread the piece, I knew that I had to correct it.

A writer owes readers the truth, free of misleading statements, whether intentional or inadvertent.  Thus, I apologize again for the mistake I made here.

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