Sunday, June 23, 2019
On the morning of Thursday, August 8, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board will meet to decide the fate of the striper.
Three topics are on the agenda: "Consider Approval of Draft Addendum VI for Public Comment", "Consider Postponed Motion from the April 2019 Meeting", and "Review and Consider Approval of February 2019 Fishery Management Plan Review and State Compliance Reports". All are important matters, but it is the first two items that will decide the fish’s foreseeable future.
As everyone should know by now, the most recent benchmarkstock assessment, completed late last year, found that the striped bass stockis both overfished and subject to overfishing. Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass requires that, under such circumstances,
“the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to reduce the fishing mortality rate to a level that is at or below the target within one year”
“the Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to the target level within [no more than ten years].”
At its May meeting, the Management Board began the process of reducing fishing mortality, by instructing the Atlantic Striped Bass Plan Development Team to put together a draft addendum to the management plan that would have a 50-50 chance of reducing fishing mortality by 17%, the minimum amount needed to return fishing mortality to the target level. The proposed draft addendum would consider measures such as a 35-inch minimum size on the coast, a 2-inch increase in the size limit in Chesapeake Bay, a slot limit with a 40-inch maximum size, seasons, the mandatory use of circle hooks when bait fishing and reductions in commercial landings.
What the proposed draft addendum doesn’t seem to do is include provisions that would rebuild the stock within 10 years, as required by the current management plan.
Unfortunately, because the ASMFC is not legally required to rebuild overfished stocks, and is not legally accountable for its management actions, it can ignore such explicit provisions of its management plans with seeming impunity.
Thus, anglers were left with a comment by an Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee member, who said at the May Management Board meeting that, if fishing mortality was reduced to target, biomass would “theoretically” increase to target at some point, although the timeframe for that to happen was not clear.
The benchmark stock assessment did make it clear that even with the strong 2011 and 2015 year classes in the population, merely ending overfishing would probably leave the stock still overfished in the year 2023.
However, it is not even certain that the Management Board will act to reduce fishing mortality to the target level. Ever since the Management Board adopted Addendum IV to the management plan in 2014, which was intended to reduce fishing mortality by 25%, the State of Maryland, in particular, has been fiercely opposed to further reductions in landings, and has made several efforts to increase the striped bass kill. Representatives from New Jersey and Delaware have also expressed opposition to needed management measures.
In addition, there have been some people in other states, often associated with the for-hire fishery, who are opposing any reduction in landings. Here in New York, much of that opposition is taking the form of unfounded challenges to the benchmark stock assessment, based on casual observations of striped bass offshore, that claim that biologists failed to consider large numbers of fish that remain offshore, where they cannot be legally fished. Although even a cursory reading of the peer-reviewed stock assessment would show that such claims are invalid, opponents of effective striped bass management have been loud and persistent enough to get the ear of one local congressman, who has taken up their cause.
Thus, anglers concerned with the striped bass’ future would do well to contact their states’ representatives to the ASMFC who can be found on the ASMFC’s web page (go to tab “About Us” and then click on “Commissioners”), and tell them that fishing mortality must be returned to target in 2020, as the current management plan requires.
This isn’t something that responsible anglers should ignore, because we can be sure that those opposed to striped bass conservation will be contacting their representatives early and often.
And anglers shouldn’t stop there. They should also tell their ASMFC representatives that they expect the Management Board to stay true to their word, and rebuild the striped bass stock to target within 10 years, as they promised to do when they adopted Amendment 6 to the management plan.
During the Amendment 6 debate, which dragged out for years, there were many striped bass fishermen who thought that the amendment should be more restrictive, to allow more big female bass to survive and create a resilient spawning stock that will help assure the future of the bass population should it experience multiple years of poor spawning success, as seems to occur from time to time.
The Management Board told those anglers not to worry, because there were management triggers in the Amendment that would require remedial action should the stock run into problems. Back in 2011, when the Management Board was first faced with a stock assessment update informing them that the stock would be overfished by 2017, they took no action, because a management trigger hadn’t been tripped—yet—a rationale that certainly implied that action would be taken once such trigger was tripped.
Now, the overfishing trigger has been activated, and the Management Board’s duty—as set out in Amendment 6—is crystal clear.
Whether the Management Board will demonstrate the integrity and moral courage to step up and do their duty is not clear at all.
Thus, anglers need to encourage them to do the right thing, and take action to rebuild the stock within the 10-year timeframe, as they have previously promised that they would do. Again, there will certainly be other folks out there telling them to ignore the clear language of Amendment 6, and leave the rebuilding issue alone.
And there are people out there—and on the Management Board—who want to do far worse than that, and take actions that would render any Management Board effort to rebuild the stock or reduce fishing mortality largely irrelevant in the long term.
That’s where the second item on the August meeting agenda kicks in. The Management Board will consider a postponed motion that reads
“Move to initiate an Addendum to the Atlantic Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan to address the needed consideration for change on the issues of fishery goals and objectives, empirical/biological/spatial reference points, management triggers, rebuilding biomass, and area-specific management. Work on this Amendment will begin upon the completion of the previously discussed Addendum to the Management Plan.”
