Sunday, July 28, 2019

YOU CAN'T CATCH FISH THAT AREN'T THERE


The striped bass debate will hit one of its short-term milestones on August 8.



While, under the management plan, it should be taking both actions right now, we should note that even ending overfishing has become a controversial issue, with some Management Board members arguing that standards should be relaxed in order to allow a higher annual kill and smaller spawning stock biomass.  One of the most vocal proponents of allowing more harvest has been Michael Luisi, a fishery manager from Maryland, who has claimed that

He has also claimed that


“One of the reasons for those impacts to the state of Maryland is the lack of variety of other fish to target.  The charterboat industry has been built around striped bass fishing.  We don’t have the same opportunity given the proximity of Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay to the ocean.  We don’t have the variety to bring people in.”
He told other members of the Management Board that

“If you’re not catching striped bass you can move on to another species, it is just not available for us…”
It’s an interesting argument, because it underlines something that has become more and more true as a number of recreationally-important fish stocks decline, and some, for all practical purposes, disappear:  You can’t catch fish that aren’t there, and it’s very hard to maintain a viable recreational fishing industry with a shrinking handful of species.

In the long term, a healthy industry depends on healthy fish populations.

Abundance matters.

Yet abundance often seems like a bad word to members of the charter boat fleet, who often show up at hearings to oppose needed regulation and demanding things be kept at the status quo.  At the same time that some charter boat operators are demanding more—or, at the least, not fewer—fish for their customers, their opposition to science-based regulation ignores the effects of dwindling fish stocks on their fleet.

Here in New York, the charter boats striped bass landings declined from nearly 120,000 fish in 2014 to 72,000 fish in 2015, which is understandable given the bag limit reduction in Addendum IV.  But the downhill trend continued after that, while regulations remained the same, dropping to 42,500 fish in 2016, 37,300 fish in 2017 and a mere 13,800 fish last year.  Given the overfished stock and continued overfishing, it’s hard to believe that things won’t keep getting worse unless new regulations reverse the trend and build up bass abundance again.

Yet I’m constantly hearing rumors that much of the industry stands opposed to the 35-inch minimum size (or equivalent slot limit with a 40-inch cap) needed to end overfishing.  If those rumors are true, it seems that the fleet is ready to shoot itself in both feet, and oppose the only action likely to improve stock abundance and give their customers reason to leave the dock.


But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Take Maryland out of the picture—and remember that Maryland was fishing on the dominant 2011 year class while it was still immature and unavailable to fishermen on the coast—and the numbers tell a different and more truthful tale, with landings going from 267,000 in 2014 to 246,000 in 2015, then to down to 90,000 in 2016, up to 120,000 in 2017 as the 2011s recruited into the fishery, and then back down to just 82,000 in 2018, suggesting that the 2011s might not have as long-lasting impact on the coast as we may have hoped.

Yes, there is a problem with stripers.

So perhaps it is time to take a deeper look at Mr. Luisi’s claim that charter boats along most of the coast have something else to fish for when striped bass become scarce.  Between Maine and North Carolina, the most logical replacement species to look at are probably bluefish, which are often caught along with striped bass, and summer flounder, scup and black sea bass, which form the heart of the region’s “meat” fishery.

The good news is that black sea bass and scup are doing well, with a current biomass well in excess of the target level.  While neither bluefish nor summer flounder have been declared overfished, and neither has yet been found to experiencing overfishing (although the stock assessment update for bluefish, expected to be released in September, ought to be watched in that regard) numbers of both seem to have been falling coastwide, as have charter boat landings.


We also see a robust black sea bass stock, that saw charterboat landings rise sharply from nearly 380,000 in 2014 to 870,000 in 2015, when substantial overfishing occurred in states between New Jersey and New England, but then also stabilize in the mid- to high 200,000s as a new 2016 stock assessment provided regulators with better insights needed to manage the fishery.

On the other hand, both bluefish and summer flounder saw sharp declines in charter boat landings, which are suggestive of a decline in abundance.  

Bluefish landings in the New England/Mid-Atlantic region increased from 310,000 in 2014 to 470,000 in 2015, then dropped sharply, to 155,000 in 2016, 130,000 in 2017, and just 65,000 in 2018, a trend that makes it very clear that bluefish won’t provide much of an alternative to declining striped bass abundance.


