Thursday, August 30, 2018
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
That’s a truth particularly relevant to fishery management, where single-species management efforts often run afoul of the realities presented by food webs and overlapping fisheries. In the coming months, we may see that relevance reinforced once again, if actions taken to conserve Atlantic herring up in New England impact the menhaden fishery in the mid-Atlantic.
To understand what’s going on, it probably makes sense to take a look at both fisheries, as they exist today.
Both are what can be termed “high volume, low value” fisheries, in which profit can only be made by selling large volumes of fish that command a very low price per pound.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, nearly 138,000,000 million pounds of Atlantic herring were landed in 2016, which sold for about $29,000,000, or roughly 21 cents per pound. The story is similar for Atlantic menhaden which, in the same year, saw more than 390,000,000 pounds landed, which sold for nearly $37,500,000, or about 9 ½ cents per pound.
Where the fisheries differ is in the concentration of fishing effort, and in the eventual use of the fish.
The Atlantic herring fishery is concentrated in the New England states. Maine was the biggest harvester, landing about 78,000,000 pounds, 56.5% of the total, in 2016, while Massachusetts accounted for a little over 47,000,000 pounds, or 34% of the overall landings. Rhode Island and New Jersey were third and fourth in line, with 9,500,000 and 2,800,000 pounds, respectively.
In recent years, the overwhelming majority of the Atlantic herring catch has been sold for bait, primarily to the lobster fishery. Perhaps 10 or 15 percent of the landings are sold domestically and internationally for human consumption, while a very small number of herring may also be processed into feed for domestic animals and aquacultured fish, and for other industrial uses.
The Atlantic menhaden fishery is prosecuted, to a greater or lesser degree, by almost all Atlantic Coast states, but the vast majority of the harvest, 323,000,000 pounds, or more than 80% of the total 2016 landings, was landed in Virginia. Out of that total, about 315,000,000 pounds, was caught by the so-called “reduction” fishery, which “reduces” menhaden into fish meal and oil used in various industrial products, from aquaculture and livestock feeds to paint additives to human cosmetics. The remaining landings are used for bait in various fisheries, including the New England lobster fishery.
In November 2017, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission revised its state menhaden allocations. Such reallocation reduced Virginia’s share of the overall quota, and redistributed such fish to other states, particularly to states in the Northeast. Virginia challenged such reallocation, even though an increase in the overall quota, along with transferred quota from other states, allowed the state to actually land more menhaden than it had landed before.
Although that challenge was eventually withdrawn, there is no question that Virginia’s share of menhaden landings remains a touchy subject, and there is little doubt that any further effort to reduce that allocation will again draw Virginia’s fire.
Now, given recent events in the Atlantic herring fishery, it seems likely that another attempt to reallocate menhaden landings will be made in the not-too-distant future, as New England lobstermen seek to whittle down Virginia’s dominant share in order to secure a reliable source of inexpensive bait.
The first shot in that upcoming battle may have been quietly fired at the August meeting of ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, when a Commissioner from the State of Rhode Island noted that the future management of Atlantic herring may soon impact menhaden management, too.
That’s a real possibility, because Atlantic herring haven’t been doing too well in recent years. A 2016 article in the Portland Post Herald noted that
“The offshore supply of fresh Atlantic herring, the go-to bait for most Maine lobstermen, has been in short supply, driving prices up as much as 30 percent in late July, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said. The shortage triggered near-shore fishing restrictions to try to stretch out the summer herring catch in hopes of keeping bait bags full as Maine’s lobster season hits its peak.
“With herring getting scarce and expensive, fishermen have turned to other bait for relief, especially the pogie, the local name for Atlantic menhaden. It’s the No. 3 bait fish among Maine lobstermen, according to a state Department of Marine Resources survey.”
The herring shortage was a serious problem in 2016, and last year as well, although ASMFC did take some steps to give Maine relief in the form of somewhat higher menhaden landings. However, an action taken by the National Marine Fisheries Service earlier this month is going to take that problem to a whole new level of severity.
A new benchmark stock assessment of the Atlantic herring revealed a fish population in serious decline. Recruitment—the number of new fish entering the population—has fallen to all-time lows over the past five years. In response to that new information, NMFS cut the 2018 Atlantic herring quota from 110,536 metric tons to just 49,900 mt, a reduction of about 55%.
“The stock assessment projected that the [New England Fishery Management] Council’s recommended level of catch was likely to result in overfishing for 2018, so we chose to reduce the Council’s recommended catch so that we would meet the 50 percent probability of overfishing target that was used in previous specifications for setting the overfishing limit…Based on the 2018 stock assessment projection, we expect this reduction to reduce the probability of overfishing in 2018, increase the estimated herring biomass in 2019-2021, and provide for more catch for the fishery.”
