Thursday, January 31, 2019
It’s now almost official: The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is batting an even .000 when it comes to rebuilding and maintaining healthy fish stocks.
A quick review of the ASMFC Stock Status Overview shows that, of the 23 stocks managed solely by the Commission (10 other stocks are managed by both the Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service), only four are deemed to be “Rebuilt/sustainable” (a fifth, Massachusetts-Rhode Island tautog, is neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing, so probably belongs in that category, too) with three more “Recovering/rebuilding”.
In contrast with that meager good news, seven ASMFC-managed stocks are considered “Depleted” and four more are of “Concern.” The state of the remaining four stocks is “Unknown.”
And it’s probably important to note that the designation “Rebuilt/sustainable” is a little misleading, because none of the four stocks granted that status were actually rebuilt by ASMFC. One, black drum, was never overfished, and ASMFC recently inherited a second, cobia, that had benefitted from years of federal fisheries management. The Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank stock of American lobster seems to be benefitting—so far—from warming waters more than from ASMFC management measures, while the fourth stock, Atlantic menhaden, acquired “rebuilt/sustainable” status not through any management effort, but instead through a new stock assessment, which showed that the population, once thought depleted, had really been healthy all along.
So when you look at the numbers, there’s not much for ASMFC to take pride in, on the “rebuilt/sustainable” front. In the seventy-seven years since ASMFC was founded in 1942, and in the twenty-six years since the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, which gave ASMFC the power to enforce its management decisions, was passed in 1993, ASMFC has failed to rebuild a single overfished stock, and then maintain such rebuilt stock at sustainable levels.
“Well, wait!” I might hear you saying. “What about striped bass?” Because for many years, ASMFC’s recovery of the once-collapsed striped bass stock, which was declared fully rebuilt in 1995, has been hailed as one of the great achievements of East Coast fishery managers.
But striped bass aren’t doing well any more.
Remember how I started this blog post, saying that ASMFC’s failure to rebuild and sustainably manage even one stock of fish was “almost official”?
The “almost” comes from the fact that the 2018 benchmark striped bass stock assessment hasn’t yet been released, nor has the peer review report that judges the assessment’s fitness for use as a fishery management tool. However, ASMFC has released a “Preliminary ASMFC Summary of the 2018 Benchmark Stock Assessment for Atlantic Striped Bass.” That preliminary summary makes it clear that ASMFC has not just failed, but failed dismally, to sustainably manage what is arguably the premier finfish species that comes under its sole management authority.
The preliminary summary tells the sad story.
“The combined full [fishing mortality] was 0.307 in 2017. Fishing mortality for both the Chesapeake Bay fleet and the ocean fleet has been increasing since 1990…
“Abundance of age-8+ striped bass (considered the mature component of the population) increased steadily through 2004 to 16.5 million fish. After 2004 age-8+ abundance oscillated and has been in decline since 2011. Age-8+ abundance in 2017 is estimated at 6.7 million fish, a value near the 30th percentile of the time series.
“Female [spawning stock biomass] started out at low levels and increased steadily through the late-1980s and 1990 peaking at 113,602 [metric tons] (250 million pounds) in 2003 before beginning to gradually decline; the decline became sharper in 2012. Female SSB was at 68,476 mt (151 million pounds) in 2017…
“For this assessment the…SSB threshold was estimated at 91,436 mt (202 million pounds), with an SSB target of 114,295 mt (252 million pounds). The [fishing mortality] threshold was estimated at 0.240, and the [fishing mortality] target at 0.197…
“Female SSB for Atlantic striped bass in 2017 was 68,476 mt, below the SSB threshold, indicating the stock is overfished. [Fishing mortality] in 2017 was 0.307, above the [fishing mortality] threshold, indicating the stock is experiencing overfishing. [emphasis added, internal references removed]”
Because the final benchmark assessment has not yet been released, those conclusions haven’t yet been reflected in the ASMFC stock status overview. When they are, they will change the current scorecard to seven “wins” (stocks that are either rebuilt/sustainable or recovering/rebuilding) versus twelve “losses” (stocks that are either depleted or of concern); based on such numbers, ASMFC’s career winning percentage is a mere 37%--a number that drops to just 30% if the stocks of “unknown” status are included as well.
With baseball spring training about to begin, this might be the time to note that a manager with that sort of record won’t be managing for very long…
And perhaps more troubling than the mere fact that ASMFC seems unable to recover and then maintain once-depleted fish stocks—a fact that was made even worse after ASMFC frittered away its erstwhile success with striped bass—is how and why its failures occur.
