Thursday, May 30, 2019


The debate over striped bass fishing in federal waters (often referred to as the “Exclusive Economic Zone,” or “EEZ,” has been going on for a very long time. 

The EEZ was closed to bass fishing in 1990, as part of a suite of state and federal management actions intended to help rebuild the Atlantic migratory striped bass stock after it had collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  But ever since the stock was declared rebuilt in 1995, there have been repeated efforts to restore the offshore fishery.

However, the executive order didn’t preclude a possible opening of the recreational fishery, and some efforts to do just that continued.  New York’s 1st Congressional District, which includes Montauk and the rest of the East End of Long Island, has been a particular hot spot for such attempts.  Both Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY 1CD) and his successor, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY 1CD) have introduced a number of ultimately unsuccessful bills to accomplish that goal.

While Rep. Zeldin’s bills to open the EEZ failed to pass both houses of Congress, he did succeed in getting language into the omnibus budget bill that said

“NOAA, in conjunction with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is directed to consider lifting the ban on striped bass in the Block Island Transit Zone,”
which effectively addressed the concerns of Rep. Zeldin’s East End constituents.  However, additional language appeared in the same budget bill that potentially had far greater impact, which read

“The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is completing a new stock assessment of Atlantic Striped Bass in 2018.  After this assessment is complete, the Secretary of Commerce is directed to use this assessment to review the Federal moratorium on Atlantic Striped Bass.”

In a rational world, those events should have terminated the discussion for a while, but in the world of fisheries management, they only intensified the debate. 

The question of striped bass fishing in the EEZ has also become entwined with the argument, being pushed hard by those who don’t want to see striped bass harvest further reduced, that the benchmark assessment is wrong, and striped bass aren’t overfished, because biologists are discounting the alleged presence of striped bass in the EEZ.

“the ASMFC used flawed data that measures the Atlantic Striped Bass stock based on the entire eastern seaboard, yet failed to account for Atlantic Striped Bass outside of the 3-mile fishing area, assuming fish abide by arbitrary bureaucratic boundaries.  Alternative data that shows the Striped Bass stock is in a better place outside the 3-mile limit was not only thrown out by the Commission, but the Commission also moved to no longer provide data collection in those waters, virtually assuring that any future decision regarding the Striped Bass fishery will be based on flawed data in perpetuity.”
The only problem with such statement, and with similar statements made by others, is that it doesn’t reflect reality.  Like the “alternative data” is appears to rely on, it is composed more of wishful thinking than objective fact.  

Nowhere does the assessment suggest that offshore fish were ignored.  The assessment’s first term of reference required the assessors to

Investigate all fisheries independent and dependent data sets, including life history, indices of abundance, and tagging data.  Discuss strengths and weaknesses of the data sources.  [emphasis added]”
The injunction to examine “all data sets,” along with the striped bass’ life history seems broad enough to include any bass that sojourned in the EEZ, particularly considering the assessment’s statement that

“Striped bass are not usually found more than 6 to 8 km offshore, however Kneebone et al., using acoustic telemetry, found that adult fish that aggregate on Stellwagen Bank, located in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and beyond the 12-nautical mile territorial sea, move inshore as part of their normal migratory and feeding behavior.  Additionally, Fishery-independent data…suggests striped bass distribution on their overwintering grounds in December through February has changed significantly since the mid-2000s.  The migratory portion of the stocks has been well offshore in the EEZ (>3 miles), requiring travel as far as 25 nm offshore of Chesapeake Bay to locate fish to tag.”
Having said that, treating striped bass in the EEZ as separate from bass in state waters is, from the start, a flawed approach.  Striped bass can sometimes be found feeding, and perhaps migrating, in federal waters.  There are certain areas in the EEZ that seasonally host striped bass, and the fish winter offshore before they move into spawning areas in the spring.  But the bass that can sometimes be found offshore and the bass that spawn and feed inshore are part of the same population of fish; there is no difference between them.  

As the stock assessment notes, the bass on Stellwagen Bank “move inshore as part of their normal migratory and feeding behavior.”  They do not constitute a separate, allegedly unaccounted-for population.  The same is true of bass found elsewhere in the EEZ.

Of course, that doesn’t prevent the dockside observers, with a personal interest in keeping harvest levels high, from trying to convince others that the patterns of fish abundance and movement have changed, or that warm water is pushing fish north.

On a micro level, they might even be right, for local conditions often cause bass to change feeding and movement patterns. 