Not surprisingly, the motion was made by Michael Luisi of Maryland, and seconded by John Clark of Delaware. Both persons are long-time advocates for a bigger striped bass kill, and have been determined opponents of needed conservation measures. Their push for a new amendment is extremely significant, for as Max Appleman, the Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, noted at the February Management Board meeting,
“Almost everything is covered in the addendum process, except for management objectives and goals.”
So by pushing for an amendment, it’s pretty clear that folks such as Clark and Luisi are hoping to change the most basic parameters of the management plan: the goals and objectives of the entire striped bass management effort.
What do the current goals and objectives look like? Actually,
they look pretty good.
The management plan’s current goal is
“To perpetuate, through cooperative interstate fishery management, migratory stocks of striped bass; to allow commercial and recreational fisheries consistent with the long-term maintenance of a broad age structure, a self-sustaining spawning stock, and also to provide for the restoration and maintenance of their essential habitat.”
That goal makes a lot of sense. It is focused on maintaining a healthy spawning stock, with an age structure adequate to include a number of the older, larger female fish that, on an individual basis, produce far more, as well as larger and healthier, eggs than do younger females.
That’s a critical consideration in a fish like striped bass, that tend to depend on occasional, large year classes to maintain their abundance.
If fishing mortality is increased, or the target and threshold biomass is reduced, the stock would lose many of the large female fish, and be more dependent on younger females.
That may work for a while, when big year classes occur, but when there are a number of consecutive years of poor recruitment, as happened in the late 1970s/early 1980s and happened again between 2005 and 2010, there may not be enough young fish recruiting into the spawning stock to replace the fish being removed. In such a situation, when there aren't enough young fish, and the stock no longer has a broad age structure that includes older females, the risk of sharp stock decline, and perhaps even collapse, is greatly increased.
Having seen the bass stock collapse once in my life, I’m in no hurry to see such a thing happen again.
On the other hand, by lowering the biomass target and allowing a bigger kill, people who make money from killing striped bass will see their income increase in the short term.
While it’s true that you can’t catch fish that aren’t there, both commercial striped bass fishermen and for-hire operators have a history of focusing on what they can catch today, and not spending very much time worrying about whether there will be any fish for them to catch tomorrow. To them, amending the goal of the plan to allow a bigger kill sounds like a good idea.
“Manage fishing mortality to maintain an age structure that provides adequate spawning potential to sustain long-term abundance of striped bass population,”
“Establish a fishing mortality target that will result in a net increase in the abundance (pounds) of age 15 and older striped bass in the population, relative to the 2000 estimate,”
will also be in the crosshairs should a new amendment be initiated.
Changing those objectives could only hurt the bass population in the long term.
Thus, when contacting your ASMFC representatives, it is of critical importance that you convey the message that the motion to begin an amendment must not pass.
Again, you can be certain that the folks who want to kill more fish will be getting the word out, contacting everyone they know in an effort to defeat conservation measures and amend the plan.
They will say that there are plenty of fish out in federal waters, and that the assessment is wrong. But they won’t be able to explain why no one but them can find those offshore striped bass.
They will argue that striped bass biomass has never achieved the target level. But they will fail to mention that striped bass fishing mortality has never been reduced to the target, either.
They will say that higher landings will provide them with higher incomes today. But they will not mention tomorrow.
It is thus incumbent upon everyone who cares about the striped bass to contact their three ASMFC representatives now, and again just before the August meeting, and insist that they reduce fishing mortality, promptly rebuild the biomass, and maintain goals and objectives that will best assure that the striped bass stock remains healthy not just today, but in the long term as well.
Thursday, June 20, 2019
Forage fish, the small and traditionally abundant species that larger fish, birds and marine mammals prey on, have been getting more attention over the past few years, as both academics and fishery managers recognize that without a reliable abundance of forage, there won’t be a reliable abundance of the larger predatory fish that fuel the most valuable commercial and recreational fisheries.
The first sustained effort to manage forage fish as forage, and not merely as another stock to be harvested, probably occurred at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission about 20 years ago, and culminated with the adoption of Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden in 2001.
Prior to that amendment, menhaden management at ASMFC was dominated by representatives of the industrial menhaden fishery, who controlled both the scientific bodies that assessed the health of the menhaden stock and the management board that set annual quotas and other limitations on menhaden landings. The new Amendment 1 was intended to end the foxes’ long tenure as guardians of the henhouse, and pass management responsibility to a board composed of state fishery managers and other representatives of every state throughout the Atlantic menhaden’s range, a change that substantially diluted, but did not end, the industrial fisheries’ influence over menhaden management.
Eighteen years later, the tension between conservation interests, small-scale menhaden fisheries and the industrial fleet continue, but the playing field has been leveled considerably. While the industrial fleet still has a greater than ideal influence on menhaden management, forage fish advocates have gained a lot of ground—so much ground, in fact, that scientists are now preparing an “ecological-based” stock assessment that should be completed and presented for peer review before the end of this year.
Unlike traditional single-species stock assessments, the ecological-based menhaden assessment will gauge the health of the menhaden stock, and the efficacy of management measures, based not only on the stock’s ability to sustain itself at present harvest rates, but also on its ability to fully perform its role in the ecosystem, as one of the most important forage species on the East Coast.