Striped bass provide the perfect example.
As the preliminary summary of the bass assessment makes perfectly clear, the decline of the striped bass stock should not have come as a surprise to anyone. While the extent of the decline, and the extent of the overfishing, was probably greater than anyone expected (except, perhaps, for anglers up and down the coast, who have long been telling managers that bass were having real problems), long-term increases in fishing mortality, and continuing decreases in overall abundance and female spawning stock biomass, have been obvious for a number of years.
Bit ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board has repeatedly refused to fully address them.
In November 2011, despite a stock assessment update that warned that striped bass were well on their way to becoming overfished, the Management Board decided not to move forward on efforts to cut harvest because the stock wasn’t overfished yet.
Action to prevent the stock from becoming overfished was treated, by many, as anathema.
Even after the 2013 benchmark stock assessment effectively forced the Management Board to take action, it took as little action as it could get away with, and less than its own management plan called for.
“If the Management Board determines that the fishing mortality target is exceeded in two consecutive years and the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target within either of those years, the Management 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.”
Amendment 6 also requires that
“If the Management Board determines that the female spawning stock biomass falls below the target for two consecutive years and the fishing mortality rate exceeds the target in either of those years, the Management Board must adjust the striped bass management program to rebuild the biomass to a level that is at or above the target within [ten years].”
The 2013 benchmark assessment indicated that both of those triggers for action had been tripped. While the Management Board did initiate efforts to reduce harvest to the target level—although some of its members, mostly from the Chesapeake Bay region, tried very hard to stretch that reduction out over three years, instead of the one year the Amendment required—it completely ignored the requirement to rebuild the stock, despite the fact that the Amendment said that such rebuilding “must” be done.
Thus, the Management Board brazenly and broke a covenant that it had made with the public the moment that it adopted Amendment 6.
Almost as soon as the new addendum, intended to cut landings by 25%, was put in place, there were efforts to increase the kill.
Michael Luisi, a fishery manager from Maryland, and Robert O’Reilly, his counterpart from Virginia, made a motion to “reconsider” the harvest reductions at the Management Board’s November 2015 meeting. That motion ultimately failed.
Just one year later, a new stock assessment update found that the fishing mortality rate in 2015 was 0.16, barely below the 0.18 target. Even though the two values were statistically indistinguishable, Luisi made another motion, this time asking ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee to calculate how much regulations could be relaxed in order to bring the mortality rate all the way up to target, because
“perhaps just that very small change could be something that saves a few of the fishermen in my state.
“A half an inch in minimum size could mean a lot to our fleets, our charterboat and recreational fleet; more so the charterboat community.”
In a May 2017 debate over increased striped bass landings, John Clark, a fishery manager from Delaware, voiced similar concerns, saying
“there is nothing uncertain about the economic hit that netters in Delaware have taken and the Chesapeake charter fishermen that have been here for the last three or four meeting [sic] we’ve had here. I don’t think they’re here just because they want a few extra bucks. They’re here because they see a real threat to their business. I think that this addendum at least gets us on the right track to correcting an over action that we took a few years ago.”
Again, the effort to increase harvest failed, but the theme of crafting regulations that would better serve the short-term interests of fishermen, rather than the long-term interests of the fish stock, continued on.
Thus, in the run-up to the 2018 stock assessment, the Management Board agreed to consider changing the reference points used to measure the state of the health of the striped bass stock. Nicole Lengyel, who chairs the Technical Committee and needed to obtain guidance from the Management Board before beginning the new stock assessment, asked
“Does the Board want to manage the manage the stock to maximize yield, maximize catch rates, maximize the availability of trophy fish, and what is the acceptable level of risk when it comes to preventing stock collapse?”
While one would hope that the acceptable level of risk with regard to stock collapse is as close to zero as possible, the Management Board ultimately advised the Technical Committee to consider a range of reference points, including some that would increase the kill, while also increasing the risk to the striped bass stock.
At no time did the Management Board require that such reference points prevent harvest from exceeding the stock’s maximum sustainable yield. At least one Management Board member wanted to do that, but he did not prevail in the vote.
Unfortunately, such efforts to elevate the fishermen’s interests over those of the fish aren’t limited to the striped bass.
Pat Augustine, then the Governor’s Appointee from New York, expressed just those sort of sentiments with respect to winter flounder, a fish well on its way to being extirpated from New York’s waters, when he said
“we almost put a moratorium on winter flounder, we would have been one of two states that would have done that, which would have put a further hit on both recreational, commercial and bait and tackle people and marinas and so for those supplies.”