It was a prudent action on NMFS’ part, and one that was completely consistent with federal fishery management law. However, there’s little doubt that the lobstermen up in Maine, and elsewhere in New England, are already wondering how they’re going to make up for the approximately 60,000 metric tons of herring that have suddenly been removed from their bait supply.
Menhaden are the obvious answer, but what isn’t obvious are where those menhaden will come from. The entire menhaden quota is just 216,000 metric tons, and Maine only gets a tiny fraction, 0.52%, of that, much of which is already being caught and turned into bait. Another 1% or so is set aside for “episodic events,” or an unexpected abundance of menhaden in northeastern waters, but even that will leave them well short of what they’ve lost. The only big bait harvester on the coast is New Jersey, which is allocated nearly 11% of all landings, but once again, just about all of that quota is already being caught and utilized.
So that just leaves Virginia. Its 78.66% of the harvest, about 170,000 metric tons in 2018-2019, makes it an obvious target for those who might want to redistribute menhaden landings. But, as mentioned before, Virginia would certainly fight any such reallocation with every tool at its disposal.
Based merely on ASMFC’s guiding documents, it would be an interesting debate. ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter requires that
“Fishery resources shall be fairly and equitably allocated or assigned among the states.”
The problem with that, of course, is that the meaning of “fairness” shall ever and always lie in the eye of the beholder. Rare is the child who, after receiving the bigger scoop of ice cream or larger slice of pie, will deem the distribution process “unfair,” although those getting smaller allocations might see the whole thing a lot differently.
Thus, Virginia clearly believes that it is entitled to 80% of the entire menhaden harvest and, in its aborted challenge last winter, argued that it was being “unfairly” reduced to a mere 78.66%. Maine, which was given a quota just 0.7% the size of Virginia’s, is unlikely to be sympathetic to such a position.
On the other hand, ASMFC’s Appeals Process guidance document clearly gives a state the right to appeal an ASMFC action if
“Historical landings period [is] not adequately addressed.”
Virginia could and did make that claim in its recent challenge, but once again, the apparent validity of any such assertion depends very much on perspective. In the course of any allocation of fishery resources, the various interested parties will argue and maneuver in an effort to convince fishery managers to select “base years” that provide the greatest benefit to the party in question. In the case of Atlantic menhaden, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission based the allocation on years when Virginia was the dominant harvester. If they had chosen other years, before the reduction fishery had consolidated in a single state, and was spread out along the Atlantic Coast, the allocation would look very different than it does today.
In addition, while the Appeals Process guidance document does require historical landings to be “addressed,” neither it nor any other ASMFC document requires historical landings to be determinative of how landings in any fishery are allocated. As ASMFC leadership noted in their response to Virginia’s challenge,
“Commission guiding documents do not require Boards to allocate quota based solely on historic landings information”
Instead, management boards may use other criteria
“to accommodate changing conditions in a fishery that cannot be addressed through the use of historic landings.”
Of course, there is also the practical aspect of any attempted reallocation. Virginia could just tell ASMFC to take its new allocation and shove it, flatly refusing to reduce its menhaden harvest. That’s far from an unlikely scenario, as Virginia is currently defying ASMFC on another menhaden-related issue, refusing to amend its state law to reduce the quantity of menhaden that the reduction fleet can remove from Chesapeake Bay.
Such refusal to reduce its overall landings could well see ASMFC refer the state’s noncompliance to the Secretary of Commerce, who has the power to impose a complete moratorium on the state’s menhaden fishery. On the other hand, given that the Secretary would have to find that such harvest reduction is
“necessary for the conservation of the fishery in question,”
and given that ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Technical Committee advised, in August 2017, that even increasing the annual harvest as high as 280,000 pounds would only present a 2.5% chance of overfishing the menhaden stock, it is very possible that the Secretary, who believes in the importance of
would rule in favor of Virginia, and decide that if ASMFC wanted to give more menhaden to New England, it could do so by increasing the overall quota and not by reducing Virginia’s share.
And thus the stage is set for an intense fisheries battle, in which New England states try to obtain more bait for their lobstermen by taking menhaden away from Virginia while Virginia resists, a fight in which the final decision rests in the hands of a Secretary of Commerce who doesn’t seem to believe in conservation at all.
Of course, right now that’s all speculation. Such a fight may never occur. But right now, the pieces are in place for a landmark debate that has the potential to completely change the menhaden management paradigm.
Whether that change would be for good or ill is something that, at this point, no one can know.