Assuming that such assessment passes peer review, ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board is expected to propose abundance/fecundity and fishing mortality reference points that reflect the menhaden’s important ecological role. It is very likely that, if such reference points would result in appreciably reduced landings, the industrial fleet will try to block their implementation, and it could even be successful in doing so. However, the mere fact that ecological reference points are even being considered is a sign of how far forage fish management has progressed in the past two decades.
Of course, the forage fish harvesters aren’t sitting on their haunches waiting to see their landings cut. Omega Protein, the U.S. affiliate of Cooke Inc. a large Canadian aquaculture company, is trying to buy respectability for its industrial menhaden operations by seeking Marine Stewardship Council certification that such fishery is sustainable.
The initial report from the Marine Stewardship Council’s consultant, SIA Global, was generally favorable to Omega, advising that
“the assessment team has provisionally recommended that the Atlantic menhaden purse seine fishery is eligible to be certified pursuant to the MSC Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing subject to the Conditions and related corrective actions outlined in this report. [emphasis added]”
However, it’s notable that all three of the “Conditions and related corrective actions” referred to address menhaden’s ecological roles. They require that Omega
“provide evidence of the implementation of a harvest strategy that is designed to take into consideration the ecological role of Atlantic menhaden and is responsive to the state of the stock with respect to its role in the U.S. Northwest Atlantic ecosystem,” and
“provide evidence of the implementation of well-defined harvest control rules that take into consideration the historical role of Atlantic menhaden as key low trophic role in the U.S. Northwest Atlantic…”
“There shall be a regular review of the potential effectiveness and practicality of alternative measures to minimize the [unit of assessment]-related mortality of [endangered threatened and protected] species and they are implemented as appropriate…”
Even with those conditions added to the report, a number of angling and conservation organizations are challenging the recommendation of provisional certification, because they understand that the health of forage stocks are important.
Some federal fishery managers have also acknowledged the importance of forage fish. Both the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council have adopted management measures intended to protect the health of unfished and otherwise unmanaged forage fish stocks.
The problems begin to arise when forage species, such as Atlantic herring or Atlantic mackerel, already support significant directed fisheries. At that point, as in the case of menhaden, individuals and companies have made significant investments in order to prosecute such fisheries. Shifting management of such fish from a single-species approach to one that incorporates their forage role in the ecosystem would cause at least some economic dislocation for those involved in the fisheries, and so such interests tend to aggressively oppose ecosystem-based approaches.
A few years ago, an organization known as IFFO (2012) Ltd., which calls itself “the marine ingredients organization,” even provided funding and information to a team of researchers who undertook to demonstrate that today’s industrial fisheries for forage fish do no appreciable harm to marine ecosystems.
Thus, conservation advocates have a difficult job ahead of them when they try to preserve already-fished forage fish stocks. That became obvious when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council ran into strong industry opposition to including chub mackerel in its forage fish amendment, due to a recent spike in chub mackerel landings off the U.S. East Coast. Such industry opposition also manifested itself in the four-year fight to keep large mid-water trawls, which targeted Atlantic herring, at least 12 nautical miles from shore, in order to avoid local depletion of forage fish stocks needed to attract and hold various other fish targeted by a wide array of recreational and commercial fishermen.
While both chub mackerel and Atlantic herring are targeted in directed fisheries, other forage species that are incidentally caught also suffer in the offshore trawl fisheries. River herring, a term that encompasses both the alewife and the blueback herring, American shad and hickory shad are thought to be victims—collateral damage, if you will—of such industrial fishing efforts. Populations of all four species have fallen sharply from levels typical in the mid-1900s.
During much of 2015 and 2016, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council debated managing shad and river herring as part of its Atlantic Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan. In the end, it declined to do so, but did place caps on shad and river herring bycatch in the Atlantic Mackerel fishery, that result in the directed mackerel fishery being closed once the catch cap is caught.
The New England Fishery Management Council also placed caps on the incidental catch of such species in the Atlantic herring fishery.
Despite such measures, shad and river herring populations are showing few signs of recovery, leading various conservation groups to conclude that stricter management is needed. In 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council submitted a petition to have both species of river herring listed under the Endangered Species Act. Although that original petition was denied, the lack of much important information led the National Marine Fisheries Service to schedule another review of the stocks’ status, which was just released a few days ago.
NMFS has again decided against listing either species of river herring under the Endangered Species Act, having determined that the likelihood of extinction for either species, when viewed either across their entire range or with respect to a distinct population segment, is generally low. The probability that NMFS will adopt any additional measures to protect shad and river herring in federal waters is low, as well.
However, river herring, and forage fish generally, have one additional shot at protection.
Last April, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) introduced H.R. 2236, the Forage Fish Conservation Act, in the House of Representatives. So far, the bill has attracted 14 cosponsors, which are almost equally divided between the Democratic and Republican parties, although no companion bill has yet been introduced in the Senate.
H.R. 2236 would, among other things, require federal fishery managers to consider forage species’ ecological role when determining the optimum yield from each fish stock, and require each regional fishery management council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee to make recommendations to such councils on maintaining an adequate forage fish population.
