Sunday, September 30, 2018
The story of Carlos Rafael, the so-called “Codfather” who plundered New England groundfish stocks for so many years, has been told and retold since he was hauled into court by federal enforcement agents early in 2016.
He pled guilty on March 28, 207 to 28 separate charges, including false labeling of fish, tax evasion, smuggling cash and falsifying federal records and received a prison sentence about a year ago. Last January, civil penalties were also assessed against him.
Since that was done, his name faded out of the news.
But no one can carry out such broad-based offenses on their own, even though there has been little mention of Rafael's henchmen, who profited well from knowingly supporting his scheme, in the news.
That changed this month, when the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Marine Fisheries Service, issued a superseding charging document in Rafael’s case, which seeks the revocation of 17 operator permits issued to captains of Rafael’s boats, and more than tripled the civil penalties assessed, to a total of more than $3 million.
The document also increased the number of alleged violations to 88; such allegations included misreporting of the species caught—which was the heart of Rafael’s poaching scheme—to fishing gear violations and violations of various observer requirements.
No one seems to be particularly concerned about stiffer penalties being assessed against Carlos Rafael, except, most probably, for Rafael himself. But there is a remarkable amount of pushback against NOAA going after the captains.
It’s an interesting reaction because, as John Bullard, the former administrator of NMFS Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office observed,
“he calls himself the ‘Codfather.’ That’s the name he gave himself. Likening himself to a mafia don. He models himself as the head of the criminal enterprise. Why anyone would think he is the only bad actor when he himself molded himself as the head of a criminal enterprise just defies logic.”
But logic often gets twisted into unrecognizable shapes when fish are involved.
The Massachusetts news outlet South Coast Today reported that Jon Mitchell, the mayor of New Bedford, Rafael’s home port, believes
“NOAA taking action against Rafael’s captains crosses a line.”
It’s hard for anyone outside New Bedford to understand why.
As explained in Mother Jones magazine, Rafael’s illegal operation depended on a lot of cooperation from his captains and others.
“[F]ishermen are allowed to catch more of comparatively common species than rare ones. That can quickly become a problem: You might own a big slice of the haddock pie, but if your net happens to catch flounder, you must either stop fishing or rent more flounder quota from your peers. Rafael simply mislabeled the other kinds of groundfish as haddock, an abundant species for which he owned millions of pounds…”
For most fishermen, that would be a difficult scam to pull off, but Rafael’s operation was big enough to facilitate such fraud. Yet he couldn’t do it all by himself.
“[NOAA] requires fishing boats to report the species and weight of their catch, among other information, each time they return from the sea. Seafood dealers, meanwhile, have to submit their own reports detailing what they purchase from incoming vessels, which NOAA uses to verify fishermen’s accounts. Rafael, though, was exploiting a gaping loophole. Because he owned both boats and a dealership, he could instruct his captains to misreport their catch, and then he could falsify the dealer reports to corroborate the lie… [emphasis added]”
The captains were thus active and willing participants in the scheme. After all, when Rafael made more money, even if from illegal actions, they made more money, too.
But money never stays in one person’s pocket. Rafael’s crimes brought money not only to himself and his captains, but to the people who crewed on his boats, the businesses that supplied and supported the vessels, truckers who moved the fish, ice houses and such. Beyond that, the money spread out into the greater community, supporting everything from waterfront bars to grocery stores and gas stations to, in all likelihood, even churches and day care centers.
As a result, to many in New Bedford, Rafael was a sort of Robin Hood, who fought an oppressive government bureaucracy, stealing fish from the “rich” feds to give to his “poor” community. When he was sentenced, the Boston Globe reported the reaction of one of his crewmen, who was largely sympathetic to Rafael, despite his crimes.
“’He kept hundreds of jobs afloat,’ said Shawn Machie, an Acushnet [Massachusetts] fisherman who works on one of Rafael’s boats. Machie, 47, who has 3-month-old twins, said Rafael was forced to skirt regulations that prevent fishermen from making a good living.
“’It wouldn’t be like this if it weren’t for unfair regulations,’ Machie said. ‘Why does the government got to squeeze people into a position where they gotta do stuff like this to survive?’”
The fact that the same arguments could be made in support of pimps, drug dealers and other species of criminal that haunt economically-depressed communities, including New Bedford, probably never occurred to Machie. It’s a near certainty that he’d object very strongly if he heard outlaw fishermen tossed into the same bucket with more traditional felons, even though someone looking in from the outside might have a hard time telling them apart.
Machie isn’t alone. It seems that New Bedford, as a whole, is willing to give an entire category of criminal—those who helped Rafael poach fish on a wholesale scale—a free pass. Their thinking is clearly spelled out in a comment made by the city’s mayor, Mitchell, who said
“The real culprit is Carlos Rafael. To my mind, it would be overkill to go after the captains who were doing his bidding and on whose good graces their livelihood depended. The overall goal should be to punish Carlos Rafael but not to damage the port. [emphasis added]”
But what if the port, or at least a significant part of it, was complicit in Rafael’s scheme, as the captains certainly were?
After all, if we were talking about another sort of crime, no one would question the need to bring enforcement actions against everyone who directly and intentionally supported the scheme.