Putting “a further hit” on the flounder by continuing a harvest they could not sustain did not appear to concern him at all.
Tom Fote voiced similar words while opposing recommended protections for the badly depleted weakfish, saying
“It’s bad enough that you can’t go home with a sea bass, and it looks like next year in New Jersey they can’t go home with a summer flounder. At least they’ll have, you know, one fish to take home, maybe one winter flounder and one weakfish…How do you keep an industry going?”
The irony of the fact that he was basing angling industry survival on weakfish and winter flounder, probably the two most at-risk inshore species in the region, was apparently lost on Fote.
The fact that he was willing to put both species further at risk in order to protect the fishing industry shouldn’t be lost on anyone else.
But, again, that’s how things often work at ASMFC. The worst example may have come in the case of northern shrimp, a creature already beleaguered by warming waters in the Gulf of Maine. It’s entirely possible that environmental conditions alone were enough to collapse the stock, but the fact that ASMFC regularly ignored scientific advice, allowing harvests higher than technical experts recommended, at times that put spawning females at risk, certainly didn’t help the situation, and contributed to the need for the current moratorium on all shrimp harvest.
Far too many people who sit on ASMFC’s management boards haven’t yet learned that the only absolute in the management system is the biological needs of fish stocks.
They don’t understand that scaling the size of the harvest to the needs—or at least the desires—of the fishing industry is the surest road to perdition.
They have not yet accepted the truth that sustainability depends on scaling the size of the industry to the needs of the affected fish stocks.
And yes, that might mean that some folks go out of business. But a stock collapse will turn everyone out into the streets.
Yet there are hopes that things could turn around. ASMFC just released the results of its annual survey of state commissioners, and some of the survey results are encouraging. For example, the answers to the questions
“How comfortable are you that the Commission has a clear and achievable plan to reach the Vision (Sustainably managing Atlantic Coast Fisheries)?”
“How confident are you that the Commission’s actions reflect progress toward its Vision?”
hit all-time lows, scoring 7.23 and 6.94 (out of 10), respectively. The first step toward solving a problem is admitting that it exists.
Other responses were not as clear. The rating assigned to
“One of the metrics the Commission uses to measure progress is tracking the number of stocks where overfishing is no longer occurring. Is this a clear metric to measure progress?”
was 7.42. Since that question was first asked in 2014, ratings ranged from 7.80 in 2014 to 7.09 in 2017, suggesting that today’s commissioners are somewhat ambivalent about the answer.
The response to the question
“Are you satisfied with the Commission’s ability to manage rebuilt stocks?”
was 6.45; again, that rating fell between the 2014 high of 7.17 and a 2016 low of 6.19, but the fact that all of the ratings were relatively low suggested that managing for continued sustainability was seen as a problem.
Free-form comments to other answers cast more light on the question of how commissioners feel about the progress that ASMFC is making. When asked
“What is the single biggest obstacle to the Commission’s success in rebuilding stocks?”
answers varied widely. But the fact that they included comments such as
“Public resistance to making the sometimes hard choices needed to manage stocks in need of re-building,”
“Balancing the needs of the fishing community with the need to constrain fishing effort,”
“Lack of will to make difficult decisions”
provide reason to hope that at least some commissioners recognize that the old way of doing things at ASMFC needs to be changed, and that managing in a way that pleases fishermen, rather than managing in a way that rebuilds and maintains healthy fish stocks, is not the right way to go.
Perhaps the most revealing comment, and also the most troubling, noted that
“Increasing stakeholder engagement with outside entities has caused undo [sic] influences that tend to hamstring our actions. Engaged commissioners feel that, in order to maintain their seats, politics and not science must drive the final outcomes to the advantage of individual stakeholders and ignore the greater good. This is counterproductive but perhaps a fact of (commission) life. Other than setting terms for appointment length, this will be a hurdle that will be hard to overcome. Commissioners should not fear being removed should one outcome be ill received ‘at home’.”
That paints a dismal picture, but all is not doom and gloom.
There are some new commissioners taking seats on the management boards who provide a breath of fresh air. I was reminded of that just yesterday, when I saw an article in our local newpaper, Newsday, that read
“State Sen. Todd Kaminsky has been appointed to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission…
“Kaminsky emphasized the need for smart conservation, mentioning striped bass in particular.’
“’I think there’s a need for more conservation-minded people on the board,’ he said. ‘As somebody raising a young family on Long Island, I don’t want to talk to my family about a fish that used to be on Long Island and isn’t anymore.’”