Sunday, August 26, 2018
I’ve already written about how some recreational fishing industry groups have been trying to conflate H.R. 200, the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fishery Management Act,” with S. 1520, the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act,” which its supporters often shorten to the “Modern Fish Act,” even though those bills are essentially different pieces of legislation.
However, there is one way in which those bills are exactly alike: Both fall well outside the historical political mainstream.
Fisheries management has historically been a bipartisan issue, with both Republicans and Democrats recognizing the need for more effective conservation and management of living marine resources. The late Senator Ted Stevens, whose name is memorialized in the title of the nation’s primary fishery management law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, was a long-serving Republican from Alaska.
Senator Stevens’ colleague, and his partner in drafting that law, was the late Sen. Warren Magnuson, a Democrat from the State of Washington.
Although they belonged to different parties, they well understood that, if America’s fisheries were to have a future, fishery conservation was an imperative, not a partisan issue.
For most of the past forty years, that has been the case.
The 1996 reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens, the landmark Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, was passed with broad bipartisan support, and the affirmative votes of most of the Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate. The 2006 reauthorization was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, and by voice vote in the House, with too little opposition to make a roll-call vote necessary.
“This is a good piece of legislation. It has been a long time coming. This bill will do good for our oceans and for our fisheries.”
One of the biggest supporters of the 2006 reauthorization was Republican President George W. Bush. A “fact sheet” issued by the Office of the White House Press Secretary noted, after the bill was signed into law, that
“By signing this Bill, the President reaffirmed our commitment to protect Americas fisheries and keep our commercial and recreational fishing communities strong. This Act will end over-fishing in America, help us replenish our Nation’s fish stocks, and advance international cooperation and ocean stewardship.”
The fact sheet also singled out particular aspects of the 2006 reauthorization for particular praise. Among other things, it noted that
“The Act Sets A Firm Deadline To End Overfishing In America By 2011. Over-fishing occurs when more fish from a species are caught than is sustainable, endangering the species’ long-term existence. This Act directs Regional Fishery Management Councils to establish annual quotas in Federally-managed fisheries to end over-fishing by 2010 for fish stocks currently undergoing over-fishing and by 2011 for all other Federally managed fish stocks.”
So it seems that President Bush believed that annual catch limits were good.
The fact sheet also notes that
“The Act Uses Market-Based Incentives To Replenish America’s Fish Stocks. The Act will help us double the number of limited-access privilege programs by the year 2010. Limited-access privilege programs assign specific shares of the annual harvest quota to eligible fishermen, fishing communities, and regional fishery associations. Increasing the number of these programs will end the race for fish, improve the quality of catches, and protect those who earn their livelihood from fishing.”
So it seems that President Bush believed that catch share programs were good, too.
In fact, it doesn't appear that there was much dissent at all. Republican or Democrat, freshman Congressman or President, America’s lawmakers seemed very much in synch, at least with regard to the proposition that fishery conservation was important, and that conservative fishery management was the right way to go.
But then, somewhere along the way, something happened.
Bills to weaken Magnuson-Stevens had been rattling around for a long time; the effort started even before the 2006 reauthorization.
At first, such efforts fell flat. H.R. 1584, the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2009, introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey), never made it out of committee. That bill’s ill-begotten descendant, H.R. 4742, the first “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fishery Management Act,” introduced by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Washington), did a little better; it made it out of committee, but was never scheduled for a vote on the House floor.
Soon after that, Hastings’ House career died, and Rep. Don Young—yes, the same Rep. Young that had called the 2006 reauthorization “a good piece of legislation” that was “a long time coming” and “will do good for our oceans and our fisheries”—adopted Hastings’ bastard bill, letting it keep its old name but giving it a new number, H.R. 1335, when he introduced it in 2015. In that form, H.R. 1335 was eventually passed by the House in a lopsided party line vote, with 220 Republicans and 5 Democrats in favor, and 3 Republicans and 149 Democrats against.
H.R. 1335 met a much-deserved death in the Senate, where it expired, unlamented, in committee. Unfortunately, before it died, it managed to kill the bipartisan tradition of fishery management in the House. In the Senate, such tradition may still survive.
Such Senate bipartisanship could be critical, because the same old bill has changed its identity again, having been introduced once more by Rep. Young, as H.R. 200 in 2017.
While the substance of the legislation was just about the same and just as malevolent as it always was, the bill received a bit of cosmetic surgery during the committee markup process, when a handful of provisions sought by the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries, along with some anglers’ rights groups, were added in an effort to make it look a little less ugly upon a first, casual glance.
The facelift was good enough to win House approval, but even at that, H.R. 200 was able to win passage only through a party-line vote. The vote on H.R. 200 was much closer than it was on H.R. 1335. Only 29 votes separated yeas and nays, with 213 Republicans voting in favor and 178 Democrats voting against; only 9 Democrats and 15 Republicans crossed the clearly drawn line to vote their conscience instead of their party.