Right now, U.S. authorities are preparing to try “El Chapo,” who headed the Sinaloa [Mexico] drug cartel, on various charges.
In many ways, his story parallels that of Rafael. Like Rafael, El Chapo started out poor and, through a combination of astute business instincts and a ruthless willingness to crush their competition (although only El Chapo resorted to murder), ended up at the top of a criminal enterprise. Like Rafael, he was seen as a folk hero by some.
There is little doubt that some of the money El Chapo spent, and he reportedly spent quite a bit, went to people who needed it badly.
But there doesn’t seem to be anyone out there who is making the argument that, while El Chapo deserves to be punished, the various killers, drug dealers, smugglers and other assorted criminals should escape punishment, merely because they did his bidding and depended on him for their livelihood.
Yet Rafael depended on his captains to break fisheries laws, just as El Chapo depended on his trusted smugglers to get drugs across the Rio Grande. For both, the entire criminal enterprise could never have survived, much less grown large, without the willing help of numerous underlings who knowingly broke the law in return for financial gains.
Thus, NOAA’s proposed sanctions against Rafael’s captains, as well as Rafael himself, are an entirely appropriate way to punish those who helped Rafael break the law (and it should be noted that, for the captains, things could be worse, as the sanctions are solely civil, and bring no criminal liability at all).
Yes, a lot of people and businesses in New Bedford made some good money from Rafael’s crimes, and they don’t want their cash flow to end.
But that’s the risk you take when you abet crime.
“I wish every member of our enforcement branch godspeed that they root out every single criminal that dishonors the honest fishermen I know.”
To that, we should all say, “Amen.”
Thursday, September 27, 2018
Earlier this week, the New England Fishery Management Council adopted measures to protect Atlantic herring, arguably the most important forage fish in the northeast. In doing so, they pushed aside objections from the industrial fishing fleet, and edged toward a future in which fishery managers consider ecosystem impacts when adopting management measures.
Atlantic herring haven’t been doing too well. In recent years, recruitment—the number of new fish entering the population—has fallen to historic lows. In response, the National Marine Fisheries Service recently cut the 2018 annual harvest limit by 55%, in order to prevent the stock from becoming overfished.
At the same time, Atlantic herring have been subject to harvest by an industrial fleet of mid-water trawlers which, as reported in the Providence [Rhode Island] Journal,
“tow huge nets and can quickly scoop up millions of pounds of the fish, causing, according to environmentalists, and others, the depletion of its population in small areas. The trawlers have been active in the herring fishery for the last two decades or so and are the most efficient vessels at catching the fish.”
It is not unusual for two such midwater trawl vessels to work together and pull a single net, known as a “pair trawl,” that is far larger and more efficient than the nets that individual vessels can employ. The impact of the pair trawlers on the Atlantic herring fishing has been significant. As the Pew Environment Group noted in one report,
“In 1995, pair trawlers landed approximately two million pounds of herring; by 2004 that number had climbed to more than 127 million pounds.”
Since then, the Atlantic herring population has declined, and catch has declined along with it. The commercial harvest limit for 2018, which includes all regions and all types of gear, is just 49,900 metric tons, or about 110 million pounds.
Many New England fishermen have long blamed the pair trawlers for not only the decline in Atlantic herring, but also for a local decline in the number of fish that regularly feed on herring. As the [Martha’s] Vineyard Gazette reported,
“For years large factory fishing boats with nets larger than the size of football fields, have worked the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, off Rhode Island and all around Cape Cod in pursuit of the forage fish, Atlantic herring…”
It noted that the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Association put out a press release that read, in part,
“New England fishermen believe that the herring fishery has had cascading detrimental effects on many other species of fish such as depleted cod, juvenile haddock, bluefin tuna and striped bass. The fishery removes large quantities of herring, the primary food source for these species, and…it kills these species when they are caught accidentally as bycatch.”
Conservation advocates describe the problem as “localized depletion,” with the Conservation Law Foundation explaining that
“’Localized depletion’ refers to a situation where concentrated fishing—in this case by midwater trawlers—takes too many fish out of too small an area in too short a time. It has biological impacts when it affects the normal age structure (removing too many older, fertile fish) or the genetic diversity (losing a genetically distinct sub-population) of a species. It has ecological impacts when it wipes out all the prey for a dependent predator and that predator leaves the area. And it has economic impacts when other fisheries, such as commercial fishing for cod or recreational fishing for striped bass, as well as eco-tourism businesses like whale watching, are forced to move.”
To avoid such adverse effects, fishermen and other conservation-oriented interests have argued that Atlantic herring should be managed, in part, based on their importance to the ecosystem, and not just for their commercial value. Wild Oceans, an advocate for such ecosystem-baseed management, said in an op-ed in Sport Fishing magazine that
“Raising our standards for conserving key prey species means changing our management goal from maximizing yields for commercial fisheries to sharing the resource, in a way that accounts for the vital ecological role of these species as forage for natural predators, while still providing reasonable fishing opportunities.”
However, representatives of the industrial fishing fleet categorically reject such an approach. The Providence Journal reported that
“Commercial fishing groups say that herring are being caught at sustainable levels and argue against the ecosystem approach, which would ensure that a larger share of the population remains in the water for other animals to prey on. They say the system needs flexibility to react to dips and spikes in the herring population.