But on a macro level, with respect to the coastwide migration, such change isn’t possible, as the life history of the striped 
bass ties the fish to particular spawning rivers where a combination of water temperature, salinity and other factors meet their particular biological needs.  As the stock assessment tells us,

“Striped bass spawning areas are characteristically turbid and fresh, with significant current velocities due to normal fluvial transport or tidal action… 
“Striped bass spawn at temperatures between 10 and 23oC, but seldom at temperatures below 13 to 14oC.  Peak spawning activity occurs at about 18oC and declines rapidly thereafter…
“Newly hatched bass larvae remain in fresh or slightly brackish water until they are about 12 to 15 mm long.  At that time, they move in small schools toward shallow protected shorelines, where they remain until fall.  Over the winter, the young concentrate in deep water of rivers.  Those nursery grounds appear to include that part of the estuarine zone with salinities less than 3.2o/oo.”
That’s important, because there just aren’t that many places along the coast where bass can successfully spawn.  They certainly can’t spawn offshore, which means that any fish that spend part of their time in the EEZ still have to come inshore to reproduce. 

Thus, a recent decline in the number of fish captured in the Maryland Spawning Stock Survey or the Chesapeake Bay Multispecies Monitoring and Assessment Program can’t simply be written off by saying that the bass no longer enter the Bay, but are now in the EEZ, that their patterns of abundance have changed, or that they are now moving northward.  The stock assessment notes that

“The Chesapeake Bay stock of striped bass is widely regarded as the largest of the four major spawning stocks…
“Recent tag-recovery studies in the Rappahannock River and upper Chesapeake Bay show that larger and older (age 7+) female striped bass, after spawning, move more extensively along the Atlantic coast than stripers from the Hudson River stock.  Tag recoveries of Chesapeake stripers from July through November have occurred as far south as Virginia and as far north as Nova Scotia, Canada.  Like the Hudson River stock, nearly all recaptures of mature female striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay stock occur during winter (December and February) off Virginia and North Carolina.”
If the Chesapeake Bay spawning surveys start turning up fewer fish, that means that the stock is going to be on a downturn coastwide.  There will be fewer bass off New England, fewer off the Mid-Atlantic, and fewer wintering offshore.  While bass might be locally abundant in a few places, such local abundance represents anomalies that do not accurately reflect the overall health of the stock. 

And to be abundant, in the EEZ or anywhere else, fish have to come from somewhere.  In the case of striped bass, that “somewhere” is primarily Chesapeake Bay, with an assist from the Hudson and Delaware.

The juvenile bass survey figures coming out of the Chesapeake tell the real story. 

Thus, based on the data, and not the “alternative facts” that some choose to rely on, everyone needs to address reality.  The striped bass stock is in some trouble.  To return it to some semblance of health, fishing mortality needs to be cut, and biomass must be increased.

Right now, opening the EEZ would be a bad idea, for as the ASMFC’s Striped Bass Technical Committee concluded five years ago, when the stock was, and was believed to be, healthier than it is today

“Opening any fishery in the EEZ would not decrease fishing mortality at a time when current F estimates are above its target [and now threshold] level”;
“Tagging data indicate larger females tend to aggregate in the EEZ”;
“It is impossible for the [Technical Committee] to predict whether opening the EEZ will result in a shift or an increase in fishing effort, but any fishing that occurs in the EEZ will result in a source of mortality that is currently minimized by the prohibition.”
Now is the time for everyone to stop thinking about what they think they need, and to start concentrating on what the bass needs.

Specious arguments won't get the job done. In the end, it won't make any difference who wins the debate about size limits, seasons, or opening the EEZ.

You can't catch fish that aren't there.

If the bass loses, we’re all losers, too.

Sunday, May 26, 2019


People much like us have been on Earth for more than a quarter-million years, which might be just an eyeblink in geological time, but is more than long enough to establish patterns of behavior, and to explore all of the pathways to both enlightenment an error.  

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun.”
I started thinking about that, and its connection to fisheries management, while reading Ed Van Put’s excellent book, The Beaverkill, a while ago.

Anyone at all familiar with the history of angling in America will recognize the Beaverkill as one of the nation’s legendary trout streams, the home waters of some of the best-known fly fishermen in the country, and one of the places most associated with the forms and traditions of fly fishing in the Northeast.  However, while The Beaverkill is generally focused on the river, its trout and its anglers, it includes a far broader narrative that also encompasses the region and the people that have lived and moved through since pre-Columbian times.

Passenger pigeons are a part of that story.