H.R. 2236 would also prevent the creation of new fisheries for unmanaged forage fish stocks unless and until the relevant regional fishery management council has determined how such new fishery would impact the forage fish stock, has decided whether such stock is in need of conservation and management and, if conservation and management is needed, has developed a fishery management plan.
In addition, H.R. 2236 would require that federal fishery management plans be created for shad and river herring.
It’s difficult to predict the bill’s fate right now. While it contains some very good and valuable provisions, it will undoubtedly be opposed by fishermen who fear that it will negatively impact existing forage fish fisheries, and so do harm to both individual fishermen and fishing communities.
On the other hand, it is likely to receive support from at least some members of the conservation community, and from recreational and commercial fishermen who believe that, by protecting forage fish stocks, the bill will have a positive impact on the larger fish that they pursue.
Whatever H.R. 2236’s ultimate fate, it’s clear that forage fish are a hot topic in fishery management right now, and there is no sign that such topic will cool off at any time soon.
And, given the importance of forage species, that is a very good thing.
Sunday, June 16, 2019
There are ongoing themes in fishery management, arguments that resurface again and again. Regardless of the species considered or the management measures being proposed, folks opposed to new regulations will appear at the meetings singing new verses to the same old songs.
Thus, as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission lumbers toward new striped bass regulations, the band is striking up the old tune “There are Plenty of Fish, They’ve Just Gone Somewhere Else,” while the chorus belts out “They’re all in that big EEZ…”
We should expect that to be followed by lively renditions of “The Scientists Don’t Know How to Find Fish,” “The MRIP is Wrong,” and “We Think Your Science Is Bullcrap,” melodies which have become old standards at fisheries meetings, and are heard more often than the “Electric Slide” and the “Hokey Pokey” were once heard at wedding receptions.
And there is no doubt that we’ll hear one of the most well-known songs of all, the one that declares that regulations hurt business because “Anglers Won’t Fish Unless They Take Home Enough to Pay for the Trip.”
It’s a song that’s usually sung by the for-hire folks, although I’ve heard it reprised by those in the tackle shop business, too. And on its face, it sounds perfectly reasonable. After all, if you’re trying to make ends meet, you shouldn’t be spending scarce resources on things that don’t provide essential benefits in return.
But I happened to stop by a grocery store yesterday, and out of curiosity, I wandered by the fish counter. Frozen fillets of various things, from tilapia to haddock to flounder, were selling for between $4.00 and $5.50 per pound, while fresh flounder—probably fluke—fillet was going for $9.99.
I started wondering about how that compared to what anglers pay for the fish that they catch for themselves and take home.
Right from the start, we can leave the private-boat anglers out of the picture. Between the initial cost of their boats, lost investment opportunities on the money spent, maintenance, insurance, repairs, dock space, fuel, etc., in most places, particularly in the northeast, they’ll probably operate at a loss in any realistic scenario.
Charter boat fishermen can fare a little better, depending on what species they target. So consider a best-case situation, a full-day, mixed-bag inshore trip out of Montauk, at a time when most species of fish are abundant.
The average price of such trip is about $1,200 for a full day, or $200/person assuming a 6-person charter. For ease of calculations, no additional expenses will be added for the gas needed to get the anglers from their homes to Montauk, for food, or for possible lodging, although in reality, at least some additional cost would be incurred for such things.
We’ll then assume that each angler had a fairly successful trip, catching a 20-pound striped bass, four summer flounder averaging 5 pounds each (20 pound total), three black sea bass averaging 3 pounds (9 pound total), and fifteen scup with a 1 ½-pound average (22 ½ pound total).
In terms of food production, would that angler break even, compared to buying an equal amount of fish at the store?
The first thing that we would have to do is break those fish down into edible meat. A whole striped bass yields about 33% of its weight in skin-on fillets, so a 20-pound striper would provide 6.6 pounds of meat. Yield from summer flounder is a little better, at 35%; 20 pounds of fluke would produce about 7 pounds of skinless fillets. Black sea bass, with their big heads, yield about 33% in skinless fillets, meaning that 9 pounds of whole fish would yield 3 pounds of meat; scup yields are about the same, so 22 ½ pounds of whole fish would provide 7 ½ pounds of meat.
That’s 24 pounds of meat overall. Did the fish caught pay for the trip?
Hard numbers don’t really tell the tale. A lot of it depends on what retail fish prices are used for comparisons.
Given that the industry representatives typically argue that people are fishing for food for themselves and their families, it probably makes sense to use a generic comparison, rather than compare the value of fish caught against market prices for each particular species. Such an approach overvalues the lower-priced scup and undervalues the more expensive striped bass, but arguably evens things out by considering all species together, and best represents the value provided for an angler who is primarily seeking protein, and not entertainment.
The comparison also assumes that the fish are filleted on the boat, which allows direct comparison with market preparations, and not taken home whole, or even alive.
Given those limitations, if the cost of the 24 pounds of charter-caught fillets is compared to the same amount of frozen fish, the charter boat angler comes out on the short end of the economic equation. If the low end of the frozen fish price range, $4.00 per pound, is used, the 24 pounds of fillets that cost the angler $200 to catch could have been purchased for only $96. Even at the high end of $5.50 per pound, 24 pounds of frozen fillets would only cost $132, about one-third less than the price paid for the charter boat fare.