So summer flounder don’t seem to be providing striped bass fishermen with another alternative, either.

What we’re seeing seems to be a declining abundance of striped bass, bluefish and summer flounder, with a healthy and stable abundance of black sea bass and scup.

What we’re also seeing is a steady decline in the number of charter boat trips that people are taking in the New England/Mid-Atlantic region.  

For the five year period 2014-2018, that effort has dropped from a high of more than 950,000 trips in 2015 to a low of 455,000 trips—a bit less than half of the trips taken one year before—in 2016, and a seeming stabilization in the low 500,000s.

If I was in the charter boat business, that trend would have me concerned.

While we all know the old saying that “correlation does not necessarily indicate causation,” it’s hard not to believe that a lot more people would be going fishing, and patronizing the charter boat trade, if fish were more abundant.  Because fishing in a depleted ocean isn’t too much fun, and paying a charter boat in order to do so makes less and less sense as the fish disappear.

Thus, you would think that charter boat captains would be some of the most vocal supporters of fisheries conservation, and some—mostly those in the small boat/lighttackle “guide” business—are.  

But the fact is that, throughout the New England/Mid-Atlantic region, far too many in the charter boat business still tell regulators that there are no problems with any fish stocks, and that rules should remain as they are.

I keep hoping for some kind of breakthrough.

I keep telling myself that, one of these days, people will realize that if they want to have a fishing industry, they also need to have fish.

I hope that the striped bass decline will finally force folks to accept the fact that, far from hurting their businesses, good fishery management is the only thing that keeps them alive.  Because, Mr. Luisi’s statements to the contrary, no one will have too much to fish for if we don’t staunch the striped bass decline.


Thursday, July 25, 2019

RIGHTSIZING OUR FISHERIES


I spent most of my professional life in the corporate world, where maximizing profit was the name of the game, and layoffs—what the folks in the personnel departments euphemistically called “rightsizing”—were a sort of Sword of Damocles that hung above everyone’s head every time someone decided that the next quarter’s income might not be enough to support the firm’s whole legal staff.

Over the course of my career, I probably survived 30 or more rounds of layoffs, including the particularly deep and hard layoffs that came during my brief tenure with the now-defunct Lehman Brothers financial services firm.  But a lot of people didn’t survive.  There were lawyers and paralegals, secretaries and computer techs (along with a wide assortment of sales, support and back-office personnel) who came to work one morning only to find themselves escorted from their desks to a quick interview with one of the Human Resources hitmen, and then escorted out of the building.

A lot of those people provided the sole support, or at least a significant portion thereof, for their spouses and kids, but nonetheless suddenly found themselves with no income at all, and a daunting lifestyle change.

While some who were axed were truly dead wood, and should have seen the axe coming, most were reasonably good at their jobs, but just weren’t versatile enough, or didn’t provide value enough compared to their salaries, to be kept on the payroll when hard times began (and yes, there were some who just worked for awful bosses, who let the good people go to protect their favorites, but they were a smaller part of the whole).

The bottom line is that when “rightsizing” occurs, there are winners and losers.  The losers don’t have to be bad people or bad at what they do.  But when the hard times come, and there aren’t enough resources to go around, managers are often forced to make the choice between laying off some people who might not deserve it, or ending up in a place where no one survives.

Fishing is also a business, and in many fisheries, there are more fishermen than there are fish to support them.  We’ve thus reached a point where rightsizing needs to come to the fishing industry, too.

I started thinking about this a little bit more recently, because New York is in the early stages of trying to balance the number of commercial fishermen to the number of fish that they’re allowed to catch.  The state has to take some sort of action, because at the moment, there aren’t enough fish to go around.

From what I can see, the state is working hard to go about things in the right way.  The Department of Environmental Conservation is trying to avoid any biases that might exist within the agency; instead of relying on its own familiarity with the commercial fishery, it hired George LaPointe Consulting LLC to provide an outsider's insight. 


Now, it is up to the Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Legislature to consider the report, the fishermen’s comments and any advice provided by the Marine Resources Advisory Council, then move forward with measures that will better align the number of commercial fishermen with the number of fish available to them.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has begun a difficult task.