If all of the ASMFC commissioners could understand that, the needed change would already be here.
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Back in the early years of the 20th Century, a New York City man named George C. Parker earned his living by selling various landmarks—most notably, the Brooklyn Bridge, but also such structures as Grant’s Tomb, the Museum of Modern Art and the Stature of Liberty—to gullible buyers, who were often recently-arrived immigrants eager to take advantage of any opportunities offered by their new home.
Parker was so convincing that the New York City Police had to remove several of his customers from the Brooklyn Bridge as they tried to erect tollbooths that would have limited access to their new “purchase,” and even today, more than 100 years after Parker’s first arrest and trial, sayings like “I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge” remain a part of American culture.
I can’t help thinking of Parker, and his Brooklyn Bridge con jobs, every time that I read another article that tries to convince anglers that S. 1520, the so-called “Modern Fish Act” that was passed in the closing days of the 115th Congress, is going to have a positive impact on their lives.
As I, and others, have written before, S. 1520, and its House companion, H.R. 2023, started out as bad legislation that could have done some real harm to the fishery management process. Thanks to responsible legislators in the Senate, who were willing to work in a bipartisan fashion to reshape—some might say, “disembowel”—the original bill into something far more acceptable, the legislation that was finally signed into law was an effectively toothless sop to Gulf of Mexico red snapper anglers, who were able to walk away from the fight claiming a win, although exactly what they won is kind on hard to explain.
Even so, when H.R. 1520 was initially passed, the press—and particularly the angling press—was filled with breathless prose praising the event. Jeff Angers, President of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, which coordinated the effort to pass the bill, declared that the day the bill passed was
“a historic day for America’s 11 million saltwater anglers.”
Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops and an early supporter of the Modern Fish Act, matched Angers’ hyperbole and then went even farther, digging into his bin of superlatives to call S. 1520
“the most significant update to America’s saltwater fisheries regulations in more than 40 years,”
and thus, in his view, apparently even more important than the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996—a bill passed just 23 years ago, and so well within Morris’ 40-year window—which for the first time prohibited overfishing, required rebuilding of overfished stocks, and led to the recovery of so many of the salt water species that anglers enjoy today.
A little bit of hype is understandable after an intense, nearly two-year legislative effort—which had actually been building since at least 2013—finally comes to an end. Success, even a very, very small success, can leave folks a little drunk with exuberance once the long fight is over.
Of course, exuberant drunks are usually followed by depressing hangovers, so it’s probably not surprising that soon after all of the self-congratulatory press releases went out, Modern Fish Act supporters woke up to the painful realization that now that the bill was passed, there were a lot of folks who would expect to be seeing results—and soon.
Articles also began to emerge in the outdoor press that suggested that S. 1520 really wasn’t the legislative victory that some people claimed. One of the first appeared in New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press. Titled “Will Modern Fish Act do anything for N.J. fishermen?” it took a generally sober and balanced approach to the bill, which observed that
“The Recreational Fishing Alliance was part of what was mostly a recreational trades’ coalition that supported the act, but its executive director Jim Donofrio wasn’t entirely satisfied with what the Modern Fish Act accomplished.
“’It keeps things at status quo, there was no gain, no loss,” said Donofrio.”
That was probably uncomfortably close to the truth for RFA’s partners in the Modern Fish Act fight, groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association, American Sportfishing Association and National Marine Manufacturers Association.
Thus, a new line of stories began to appear in the media, aimed at tamping down expectations of what the Modern Fish Act will do.
The American Sportfishing Association began to take that approach in a piece that Mike Leonard, its Vice President of Government Affairs, had published in Fishing Tackle Retailer. After hyping S. 1520’s passage, Leonard began to bring readers back to reality, saying
“The Modern Fish Act isn’t going to overhaul the federal marine fisheries management system overnight. It’ll likely take several fishing seasons before the management and data collection improvements called for in the Act begin to better align fishing regulations with actual fish abundance and harvest, and with what anglers really want out of management.”
Of course, what went unsaid in such statement is that after “several fishing seasons” anglers, and likely most in the angling industry, will have moved on to other issues, and will have largely forgotten about the Modern Fish Act, a fact that will leave groups such as ASA with a lot less explaining to do.
About ten days later, the same theme was repeated in an article in Trade Only Today, which noted in part that
“Passage of the Modern Fish Act was viewed as a huge victory by recreational fishing groups, but the average angler probably won’t see an instant and dramatic shift in saltwater fishery management.