At one time, they were a very significant part.  As Van Put tells us,

“Passenger pigeons nested in immense numbers, covering thousands of acres; they chose areas of dense forest, with plenty of forest and mast…
“Pigeons flying through the sky, wave after wave, in countless numbers, presented an image of ‘fearful power that frightened beasts as well as man…
“Trees were filled with nests, often fifty or more in a single treetop…so many pigeons would collect in the trees that their accumulated weight would break the branches, leaving the nesting site desolate, as if a great hurricane or tornado had swept through the forest.
“Noise and chaos were companions of the nesting ground, and the screaming and squealing pigeons made when roosting could be heard for miles: 'From an hour before sunset until nine or ten o’clock at night there is one continued roar, resembling that of a distant waterfall.’
“Even when feeding on the forest floor, pigeons were a sight long remembered.  They were so numerous and close to one another that the ground could scarcely be seen, and those who witnessed these events marveled at how they left not a leaf unturned in their search for beechnuts.”
In other words, there were a lot of them.  Or, to borrow a term from fisheries management, the biomass was extremely high.

It was so high that, when the pigeons migrated into the Beaverkill country to nest, the migration triggered a great hunt that, in those days before regulations, saw people turn out to kill birds in numbers that are unimaginable today.

“When they were in season, nothing was talked of, or eaten, but passenger pigeon.  To those settlers trying to survive the rugged existence of Catskill mountain life, they were a welcome source of food…They were salted down in barrels for winter use and shared with less fortunate neighbors whose food supply was not as plentiful.
“While some were killed for home use, the greatest number found their way to  markets in major cities. Commercially minded men were attracted to this great natural resource and killed or captured pigeons primarily for sale to restaurants and hotels…
“Once a roost was located, roads were cut into mountainsides to enable wagons to haul pigeons to market.  Buyers would erect coops or cages for holding live birds and haul in barrels and ice for shipping dead birds.  Day after day, two-horse wagons loaded with pigeons would their way out of the forest…If a rafting freshet coincided with nesting pigeons, most every raft leaving the upper Delaware carried a load of the birds…”
Billions of pigeons filled the forest, but billions of pigeons were also killed, and the pigeon hunters found themselves running up against a harsh but unavoidable reality:  High biomass, by itself, doesn’t guarantee the health of a population, whether we’re talking about passenger pigeons in the early 19th Century or fish such as black sea bass today.

Even with biomass at extremely high levels, removals—the number of individuals taken out of a population—matter.  High levels of abundance may allow higher harvests, but there is still an upper limit on the amount of mortality a population can sustain in the long term.  Today, we have science-based harvest limits, for both birds and fish, that seek to balance biomass and removals. 

Such limits are a critical part of the management process,  Even so, they’re often not popular when people see an abundance of game or fish and, concentrating on only one side of the picture, want to kill more. 

Back in the early 1800s, there were no such constraining rules, so we shouldn’t be shocked by what happened next—although we probably should be discomfited when we see some people trying to lead us down a similar road today.

The passenger pigeon population, unable to sustain the pressure that people were putting upon it, began to decline.
As Van Put notes,

“Reports by sportsmen repeatedly indicated that the passenger pigeon was in trouble.  The size of the stocks kept diminishing, while the destructive forces exploiting them multiplied.”
While he wrote about passenger pigeons, and what they were going through a century and a half ago, a lot of East Coast anglers would certainly nod their heads in agreement, and make no exception, if someone used similar language with respect to striped bass today.

What happened next seems to be part of the striped bass story, too.  Just change the dates, the species, and some of the places, and the story sounds much the same.

“By 1890, pigeons were scarce everywhere in the East.  Traditional hunting grounds were now being abandoned, and the birds were being drawn westward into the forests of Michigan, Wisconsin and Canada.  Even though everyone was aware of the wholesale slaughter of pigeons for commercial purposes, there were those who refused to believe the birds were in danger of becoming extinct.  They believed that, owing to the birds’ persecution, the pigeons simply disappeared to a distant an unexplored part of the country and hid themselves.  [emphasis added]”
It’s impossible not to draw parallels between that overly-optimistic view of the pigeon stock and today's unsupported claims that the striped bass population is not overfished, as the most recent stock assessment reveals, but instead is still thriving somewhere offshore.

It’s a claim that’s not limited to striped bass.  Over the years, I’ve heard the same things said about bluefish, about bluefin tuna, and about cod and other species that were not doing well, advanced by people who earned their livings catching fish, and might be temporarily inconvenienced if landings were cut back.

It's as if we haven't learned anything in the past 150 years, and so still make claims about fish doing fine in some distant and undiscovered locale.  It seems that some are determined to reprise the passenger pigeon’s song.

I’m not suggesting, as I write this, that the striped bass population is in any way imperiled.  As of the end of 2017, the female spawning stock biomass was still three or four times as large as it was in 1982, in the depths of the last collapse.  And even in ‘82, the stock remained a long, long way from extinction.  On the other hand, if fishery managers don’t take prompt and effective action to rebuild abundance, things could get quite a bit worse than they are right now.

