Thursday, November 1, 2018


Back in 1990, I almost bought a tackle shop.

It was one of the more successful shops on the South Shore of Long Island, that catered to well-heeled blue-water anglers as well as to anglers who never left the bay.  There was little doubt that the shop could produce a six-figure income, which was not a small thing three decades ago, and things got serious enough that my accountant and theirs sat down for a talk.

By then, I was already sick of the suit-and-tie, commute-into-Manhattan lifestyle, tired of corporate politics and slimy salesmen who were always seeking to increase their commissions by trying to convince me to let them break the law—and complaining to the higher-ups every time I said “no.”  

So the idea of buying a shop a few miles from home, and within a hundred yards of the bay, was a very tempting thing.

But that was 1990, when the fluke (summer flounder)population was near its all-time low, and black sea bass were also scarce.  In the bay, winter flounder and blackfish were showing signs of distress.  On the plus side, striped bass were struggling back from their earlier collapse, but bluefish were declining, and weakfish weren’t doing well.  Offshore, the canyon tuna fishery was showing its first signs of wear.

The bottom line was that, looking reluctantly but dispassionately at what was going on, I didn’t see much room for growth.  More than anything else, a successful fishing business requires fish, and the trajectory of most of the stocks, offshore and inshore, didn’t look like anything I wanted to stake my future on.

I gritted my teeth and climbed back onto the trains.

Other people made a different decision, purchasing shops or for-hire boats.  Some went out of business, others held on long enough to get bailed out by fisheries managers who successfully rebuilt the striped bass stock and by a Congress that passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which led to a number of recreationally-important stocks returning to a very fishable abundance.

But the bottom line was that the 1990s saw the end of the lassiez faire angling industry.  Fish stocks had fallen too low for federal legislators to ignore.  With the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which set strict standards for federal fisheries managers, and the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which empowered the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to impose its fishery management plans on East Coast states, regulations became a fact of life for anyone hoping to make a living from recreational fishing.

Thus, the recreational fishing industry joined a host of other businesses, ranging from banks and insurance companies to dry cleaners and the corner gas station, that need to consider regulatory risk when making their business plans.

But unlike other businesses, the fishing industry has not yet come to terms with their regulatory reality. 

Twenty-five years after the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act became law, and eighteen years after a federal appellate court decided Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, and set the minimum standards for federal fishery management actions, the recreational fishing industry is still striking out against the regulatory process, instead of taking the time to figure out how to successfully cooperate with regulators in order to thrive within it.  

Such knee-jerk opposition to legally-mandated regulations has, thus far, blinded the industry to the benefit of well-crafted regulations, and of the need—and the opportunity—to plan ahead, using available information to predict what future regulations will look like, and to understand how business models will need to change to adapt to both the changing abundance of various fish species and the likely regulatory response.

Instead of looking forward, in an effort to adapt their businesses to future conditions, most of the angling industry is still looking backwards, and lamenting the fact that time always moves on.  

A little over a year and a half ago, in the spring of 2017, I was attending a NMFS event held in New Jersey, where the regional administrator and some agency staff reached out to the local angling community.  A lot of different issues were discussed, but one thing that stood out was a representative of the New Jersey for-hire community, who complained about today’s relatively restrictive regulations, and harped on the fact that, back in the 1970s (or maybe it was 1960s), unlike today, low-income folks could go out on a party boat and bring home enough fish to completely offset the price of their trip.

Maybe they could, although my father and I fished on party boats quite a bit back then, and for every time we could “pay for our trip” with the number of fish we brought home, there was at least one other time when that didn’t hold true. Memories of the “good old days” are often very selective…

But whatever happened back then, those days are gone.  

Instead of lamenting about how things have changed in the past 40 years, the fishing industry should be thinking about how their businesses will have to change in order to thrive in 2025—and 2050.         

An illustration from here in New York shows how that kind of future-oriented thinking never seems to work out. 

As early as 2014, there were signs that summer flounder were experiencing multiple years of below-average recruitment.  That was a clear sign that legal-sized fluke were going to be a lot less abundant, with the decline beginning that year (it takes about 4 years for a summer flounder to reach the 18-inch minimum size, and the poor recruitment began in 2010) and becoming more noticeable as each year wore on.  The poor recruitment also made it more likely that regulations would grow more restrictive as the biomass shrunk, so folks who owned for-hire boats and tackle shops that relied on the fluke fishery, looking at the recruitment numbers, should have anticipated both problems, and begun making alternative plans.

That’s how it works in other industries.  If interest rates rise, pushing mortgage payments up, construction companies, and those who supply the housing industry, start to tighten their belts and prepare for hard times.

In the fishing industry, it’s different.  

“he (and others) cannot run their business on the hopes of an evolving process—they are being regulated out of the fishery.  We need to see change NOW!”
An angler present at the meeting argued that spawning stock biomass had been increasing despite the supposedly poor recruitment, completely missing the fact that because spawning stock biomass is calculated in pounds (or metric tons) the increasing size of older fish in the population can keep SSB high for a few years, at the same time that poor recruitment is guaranteeing a sharp drop in SSB later on in the future.

At the same time that summer flounder recruitment was waning, 2011 saw a very strong black sea bass year class, which offered anglers, and the angling industry, a viable alternative species to fish for when summer flounder were scarce.  

Given that the poor summer flounder recruitment extended through at least 2016, meaning that fluke would be in increasingly short supply through at least 2019, it would have been logical for industry members to try to make the black sea bass supply last until fluke were again abundant.

But that didn’t happen either.  Instead, the industry members remained fixated on killing as many black sea bass as possible.  A summary of comments made by members of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Advisory Panel in 2016 notes that

“Many advisors called for increased quotas for the commercial and recreational black sea bass fisheries.”
Thus, they were willing to take the risk that there could come a time when neither summer flounder nor black sea bass would be available in numbers sufficient to support a thriving recreational fishery, if the tradeoff was a bigger short-term kill.

That’s a strange approach from anyone trying to develop a sustainable business model. 

And it’s very different from the approach taken by other industries, which take great pains to assure that if any commodity (and, from an industry viewpoint, fish are very much commodities) is likely to become scarce, businesses who depend on such commodity take great pains to assure that they will be able to get what they need in the future.  

Thus, when oil prices are expected to rise, airlines might go out in the market today, and purchase contracts that guarantee that they’ll be able to buy enough fuel a year or more in the future.

True, it’s impossible to purchase a contract that guarantees that you will be able to catch fluke, or striped bass, or perhaps red snapper, three or four years in the future, but in the end, that’s what conservation is all about.

It’s about making a small down payment today—in the form of reduced current landings—to better assure that when you need fish in the future, they will be there.

So if the angling industry plans to be a significant economic presence ten, twenty or even fifty years from now, it should stop focusing on anglers bringing home coolers packed with fish caught during the current season, and instead focus on what it needs to do to better assure that there will be enough fish in  the water to pique anglers’ interest at least that far into the future.

Because if the industry doesn’t take care to plan for the future, the chances that, at some point, it won’t have a future are dismayingly high.

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