“’For the average angler, there’s not going to be an immediate change,” Kellie Ralston, Southeast fisheries policy director for American Sportfishing Association, told Trade Only Today. ‘This is the first in a long series of steps to improve fisheries management.’”
And it’s that last statement, “the first in a long series of steps,” that should have conservation-minded anglers concerned. Because the folks behind the Modern Fish Act aren’t done with their efforts to undermine key provisions of the federal fishery management system. They’re just getting started.
As the 116th Congress gets underway, legislators in both the House and the Senate will begin thinking about a full reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Modern Fish Act proponents will undoubtedly be trying to slip some of the bad provisions, which had been carved out of S. 1520, into any reauthorization bill that emerges.
“is not the end-point, but rather a major step toward evolving federal marine fisheries management in a way that recognizes the importance of saltwater recreational fishing to the nation.”
While that sounds benign, the original text of the Modern Fish Act bills demonstrate that legislation that “recognizes the importance of saltwater recreational fishing” doesn’t necessarily recognize the importance of good conservation to the health of fish stocks. As noted in a recent piece in the Alaska Journal of Commerce,
“The initial design of the bill would have also allowed recreational fishery managers who lacked survey data to step away from catch limits, providing more recreational opportunity.
“’The part that we really objected to was a component that was removed from it,’ [Andy] Mesirow, [a recreational representative on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council] said. ‘The problem was that there was some provisions in the Modern Fish Act that if they were applied to the federal fisheries of Alaska, they would create a lot of chaos…That didn’t really resonate with us…the idea that you would do less science and give more fish away.’”
But that idea resonated with Modern Fish Act supporters, and probably still does. And that’s something to remember when the congressional fisheries debates heat up again.
George C. Parker ended up dying in prison; it’s hard for a con man to give up on his cons.
But after trying to convince everyone that the Modern Fish Act was some historic win, the folks who fought to pass that legislation are still on the street and playing the same old games.
Undoubtedly, when the time seems ripe, they will again try to sell their argument that the federal management system needs overhaul, and that the conservation provisions of Magnuson-Stevens need to be relaxed in order to allow a bigger kill and, not coincidentally, bigger industry profits in the short term.
They’ll sound convincing, and paint pretty pictures, just like they did before.
Don’t be conned.
Thursday, January 24, 2019
I’ve written about it before: The fact that healthy fishing businesses depend on having healthy fish stocks, and how the loss of once-plentiful fish populations have hurt, and will continue to hurt, the fishing industry.
It seems obvious.
Yet it’s a message that has been received with a lot of hostility, some from people who are already struggling from the effects of declining fish stocks.
It’s not a message that you see much in the angling media, because it’s not too popular with a lot of their advertisers, who keep trying to convince anglers that all is well, and that regulations that conserve and rebuild fish stocks are not really needed.
Thus, I was both surprised and pleased to read a piece written by outdoor journalist Mike Wright, which was published on the website 27east.com. It was titled “The Economy of Failed Fisheries,” and recalled days when healthy stocks of cod kept Montauk, New York’s recreational fishing industry humming even in the depths of winter. Wright wrote
“At all hours of the night, dozens of trucks would be idling in the Viking [party boat fleet’s] parking lot, stuffed with burly, foul-mouthed meat hunters waiting to embark on one, two and three-day journeys to the banks off Cape Cod to load up on months worth of cod fillets.
“In those days cod stocks were still robust and fishermen who shelled out a couple hundred bucks for one of the trips could expect to come home with their giant coolers filled to the brim. The Viking had two boats running nearly non-stop on day trips and long-range runs to Georges Bank and the ‘Viking Valley of the Giants.’”
I remember those days, although I’ll admit that I left the mid-winter trips to those who needed the cod more than I did. But I did venture out in the spring, making the 13-hour run on the Viking Starship from Montauk to Georges Bank, where we spent days fishing for what the Viking folks called “whale cod” before heading back to the dock.
It was a good time, but like the big summer cod that we used to see out at Cox’s Ledge, and the late-spring run of pollock off Block Island, it’s something that now only exists in my memories, for as Wright observes,
“That all collapsed during the winters of 1991-92. The cod simply vanished, and with them went the winter fishery. Winter party boat fishing trundled along for a few years after that but the crowds steadily dwindled and eventually the boats stopped sailing.”
He notes that the fishery seemed to be making a comeback for a few years, peaking around 2011, but
“that resurgence did not mark the vanguard of a cod resurgence. Just the opposite, actually. That little blip of a healthy cod population seems to have been a complete anomaly that has never materialized again—and you can see it in the stolid times at Montauk.”