In the case of the passenger pigeon,

“The cry for their protection was a long time coming, and once the birds began their downward spiral, it was too late.”
The bass stock seems much more resilient; it recovered from collapse once, and there is good reason to believe that, should it become further troubled, it could recover again.
But belief is a long way from certainty, and there’s no doubt that some things have changed.  There’s no guarantee that the bass population could recover so quickly again.

No one born in the last hundred years has seen a live passenger pigeon.  Even their parents probably never heard a flock in the woods scream and squeal.  Yet, even today, the passenger pigeon’s song reprises itself at fishery management meetings.

We hear it when fishermen try to justify bigger kills based on the size of fish stocks, but ignore the size of the kill.

We hear it when people deny stock declines by claiming that the fish “have just moved,” although data denies their contentions.

We hear it when people only think of themselves, today, and not of the world that their children live in tomorrow.

No one should be singing that sort of song anymore.

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
I never thought that old Red got much of anything right, and in his quote, he's wrong on more time.

While the passenger pigeon’s demise was certainly a tragedy, should history repeat itself, whether with striped bass, winter flounder or any other species of bird, beast or fish, it would not be a farce.

It would just be a greater tragedy, proving that there truly is nothing new under the sun, that what we have done once, we will do again, and that we truly can never learn from our mistakes.

Thursday, May 23, 2019


Whether or not we want to admit it, fisheries management is a political process.  

Yes, science now drives federal fisheries actions; federal fisheries managers employ the best available science in their largely successful efforts to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, but that’s only because politicians first drafted the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, shepherded it through both houses of Congress, and ultimately signed the bill into law.

Many different legislators, and a few different presidents, were responsible for the good law we have today, but among others, we can thank the late Sen. Ted Stevens, Republican from Alaska, for reaching across the aisle and working with Sen. Warren Magnuson, Democrat from Washington, for drafting the law that now bears their names.  And we can thank Sen. Stevens for his hard work, over the next three full decades, to make Magnuson-Stevens an ever-improving bill, that placed ever-greater emphasis on the need for conservation.

We can thank Republican President Gerald Ford for signing the original bill into law.  Two decades later, we can thank former Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrist of Maryland for his important role in getting the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 through the House; without his hard efforts, the current requirements to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks might never have been made law.

And we can thank Republican President George W. Bush, perhaps the most underappreciated voice in the history of marine conservation, for his insistence that overfishing be ended once and for all, and his role in assuring that language intended to do just that was included in Magnuson-Stevens’ 2006 reauthorization.

Yes, there were a lot of Democrats involved in the process, too, and that’s precisely my point.  For more than 30 years, fisheries conservation was a very bipartisan issue, with leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties working hard to assure that the nation would enjoy sustainable fisheries in the long term.

Marine conservation is not a liberal/Democratic plot to weaken the economy and put people out of business.  While it has historically been a Democratic priority, marine conservation had been a core value of the Republicans as well, for well over three decades.

At least, up until a few years ago, that’s how it used to be.  

Today, the fisheries debate has been infected by a rabid partisanship, although some courageous legislators have been willing to cross party lines to oppose truly bad bills such as H.R.200, which would have severely weakened the conservation provisions ofMagnuson-Stevens.

“With the removal of some deeply-flawed, job killing federal regulations, the trend has been for the federal government to step out of the way, making it easier for businesses to start up, build and expand.  Reducing burdensome taxes and rescinding poorly designed regulations allow businesses to boom in our local communities as well as all across the country, translating into even more growth…”

Such sentiments, coupled with his dismal voting record on conservation issues, make it clear that he values clean air, clean waterways and healthy oceans far less than he values increased cash flows, and would probably have no problem going back to the policies of the mid-1950s, when humming factories produced products and jobs at the same time that they poured pollutants into the air and waters, and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River actually erupted in flames.

He treats fisheries the same way, emphasizing short-term economic gain rather than the long-term health of the resource, seeking to gut conservation measures that, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests, he doesn’t even understand.

The intent of that bill was nothing remarkable.  

Since the mid-1980s, federal waters—the nation’s “Exclusive Economic Zone,” or “EEZ”—has been closed to striped bass fishing, initially as a measure intended to rebuild a collapsed striped bass stock, and later as tool to better control landings in the striped bass fishery.  For many years, fishermen in some places—including New York’s 1st District—have been clamoring to be able to fish for striped bass in the EEZ, and legislators have been trying to change the law.

To that extent, Rep. Zeldin’s bill was nothing but another iteration of efforts that had failed in the past.  But they way that he went about trying to change and “clarify” the EEZ, for fishery management purposes, was truly remarkable--in a very weird way.  