On the other hand, the charter boat angler would appear to come out ahead if the comparison was based on fresh fillets. 24 pounds of flounder fillets, at $9.99 per pound, would cost nearly $240, leaving the charter boat angler $40 ahead (again, only if travel and other costs are excluded from the comparison). But tip the mate on the boat 20% of the fare—which the mate certainly earned after helping out catching and cleaning all of those fish—and the charter boat angler breaks even with folks at the grocery store.
Of course, very, very few people—and very few families—are likely to consume 24 pounds of fillets in only one sitting; most will probably be frozen, making comparisons with the frozen fish prices more appropriate for that portion of the catch.
And, of course, the catch used in the example isn’t typical of every charter boat trip out of Montauk. It’s possible that anglers might limit out and catch 30, rather than just 15, scup, and in September, anglers would be legally entitled to take 7 black sea bass and 45 scup along with their 1 striped bass and 4 fluke—although the likelihood of limiting out on all four species at that time of year isn’t particularly high. 15 bluefish could, theoretically, also be added to the mix. So trips that yield far more than 24 pounds of fillets per person are a possibility.
On the other hand, it’s possible to catch a lot fewer fish, too.
Given the current lowered abundance of striped bass and summer flounder, there are no guarantees that a charter trip, even out of Montauk, will see everyone on board catch their limit of either species—and the bass that are caught might average well under 20 pounds, and the fluke under 5. While limiting out on black sea bass is pretty much a lock, those fish might well average less than 3 pounds. Thus, over all, the 24 pounds of fillets per trip probably represents a reasonable daily average.
Having said that, someone concerned about catching enough fish to pay for a trip isn’t all that likely to be part of a Montauk charter. Instead, such folks would probably board one of the many party boats that sail out of various ports along the coast. Such boats charge much lower fares than the charter vessels, although they have greater limitations, as well.
For example, a typical party boat sailing from my local port at Captree State Park (NY) might get $49 for a half-day trip targeting fluke and black sea bass. That’s a much lower price than a charter boat would charge, even considering that the trip only lasts a half-day, but the return in fillets is a lot smaller, too.
For example, the odds of limiting out on fluke, much less limiting out on fluke averaging five pounds apiece, are extremely low out of Captree. On many trips, the largest fish on the boat weighs less than 4 pounds, although large ones are caught on occasion. There, a very fortunate angler might, on occasion, limit out on fish weighing 3 pounds apiece (12 pounds total), and might, if luck was running high, also have caught three 2-pound black sea bass (6 pounds total).
Using the fillet yield percentages employed in the charter example, that’s 6.2 pounds of meat, worth between $25 and $34 if compared to frozen and $61 if compared to fresh; only the latter comparison would render fish caught by an angler less expensive than fish bought at the store, and a $10 tip to the mate would make all but $2 of that cost advantage disappear.
But limiting out on both fluke and black sea bass at Captree, on a single, half-day trip, would be the exception rather than the rule. Anglers sailing out of most other Long Island ports would face similar difficulties in filling their coolers, although those targeting scup on the East End and in Long Island Sound, when catching and keeping 45 decent fish isn’t out of the question, would see better returns on their effort.
Industry representatives argue that less restrictive limits would increase the number of fish taken home, and thus make fishing more attractive to many anglers. But when anglers seldom limit out on summer flounder now, it’s difficult to argue that increasing the bag will significantly increase the landings. Decreasing the size limit would put more fish in anglers’ buckets—but it would also reduce the average size of fish kept, and so the value of the fillets taken home.
Black sea bass, on the other hand, are abundant enough that a bag limit increase would lead to higher landings. But with a 3-pound fish yielding only 1 pound of fillets, it would take 15 pounds of black sea bass to break even on a half-day party boat trip—assuming no tip to the mate and no other expenses—if compared to the $9.99/pound price of fresh flounder fillet, and between 27 and 36 pounds of fish to break even based on frozen fish prices.
While such landings are certainly possible in many places, whether they would be sustainable is a very different question. Right now, the best available science says that current size and bag limits are already as relaxed as they ought to be (although a stock assessment update, scheduled for August, may change that view).
The bottom line is that catching enough fish to fully offset the cost of an inshore fishing trip is possible, but even under a relaxed management measures scenario, would be difficult to accomplish on a regular basis. To argue that regulations must be set to accommodate the hypothetical “subsistence” angler, who can only justify the cost of a trip by the value of the fish taken home, ignores the reality of today’s fishery, which sees a number of species at depleted levels, and even healthy stocks in need of continuous management.
In the end, recreational fishing is just that—recreation, just like golf, going to a ball game, or taking the family to an amusement park. It’s something that anglers do because they enjoy it; bringing fish home is just an added bonus, that adds to the appeal of the trip. Surveys conducted by NMFS demonstrate that catching and keeping fish is not the reason that most anglers go fishing, and that anglers who only seek fish to take home are an exception, and not representative of the overall angling population.
For as most anglers can tell you, if you’re only looking for some fish to eat, it’s usually cheaper to go out and buy them.