The consultant’s report included a number of recommendations, including

·         Reducing the number of latent (currently unused) commercial licenses by requiring license holders to demonstrate a certain minimum level of fishing activity, in order to prevent a sharp increase in fishing activity at some point in the future, should the fishermen who currently hold latent licenses either increase their fishing activity or transfer such licenses to someone who intends to fish more actively.
·         Using income from all fishing activities as the standard for qualifying for a commercial fishing license.
·         Not separating the fishing community into full-time and part-time fishermen.
·         Making it easier to transfer fishing licenses to immediate family members, but not relaxing the rules on license transferability to non-family members.
·         Making it easier for long-time applicants for new commercial licenses to succeed by weighting the current lottery system to consider the length of time persons have been applying for such licenses.
·         Creating an apprentice program that would provide a path for new entrants into the commercial fishery to obtain a license.
·         Exempting a fisherman, for a limited period, from the qualifying income provision if such fishermen had to leave the fishery in response to a medical issue.
New York is far from the only state looking into such issues.  


And there is another similarity between the effort in New York and the one in North Carolina—a substantial number of commercial fishermen didn’t like it.

Earlier this month, I attended two meetings where commercial fishermen were asked to comment on the consultant’s report.  One occurred on the day the report was released; the other was a Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting called solely to address the licensing issue. 

I contributed very little to the conversation at either meeting, because I wanted to hear the very diverse opinions of the commercial fishing community, and then try to synthesize those opinions, the consultant’s report, and the very real need to reduce fishing effort into some sort of viable opinion.

I found that the commercial fishing industry itself is split in many different ways.

Some full-time commercial fishermen recognize that current finfish quotas are too small to support a full-time fleet.  In order to survive, they have obtained licenses from states besides New York, so that they can land a part of their catch in out-of-state ports under out-of-state quotas.  They also target non-finfish species, such as squid, in order to boost their incomes.  Generally, such fishermen support income requirements and a reduction in the number of latent licenses outstanding.

But other full-timers are completely opposed to taking licenses away from anyone, not even from those who have no current landings.  They might support dividing licenses into full-time and part-time categories, despite the recommendation in the consultant’s report.  They might support limitations on transfer, and seem to be universally in favor of some sort of standards being imposed on new entrants into the fishery.  But removing latent licenses from circulation is an idea that makes them uneasy.

Reducing the number of latent licenses was also roundly opposed by those who don’t fish full-time.  That category includes a broad swath of fishermen.  

Some have full-time jobs, replete with medical insurance and other benefits, but still fish to supplement their incomes.  Others are more jacks-of-all-trades, who fish a little, and engage in other work, in order to cobble together enough to survive.

Some are retirees, who fish to supplement Social Security or pension payments.  Some are former fishermen who want to fish again if and when their target species become more abundant.  

And one fisherman even admitted that he wasn’t selling any fish, but fished under his commercial license from time to time just so that he could bring home more fish than the recreational limits allowed (that issue arose in North Carolina, too).

In the end, the meetings produced many points of view, some good information, a lot of emotion and little real guidance.  

Two more meetings with fishermen are going tobe held in late August, and hopefully they will provide regulators and legislators with a little more light.

But having said that, I think that the fishery managers and the legislators are going to have to make a lot of hard decisions if they’re going to make any headway on the issue, and I think that if the Department of Environmental Conservation comes to a firm decision on the issue—as I believe it very much wants to do—a lot of people aren’t going to be happy with the way things turn out.

As one of the fishermen I spoke to before the meeting said, “There will be winners and losers.”  And losers are never happy about their lot.

That’s why I began with the “rightsizing” comments.

My thoughts on the issue are still evolving, and I may still change my mind.  But right now, my views are coalescing around the fact that fishing is a business, and that as a business, it is subject to the same hard economic and other realities that govern every business, whether it is a local restaurant to Sears, Roebuck.  

No company can spend more than it earns for long, and companies—and industries—must adapt to change or die.  

Right now, I believe that the consultant’s report is on the right track, at least for New York and the current political reality (if I had my way, I’d take a totally different path, and adopt a more marketplace-oriented solution, but that would have no chance of getting agency approval, much less making it through the New York legislature, at all).