“For purposes of all Federal laws governing marine fisheries management—
(1)    the landward boundary of the exclusive economic zone between the area south of Montauk, New York, and the area south of Point Judith, Rhode Island, shall be a continuous line running—
(A)    from a point 3 miles south of the southernmost point of Montauk to a point 3 miles south of the southernmost part of Block Island, Rhode Island, and
(B)    from such point 3 miles south of the southernmost point of Block Island, Rhode Island, to a point 3 miles south of the southern most [sic] point of Point Judith…”

I figured that readers might be interested in what that line might look like, so I inscribed it in black on the chart below.

Apparently, Rep. Zeldin never bothered to do that, because as you’ll note, his proposed change to the EEZ would have run square through the southeast corner of Block Island.  

So, while his constituents in Montauk might have had greater access to waters west of the Island, Rep. Zeldin was apparently willing to make criminals out of honest surfcasters, who might not know that they were illegally fishing for stripers in federal waters, even though they were standing on shore.

Still, such negligence, laziness or lack of intellectual engagement is, sadly, not completely unknown in Washington.  That's particularly true when a constituent, who in today’s political climate could possibly also be a campaign donor, wants to get something done.  And, anyway, the error was corrected in a later amendment to bill, which was made, it should be noted, by Arizona Rep. Gosar, who comes from a land unlike Long Island, where wild striped bass are unknown, but cartographic skills are, apparently, somewhat more common.

But what has taken Rep. Zeldin beyond the pale was not his casual approach to geography, but rather his recent attack on two dedicated people who are trying to help manage marine fisheries not only for the good of all New Yorkers, but the good of the nation, when he didn’t get his way on striped bass. 

It was a snit worthy of a spoiled two-year-old, but not for a federal legislator, and it came out in a press release dated May 21, 2019, titled

Reading it, it’s difficult to believe that it was written by staff in a Congressman’s office.  Then again, remembering the EEZ-through-Block Island fiasco, maybe it wasn’t.  It might have been something that was just passing through, given the Congressman’s imprimatur, but no serious thought. 

Either way, it was wrong, both in its attacks and in its comments on the fishery management process, which again demonstrated a serious lack of understanding.  Taking a look at some of the content makes that very clear.  

The release begins

“Today, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1) blasted New York’s delegates to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) following the conclusion of this month’s spring meeting, during which no progress was made in rectifying New York’s already inequitable quotas for species across the board, including Black Sea Bass, Striped Bass and Fluke.”
While it’s true that New York’s commercial fluke quota probably is inequitable, that quota is set at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, not ASMFC, so it’s not really reasonable to expect progress on that to emanate from a body with no control over the issue.  And New York is already suing the NationalMarine Fisheries Service over the issue, so it’s not clear exactly what Rep. Zeldin expected the state’s ASMFC reps to do.

If, on the other hand, Rep. Zeldin was referring to recreational fisheries, then he probably missed the part about the 2019 summer flounder recreational harvest limit being increased by 74% above what it was in 2018—although that is coming from NMFS, too, and not from ASMFC.  As far as striped bass go, New York doesn’t have a recreational quota, but fishes under a coastwide fishing mortality target—which means that there isn’t any recreational “quota” at all.

But, I suppose, those are just insignificant details.  Sort of like the SE corner of Block Island…

Black sea bass deserve a mention all their own, because Rep. Zeldin got so much wrong.  He claims that

“Last year, the ASMFC cut New York’s Black Sea Bass quota by 12%,”

which just isn’t true.  

While the ASMFC originally tried to cut New York’s 2018 recreational allocation by that amount, it ultimately did not do so, thanks to the tireless efforts of the very New York State representatives to ASMFC who Rep. Zeldin reviled, who worked with their other colleagues in the northeast to win a 2% increase in 2018 quota.  

“I don’t need to go to two decimal places to count 6 to 4…When you’re bargaining from a losing position to start with, it really doesn’t make you all that comfortable.”
Given the current balance of power in the House of Representatives, Rep. Zeldin should be able to appreciate that sort of situation, and not be unduly critical.  Or, perhaps we should all hold him to his own standard, and see how well he does in getting his own legislation past majority opposition in the 116th Congress. 

And, of course, to condemn him should he fail.

But where things start to really go off the rails is when Rep. Zeldin discusses striped bass, saying

“New York fishermen faced a major blow due to ASMFC’s decision to cut the Atlantic Striped Bass fishery by up to 17% next year and maintain the current ban on striped bass fishing in the Block Island Sound Transit Zone.  Rather than rooting these decisions in local stock assessments,”
for, after all, if there’s plenty off Montauk, nothing else,

“the ASMFC used flawed data that measures the Atlantic Striped Bass stock based on the entire eastern seaboard,”
just because they happen to migrate, and all spawn in the same places.