Thursday, June 13, 2019
Everyone seems to want healthy fisheries—at least in theory. The problems arise when managers propose concrete ways to rebuild depleted stocks, proposals that inevitably must involve reduced landings, and so reduced incomes for people who work on the water.
At that point, the need for healthy stocks, and the rebuilding required to get there, becomes subject to intense debate, as folks wishing to maintain healthy cash flows begin to begin to publicly question whether healthy fish populations should be managers' top priority.
I was reminded of that once again when I read a few pieces on proposed restrictions on fishing for southern flounder down in North Carolina.
There’s no question that the southern flounder stock is in bad shape. A draft amendment to North Carolina’s southern flounder management plan notes that a recent stock assessment
“estimated overall declining trends in recruitment and female spawning stock biomass (SSB). Recruitment has decreased throughout the time-series from approximately 13 million recruits in 1989 to approximately 4 million recruits in 2017. The model also predicted a decline in SSB beginning in 1989, which corresponds to an increase in [fishing mortality] beginning in 2007 with a time-series high in 2013.
“The model estimated F35% (fishing mortality target) as 0.35 and F25% (fishing mortality threshold) as 0.53. Estimated fishing mortality in 2017 was 0.91, which is higher than the F threshold of 0.53 and indicates overfishing is occurring…
“[S]ustainability benchmarks were calculated using projected SSB values modeled using estimates of fishing mortality associated with a [spawning potential ratio of] 25% (threshold) and [a spawning potential ratio of] 35% (target)…The ASAP model estimated a value of 5,452 metric tons (approximately 12.0 million pounds) for SSB35% (SSB target) and a value of 3,900 metric tons (approximately 8.6 million pounds) for SSB25% (SSB threshold). The estimate of SSB in 2017 is 1,031 metric tons (approximately 2.3 million pounds), which is lower than the SSB threshold of 3,900 metric tons and indicates that the stock is overfished…”
So there’s no question at all that the southern flounder is having real problems, and can use some help from fishery managers. And given that the southern flounder supports both
“one of the largest and most valuable commercial fisheries in North Carolina, accounting for landings of 1.39 million pounds with a dockside value of $5.66 million in 207,”
and a recreational fishery in which
“flounder species have been the most often reported target species in 20 of the last 37 years,”
one would think that fishermen would be very eager to see the stock restored to health.
Certainly, North Carolina fishery managers seem intent on rebuilding the stock. The proposed amendment to the management plan would end overfishing within two years and, assuming that other states with a southern flounder fishery also do their part, should rebuild the stock by 2028.
The necessary reductions in fishing mortality will have to be substantial if there is to be a good chance of success. Thus, according to a June 10 press release,
“The [North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries] proposes a 62% reduction in southern flounder harvest (compared to 2017) in North Carolina this year and a 72% reduction in harvest beginning in 2020 to be achieved through commercial and recreational season closures. The division also proposes yardage and time restrictions for gill nets and prohibiting the use of puncturing devices, such as gaffs, in the pound net fishery.”
Given the state of the southern flounder stock, such measures seem appropriate, and should be adopted quickly, as the proposed amendment to the management plan warns that
“delayed implementation will further increase the magnitude of necessary reductions.”
Unfortunately, the reaction to the proposed, and badly needed, management measures have been entirely predictable. The JDNews of Jacksonville, North Carolina reported that one commercial representative on North Carolina’s Marine Fisheries Commission argued that
“in addition to managing the fishery and natural resources, there is also a ‘human resource’ impact if fishermen see a reduction in their livelihood. He said he understands the need to preserve the stock but questioned the emergency action of the proposed recommendations, which are following after impacts already felt after Hurricane Florence.”
The Carteret County Marine Fishery Advisory Board echoed those words and added some words of its own in opposition to the needed landings cuts, which they included in a letter to North Carolina’s governor, and to other state officials.
“These proposed restrictions will have devastating impacts to the fishing economies of Carteret County. The Division of Marine Fisheries…[has] decided to pursue an accelerated timeline…to adopt substantial reductions in commercial and recreational harvest and have chosen fishing reduction goals that are not practicable or reasonable when considering the economic impacts, biology of southern flounder, management history and possibly environmental considerations…
“The proposed measures are problematic in that the estimated reductions in fishing mortality must be obtained from all the southeastern Atlantic states where southern flounder occur. North Carolina is planning on implementing substantial reductions this fall, while it will be some time before (other) states can implement similar measures or if they even choose to do so.”
Those are the sorts of arguments one hears at just about any fishery meeting when additional restrictions are being discussed: sure, conservation is needed, but not at the expense of anyone’s income. There is always a hurricane, or a nor’easter, or some other natural event that can be used to justify delay, and there are always the voices that urge taking no action until someone else—another state, or perhaps the federal government—takes action first, because no one ever wants to be the first to act to protect a fish stock, and perhaps thus miss out on the last, big, profitable kill.
And too often, the states listen. Louis Daniel, the former director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, recently stated that the law governing fisheries management in North Carolina
“has been a monumental failure to replenish our fish stocks, and the reason for that is politics.”
He added that instead of taking the actions needed to restore fish stocks, managers merely
“nibble around the edges,”
adopting half-measures because of political pressure to do so. To illustrate the problem, he noted that southern flounder that were 5, 6 and 7 years old were once a part of the catch in North Carolina, but that today, because of ineffective fishery management, it’s rare to see a flounder that’s more than 2 years old.