What that means is that, in order to make New York's fishing industry viable in the long term, it will have to be rightsized.  Some fishermen will have to be laid off, whether they like it or not.

The ones affected will oppose such decision, but in fairness, they will be the fishermen who fail to meet the income requirements, who fish only to supplement their income, and not to pay their mortgages and put food on their family’s table.  So, unlike the many, many folks who have been laid off from their primary jobs, the part-time fishermen will only lose a relatively small share of their income.

And by so reducing the number of fishermen, the state will be better able to increase trip limits for the fishermen who remain, many of whom depend on fishing income for all the essentials of life.

Yes, it’s a tough decision.  But it makes business sense.

And it may be the only decision that, in the long term, will let New York's fishing industry survive.

I don't know whether the powers that be will ultimately come to the same conclusion, but I strongly suspect that, whether in New York or elsewhere, other folks presented with the same set of facts with reach the same conclusion and make the same call.



Sunday, July 21, 2019

THE "WHY" OF MANAGING FISHERIES


Fisheries management is often viewed as a scientific discipline, but science is only one aspect of the management process. Before biologists can determine how a fishery ought to be managed, they need to understand the politics and policies that determine why management measures are needed.

These days, we often think of fishery management in terms of conservation. However, while federal fishery managers have certainly ended overharvest in many fisheries, and have successfully rebuilt a number of once-overfished stocks, they have done so only because such actions were mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. If that law was worded differently, as it was prior to 1996, conservation concerns could easily be subordinated to economic considerations, as they were under the original Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976.

At one time, scientists didn’t believe that saltwater fisheries needed to be managed at all. In 1883, Professor Thomas Henry Huxley made the opening speech at the London Fisheries Exhibition, when he opined that

the sea which shuts us in, at the same time opens up its supplies of food of almost unlimited extent…
Are fisheries exhaustible? That is to say, can all the fish that naturally inhabit a given area be extirpated by the agency of man?
…A salmon fishery then (and the same applies to all river fisheries) can be extirpated by man because man is, under ordinary circumstances, one of the chief agents of destruction, and, for the same reason, its exhaustion can usually be prevented, because man’s operations may be controlled and reduced to any extent that may be desired by force of law.
And now arises the question, Does the same reasoning apply to the sea fisheries? Are there any sea fisheries that are exhaustible, and, if so, are the circumstances of the case such that they can be efficiently protected? I believe that it may be affirmed with confidence that, in relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of our most important sea fisheries, such as the cod fishery, the herring fishery, and the mackerel fishery, are inexhaustible. And I base this conclusion on two grounds, first, that the multitude of these fisheries is so inconceivably great that the number we catch is relatively insignificant, and secondly, that the magnitude of the destructive agencies at work upon them is so prodigious, that the destruction effected by the fishermen cannot sensibly increase the death rate.” [emphasis added]

Huxley’s words may seem terribly na├»ve today, when cod stocks on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine have effectively collapsed, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that Atlantic herring are suffering from overfishing while Atlantic mackerel are overfished.

Yet Wilbur Ross, the current Secretary of Commerce, almost seemed to echo Huxley’s unjustified optimism at his confirmation hearing, when he expressed his belief that fish should be managed for maximum sustainable yield, and remarked that “Given the enormity of our coastlines, given the enormity of our freshwater, I would like to try to figure out how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter,” even though reaching such goal would require nearly a tenfold increase in U.S. seafood landings.

Such comments, along with his later decisions to override the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s finding that New Jersey regulations didn’t adequately protect summer flounder and to allow anglers to overfish red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, strongly suggest that the Secretary, like Professor Huxley, believes that fisheries should be exploited for the highest practicable yield.

The idea that fish stocks should be managed for the highest possible landings, and the economic benefits that such landings might bring, has persisted for a very long time. It has been distilled into the saying “Any fish that dies of old age is wasted.”
It took a very long time before managers began to realize that maintaining healthy and abundant stocks of fish was an inherently worthwhile goal, even without reference to food production or economic gain. Even today, some veteran scientists, who usually have close ties to the fishing industry, still view maximized landings as the holy grail of fishery management.
Thus, when Dr. Brian J. Rothschild, a respected marine biologist from the University of Massachusetts, testified before Congress in 2010, he complained of fishery regulations leading to “underfishing” in New England waters.