The “flawed data” claim is particularly interesting, given that the proposed reduction is based upon a stock assessment that found the bass overfished and subject to overfishing, which passed peer-review by a panel of respected fisheries scientists.  Rep. Zeldin, as far as I know, has no formal training in biology, but he instinctively understood that the peer reviewers were wrong.  

How could he come to such a conclusion?  Because

“Alternative data that shows the Striped Bass stock is in a better place outside the 3-mile limit was not only thrown out by the Commission.”
“Alternative data?”

Those must be something like “alternative facts” that have, at times, been favorably mentioned by While House staff.  That makes a sort of sense, as Rep. Zeldin is a very ardent supporter of the current Administration.  

“Alternative facts have been called many things: falsehoods, untruths, delusions.  A fact is something that actually exists—what we would call ‘reality” or ‘truth.’  An alternative is one of the choices in a set of given options; typically, the options are opposites of each other.  So to talk about alternative facts is to talk about the opposite of reality (which is delusion), or the opposite of truth (which is untruth).”
So yes, we can probably think about “alternative data” in the same way.

I could go on, but this is already getting too long, and I still haven’t gotten to the most damning points, Rep. Zeldin’s attack on two U.S. citizens who have been working hard and long for the good of our fish and our fishermen:  Jim Gilmore, who heads the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Division, and Capt. John McMurray, who sits as the proxy for the state’s Legislative Appointee to ASMFC.

Rep. Zeldin averred that

“The only thing that New York’s delegates to the ASMFC seem to be effective at is taking it lying down,”
which makes it abundantly clear that he never bothered to attend an ASMFC meeting, or even review a transcript, to see just how hard both Mr. Gilmore and Capt. McMurray work for the people of the state—although not, perhaps, for those few who share Rep. Zeldin’s apparent belief that killing more fish in the name of more profit should trump science-based management measures, and let the future be damned.

That’s an important point with Mr. Gilmore.  He came into his position a while after his predecessor, Gordon Colvin, retired, and as is always the case in such situation, I didn’t know what to make of the man.  I withheld my judgment for a while, until one day, maybe in 2009 or 2010, when he called a meeting at a facility down on Oak Beach, a stretch of barrier island in the Town of Babylon.

New York was considering a saltwater fishing license, which was badly needed to fund what was then the Marine Bureau's operations.  He was getting a lot of push back from the local tackle dealers and some of the for-hire boatmen—the same sort of folks who now support Rep. Zeldin—who were arguing that requiring a license might deter some people from fishing, and so cut into their income.  

Every time Mr. Gilmore tried to explain how they might benefit from better management, the objections droned on and on.

Finally, he had enough.  I’ll probably get some of the words wrong, but the gist of things right, when I quote him as saying, in a fed-up tone

“I live right across the bay there in Amityville”
and he pointed to where he grew up and still lives

“I took this job because I want to help my kids enjoy the same things that I did when I was their age.  If you’re not willing to let me do that, I might as well quit right now!”
There was no doubt of the sincerity in his voice, and that was the point I decided that he had his head in the right place, was pointed in the right direction, and deserved all of the support he could get.  

A decade has passed, and after watching him in action, I still feel that way.  We might disagree on some issues, but even when he does what I think is the “wrong” thing, he does it for the right reason—protecting both the state’s fish and its fishermen in the long term.  

Quite bluntly, as a New Yorker and a recreational fishermen, I’m proud that we have him, and just as proud of the team that he’s built.  They work to hard to put up with the unjustified criticism, such as Rep. Zeldin’s, that they too often hear.

It is interesting to note that Rep. Zeldin says that

“It is imperative that New York State step up to the plate for our fishermen and pursue alternative data collection methods so that flawed decisions made by the ASMFC can be challenged,”
because Mr. Gilmore feels the same way, and wanted to use revenues from the saltwater license for just such a purpose.

However, as soon as the license was, in fact, adopted, it faced stiff opposition, including very strong opposition from Rep. Zeldin, who at the time was a state senator.  In March 2011, his Senate office issued a release that featured a banner announcing

“Victory!  Senator Lee M. Zeldin restoring your right to fish for free,”
after the license fee was repealed--and the DEC was denied much-needed funds.

So when Rep. Zeldin wants to know why New York isn’t able to perform its own data collection, he shouldn’t look to Mr. Gilmore or the folks at the DEC.

Instead, he should look in a mirror.  And that’s not an “alternative fact.”

If Rep. Zeldin has a problem with Mr. Gilmore, it’s because the DEC does its job too well, and doesn’t allow the states public resources to be abused by a private few.