Unfortunately, such problems aren’t restricted to southern flounder, and they’re also not restricted to North Carolina. They seem to be endemic in fisheries outside of federal jurisdiction, which aren’t governed by the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, that prohibit overfishing and require the prompt rebuilding of overfished stocks.
It’s a particular problem at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which isn’t bound by Magnuson-Stevens. It has raised its head thereon many occasions, including in 1999, when the southern New England/Mid-Atlantic winter flounder stock was beginning to crash, and ASMFC’s Winter Flounder Management Board decided to back off on its efforts to rebuild the stock, because the New England Fishery Management Council had not yet adopted similar measures (the stock has since collapsed), and more recently in 2017, when political pressure brought by the recreational fishing industry led ASMFC’s Tautog Management Board to override the Technical Committee’s recommendations and allow overfishing to continue in Long Island Sound until 2029 (with only a 50% chance that it will cease at that point).
Most recently, and most importantly, it has cropped up at ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board, which has a long and unenviable history of avoiding the most difficult management decisions, particularly with regard to rebuilding the stock.
In 2011, even after receiving a stock assessment update warning that the striped bass would become overfished by 2017, the Management Board decided to suspend work on an addendum to the management plan that would have reduced commercial and recreational landings, deferring action largely because the stock wasn’t overfished yet.
In 2014, the Management Board took action to reduce landings to the target level (although it later completely ignored Maryland’s failure to adequately constrain recreational landings, which increased substantially at a time when they were supposed to be reduced by 20.5%), but it failed to comply with clear language in Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass which called for rebuilding female spawning stock biomass to the biomass target within 10 years, apparently based on advice that there would be significant uncertainty associated with projecting the effects of management measures out that far (although federal fishery managers, required to do so by Magnuson-Stevens, frequently and successfully adopt 10-year rebuilding plans on a regular basis).
And last May, history seemed to repeat itself, as the Management Board, in response to a benchmark stock assessment informing them that the stock is both overfished and subject to overfishing, again moved forward with an addendum that will have a bare coin-toss chance of ending overfishing, but does not expressly meet the management plan’s requirement to rebuild the biomass within the next decade.
There is little reason to believe that such failures and delay accomplishes anything of lasting good.
As Mr. Daniels noted in North Carolina, with respect to such actions,
“Does anybody think that they’re seeing more fish than they did 22 years ago [when North Carolina’s fishery management law was adopted]?”
“Anybody even close to seeing the same amount of fish that you saw 22 years ago?”
“…We haven’t rebuilt—restored—one fish. Not one.”
“We’ve got a problem, and it’s just going downhill. We’re not seeing any improvement in these resources.”
Because that’s what delay does, it just makes things worse.
While some folks may make a little more money for a short while, in the end, delay hurts us all.
That’s an important thing to remember, not only in the case of North Carolina’s southern flounder, but in the case of other species, too.
Right now, it’s something to remember as ASMFC looks at striped bass.
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Last November, I was up in Connecticut, fishing with an old friend.
We had fished together since the early 1970s, mostly in Long Island Sound and in the ocean south of Long Island, but sometimes as far away as Alaska, the Caribbean and Belize. Over that time, we’ve caught a lot of fish, of many different sorts, but on that day off Connecticut, things were a little slow.
We set out in the dark, well before sunrise, with the hope of finding some decent striped bass somewhere along the rocky shore. Although the fall migration was past its peak, November sees some of the largest bass of the season moving out of New England, headed south toward their wintering grounds off the Virginia/North Carolina line.
We found all the bass we could ask for, but nothing of size. While we caught a lot of fish over the course of the morning, I’m not sure that any weighed more than five pounds; most seemed to be three-year-olds, from spawned in the Chesapeake three years before.
Notably, larger fish from the even bigger 2011-year class were nowhere to be found.
It was a little discouraging.
So we switched off to —what we always called “blackfish” in Long Island Sound—dropping green crabs down to assorted rock piles that were historically productive at that time of year.
The first drop yielded a big , and then nothing more. The second drop produced even less; not even the that used to swarm in those places turned out to nip at our baits. So we moved a couple of miles, to a piece of hard bottom where we found a few fish.
Most were far too small to keep. Along the way, as we picked at mostly undersized fish, my friend repeated something that he had said more than once in recent years. “If I was a kid, just starting out, I don’t think I’d bother buying a boat. It’s not worth it. There aren’t any fish anymore.”
It’s not the first time that he’s said something like that, but every time, it still jars me. My friend and I were both introduced to fishing by our fathers when we were very young; for both of us, it was probably the defining family activity of our childhoods. When our fathers weren’t working, we fished with them from our families’ boats. Other times, until we were old enough to take the boats out by ourselves, we fished from docks and from shore.
I still recall one summer morning when he was out with his father, and I was out with mine, fishing a stretch of rocky shoreline. It was a calm day, with the sun climbing over the horizon, when without warning, black clouds roiled out of the west, it started to rain, and lightning flashed on the too-near horizon. My friend’s boat shot past where we were fishing, heading for home. We were planning to head in then, too, but a decent-sized striped bass rolled on my lure and made it clear that we weren’t going anywhere for a while, regardless of the approaching storm.