It is generally not realized that fishery management in New England over the last several years has limited landings to [approximately] 25% of the scientifically allowable catch. This amounts to a 75% waste of the resource amounting to an ex-vessel…loss at the dock of $300-400 million per year…It is important to recognize that the underfishing statistics are very difficult to interpret. (For example, the Gulf of Maine cod [total allowable catch] in 2007 was 10,000 tons. The landings amounted to only 4,000 tons. In other words, 6,000 tons of cod disappeared. The 6,000 tons were either not caught, discarded, or not reported.) [emphasis added]

To understand such train of thought, it is important to note that Dr. Rothschild’s deemed New England groundfish to be “wasted” solely because they were not landed, despite their continued contributions to the marine ecosystem; similarly, the 6,000 tons of cod that might have been, but ultimately were not, landed “disappeared,” despite the high likelihood that most of them remained in the ocean, where they augmented the spawning population of what was already an overfished stock.

In recent years, such a utilitarian philosophy of fishery management has begun to yield to broader management approaches, which consider species’ role in the marine ecosystem, non-consumptive uses of marine resources, and similar factors besides mere landings. Such modern approach to marine resource management is well expressed in the mission statement of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Division, which states

The Mission of the Division of Marine Resources is to manage and maintain the state’s living marine, estuarine and anadromous resources, and to protect and enhance the habitat upon which these resources depend, in order to assure that diverse and self-sustaining populations of these resources are available for future generations.
Consistent with such stewardship, and in recognition of the intrinsic value of productive marine ecosystems, the Division will manage the state’s marine, estuarine and anadromous resources to achieve optimum benefit by providing for the broadest range of uses including commercial and recreational harvest, human consumption, natural forage and observation and appreciation.
Optimizing benefit may include:
·         managing, restoring and enhancing indigenous marine, estuarine and anadromous species and their habitats,
·         regulating the harvest of these resources to optimize yield,
·         assuring that living marine, estuarine and anadromous resources available for harvest and public consumption meet public health guidelines,
·         providing enhanced public access to waters of the marine and coastal district, and
·         promoting public awareness of the value and benefits of diverse and productive marine, estuarine and anadromous resources and habitats and the function of resource management in securing such value and benefits.
Such a wholistic view of marine resource management places landings in context, as one factor among others that must be considered when making management decisions.
The mission statement’s recognition of “the intrinsic value of productive marine ecosystems” echoes pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold’s observation that “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?'”, for what is true of an individual ecosystem component is equally true of the ecosystem as a whole; managing for a productive marine ecosystem creates something that is good in itself, even if some management measures’ direct benefits to stakeholders are not immediately clear.

The mission statement recognizes that non-consumptive values, what it refers to as “observation and appreciation,” are also worthy of management consideration.
Most importantly, the mission statement emphasizes the future, and the need to pass down a legacy of diverse and self-sustaining stocks to generations yet to be born.
For that’s the true answer to the question “Why manage fish?”
We don’t do it just to maintain a steady flow of “product” to market. We don’t do it just to maintain income streams, or to put food on anglers’ tables. We do it because those who inherit this world are entitled to intact ecosystems filled with healthy and sustainable fish populations that will be fully able to support commercial and recreational fisheries for so long as folks wish to turn to the sea.
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This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/


Thursday, July 18, 2019

ASMFC'S STRIPED BASS MANAGEMENT SHOULD REFLECT REALITIES OF THE FISHERY


One size does not fit all.

Yet too often in fisheries management, we see the same model—managing for a high, if arguably sustainable, yield—dominate discussions, even when it doesn’t make very much sense. 




“I know that my stakeholders—we’ve heard from a number of them today—have concerns over the reductions that have been taken as a result of Addendum IV
“There has been a great deal of hardship in Maryland.  The commercial charterboat captains have gone out of business as a result of the actions that have been taken.  I would like to have it on the record, Mr. Chairman, in your opinion when will stakeholders have an opportunity and when will this board have an opportunity to look at making management change [to increase landings] for the future or are we expecting to just hold the line where we are indefinitely into the future?
“…we’ve made the argument before we felt that these reductions were extreme.  I’ve heard the word ‘crisis’ from my stakeholders.  The charter, the recreational and the commercial industry are suffering greatly as a result of the reductions that we’ve taken.”