Which is why we must hope that the spirit of bipartisan support for good fishery management still survives in the Senate. For it is now there that the health of America’s fish stocks could be determined.
There is reason to believe that such hope is not in vain.
Both H.R. 200 and the original version of S. 1520 sought to attack the very provisions that Sen. Stevens and President Bush believed were important. Both bills sought to weaken the annual catch limit requirement that helps avoid overfishing. Both would have weakened rebuilding requirements that, in the words of President Bush’s Press Office, would “help us replenish our Nation’s fish stocks. Both would severely cripple managers' ability to adopt catch share programs that “end the race for fish, improve the quality of catches, and protect those who earn their livelihood from fishing.”
But when S. 1520 went through the committee mark-up process, an interesting thing happened. The committee members actually worked together to make it a better bill. It’s still not a good bill by any stretch of the imagination, and because of the way the legislative process works, passing the largely innocuous S. 1520 would open the door to the malign H.R. 200, which could then become law. S. 1520 still ought to die.
Yet, even saying that, it’s well worth noting that the S. 1520 that came out of committee was, thanks to the bipartisan process, a lot better bill than the S. 1520 that went in. The fact that Sen. Wicker (R-Mississippi), the original sponsor of S. 1520, introduced the amended bill suggest that, in the Senate, cooperation remains alive.
So we have a rational reason to hope that the same cooperative process that worked in the case of S. 1520 might work with respect to any Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill that the Senate could see.
For even a casual glance at history makes it clear that both H.R. 200 and S. 1520—the “Modern Fish Act”--are political aberrations.
Both offend the bipartisan spirit that has always been a part of federal fisheries legislation. And before folks begin talking about the party in power, it’s important to note that both offend the historical Republican dedication to effective fishery conservation and management.
After all, neither Sen. Stevens nor President Bush could, in good faith, be called “RINOs.”
So it’s time to tell all of our federal legislators what we know to be true:
Effective fishery conservation and management benefits everyone, in the long term, regardless of party.
H.R. 200, and the “Modern Fish Act,” are bad bills, bills that offend long-established legislative principles and traditions, bills that heartily deserve to die.
Thursday, August 23, 2018
August is winding down; Labor Day stands on the horizon. We’re in a midterm election year, and as sure as fall follows summer, the political campaign season will follow the upcoming holiday.
Rumblings have already begun.
Most political pundits are predicting a “blue wave,” in which Democrats, taking advantage of both traditional anti-incumbent trends and growing suburban discontent, take control of the House of Representatives. While some Democrats have spoken wistfully about taking over the Senate as well, the fact that they’re defending far more seats than the Republicans are, with may located in traditionally Republican states, makes such a shift in control very unlikely; Democrats could easily lose a few seats in the upper chamber.
Some well-respected outlets have even raised doubts about whether the Democrats will, in the end, take over the House, with Anthony Salvanto, the CBS News Director of Elections and Surveys, recently calling the fight for House control a “toss-up.”
On the Republican side, there has even been talk of a possible “red wave,” in which Democrats not only fail to gain control of the House or Senate, but end up losing seats to a surging Republican party. The current President has embraced the concept, and has predicted
But in the end, it is people, not parties, that fill Congressional seats. And red and blue aren’t the only waves breaking on the electoral shore.
There is also green.
that deserves every anglers’, and every sportsman’s, attention.
The piece focuses mostly on inland issues, and on the current Administration’s affronts to conservation concerns. It declares that
“A Green Wave is coming this November, the pent-up force of the most overlooked constituency in America. These independents, Teddy Roosevelt Republicans and Democrats on the sideline have been largely sidelined as the Trump administration has tried to destroy a century of bipartisan love of the land.
“But no more. Politics, like Newton’s third law of physics, is about action and reaction. While President Trump tries to prop up the dying and dirty coal industry with taxpayer subsidies, the outdoor recreation industry had been roaring along. It is a $374-billion-a-year economy, by the government’s own calculation, and more than twice that size by private estimates.
“That’s more than mining, oil, gas and logging combined…
“This is not green goo-goo or fantasy projection. You can see and feel the energy in places ignored by the national political press…
“’We hunt and we fish,’ said Land Tawney, a Montanan who leads the fast-growing Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. ‘And we vote public lands and water.’”
It’s not my intent to comment, right now, on the current Administration’s policies. The midterm elections are about Congressional seats, not about electing or re-electing a president. But the principles presented in the New York Times piece apply to Congressional elections, too.