While there are still some boats that, on some days, sail for Montauk’s winter cod, the cod are few, and fishermen are far from abundant.
Today, what had been a fishing town is slowly transitioning into another tourist hangout, the kind of place where people who pay $100 and more for a pair of pre-torn jeans—because they’d never do the active, outdoor sort of things that would wear honest holes in their pants—are becoming a more important part of the town than the anglers who helped give it birth, and have always been a part of its soul.
Unfortunately, neither Montauk, nor the cod, are unique in that regard.
As I wrote a few days ago, here on Long Island, and in other places as well, winter flounder used to fill our bays in the spring. Their arrival—or, more accurately, the arrival of weather that was clement enough to get people out fishing—led to an eruption of anglers who had been bottled up indoors for far too long a winter.
They exploded out of their homes and down to the docks at places such as Captree State Park, where a long line of moored party boats waited to take them out to spots in Great South Bay where shallow, dark mud bottoms caught the heat of the sun, and inspired the flounder to feed more actively.
Private boats were also a big part of the action. By early April, the driver of a car passing over the Robert Moses Bridge, which runs from Bay Shore out to Fire Island, could look to the east and see a mass of fishing boats that stretched from near the base of the bridge out to the north/south-running West Channel, about three miles away.
And out in West Channel, more boats were anchored, changing locations occasionally to take advantage of the flowing tide.
Back in the 1980s, the boats ranged from small rental skiffs and modest outboards to big sportfishermen that, in a couple of months, would be chasing tuna and marlin in the canyons. Arrayed among them was the party boat fleet, often surrounded by private boats that gave the scene a sort of hen-and-chicks appearance as the private boats crowded the for-hires and tried to take unfair advantage of the professional captains’ knowledge of where fish would be at a particular time and tide.
But the flounder, like the Montauk cod, collapsed by the mid-1990s, and by a decade or so later, almost all of the boats—and the economic boon they provided at that time of the season—were gone.
A few party boats still search for the remaining flounder. But as I walked the Captree docks in mid-April, maybe a decade ago, I was haunted by how few anglers were there, and by how few boats were sailing. Where once the parking lot would have been filled with hopeful anglers’ cars, now most spaces are empty. Today, many boats don’t even bother trying to sail until they can find striped bass and fluke for their fares.
The flounder’s collapse wasn’t unexpected—both anglers and fishery managers could see problems coming for years—but no one was willing to make the sort-term sacrifices needed to keep the fishery alive for the future. It was all about short term gain.
So today they have nothing at all.
I’m an angler, so I tend to focus on recreational fisheries, but commercial fisheries have long been plagued by the same sort of short-sightedness—and the same sort of loss.
The cod, after all, weren’t driven to collapse by the party and charter boat fleet, but by trawlers, mostly up in New England, who for years fought against any sort of meaningful regulation that might have had a real chance at rebuilding a badly overfished stock.
I was reminded of such attitudes again, just this week, when I attended a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council. The topic was whelks, a good-sized snail that is often sold as “conch” or “scungilli,” and has gained a new importance as a commercial target, since lobster became scarce in Long Island Sound.
State fishery managers had made a good case that fishing pressure was up, abundance was down, and measures were needed to protect the immature whelks. They proposed a size limit that did nothing more than let the big snails mature, and have at least one chance to spawn before they were plucked from the water and covered in red sauce or, more likely these days, shipped off to China.
But fishermen were largely, if not unanimously, opposed to new size limits, and questioned the economic impact of the proposed regulations.
Jim Gilmore, the head of the New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Division, responded by asking what the economic impact of doing nothing, and having whelks disappear, would be, but his question went unanswered by the crowd.
But we know what the answer to his question would be.
The cod have already told us. So have the flounder.
As Mike Wright wisely observed in 27east, their message is
“a word of warning to keep in mind when one complains about what we see as unnecessarily restrictive limitations on the fish we catch. There are misfires in quotas, to be sure, but it’s far better to err on the side of caution than to have another stock of fish go the way of the cod.”
Sunday, January 20, 2019
At first glance, it all looks OK.
Here on Long Island, Fire Island Inlet is still filled with boats fishing for fluke on sunny July afternoons. The artificial reef that New York built just offshore is still be crowded with boats; the state even enhanced the reef, and a number of others, last season, with a sunken vessels and many tons of debris that will provide new fishing places for anglers.