Apparently, even that wasn’t enough.  


Mr. Clark and Mr. Luisi apparently believe that leaving even one extra striped bass in the ocean, to survive and to grow and contribute to the spawning stock, when that fish could have been killed without exceeding the fishing mortality target, is akin to creating an Eighth Deadly Sin.  Because he seems to believe that high harvest levels are the only attribute of successful fishery management, Mr. Luisi argued

“…if we were to move from 0.16 to 0.18, it would be a small tick, maybe a 5 to 8 percent liberalization, in terms of numbers.  Maybe that’s what it would be.  I don’t have the number to refer to in front of me.  But what I’m thinking about and what I’m looking at, is the fact that 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 to the charterboat community.  I’ve been thinking about this and thinking about what we could do as a next step.”
Again, it’s hard to understand why the recreational fleet needed a half-inch reduction in the minimum size limit, when they were already grossly overfishing their share of the landings under Addendum IV, but Mr. Luisi never seems to be too concerned about such overage.

He actually convinced the Management Board to task the Technical Committee with providin an idea of what sort of management measures would achieve a .02 increase in the fishing mortality rate, although in the end, such changes were never adopted.


Yet when you take a good look at the striped bass fishery, none of that makes any sense.

The first thing that managers need to acknowledge is that the striped bass fishery is primarily a recreational fishery.  

Yes, there is a commercial component, but the most recent benchmark stock assessment found that it only accounts for about 10% of the overall fishing mortality, making it a relatively minor part of the overall fishery.  Even if the commercial share of the fishery doubled, something that could arguably occur if the stock continues to decline and so leads to bass being less available to anglers, 80% of the fishing mortality would still be attributable to anglers. 

In addition, the commercial harvest is relatively simple to control, as effort remains fairly consistent and reductions can be assured merely by cutting the commercial quota and assessing paybacks when such quota is exceeded.  Regulating the recreational fishery, which is much more affected by local and coastwide abundance, weather, other angling opportunities, etc., is a far more difficult process.


To begin, the fishery is dominated by surfcasters and the private boat fleet, with surfcasters claiming the highest level of fishing activity.  

For all of the past five years, 2015-2018, inclusive, anglers fishing between Maine and North Carolina made about 87.4 million fishing trips that primarily targeted striped bass.  Of those trips, about 45.6 million, or 52%, were made by surfcasters, 40.3 million, or 46%, by fishermen on private boats, 1.4 million, or 1.6%, by charter boat anglers, and just 0.2 million, or 0.2%, by party boat fishermen.

Those numbers vary a little by region.  In New England, surfcasters account for nearly 60% of all trips made, private boat anglers for just 39%, charter boat fishermen for 1% and party boats for less than 0.1%.  In the Mid-Atlantic, the surfcasters’ share drops to 46%, while private boats can claim a bare majority of all striped bass trips with 51%.  But charter and party boat trips are still a very small part of overall effort, at less than 2% and 0.3%, respectively.  (Note that, in all cases, rounding error might result in numbers not adding up to precisely 100%.)

Thus, while representatives of the charter and party boat industries are often among the most demanding stakeholders, the majority of whom often vigorously oppose needed conservation measures, they represent a very small minority of targeted striped bass trips.  When considering how management measures affect recreational striped bass fishermen, the ASMFC would do well to tailor such measures to the 98% of trips taken by surfcasters and small boat fishermen, and not to the 2% of trips attributable to the for-hire industry. 

It should also be noted that the for-hire striped bass fishery is not of one mind on striped bass management measures.  

While party boats and larger “six-pack” charter boats tend to favor rules that facilitate harvest, there are also a significant number of charter boat operators who fish from smaller boats.  They often call themselves “guides” to distinguish them from the rest of the for-hire fleet, emphasize the overall angling experience rather than merely dead fish on the dock, and are very strong proponents of effective striped bass conservation.  Such “guides’” trips are included in the charter boat totals, even though the guides’ philosophy on striped bass management is closer to that of the surfcasters and private boat fleet.