As sportsmen, we should all try, as Land Tawney said, to “vote public lands and water,” and as salt water anglers, we should be thinking of "voting public resources," too, because those resources are a part of every American’s heritage, and shouldn’t be sold off wholesale because, lost in some fever dream, a cabinet secretary decided that the path to reducing the nation’s trade deficit lies across the backs of the country’s fish stocks.
It’s a tough thing to say, given the current level of political partisanship, but if anglers and other sportsmen want to preserve natural resources for their use, and the use of their descendants, it’s time to stop voting for parties, and start voting for people—or, more precisely, to start voting for policies that conserve the land, water and living resources, by supporting the people who support such policies.
For if the wrong policies become enshrined in law, the land, the water, the resources, and us, who depend on all three, will be well and truly screwed.
Again, this is not about party.
Too often, people try to turn conservation into a partisan issue, and fail to recognize that no party has a monopoly on virtue—or vice.
President George W. Bush was a Republican, descended from a long line of Republican officeholders, but he recognized that
“The vibrant beauty of the oceans is a blessing to our country. And it’s a blessing to the world. The oceans contain countless natural treasures. They carry much of our trade; the provide food and recreation for billions of people. We have a responsibility, a solemn responsibility, to be good stewards of the oceans and the creatures who inhabit them.”
And that wasn’t just talk.
President Bush was a strong supporter of the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, including toughened provisions to end overfishing (including the annual catch limit requirement) and its expansion of catch share programs. He pleased anglers by issuing an Executive Order prohibiting the commercial harvest of striped bass and red drum in federal waters. And he pleased the conservation community by invoking the Antiquities Act to create four marine monuments that protected an aggregate 335,000 square miles of ocean, the greatest ocean area ever protected by any world leader.
His successor, President Barak Obama, a Democrat, also had a good record on ocean issues. He quadrupled the size of the a marine monument off Hawaii created by President Bush, created the first marine monument in the Atlantic in order to protect deep-water coral habitat, established a national ocean policy that promoted conservation and habitat protection, and made it very clear that he would veto any bill that weakened the provisions of the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act that President Bush signed into law during his second term.
So yes, it comes down to policy, not to party, and to the individual candidates willing to support the policies that benefit living marine resources and those, like us, who depend upon them.
Right now, Magnuson-Stevens is again at the fore. H.R. 200, passed by the House, seeks to weaken many of its important conservation provisions, including those approved by President Bush a decade ago, and later defended by President Obama. The vote was a relatively close 222-193, and largely along party lines, although 15 Republicans did vote against and 9 Democrats voted in favor. Anglers should take a long look at how their representatives voted, and reward them—or not—in November.
But H.R. 200 isn’t the only thing going on. There are the folks co-sponsoring the so-called “Modern Fish Act,” S. 1520, that would also weaken the federal management process. There are Rep. Zeldin’s recurrent efforts to open federal waters to striped bass harvest. There has been a parade of bad red snapper bills.
Actions should have consequences, and legislators should know that if they support the wrong policies, and vote the wrong way, then that “green wave,”—or whatever else you might want to call it—that has been lapping around their ankles for so long is going to turn into a 100-year storm, and there’s a good chance that they’re going to drown.
If anglers, sportsmen and other conservationists don’t vote their own interests—clean water, public land, abundant resources—this November, they may very well lose them.
Because elections have consequences, too.
Sunday, August 19, 2018
Every morning, when I don’t head outside, begins the same way. I walk back into the den and turn on the TV (Channel 12 for the weather, CNN for the rest), then light up my laptop to check the news feeds.
This morning, a couple of striped bass stories caught my eye.
Anyone who fishes the northeast coast knows that striped bass are special. Sure, tuna and makos grow quite a bit bigger, and their fight puts a striper’s to shame. Inshore, bluefish pull harder, weakfish look better, and black sea bass are better to eat.
But striped bass have an aura that sets them apart from the pack. They inhabit every type of inshore waters, from the high surf to deep-water ledges to tidal rivers yet, at times, can be nearly impossible to find. They’ll eat everything from sand fleas to weakfish, but sometimes turn up their nose at our lures at the same time that seem to be blitzing on every fish in the sea. They force us to fish at hours when other people sleep, in weather that keeps sane folks indoors, if we want to earn any real and consistent success along the striper coast.
For many anglers, they have achieved a sort of heroic status, a status that was only enhanced when, like the heroes of myth, they had their own symbolic descent into Hell in the late 1970s, when the stock collapsed and some people questioned whether it would ever rebound again. But thanks to strict management measures, they returned to our seas in abundance, giving some fishermen a new understanding about why conservation is vital not only for the good for the bass, but for themselves.
Some people get that, some people don’t. And that’s where today’s stories come in.