“’Localized depletion of herring has never been documented. Herring, and the species that feed on them, are both highly migratory, and travel over a wide range. Any potential impact from the herring fishery would be limited in duration,’ the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition, which includes Rhode Island-based Seafreeze and The Town Dock, said in a statement.
“…Maghan Lapp, fisheries liaison for Seafreeze, said in written comments to the New England Fishery Management Council that there is no scientific basis for [excluding pair trawlers from inshore waters].”
“The New England Fisheries Management Council approved a rule that ‘establishes a long-term policy that will guide the council in setting catch limits into the future’ at a meeting in Plymouth [Massachusetts].
“Such an option will result in more herring being left in the water ‘to serve as forage and be part of the overall ecosystem,’ according to the council. Under that proposal, catch limits can be adjusted based on new information.
“Additionally, the council approved a measure aimed at preventing midwater trawlers from fishing too close to shore for herring. The boats are banned from fishing within 12 miles of shore, an area stretching from the Canadian border through Rhode Island, that includes areas east and southeast of Cape Cod, according to the council.”
It’s good news, but it doesn’t mean that the herring are home free. Although the New England Council approved the measures, the National Marine Fisheries Service must also approve them before such measures are included in fisheries regulations. And there will undoubtedly voices out there trying to convince NMFS to reject the Council’s decision.
According to the Globe,
“Shaun Gehan, counsel for Sustainable Fisheries Coalition, a group of harvesters and processors from North Carolina to Maine that includes three companies in Gloucester [Massachusetts], had a different take.
“The council’s decisions, he said, would ‘make it very, very difficult to catch even the low amounts of herring that are going to be allocated for the next three years.’ The measures are going to hurt lobstermen, and commercial fishermen who catch herring and mackerel, he said. The region’s lobster fishery chiefly uses herring as bait.
“’What the council did today is inconsistent with law,’ he said.”
Thus, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the industrial fishing fleet lobbied NMFS, and the Commerce Department, and urged them to reject the New England Council’s proposed management measures. And it also wouldn’t come as a surprise if the same Commerce Department that allowed New Jersey to go out of compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s summer flounder management plan in 2017, and agreed to illegally reopen the recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico at about the same time, would again turn its back on conservation considerations and support the industrial fleet.
Even if NMFS does ultimately endorse the New England Council’s recommendation, there is the chance that the mid-water trawlers could challenge NFMFS’ decision in court, an action that, even if unsuccessful, would discourage other regional fishery management councils from beginning their journeys toward ecosystem-based management until any such lawsuit was ultimately decided.
But even with those uncertainties, conservationists should view this week’s actions on Atlantic herring as a victory. As Peter Baker of the Pew Charitable Trusts said, the New England Council should pride itself on
“being among the first to follow a public, science-based process with concrete actions to conserve forage fish.”
Baker went on to say that
“Protecting these sensitive areas and the from intensive fishing and rebuilding the herring population will directly benefit marine wildlife and the coastal businesses that depend upon them.”
Yes, it’s true that the 12-mile-wide coastal buffer zone, that excluded mid-water trawls from inshore waters, wasn’t nearly as large as the 25- and 50-mile-wide buffers that were also considered, and ultimately rejected, by the Council.
Thus, the Council’s recommended measures represented a relatively small step forward, compared to the greater strides that had been proposed.
But as anyone who has engaged in the fisheries arena will be quick to tell you, taking even a small step forward is far, far better than just standing still.
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
I don't normally use this blog to advertise or promote other parties' activities, but I've been asked to publicize the study and focus group described below.
Given the sorry state of the tautog in Long Island Sound, and my memories of the fishery going back to the late 1950s, when what we called "blackfish" were abundant and available to a degree that today's fishermen probably can't even imagine, I thought that it was worth making an exception to my usual "no promotions" rule.
Given the sorry state of the tautog in Long Island Sound, and my memories of the fishery going back to the late 1950s, when what we called "blackfish" were abundant and available to a degree that today's fishermen probably can't even imagine, I thought that it was worth making an exception to my usual "no promotions" rule.
Recruitment Flyer for Focus Group Participants
Long Island Sound Tautog Fishing Study
---- Requesting Volunteers for a Focus Group Discussion
As fall approaches, tautog becomes a primary target. Unfortunately, increased harvest of tautog in Long Island Sound has reduced the population of fish, which resulted in a shorter fishing season and more restrictive “bag limits”. The purpose of this focus group is to discuss alternative management options, while also helping Sea Grant researchers to develop a survey that will help solicit opinions from a large number and wide range of tautog anglers. In addition, management options that could potentially rebuild the stock of tautog in Long Island Sound and provide for a longer season will be discussed.
We will limit discussion to 2 hours, and participants will receive $60 in appreciation for their time and any effort required to travel to the discussion. Please reply to email@example.com to participate in the study. Due to limitations on space, it is important that participants receive confirmation of their pre-registration through email.
This is your chance to have your opinion heard!