It is also important to note that catch-and-release angling is a very strong component of the recreational striped bass fishery.  

During the five years between 2014 and 2018, anglers between Maine and Florida caught slightly more than 17 million striped bass.  Of those fish, only about 14.8% were harvested; the remaining 85.2% were released.  Release percentages ranged from a low of 77.6% in 2014 (when the bag limit was still two fish in most places, which should have theoretically reduced the number of regulatory discards) to 91.5% in 2018 (when an influx of fish from the large 2015 year class increased the number of undersized fish in the catch).

Ultimately, the striped bass fishery can be characterized as a fishery that

1.       Is dominated by the recreational sector;
2.       Sees 98% of all recreational trips made by surfcasters and private boat anglers; and
3.       Has a strong commitment to catch-and-release angling.

In such a fishery, managing for yield, instead of abundance, is absolutely the wrong way to go, both in the context of maintaining a “quality” recreational fishery and in the context of maximizing economic gain from the fishery.  

NMFS data makes it clear that angling effort, and so economic benefits, are driven by striped bass abundance, with directed trips dropping from 19.3 million in 2014, to 18.5 million in 2015, 17.4 million in 2016, 16.8 million in 2017 and 15.5 million in 2018, as striped bass abundance declined.  There is no reason to believe that the number of trips targeting striped bass, and thus the economic value of the recreational striped bass fishery, will not continue to decline if the striped bass population is not rebuilt.

Thus, whether a Management Board member is more concerned with the long-term health of the striped bass stock or the short-term economic benefits to business, conserving striped bass and rebuilding the stock are clearly the right way to go.

And managing for landings, rather than for abundance, is a fool’s errand, for it accomplishes neither goal.




Sunday, July 14, 2019

BAD FSHERY MANAGEMENT BILL REFUSES TO DIE




H.R, 4742 proposed a complete restructuring of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in the federal waters of the United States, in an effort to weaken the conservation and management measures that have made Magnuson-Stevens such an effective fisheries management tool. 

That, in itself, was nothing unusual.  Ever since the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 required federal managers to end overfishing, promptly rebuild overfished stocks and use the best available science to manage fisheries, some members of the recreational and commercial fishing communities, who were more concerned with keeping landings high in the short term, and the economic benefits associated with such landings, rather than in the long-term health of fish stocks, have been trying to chip away at the foundations of fisheries law.


Rep. Hastings’ bill upped the ante. 


Not surprisingly, a bill that proposed such radical changes to a successful federal fisheries law became the target of conflicting comments.


“RFA has argued against the rigid and inflexible nature of fixed rebuilding deadlines since the last reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens…
“HR 4742 would also make modifications to allow the regional fishery management councils to set ‘annual catch limits’ in consideration of changes in an ecosystem and the economic needs of fishing communities.  It would also permit councils to set multiyear annual catch limits to afford some stability in recreational specifications…”

“We would have liked to have seen more done in this bill to address the needs of the recreational fishing community.  This bill includes several provisions that we support, such as easing the strict implementation of annual catch limits and improving stock assessments for data-poor fisheries, but unfortunately our top priorities are not meaningfully addressed.”
Other members of the angling community, who were more aware of the benefits conferred on fishermen by healthy stocks and conservation-oriented management, were completely opposed to the bill.  During the House markup process, Capt. Jamie Geiger, a Florida charter boat operator, testified before the relevant committee, saying, in part, that

“Now is not the time, just 7 years into recovering our fisheries, to make changes in a wisely crafted, successful bipartisan bill, negating the efforts of fishers and hard work done by fishery management councils and NOAA Fisheries to date, especially with the effect of returning fisheries management to a period when our fisheries and fishers suffered under a system of political influence and short-term economic decisionmaking. 
“I strongly urge Congress exercise its courage and political will and leave in place the proven and amply flexible requirements in the 2006 reauthorization, and allow the long-term economic benefits to the resource and fishermen accrue with recovered long-term sustainable fisheries…”

However, the most compelling testimony came not from the recreational nor the commercial industry, nor from anyone else with a vested economic interest in the fishery management process.  Instead, it came from Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch of Stony Brook University in New York, a very respected fishery scientist who has had years of experience inside the federal fishery management system.  Dr. Pikitch said