The first story was born in Rhode Island, after recent rumors of a 77-pound striped bass caught off Block Island began to circulate. At first, no one knew whether the rumors were true, but when things began to settle down, two things became clear. One: A really nice bass had been landed off Block Island. And two: No one knows just what it weighed, but it was big. That’s because, according to The Fisherman magazine,
“After boating the behemoth bass, [the angler] quickly decided not to harvest the [sic] her and instead got some measurements, a few photos and released the fish to keep the genes in the pool and to hopefully keep growing and making more future mega bass. The fish taped out at an impressive 54 inches and sported a girth of 32.5 inches. When plugged into the weight formula (girth x girth) x length/800, the fish comes in at 71.29 pounds.”
That’s a big bass, one far larger than most of us will ever see, much less encounter on our own, and the angler could hardly be blamed if he had decided to put such a fish on his wall. Yet he chose not to do so, and instead returned that big, fecund female to the sea to hopefully prosper and replenish its kind.
He certainly "gets it." He has learned the lessons of the past, and have taken them well to heart.
As most striped bass fishermen probably know, at least from second-hand info if they haven’t seen it for themselves, the Cape Cod Canal has been New England’s hottest striped bass venue for the past couple of years. As always happens, readily accessible abundance draws hordes of anglers, and not all of them are the sort that we’d want to claim as friends.
Some of them don’t “get it” at all. Thus, the Cape Cod Times reported that
“A blitz of striped bass at the Cape Cod Canal has brought a swarm of fishermen looking to take home a ‘keepa’.
“But with the crush of fishermen, there has been a surge in calls about fishing violations and a flurry of citations handed out by the state environmental police.”
According to the article, enforcement officers have typically been receiving at least 10 complaints each day, and sometimes 10 complaints in just one hour, about illegal striped bass fishing in the Canal. Over 50 citations have been issued in a single week, and the violations are so common that the environmental police are calling in officers from other parts of the state to help them deal with the poachers.
Most of the violations are the sort of thing you’d expect—anglers exceeding the bag limit or keeping fish below the minimum size. Some, apparently anticipating a bag limit violation, are hiding their fish in the rocks or among the trees; such intentional concealment violates Massachusetts law. And, as one might expect, there are illegal sales.
Yet, as bad as those violations are, other conduct is at least as disturbing. The Times reported that
“Police have also found many stripers belly-up or barely alive floating in the canal.
“’From what we have observed they appear to have hook marks, indicating that this is poor catch-and-release practice or people are (high-grading), which is also prohibited in Massachusetts,’ according to [Maj. Patrick] Moran [of the Massachusetts Environmental Police]…
“High-grading is when a fisherman catches a fish and sets it aside until he or she catches a bigger fish. The fish caught earlier is then thrown back, even though it is unlikely to survive…”
Thus, recent news about folks chasing stripers spans the whole gamut, from the altruistic Rhode Island angler to the slob fishermen plaguing the Cape Cod Canal.
One might reasonably asks “Who is more typical of striped bass fishermen, the Rhode Island angler concerned about the future health of the stock, or the poachers on the Canal who care about nothing save themselves?”
I’m not sure that anyone can answer that question without first defining just what a “striped bass angler” is.
As much as I hate to say it, if we define “striped bass angler” as anyone who, at any time, might fish for striped bass with rod and reel, the scene at the Cape Cod Canal probably exposes a pretty good cross-section of the community.
That’s because, when you set such a broad definition, you include a lot of folks who never “paid their dues,” who never fished for bass in all sorts of weather, learning the little details of how, when and why one finds fish and gets them to bite throughout a range of constantly changing conditions.
Instead, you find quite a few folks who have little respect for or knowledge of the fish or the fishery, but merely seek to cash in when the fishing is easy. Today, they’re fishing for striped bass in the Canal, but when the Canal cools down, they’ll be back on their computers and smart phones, looking for the next blitz, instead of working the waters trying to find a pocket of fish for themselves.
Such people not only don’t get it, but they’re so far from the heart of the fishery that they don’t even know that there’s something out there to get…
If you narrow down the notion of “striped bass fishermen” to those folks who have spent years—or, if new, plan to spend years—working out the ways of the striper, the picture is a lot more favorable.
The ranks of serious striped bass fishermen still include older folks who we might call the “Keepers of the Lore,” who pass down tales from the collapse four decades ago, and remind younger anglers that, if we’re not careful, the same things could very well happen again. They try to teach newcomers how and why to release unwanted fish (always remembering that the occasional striped bass dinner is OK, too) and, if the student seems worthy, teach them how to catch some bass, too.