Farther offshore, boats hover above long-sunken wrecks, seeking whatever might hide among their rusting hulls and rotting timbers.
As the waters cooled and autumn settles in, wader-clad surfcasters still dot the shores, and boats still troll slowly along the beaches.
Based on such sights, it would appear that in New York, saltwater fishing is thriving. But that appearance is probably wrong.
The quality of recreational fishing along New York’s coast has long been in decline. Although a few species, such as black sea bass and scup, seem to be thriving, the state’s anglers, and its angling industry, have been losing fishing opportunities for at least thirty years. Now, we face the very real chance that things will get worse, as some of New York’s most important recreational species fall into decline.
New York is not alone. What is happening here is happening in neighboring states, throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions.
Some fish, of course, are already gone.
Thirty-five years ago, New York anglers took home an estimated 14.5 million winter flounder in a single season. Back then, there were no size limits, bag limits or seasons; the unofficial start of the flounder season was March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, although a few party boats would start fishing sooner, and some pier and private boat anglers began roving the bays soon after the ice melted off, whenever the sun was warm enough to make it seem worthwhile.
Last spring, New York anglers caught so few winter flounder that the National Marine Fisheries Service lacked the data they needed to estimate landings. The official estimate is just 25 fish—yes, 25, where more than 14 million were taken not long ago—but NMFS acknowledges that such estimate is wildly inaccurate. Even so, we can bet that the total catch was probably well under a thousand, which would l be less than one-hundredth of one percent of what had been landed before.
Coastwide, the news isn’t much better. 1985 saw 32.2 million winter flounder caught along the entire East Coast; last season, the estimate was about 162,000—a 99.5% reduction. If you take Massachusetts out of the picture—there is still a viable fishery in and around Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay—anglers along the rest of the coast only landed 28,000 winter flounder last year, a 99.9% reduction from what they caught in 1984.
The loss of the winter flounder cost New York’s salt water anglers, and the businesses that support them, the entire month of March and a good part of April, as there isn’t much else to fish for at that time. It also impacted the fishing in May, when the migration of winter flounder out of the bay and into the ocean gave anglers, and particularly party boat anglers, one last shot at the popular food fish, and in October, November and even December, when many recreational fishermen again used to catch flounder as they returned to the inshore grounds.
Other states, such as Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey, which once had thriving flounder fisheries, are feeling a similar pain.
Other fisheries haven’t collapsed so completely, but are still shadows of what they were three or four decades ago. At one time, New York and its neighboring states hosted a year-round cod fishery. Writer Al Ristori recently described how it was just forty years ago.
“Then there were the cod. At Freeport, the Capt. Al (now sailing out of Pt. Lookout) reported fishing had been ‘hot and cold’ all week though Wednesday saw between 30 and 40 cod come over the rail with several fish in the 40 lb. catch included in the catch. Blue Fin II…fished an offshore wreck on Dec. 16 that produced 18 cod for 19 men with four over 40 pounds and the pool fish of over 50 pounds. A little further east, the Capt. Scotty from Captree was fishing open bottom…to catch over 20 cod from 20-40 lbs. that Wednesday.”
During the height of winter, an angler might still pull a cod or two from the waters southeast of Block Island or out at Cox’s Ledge. Sometimes—although it never really happened last year—a boat, or even the fleet, still happens across a concentration of fish and everyone limits out, mostly catching little “market” cod, and a pool fish that often don’t break 15 pounds. But the South Shore of Long Island is largely dead, and the days when party boats loaded with fares sailed from New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island ports all twelve months of the year, and reliably caught cod even during the height of summer, are long gone.
Also gone is the winter fishery for ling and whiting, more properly known as red and silver hake, in New York Bight. At its height, the fishery went on both day and night, with party boats making up almost all of the fleet. Ristori describes that fishing, too, saying
“[The Long Island Fisherman magazine was] reporting ‘terriffic’ ling and whiting fishing. ‘Catches run 50 or 60 fish per angler with 95% of the catch made up of whiting running 1-4 lbs.”
He ruefully notes that
“One angler’s catch of whiting in those days probably exceeds all of what is now hooked throughout the year on bottom fishing boats.”
That observation is probably true. NMFS harvest estimates show that in 1981, anglers in the Mid-Atlantic, but almost all from New York and New Jersey, landed about 744,000 whiting, and by then the fishery was already well into its downward spiral. 1982, when about 595,000 fish were landed, was the last good year. The bottom fell out after that, with the catch estimate for 2017 just 82 fish (although, once again, the data is so scarce that the estimate is not reliable).