It’s a similar case with Capt. McMurray, a former U.S. Coast Guardsman who was involved in fisheries enforcement efforts while in the service, and now runs a very successful light-tackle guide service.  Capt. McMurray is a passionate supporter of science-based management, who has served three terms on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and has also served as proxy to legislative appointees to ASMFC from both sides of the aisle.  

Rep. Zeldin attacks him as well, calling him an

“anti-fishermen fisherman…, the antithesis of who should be appointed to the ASMFC,”
who has

“repeatedly villainized the very hard-working Long Islanders he is supposed to represent.”
That probably comes as a big surprise to all of the anglers who swarm into his talks at area clubs, visit him when he speaks at local venues, and happen to be one of his many friends.  But it comes as no surprise as a political tactic, for it is line straight out of the radical right's playbook, where a conservation advocate is being denigrated for speaking out against those who would use what Rep. Zeldin calls “alternative data” to exploit public resources in the short term, and leave little but desolation behind.

I’ve known Capt. McMurray for about 20 years, and know that he gets along with fishermen very well, although he has gotten into some problems with poachers, who get very upset when he sends their non-alternative data to the Coast Guard and DEC.  I know that he has kids and, like Mr. Gilmore, he wants them to have the same rich life near that water that he has enjoyed.

That makes him an obstacle to some.

I also know that he’s a guy who, like all of us, is trying to keep things together.

I know that his power and influence, such as it is, is very small, especially when compared to that of a federal legislator.  And for a federal legislator to use his much greater power, position and bully pulpit to—there is no other word—bully a private citizen volunteering his time to a public cause, and to treat a dedicated state employee in the same way is, in my view, a blatant abuse of position and power.

It is wrong.

It is inexcusable.

It is what Rep. Zeldin has done.

Sunday, May 19, 2019


There’s an ongoing misunderstanding about fisheries management that often appears in print, when people aver that fisheries are, or legally should be, managed for “maximum sustainable yield.”

The term “maximum sustainable yield” isn’t even defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law that governs all fishing in the federal waters of the United States, although the law does employ that phrase on five occasions (three of those occurring in a single definition).  However, it is defined in related regulations as

“the largest long-term average catch or yield that can be taken from a stock or stock complex under prevailing ecological, environmental conditions and fishery technological characteristics (e.g., gear selectivity), and the distribution of catch among fleets.”
Maximum sustainable yield thus marks the precipice, the point where overfishing begins.  The regulations recognize that fact, and state that

“Overfishing occurs whenever a stock or stock complex is subjected to a level of fishing mortality or total catch that jeopardizes the capacity of a stock or stock complex to produce MSY on a continuing basis.”
Harvesting every last fish possible to achieve maximum sustainable yield is a very risky management approach, as any mistake in calculating either the size of fish stocks or the level of harvest that such stocks can sustain in the long term could easily lead to a population decline.  And there is always enough uncertainty in scientific estimates to assure that, sooner or later, such a mistake will be made.

Thus, Magnuson-Stevens calls for fish stocks to be managed not for maximum sustainable yield, but for optimum yield, which the law defines this way:

“The term “optimum,” with respect to the yield from a fishery, means the amount of fish which—
(A)    will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems;
(B)    is prescribed as such on the basis of maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor; and
(C)    in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield from such fishery.”

“The determination of [optimum yield] is a decisional mechanism for resolving the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s conservation and management objectives, achieving [a fishery management plan’s] objectives, and balancing the various interests that comprise the greatest overall benefit to the Nation.  OY is based on MSY as reduced under paragraphs e(3)(iii)(A) and (B) of this section.  The most important limitation on the specification of OY is that the choice of OY and the conservation and management measures proposed to achieve it must prevent overfishing.  [emphasis added]”
Those definitions open up some interesting possibilities, and dispel some common misconceptions, particularly when linked with other existing regulations.

For example, optimum yield is more than just maximum sustainable yield, possibly reduced to account for a handful of factors.  Optimum yield is, first and foremost, a tool to prevent overfishing.

The regulations don’t say that the most important role of optimum yield is to maximize harvest, or recreational opportunity, or even to enhance marine ecosystems.  First, above any other consideration, optimum yield “must prevent overfishing.” 

That word “must” takes away all discretion.  Overfishing must not occur.

That means that, as a practical matter, optimum yield should be set at a level somewhat lower than MSY.  In theory, if fishery managers’ calculations were absolutely precise, and allowed for no error at all, optimum yield could safely equal maximum sustainable yield.  But in the real world, there is always some level of uncertainty, and that uncertainty means that optimum yield, if properly set, will always be less than MSY.