Those folks “get it,” as do plenty of younger anglers who come to the hearings and say that “We don’t want to see them collapse again,” even though the last collapse happened before they were born, meaning that they could only have seen it through their fathers’ or older friends’ eyes.
In truth, the conservation ethic among dedicated striped bass anglers that I’ve known—and over the years, I’ve come to know a lot of them—is undoubtedly stronger than it is among any other salt water anglers in the northeast. Along the entire coast, only the folks who chase bonefish, permit and tarpon, and maybe some West Coast salmon anglers, seem to come close.
And that’s a good thing. Yet, if I’m to be honest, I have to admit that there is a subset of striped bass fishermen—very good, very dedicated, very successful striped bass fishermen—that really don’t “get it” at all.
Some are poachers, pure and simple. They see the bass as little more than dollar bills to be plucked from the water. They seem to enjoy catching bass, but the fishing is more like a job, and it’s not clear that they’d do it—or at least do it so often—if fishing cost them money instead of enhancing their bottom line.
Then there are folks with big egos.
Some are just tackle shop heroes, people who apparently live such drear and meaningless lives that they find their purpose in killing striped bass and getting their pictures on bait station walls, living for the assumed admiration of the next guy who walks into the shop to buy a few fresh bunker.
Others live in a larger world, with Internet presence and YouTube channels, who have found a way to monetize their angling talents.
They reach a lot of folks, and have the potential to do a lot of good by promoting the principles of good sportsmanship and effective conservation. Of course, some of that stuff is controversial and might upset their sponsors, so in the end, like the poachers, they usually just concentrate on maintaining their cults and their bottom lines, and let the striped bass take care of themselves.
And that’s too bad, because it looks like the striped bass is going to need all the help that it can get in the soon-to-be future.
The stock’s not overfished—yet—and the latest stock assessment update says it’s unlikely to become so. However, the stock’s a lot closer to the biomass threshold than it is to the target, so if the stock is not overfished, it’s not all that healthy, either.
That’s not good, because right now, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is conducting a new benchmark assessment of the striped bass stock, and part of that assessment will include options for new reference points that could, if adopted, push bass abundance down even lower.
Down in Washington, it looks like the effort to open federal waters, in whole or in part, to striped bass fishing just got its second wind.
The folks who don’t “get it” will, of course, support such an opening, and such new reference points, in order to increase their (legal) kill.
That means that the folks who have figured out that healthy fisheries—recreational and commercial—depend on healthy fish populations, have a big job to do in the next year or so. They’re going to have to go to the hearings, when they finally happen, to fight for the stripers again.
It’s the same thing that they’ve done for the past forty years.
The faces have changed, but the mission remains.
As those who “get it” already know.
Thursday, August 16, 2018
For many years, anglers have criticized estimates of recreational fish landings produced by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which are used by fishery managers to set seasons, bag limits and other regulations. Such anglers typically argue that NMFS overestimates recreational harvest, which results in unnecessary restrictions being placed on recreational fishermen.
The , when it challenged the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) proposed black sea bass management program, arguing, “It is obvious that the problem lies with an unrealistic harvest limit…and the continued reliance on the fatally flawed [Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey] data which has not been significantly improved by the introduction of the new [Marine Recreational Information Program] system.”
About a year earlier, Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, about the data developed by the newly-adopted Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), saying that “I would love to join the rest of the fishing community in celebrating the good times ahead, but if the [Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey] staff is using the same effort and participation data coupled with inadequate intercept data generated over the past 33 years, then I’m not so sure that we’ve turned a corner instead of just running around in more circles.”
Such critics should have been pleased to learn that NMFS had similar concerns about the accuracy of its recreational catch and effort data. Beginning the accuracy and the efficiency of its estimates. Finally, on July 9, 2018, NMFS announced dating back to 1981.
That announcement was good news, because more accurate catch and effort estimates will lead to more accurate stock assessments; such assessments will, in turn, lead to more effective regulations that can better prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks and keep fish stocks abundant and healthy in the long term.
Unfortunately, because the revised estimates indicated that the effort, and so the catch of anglers fishing from private boats and from shore (party and charter boats are covered by a different survey) was substantially higher than previously thought, some people didn’t wait to get the full story before they declared that the sky was about to fall.
One well-known that “We’re About To Go WAY Over Quota in Almost Every Fishery (according to soon-worsening catch data) I Anticipate Many Recreational Fisheries Will See Closures [sic]…We’ll soon be so over quota, in every fishery, that our rod-racks will become wall-mounted spider farms long before we’re allowed to fish again.”
While such statements may serve to stir up discontent, they fall a very long way from the truth. They’re based on the false notion that higher recreational landings necessarily mean that anglers are overfishing, and that regulations will need to grow more restrictive, in order to get such overfishing under control. The truth is that, right now, no one really knows what the higher landings mean.