With the decline of the cod and the loss of the whiting, fishermen and that businesses that support them could scratch most of December, January and February off their calendars, too.
I won’t even describe what has happened offshore. I’ve been chasing shark and tuna and such since the ‘70s, and watched the bluewater action sprint downhill, too; bigeye tuna and mako sharks are both in serious trouble. That doesn’t affect most anglers, who stick close to shore, but it does take another option away from the for-hire fleet, and hurts the tackle shops and gas docks, too, because fishing offshore is expensive in terms of both fuel and gear. There are also a lot fewer party boat tuna trips being offered these days.
So New York anglers have seen their fishery, which used to provide pretty good action throughout the year, whittled down to perhaps seven months, and some of those are not too productive.
Their summer season is built mostly around fluke (summer flounder), with black sea bass and scup in supporting roles, a few bluefish and, along most of the coast, a late June/early July run of larger striped bass. Fluke season closes at the end of September, at which point striped bass and bluefish, along with some tautog (“blackfish”), support the great majority of anglers who fish from private boats or from shore; those three fish support a good chunk of the for-hire fleet, too.
Thus, the complex of fish that supports the recreational fishery has shrunk, in terms of both species and time. And it seems that there may be a ticking time bomb that could blow apart most of the supports that remain.
Right now, anglers in the northeast and mid-Atlantic are waiting for the release of benchmark stock assessments for both striped bass and summer flounder, the two most important recreational fish in the region. Such release is being delayed by the current government shutdown, but will happen eventually, and when it does, the news may not be good.
There are already a lot of rumors circulating around the striped bass assessment; while nothing is certain at this point, it appears that the stock is overfished and that overfishing is occurring along the coast (although perhaps not in Chesapeake Bay). At the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, managers are already debating whether they ought to rebuild the stock and address such overfishing, assuming such problems exist, or whether they should rewrite the management plan to redefine what “overfishing” and an “overfished stock” mean, and so tell the world that the current stock size and harvest rate are not really bad at all.
If they do that, it will reduce the number of older, larger, more fecund fish in the spawning stock, and make the stock more vulnerable to collapse. But it will allow folks to kill more bass today.
And the bomb will keep ticking along…
There are also problems with summer flounder. The population experienced at least six consecutive years of below-average spawning success; it has, as a result, declined, to the point that managers feared that it could become overfished. Remedial measures were put in place, and hopefully have done some good. If they have, and if recruitment has improved, the stock should begin to rebuild. But if that’s not the case, the benchmark assessment may tell us that the stock has become overfished. If that occurs, a rebuilding plan will have to be put in place; any such plan would probably further restrict landings.
That won’t go over well with some fishermen, and any such plan will be opposed by many in the fishing industry. At that point, do fishery managers make a real effort to rebuild the stock, knowing that doing so will cause economic distress? Or do they skirt as close to the edge of the law as they can, and try to minimize additional restrictions, even if taking that course might put the fish at further risk?
Already, here in New York, summer flounder landings fell from nearly 1.2 million fish in 2017 to about 0.56 million fish last season. That’s a 53% drop in harvest in just one year, even though anglers were able to keep more fish, and enjoyed a longer season, in 2018.
The drop is largely attributable to anglers making far fewer fishing trips during the 2018 season. Thus, managers are faced with a chicken-and-egg situation. Were fewer fish caught because anglers fished less, or did anglers fish less because there weren’t enough fluke to justify leaving the dock?
If the answer is the latter, the economic impact of not rebuilding the stock will probably be far more severe than the impacts of strict regulations.
Simultaneous cutbacks in both the striped bass and summer flounder harvests would probably have a significant short-term impact on the recreational fishing industry. But those aren’t the only key species with problems.
For many years, bluefish have been the “Plan B,” the backup species that anglers—and captains—fall back on when they can’t find their primary targets. But over the last year or two, finding bluefish has often been hard. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council will update the bluefish stock assessment this summer. If the update brings some bad news, as it very possibly will, we might find that new regulations are needed for bluefish as well.
It will take time to put any new rules into effect. However, it is very possible that we might see new, more restrictive regulations for striped bass, bluefish and summer flounder in 2020.
If that happens, the bomb that’s currently ticking might well go off, and change the face of New York’s recreational fishery.
However, if such regulations are needed, and aren’t put in place, the bomb will still explode as fish populations decline to lows that haven’t been seen in decades. If that should occur, the damage will probably be far worse, and last far longer, than anything caused by new rules.
Remember the winter flounder.