Earlier, I used the brink of a precipice as a metaphor for MSY; as is the case with any precipice, disaster could easily ensue if one slipped over the edge.  To extend that metaphor just a bit farter, uncertainty is fog, that makes it harder to tell when the brink is drawing close.  

In the case of some fish stocks, that are blessed with good data, managers can come fairly close to the edge—to MSY—with little risk of going beyond; in the case of others, where uncertainties are rife, they’re proceeding in the densest pea soup imaginible, where the slightest haste or lack of care could lead to serious problems.

Because that risk is very real, Congress has established a procedure to help the regional fishery management councils negotiate foggy terrain without falling off the edge of a cliff.  Magnuson-Stevens requires that each regional fishery management council

“develop annual catch limits for all of its managed fisheries that may not exceed the fishing level recommendations of its scientific and statistical committee or the peer review process established [elsewhere in the law].”
Such fishing level recommendations are set in accord with the concept of “acceptable biological catch,” which is defined in the regulations as

“a level of a stock or stock complex’s annual catch, which is based on an ABC control rule that accounts for the scientific uncertainty in the estimates of [the overfishing limit, which is effectively equivalent to MSY], any other scientific uncertainty, and the Council’s risk policy.”
Thus, annual catch limits will almost certainly be set some way below MSY even before the “economic, social, and ecological factors” used to finally establish optimum yield are considered.

When those factors are considered, things begin to get even more interesting, particularly for recreational fishermen.

Fishery managers have long emphasized yield, effectively working to maximize the number of dead fish that can be piled up on the dock.  Some people have argued that is essentially a commercial management measure, and not appropriate for recreational fisheries.

“The benefits of recreational opportunities reflect the quality of both the recreational fishing experience and non-consumptive fishery uses such as ecotourism, fish watching, and recreational diving.”
Leaving a bare minimum number of fish in the water, that is, a biomass equal to Bmsy, isn't likely to provide such benefits.

So when you hear someone say that management is all about yield, and that abundance and similar concepts have no solid foundation in fisheries law, you can feel free to ignore them.  Reducing landings in order to enhance the recreational experience is very much contemplated by the current regulations.

Things become even more interesting when one looks at what may be included under the broad heading of social, economic, or ecological factors relevant to a decision to further separate optimum yield from MSY.

“prudent consideration of the risk of overharvesting when a stock size or reproductive potential is uncertain, satisfaction of consumer and recreational needs,…the decrease in cost per unit of catch afforded by an increase in stock size, [and] the attendant increase in catch per unit of effort…,”
which are all factors that favor managing for building a larger biomass, rather than merely concentrating on landings.

Striped bass are not a federally-managed fish, but given a recent Southwick Associates study, which shows how participation in the striped bass fishery fell off as striped bass became less abundant, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that, at least in the case of species targeted primarily for recreation, higher abundance leads to greater levels of angler participation, which in turn generate greater economic benefits, and thus justify lowering optimum yield for such species on economic considerations alone.

Establishing optimum yield at a lower level for primarily recreational species would also be supported by social considerations, most particularly, as noted in the regulations, the

“enjoyment gained from recreational fishing”
when there are enough fish in the water to provide for frequent hookups, even for relatively unexperienced anglers or anglers who must wait until fish come within range of a pier or of shore before they can catch them.

But setting optimum yield isn’t just about establishing harvest levels that suit participants in a fishery; fishing’s impact on the entire ecosystem needs to be taken into account.  Thus, the regulations inform us,

“…Species interactions that have not explicitly been taken into account when calculating MSY should be considered as relevant factors for setting OY below MSY.  In addition, consideration should be given to managing forage stocks for higher biomass than Bmsy to enhance and protect the marine ecosystem.  Also important are ecological or environmental conditions that stress marine organisms or their habitat, such as natural or manmade changes in wetlands or nursery grounds, and effects of pollutants on habitat and stocks.”
That language makes it clear that, when fishermen wish to escape responsibility, in the form of reduced landings, for a declining stock, and seek to put the blame for decreasing abundance on inshore pollution, wetlands development or the impacts of warming waters, they are unintentionally undercutting their own position, and making a case for reducing optimum yield, and probably increasing catch restrictions, on the basis of relevant ecological factors.

Clearly, the concept of optimum yield is a powerful and far-reaching fishery management tool.

Although regional fishery management councils have not yet realized the full potential that the concept of optimum yield provides, they have already made a slow start in that direction.  While it’s very easy to argue that such councils need to do a lot more to fully and explicitly integrate the concept of optimum yield in their fishery management plans, one thing is already clear.

Managing for optimum yield is very different from managing for MSY.

And it is precisely what federal fisheries law requires.