Location: Marine Fisheries Headquarters and Boating Division - 333 Ferry Road, Old Lyme
Time: Tuesday Oct. 2nd 7:00pm-9:00pm
We will be happy to answer any question you have about this study. If you have further questions about this study or if you have a research-related question, you may contact the principal investigator, (Eric Schultz: 860-486-4692; email firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line: “CT Sea Grant”). If you have any questions concerning your rights as a research participant, you may contact the University of Connecticut Institutional Review Board (IRB) at 860-486-8802.
Sunday, September 23, 2018
It’s coming down to the wire for
Its supporters know that if they don’t get the bill signed into law soon, and they will lose their best chance in many years to substantially weaken the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the .
Only one barrier stands in their way, and that’s the lack of a companion bill in the Senate.
So far, no Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill has been introduced in the upper chamber of Congress, so H.R. 200 supporters need a different sort of vehicle to get their bill passed if they are to have any hope of emasculating the science-based federal fishery management system before the 115th Congress draws to a close. Thanks to members of the recreational fishing and boatbuilding community, who are more than willing to strike a Devil’s bargain with those who have long been trying to gut Magnuson-Stevens, H.R. 200 supporters still have one viable chance to succeed.
It takes the form of better known, thanks to a massive and well-funded public relations campaign, as the “Modern Fish Act.”
S. 1520, along with , was originally crafted by recreational fishing and boatbuilding industry groups, and various anglers’ rights organizations, as a way to increase recreational landings of various species of fish, particularly in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and thus, at least in theory, bring greater economic gains to fishing tackle and boating industry businesses.
The Modern Fish Act didn’t seek to increase the recreational kill by rebuilding still-depleted stocks or maintaining the abundance of healthy fish populations. Instead, it was built around a two-pronged strategy of impairing the commercial fishing industry.
Once prong sought to both shift allocation from the commercial sector to anglers, and impair fishery managers’ ability to experiment with new and innovative methods that might allow them to create healthy and sustainable commercial fisheries. The other prong would free the recreational sector from much of the burden of conserving fish stocks, even when anglers are responsible for most of the landings, while being more tolerant of overfishing and delays in rebuilding overfished stocks.
Many of the most objectionable provisions of S. 1520 were either watered down or completely eliminated during the committee mark-up process that took place months ago. Now, there are reports coming out of the Senate that the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) is circulating another version of the bill that has been watered down even further, to the point that it has become an almost trivial piece of legislation—except for .
That potential exists because the House of Representatives failed to move its Modern Fish Act, H.R. 2023, forward.
Instead, In return for things such as regular reviews of recreational/commercial allocations in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, eliminating annual catch limits in some or all recreational fisheries and halting the creation of catch-share programs that help prevent overfishing, the recreational/boatbuilding cabal was willing to accept provisions that could, for example, indefinitely delay the rebuilding of just about any managed fish stock..
Their ultimate goal is clearly to get an effectively neutered S. 1520 passed in the Senate, then send the two alleged “Modern Fish Act” bills to conference, where a handful of legislators, working largely out of the public eye and without any meaningful public input or debate, can craft a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill that could incorporate most of the worst parts of H.R. 200 into federal law, while tossing the Modern Fish Act folks enough crumbs, on allocation issues and such, to allow them to claim a “win.”
So the Modern Fish Act crowd is pushing hard to get everything done before too much time passes and H.R. 200 goes to its well-deserved grave. In order to take their bill across the finish line, they are clearly willing do distort reality to fit their narrative, something that became very apparent in a recent op-ed that appeared in the (Mississippi) Clarion Ledger.
The distortions begin at the very beginning of the piece, which seems to suggest that the purpose of Magnuson-Stevens is to promote the recreational fishing and boating industries. After a brief, one-sentence introductory paragraph that merely notes that 11 million anglers fish in salt water, the piece kicks off by saying
“In Mississippi, saltwater recreational fishing has a total sales impact of $656 million annually and supports 9.511 jobs. As Congress considers updating our nation’s principal fishing law—the Magnuson-Stevens Act—it is important to our state to pay attention to the challenges facing marine recreational anglers and the marine recreational fishing industry…”
Later in the op-ed, Faulkner expands on the same theme, noting that
“…more than 70 percent are bought so owners can fish from them. Confidence of having access to fisheries goes a long way in the decision to purchase a boat. Considering that the recreational boating industry supports more than 650,000 American jobs and annually contributes more than $121 billion to the U.S. economy, Congress should be paying attention…
“The marine recreational fishing industry contributes $63 billion a year to the U.S. economy and generates 440,000 American jobs from coast to coast and every state in between…”
The thrust of his argument was clearly that the Modern Fish Act should be adopted, and Magnuson-Stevens amended, for the good of the angling and boatbuilding industries. The only problem is, Magnuson-Stevens isn’t a jobs bill. Its purpose is not to protect and build up the angling and boatbuilding industries, but rather to protect and build up fish stocks, for the good of American fishermen.