Some time later, our boat caught up with his, deep in the harbor. I held up the bass, lure still stuck in its face, as mute explanation of why it took us so long to arrive.
I’ve got a lot of stories like that, and so does my friend, because when we were young, fishing was a heritage that was handed down to us, and that we always expected to hand down to following generations.
But now, I have to wonder whether there will be much left for us to pass down, and whether those who follow us will have anything at all to pass on to their successors.
When we were young, fishing was easy to do. There were a lot of fish, and a lot of places to catch them. Over the course of the year, there were probably less than three months when we didn’t fish, mostly because the harbors were covered with ice.
Once the ice went out in March, we caught and from docks in the harbor. By April Fool’s Day, that fishing was going strong, and the first schools of river herring—first , and later on—swarmed in silver hordes so determined to spawn that, when the tide was out, they swam on their sides through trickles of water, trying desperately to get to fresh water.
We watched the herring, wondering at their seemingly endless multitude.
By the second week in May, we caught blackfish from shore at the town beach and eels from the local docks. Two weeks later, we caught striped bass from our fathers’ boats and sometimes from shore; by the time I was in junior high, bluefish chased menhaden into the harbors, and we could catch them from shore, too. When the big bluefish weren’t around, summer vacation was mostly about catching eels and the occasional flounder until the young-of-the-year “snapper” bluefish showed up. At that point, just about every child older than five years old—and more than a few who were younger—lined up along just about every piece of land that bordered the water, some with their parents, the older ones alone, in pursuit of the small, but avidly feeding fish.
After we went back to school in September, the year sort of unraveled itself.
The snapper disappeared first, then the big bluefish, but blackfish again bunched up in the shallows, where a kid with a pint of fiddler crabs, who knew how to cast, could easily catch a dozen or two near the top of a rising tide. As days grew shorter and colder, flounder and tomcod grew more abundant, and were joined by returning to the estuaries prior to their early-spring spawn.
Finally, the days grew so cold that our hands froze numb, so numb that we could sometimes slip a hook right through our bait and into a finger, and not realize it until we went to swing the hook back in the water, and found that it wouldn’t go.
Shortly after that, ice would cover the harbor, and our season would end.
It was a wonderful time, and a wonderful way, to grow up.
But for today’s kids, things aren’t like that anymore.
The . I caught my last one in the fall of ’68, the same year that I entered ninth grade. The . Whether warming water did them in, or too many dams blocked their way to crucial spawning grounds, is difficult to say. Either way, they disappeared.
, the big runs gradually thinning out until, by 1980 or so, only a few fish still entered the harbors.
After that, , as an increasing demand for live , in urban markets, coupled with an ineffective interstate management plan, caused abundance to sharply decline. Winter flounder made it into the 21st Century—barely—but since then, .
Striped bass , but the stock was rebuilt two decades later. Now, the stock is , but the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission it this time.
Bluefish, too, , although we’ll figure that out for certain when the stock assessment is updated in August.
There are some bright spots amid the gloom. Summer flounder didn’t become a regular catch in the western Sound until 1970 or so, but . And and are probably more abundant than they have ever been during my lifetime.
But a young angler really needs to go out in a boat to catch those fish with any regularity; from shore, they will catch a few, but few of what they catch will be large enough to take home. That makes it tough for young anglers, many of whom are tied to the land, and provides little tinder to catch and sustain whatever dim spark of interest a child may have in the outdoors, before it’s quenched by electronic distractions and the lure of youth soccer and baseball.
To feed the fire that forges new anglers, and make the flame run hot in new generations, children must be able to inherit the same sort of quality experiences we knew when we were young, experiences built on abundant fish stocks that we could cheaply and easily access from local docks, bulkheads and piers. For if young and inexperienced anglers are to maintain their interest in the sport, they must be able to catch fish regularly, despite their lack of skill and their simple gear. And, perhaps most important, despite their lack of a boat.
At some point, the new angler will grow old enough, and earn enough money, to buy a boat of his or her own. Provided, of course, that there are enough fish around to merit the purchase.
As my friend has suggested, that might not be the case anymore.
Thus, it is hard to understand why both the fishing tackle industry and the boating industry are , which federal fisheries laws and led to decreased abundance and reduced opportunities for novice anglers, instead of aggressively supporting conservation measures that will assure that tomorrow’s generation of anglers will still have a reason to go fishing.
In the sixty-plus years since I first became a fisherman, we have allowed too many of our fish stocks to decline, allowed too many of our waterways to become degraded, allowed far too many of our marshes, estuaries and other critical inshore nursery habitats to be filled in, developed and destroyed. By doing so, we have stolen a treasured heritage from today’s young anglers, and from anglers who have yet to be born.
Why should they fish, or buy fishing tackle, just to frustrate themselves on the shores of an emptier ocean than we knew in our early years?
It is our moral responsibility, and the moral responsibility of the fishing and boating industries, to pass on to our successors a world as vital and as full of life as the one we received from our elders.
Failure to do so bathes us in the shame of a thief who would steal from a child.
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/