, NMFS tried to reassure anglers, letting them know that “the increase in effort estimates is because the [Fishing Effort Survey (FES)] does a better job of estimating fishing activity, not a sudden rise in fishing…Implications of the revised estimates on all managed species will not be fully understood until they are incorporated into the stock assessment process over the next several years…In the meantime, the new FES data can be back calculated into the [previous estimates] to allow for an apples-to-apples comparison of catch estimates with management benchmarks, such as annual catch limits, that were based on the [earlier estimates]…”
So no, the revised estimates will not immediately cause anglers to exceed their catch limits and shut fisheries down. The higher catch numbers could even be viewed as good news, for , “Because the number of fish being caught is an indicator of fishery health, if effort rates were actually higher in the past than we estimated, then it is possible we were underestimating the number of fish in the population to begin with.”
Whatever the implications of the new estimates, many anglers are probably curious as to why the revisions occurred, and why angling catch and effort estimates were revised upward. That is all explained in , but the short version is this.
NMFS used to use something called the Coastal Household Telephone Survey (Telephone Survey) to estimate angling effort. It made calls to randomly-selected households in coastal counties, with no prior knowledge of whether or not anyone in such households was a recreational fisherman. The percentage of calls that successfully contacted an angler was relatively low, which limited the amount of data that could be obtained.
The Telephone Survey was replaced by the FES, which uses lists of registered salt water anglers, augmented by a United States Postal Service list of households to capture effort by anglers who are not on the registration lists, to mail out a hard-copy survey. Although it seems counterintuitive, such old-fashioned “snail mail” actually produces much better information.
That’s because, by addressing most of the surveys to registered anglers, NMFS is able to reach more recreational fishermen, and better assure that the surveys actually get into such fishermen’s hands. The combination of a better-targeted survey and an improved questionnaire led to response rate that was three times greater than the response to the Telephone Survey; in addition, responders provided more complete data.
In most surveys, higher response rates and improved data will lead to better results. The catch and effort estimates gleaned from the FES were no exception to that rule.
NMFS explains that there are two reasons why the revised catch and effort estimates are higher than those developed through the Telephone Survey.
The first, deemed the “Telephone vs. Mail Factor,” boils down to the fact that people respond differently to mail surveys, which they can answer thoughtfully and at their leisure, than they do to telephone calls, which demand immediate attention and require instant response. The second is what NMFS calls the “Wireless Effect.” It has been a factor since 2000, when the use of cellular phones became widespread enough to seriously limit the number of households reached through the random Telephone Survey; a developing trend of people with “landline” phones taking, on average, fewer fishing trips than those without landlines has made the Wireless Effect even more powerful in recent years.
Due to those two factors, the difference between the original and the revised catch estimates remained fairly constant from 1981 through 1999, when the Telephone vs. Mail Factor was the only consideration, and increased substantially after 2000, when the Wireless Effect also played a big role.
The revised estimates for shore-based anglers were roughly five times higher than those developed through the Telephone Survey; estimates for private-boat anglers did not quite triple, which remains a substantial increase.
Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the species reflecting the greatest increases in landings include those that are most often caught from shore. Bluefish led the pack, with recent landings about four times as high as previously thought. Revised estimates for striped bass, another popular target for surfcasters, were three times higher than the earlier figures. Fish that are typically caught by boat fishermen, such as summer flounder, black sea bass, South Atlantic gag grouper, Gulf of Mexico red snapper, and Atlantic cod, showed revised catch estimates that are typically about 2 ½ times as high as estimates derived through the Telephone Survey.
NMFS doesn’t yet know what the new data means. It <strongcould impact the status of some stocks, some management measures, and the allocations between the commercial and recreational sectors. But it won’t necessarily lead to any of those things.</strong
Until the revised estimates are incorporated into stock assessments, no one at NMFS is venturing any guesses about how the data impact different species. It’s very possible that higher recreational harvest from some still-healthy stocks will demonstrate that such fish are more abundant and able to withstand more fishing pressure than previously believed, and will lead to higher catch limits. It’s also possible that higher recreational landings will at least partially explain why some stocks have never rebuilt to target levels, despite years of management efforts.
Anglers should get their first real indications of the revised estimates’ impact late in 2018, when benchmark stock assessments for striped bass and summer flounder are released. Assessment updates for a host of other species, including Gulf of Mexico red snapper, Atlantic cod, bluefish, black sea bass and scup, will follow shortly thereafter, and should provide additional insight.
Until the assessments come out, all that anglers can do is wait, learn about the new survey, and rest assured that the end of the world is not nigh.
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/