And no, that’s not just my opinion. Magnuson-Stevens clearly states its “purposes” right at the start of the bill, and foremost among them, purpose #1, is
“to take immediate action to conserve and manage the fishery resources found off the coasts of the United States, and the anadromous species and Continental Shelf fishery resources of the United States…”
The other six stated purposes include
“(2) to support and encourage the implementation and enforcement of international fishery agreements for the conservation and management of highly migratory species…;
(3) to promote domestic commercial and recreational fishing under sound conservation and management principles, including the promotion of catch and release programs in recreational fishing;
(4) to provide for the preparation and implementation, in accordance with national standards, of fishery management plans which will achieve and maintain, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery;
(5) to establish Regional Fishery Management Councils to exercise sound judgment in the stewardship of fishery resources…;
(6) to encourage the development by the United States fishing industry of fisheries that are currently underutilized or not utilized by United States fishermen…; and
(7) to promote the protection of essential fish habitat…”
You can the law for yourself, but I guarantee that you won’t find a single word in the law about protecting, supporting or otherwise helping out the tackle and boatbuilding industries.
No, not one word.
The closest it comes is in purpose #5, which notes that fishery management plans should
“take into account the social and economic needs of the States,”
but it’s a long stretch to try to twist that into the proposition that the fishery management programs should be designed to meet the needs and demands of the angling and boatbuilding industries.
Given the context of all of the law’s stated purposes, taken together, it would be more appropriate to advise such industries to scale their ambitions to match the needs of the resource and the demands of the management process.
Naturally, the industry sees things differently. According to Faulkner,
“federal fisheries management is limiting the true economic potential of the recreational fishing industry. With unreasonably short seasons, abrupt fishing closures and inconsistency in setting seasons from year to year, recreational anglers are not fully confident that they will have access to America’s public marine resources under the current system.”
But, again, Magnuson-Stevens isn’t about unlocking “the true economic potential of the recreational fishing industry.” It’s about “conserv[ing] and manag[ing] the fishery resources found off the United States,” and “promot[ing] domestic commercial and recreational fishing under sound conservation and management principles.”
The same seasons that Faulkner deems “unreasonable” are, in the eyes of professional fisheries scientists, needed to prevent overfishing and maintain stocks at sustainable levels.
And when you deal with living resources, nothing stays the same from year to year. Fish numbers are not consistent; they rise and fall in accord with any number of natural and man-made conditions. It is only reasonable that fishing seasons also expand and contract to accord with such changing abundance.
It’s always interesting to observe that, any time managers try to reduce fishing days, industry voices will passionately cry out for seasons that remain the same every year. However, when fish stocks increase and managers advise adding weeks, sometimes even months, to a season, there is a resounding silence; for some curious reason, not a single person who called for consistent seasons in the past will ever rise up in protest at the thought of making a season inconsistently longer…
But Faulkner leaves that truth unsaid.
He does, however, drag out the canard that
“anglers and boaters are the backbone of marine conservation. Through license sales and excise taxes paid on fishing equipment and boat motor fuel, anglers and boaters contribute $1.3 billion annually for sportfish conservation and management, boating safety and infrastructure, and habitat restoration,”
ignoring the thruth that only a small part of that $1.3 billion comes from salt water anglers, and never acknowledging that, while a portion of the revenues attributable to salt water fishing gear does fund important state conservation and management efforts, much of it also goes toward things that don’t promote conservation at all, such as salt water fish hatcheries and the aforementioned “boating safety and infrastructure,” that benefits the industry while doing nothing at all for the fish.
But the greatest distortion of all may be the suggestion that the Modern Fish Act is really modern at all, and doesn't represent several steps back into the past. Faulkner complains that
“Retrograde management of recreational fishing guided by the woefully outdated Magnuson-Stevens Act has unnecessarily hamstrung an enormous economic driver.”
He alleges that
“The Modern Fish Act would promote public access for recreational anglers by updating federal regulations to fit recreational fishing. By improving data collection and allowing for proven recreational fishing management approaches, we can find a better balance of angler access and conservation of our natural marine resources.”
But what Faulkner, and the rest of the Modern Fish Act—and, more to the point, H.R. 200--supporters, are actually seeking to do is not to modernize federal fishery management, but to return it to the bad old days before the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 was enacted, and the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens took place.
Thanks to the Sustainable Fisheries Act, overfishing may not occur, and harvest is limited to “optimum” yield, which is defined, in relevant part, as
“maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor. [emphasis added]”
Pursuant to that definition, fishermen are already landing as many fish as biologists believe is prudent; thus, the only way to further “promote public access for recreational anglers” is to substantially increase the risk of overfishing, and go back to a time when fully unleashing “an enormous economic driver” was seen as more important than conservation—at least until the fish disappeared.
In the same way, Faulkner’s reference to “allowing for proven recreational fishery management approaches” is, in effect, a euphemism for doing away with the annual catch limits and accountability measures that were part of the modernization of Magnuson-Stevens in 2006, and to go back to a time when anglers could overfish with impunity.
The results of such “proven recreational fishery management approaches” can be seen at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which employs such recreational management measures and, as a result, has failed to rebuild a single fish stock in the past 20 years.
The most extreme example of where such economics-oriented management can lead is ASMFC’s tautog management plan, where the scientists of the Tautog Technical Committee figured out what was needed to end overfishing in 1996, but failed to implement such needed measures on most of the coast until 2017—twenty-one years later. And even at that, ASMFC will allow tautog in Long Island Sound to continue to be overfished until 2029—more than a decade from now—and isn’t even trying to predict when, or even if, that stock will be fully rebuilt.
That’s hardly a “modern” approach.
But if you see the world through the distorted mirror of the H.R. 200 supporters, who are using the Modern Fish Act to achieve their goals, everything old should be deemed new again, and fishery managers should be doomed to repeat the mistakes of their past.
Hopefully, the Senate will have a much clearer vision than that, and H.R. 200 will die.
Thursday, September 20, 2018
One of the things that can strike a first-time attendee at a fisheries meeting is how much different people’s perceptions of the same set of facts can diverge.
It is reminiscent of the old Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, in which each of six blind scholars touches only a part of the animal, and yet with his limited perspective, asserts that he knows what form the totality of the animal takes.
Most people come to such meetings armed only with the limited information that they glean from their own experience, with few references to the state of a fish stock in other places or in other times. Far too often, such limited experience is further circumscribed by firmly closed minds, which refuse to admit the possibility that other persons’ perceptions are, quite possibly, as valid as their own.
Thus, it’s not hard to recall performances such as the one that occurred at an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission tautog hearing in New York a little over a year ago, when a party boat captain interrupted the start of the proceedings to announce
“We don’t care about your science. Your science is bullcrap,”
before the presentation even really began.
Admittedly, it’s easy to understand why people say such things. After you’ve taken the trouble to put together a mental construct that serves your own needs very well, have wrapped it up tightly in cobwebs and locked it up tight in a securely closed mind, you certainly don’t want to open that mind up to such corrosive and disruptive things as facts and other people’s ideas.
It’s far better to just believe that things that you want to be true. Things that very well should be true, at least from where you are standing.
And it’s not just the ignorant and ill-mannered who take such self-centered positions.
In early 2017, Jeff Angers, the president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, which represents various fishing tackle industry, boatbuilding industry, and anglers’ rights organizations, published an editorial in Sport Fishing Magazine, that was titled “NOAA Turns a Blind Eye,” that began
“This question often comes up in discussions about the federal fisheries management process: Why are people who profit from the harvest and sale of America’s marine resources allowed to sit on management bodies that make regulations governing those resources?”
The short and simple answer to that question is that the law requires it, with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act clearly stating that
“The Secretary, in making appointments [to such management bodies] under this section, shall, to the extent practicable, ensure a fair and balanced appointment, on a rotating or other basis, of the active participants (or their representatives) in the commercial and recreational fisheries under the jurisdiction of the [relevant regional fishery management] Council.”
But such a simple and honest answer wouldn’t do for rabble-rousing purposes, so the editorial goes on to complain that
“The most contentious issue in the Gulf of Mexico is privatization of the red snapper fishery in which millions of dollars’ worth of a private resource was gifted to select commercial operators to harvest for their own personal profit. Gifted, for free. Yet, someone who owns red snapper shares can sit on the Gulf Council and vote on every aspect of that fishery. And one does.
“Over the past few years, certain members of the charter/for-hire sector have worked to launch a privatization program in which they, too, could own shares and use red snapper as their own. Yet, on the Gulf Council, people who own charter businesses and stand to directly benefit from the program are never required to recuse themselves from votes on that program.
“In the South Atlantic, two commercial fishermen who are actually sitting members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council are actively promoting an exempted fishing permit to explore privatization of public marine resources for themselves and select other operators there.
“It seems incredible that these things are allowed to happen, particularly when NOAA guidelines state that ‘An affected individual is not permitted to vote on a Council decision that would have a significant and predictable effect on any financial interest held by that individual.’”
That might even sound reasonable. But here’s where perspective kicks in.
On June 28 of this year, the same Center for Sportfishing Policy that Angers heads issued a press release praising the appointment of a number of people to various regional fishery management councils. Among the appointments praised were no less than five charter boat operators, who would thus have a financial interest in how the decisions of the various councils that they sit on will affect recreational fisheries.
After all, it’s pretty obvious that a Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council decision severely restricting the recreational summer flounder, bluefish or black sea bass fisheries would have “a significant and predictable effect” on financial interests held by a charter boat captain who fished in that region, just as restrictions on various rockfish, salmon or halibut might affect a captain who operated a vessel on the Pacific coast.
Yet the Center for Sportfishing Policy expresses no reservations, such as it expressed in the Sport Fishing editorial, with respect to such appointments. Yet the same concerns are just as real with respect those council members.
Right now, the Mid-Atlantic Council is working on a Bluefish Allocation Amendment that has the potential to take quota away from anglers and award it to the commercial sector.
Has Angers, or anyone else from the Center, suggested that the charter boat captains who sit on that council should recuse themselves, since any such reallocation would have “a significant and predictable effect” on their financial interests?
Probably not, and if any such concerns were actually voiced, they remain deeply buried.
But that’s not surprising. The key phrase in Angers' editorial was "harvest and sale." Sure, the appointed charter boat folks profit from the "harvest" of council-managed species, but since they don't sell they're fish, to the Center, they're "good guys." They're "one of us," and thus can't do wrong.
But the folks that Angers singled out are, in some way, opposed to the Center’s policies and priorities. Thus, their actions, whatever their objective worth, are perceived as wrong and somehow tainted.
In the end, it’s all a matter of whether the council member in question supports the home team, not about what they actually do.
The perception issue even pops up in the scientific sphere, as much as we like to think of researchers as having overcome that sort of bias.
An interesting article recently came out in The Atlantic, which reported on two teams of marine scientists who, analyzing the same data, came to two very different conclusions.
One team, headed by a biologist with strong ties to the conservation community, determined that 55% of the world’s oceans hosted some sort of fishing activity, which implied a real need for conservation measures. The other team was based at the University of Washington, which has well-established ties to the commercial fishing industry. It found that only 4% of the ocean was fished, which suggests that large-scale fishing operations are a far less worrisome proposition than other folks might believe.
On the surface, the reason for the disparity was perfectly clear. One team divided the ocean into a grid of squares that measured 30 nautical miles on a side; fishing any part of such 900 square mile expanse would place the relevant square in the “fished” category. As a result, a lot of the ocean was to be “fished.”
The other team divided the ocean into a grid of tiny squares, just six-tenths of a mile on each side. By using such fine definition, that team could exclude a lot of water from the “fished” category. Because such small scale allowed greater precision when defining “fished” water, the estimate of 4% seemed to be far more accurate.
But was it a better representation of fishing's impacts?
The more conservation-oriented team argued that a boat’s mere footprint doesn’t define the fished area. Miles-long longlines and drift gillnet gear not only extends over long distances, but moves as it fishes. In addition, the pelagic species that such gear targets are wanderers, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that such gear affects areas well beyond its immediate location. On the other hand, that team didn't clearly explain why using a grid of 30-mile squares is the best way to capture fish and gear movements.
The University of Washington team rejected that argument, saying that longlines only impact fish close enough to be attracted to a baited hook. Again, that sounds reasonable on first hearing, but it doesn’t take time into consideration. Why shouldn’t the grid be large enough to include all of the fish that might reasonably come close enough to take a bait at any time during the hours when such gear is deployed?
Personal perspectives—what some might deem bias—plays a role in answering those questions, too.
The bottom line is that we all come to the table prejudiced by our own experiences, our own opinions and our own personal philosophies of resource management. But, even in today’s post-truth world, that doesn’t mean that everyone’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s.
“When it comes to the moral of the Blind Men and the Elephant, it seems that today’s philosophers end their agenda too quickly. Doesn’t the picture of the blind men and the elephant also point to something bigger—the elephant? Indeed, each blind man has a limited perspective on the objective truth, but that doesn’t mean objective truth isn’t there. In fact, truth isn’t relative at all…it’s there to discover in all its totality…if we know the Whole Elephant is out there, shouldn’t this drive us to open our eyes and seek every opportunity to experience more of [h]im?”
That thought shouldn’t be limited to elephants. It should be applied to fisheries, too.
Sunday, September 16, 2018
Call them “quotas” or “annual catch limits” or something else, they’ve become a fixture in saltwater fisheries management—some predetermined amount of fish that may be landed each year, an amount that, if not exceeded, should allow the fish stock to remain healthy and sustainable into the foreseeable future.
It seems like a simple concept, but people’s perception of just what a quota represents can vary widely, depending on their perspective.
To a conservationist, a category that includes a lot of fishery managers, a quota looks a lot like a hard cap, a level of harvest that may not be exceeded, lest overfishing occur and the health of the stock put in peril. To folks with that sort of perspective, nothing’s gone wrong if landings fall short of the quota; the uncaught fish just become an unplanned addition to the spawning stock.
But to a fisherman, and to other fishery managers, a quota looks a lot like a target. Any quota left uncaught at the end of the season represents profits lost, dollars left drifting in the open sea that could have been better used paying off debt or putting food on the table. To folks with that sort of perspective, regulations should be designed to catch every fish allowed under the law; to them, if it looks like some quota might remain unlanded, the rules should change to correct that “problem.”
It’s not hard to craft arguments that, in theory, support either position. But when theory becomes reality, as it now has in Massachusetts, other considerations may come into play.
Massachusetts receives the largest commercial striped bass quota on the coast, 869,813 pounds (there is a separate, and much higher, commercial quota harvested within Chesapeake Bay).
The Massachusetts striped bass fishery is somewhat unique, as it is open to anyone who wishes to participate, provided that they purchase the appropriate license. Harvest is limited to hook and line, all fish landed must be at least 34 inches long, and the daily trip limit is 15 fish for those fishing from their permitted boats, and 2 fish for everyone else. Fishing is only allowed for a few days each week, with no fishing on the 3rd and 4th of July, and on Labor Day weekend.
The season begins on June 25, and continues until the quota is landed. Historically, despite the restrictive regulations, the quota is filled by some time in late summer.
But that didn’t happen this year. Instead, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries announced that
“Current quota monitoring data indicates that just under 250,000 pounds—approximately 30%--of the commercial striped bass quota remains. In recent weeks, daily harvest levels have averaged about 20,000 – 25,000 pounds. If current conditions persist, we do not project closing the fishery until October. Moreover, current weather projections and typical fall weather may constrain fishing activity reducing our ability to utilize the available quota.
“To ensure that the 2018 commercial quota is taken, the Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries is taking public comment on increasing the number of commercial fishing days… [emphasis added]”
Massachusetts’ fishery managers certainly seem to fall into the “quota as target” category, and in the end, decided to allow commercial striped bass fishing on Tuesdays, a day that had previously been closed.
Such action may well solve the problem of how to fill all of the state’s available quota, but that doesn’t mean that it was a wise thing to do. Its wisdom depends on the reason why the quota is taking so long to fill. Is the delay due to too much bad weather, too few people fishing or some similar cause?
Or is the failure to fill the quota more quickly due to something inherent to the resource such as, perhaps, a shortage of larger striped bass?
We can start with what the science tells us.
The last benchmark stock assessment for striped bass was released, with updates for 2012 landings, in 2013. It found that
“In 2012, the Atlantic striped bass stock was not overfished or experiencing overfishing based on the points estimates of fully-recruited fishing mortality and female spawning stock biomass relative to the reference points defined in this assessment. Female spawning stock biomass was estimated at 58.2 thousand metric tons (128 million pounds), [barely] above the SSB threshold of 57,626 metric tons, but below the SSB target of 72,023 metric tons. Total fishing mortality was estimated at 0.200, below the F threshold of 0.219 but above the F target of 0.180.”
So five years ago, the news wasn’t great. The female spawning stock biomass hovered just 600 metric tons above the threshold defining an overfished stock, while fishing mortality was a bit above target, although overfishing was not taking place.
To its credit, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board eventually, if slowly and painfully, adopted a new Addendum IV to the management plan that was intended to reduce fishing mortality by 25% (20.5% in Chesapeake Bay).
Addendum IV’s success was uneven; it successfully reduced commercial landings and recreational landings on the coast, but utterly failed to constrain the recreational kill in Chesapeake Bay, where managers were unwilling to impose measures that adequately protected the big 2011 year class from recreational effort. The recreational kill in both Maryland and Virginia spiked, with landings up by 50% and dead discards up even higher, by nearly 70%.
Thus, a stock assessment update released in 2015 found that the spawning stock biomass had only increased by about 650 metric tons since 2012. At 58,853 metric tons, it was still uncomfortably close to the 57,828 threshold for an overfished stock. On a positive note the update found that fishing mortality had been reduced to 0.16, slightly below the fishing mortality target.
Still, based on those numbers, it would be hard to call the striped bass stock perfectly healthy; it just wasn’t dangerously ill.
Again, there were positives. In 2011, the Maryland young-of-the-year index came in at 34.58, the fourth-highest on record (the long-term average is a bit over 11), and there was another good year class, of 24.20, in 2015. Those promised to help replenish the spawning stock, if they could survive the recreational and commercial gauntlets in Chesapeake Bay and grow old enough to reproduce.
On the other hand, the 2012 index was 0.89, the lowest ever recorded, lower even than indexes from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the stock had collapsed. And for most of the years between 2006 and 2014, the index was well below average.
The resulting hole in the age structure explains a lot of the problem up in Massachusetts.
A 34-inch striped bass, the smallest fish that may be commercially harvested in that state, is approximately nine years old (fish, like people, grow at different rates, so there is some overlap of age classes). 2009 was a below-average year class, and 2006 and 2008 saw even poorer spawning success. 2007, at 13.39, was marginally above average, but hardly made up for adjacent year class' indices of 4.25, 3.20 and 7.87. Some later spawns were better—2003 was well above-average at 25.75, followed by an average spawn in 2004 and a smaller, but still above-average spawn in 2005—but at that point, we’re reaching back to older year classes that are getting whittled away by time and the natural and fishing mortality that time brings.
That’s consistent with what recreational fishermen are seeing.
“there have been great numbers of schoolies [2015 year class] and small recreational-size keepers (28 inches and larger) [2011 year class] around, but larger striped bass have been harder to come by. Ther were fewer large striped bass around Race Point and the Outer Beaches this spring…The large bass that show up in Cape Cod Bay in the late summer were late arriving and fewer in number. Besides a few big fish blitzes in the Cape Cod Canal, it’s been an alarmingly quiet summer for big striped bass in Massachusetts.”
It has been "alarmingly quiet" along much of the striper coast.
Here on the South Shore of Long Island, we had a shot of very big fish—some over 60—in early July, but the run lasted for days in any one place, not for the weeks that we'd seen in earlier seasons. Montauk and Block Island have held big fish all summer, but that’s a small piece of territory, and even at that, fishing hasn’t compared to some of the action that occurred a few years ago. Reports that I’m getting from Long Island Sound and mainland Rhode Island paint a similar picture.
That’s not to say that things are falling apart.
As far as we know—and we’ll know far better once a new benchmark assessment is completed this fall—the spawning stock remains above the biomass threshold, and might even be increasing slightly as the 2011s and a very few 2015s recruit into the spawning population.
Even so, we have to ask whether relaxing regulations, in order to kill more large, prime spawning females, represents good stewardship.
We have to ask whether the failure to fill the Massachusetts quota by Labor Day weekend, a failure that has seldom if ever occurred before, is a signal that the number of large, fecund spawning females has fallen so low that managers should exercise caution when managing what remains.
We’ll know for certain by the end of the year, when the stock assessment comes out.
But while uncertainty remains, the greater wisdom demands that they plan for the worst, and assume that lower harvests reflect lower abundance.
For “ensuring that the 2018 quota is taken” is a far less important goal than ensuring that the spawning stock remains healthy in 2019—and beyond.