“During my 30-plus-year career beginning on Oregon, conducting research of commercial fishing vessels, I have been deeply involved in fishery science and management.  While serving on the scientific and statistical committees of the Pacific and New England Councils during the 1980s and 1990s, I witnessed firsthand how flexibility was used to avoid addressing difficult problems.
“Scientific advice was often ignored.  Political pressure was applied to delay action desperately needed to prevent overfishing and rebuild fish stocks.  Over-fishing continued, even on extremely depleted stocks.  Coastal communities faced economic hardships, due to collapsing fish populations.  Congress took notice.  In 1996, and then in 2006, the law was amended, strengthening the overfishing provisions and ensuring the foundational importance of science.
“Consequently, we have turned the corner.  Many fish populations have been rebuilt.  The number experiencing overfishing has declined.  And science-based catch are now in place for all federally-managed fish.
“In addition, fisheries profitability has increased.  And jobs, even in the recreational sector, have been created.  Although we have more work to do, the state of our fisheries is improving.  It is certainly stronger now than at any time during my professional career.
“I am very concerned, however, with [H.R. 4742], as it rolls back key provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that have boosted the health of our fisheries.  Among its shortcomings, [H.R. 4742] would weaken the Act’s rebuilding requirements, reverse recent gains in science-based fisheries management, diminish the ability of managers to prevent overfishing of forage fish, and put basic fishery data, including information collected with taxpayer support, off-limits to the general public.  Rather than revert to using policies and practices that were not successful in the past, we should build on the successes of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”
Despite Dr. Pikitch’s insightful testimony, H.R. 4742 made it through the committee process.  However, it died on the House floor, where no vote was ever taken.

Unfortunately, bad fisheries bills, and particularly this bad fisheries bill, have as many lives as an old B-movie monster, and keep coming back from the dead every time that folks think that they are finally defeated for good.

Soon after the first death of H.R. 4742, Doc Hastings retired from Congress, never to return, but his bill came back in March 2015, this time designated H.R. 1335 and sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-AK).  


The resurrected legislation rampaged around the House long enough to get passed, but the Senate wasn’t foolish enough to feed that particular beast, and the bill died a much-deserved death in the upper chamber.

In January 2017, Rep. Young and his irredeemable bill were back again, this time in the guise of H.R. 200.  It looked largely the same as it had when it was previously introduced. 



With such support, H.R. 200 passed in the House on a relatively close, mainly party-line vote, but wiser heads in the Senate successfully caged it up and made sure that it died once again.

There was reason to hope that, after the 2018 mid-term elections and the change of control in the House, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act had finally breathed its last breath.  But like so many hopes, this one was in vain.


The new twist this year is that Rep. Young has found a co-sponsor, Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ), and that collaboration allows them to call the new bill a “bipartisan” effort, even though Van Drew is hardly representative of the Democratic Party’s position on fisheries issues.  Instead, he is very representative of his coastal constituency in southern New Jersey, where fisheries conservation, in any form, is viewed with about the same enthusiasm, and a far more rancor, than cockroaches at a quaint Cape May inn.


“Mr. Young and Mr. Van Drew are very well versed on the current Magnuson-Stevens bill [sic] and how it penalizes fishermen while stocks are healthy.  Thanks to both of these great fisheries issue leaders for taking on the challenge of pragmatic Magnuson reform.”
However, the major national recreational fishing groups have not yet commented on the legislation.

The Garden State Seafood Association, the leading commercial fishing organization in New Jersey, also praised the bill, with its Executive Director saying that the organization

“has been advocating for MSA reform since 2009.  We sincerely hope that Congressman Van Drew will receive the support he deserves from all commercial fishing groups.”
Lund’s Fisheries, a Cape May-based commercial fishing company that specializes in high-volume landings of low-value forage species, has also endorsed the bill.  At least a few other regional fisheries associations, located elsewhere in the nation, also seem to be backing the legislation.  

It’s not yet clear how broad any national commercial support will be.

On the other hand, the conservation community appears, not surprisingly, to be opposed.  Of those who have taken positions, the Ocean Conservancy issued a very blunt statement that

“The fourth time is not a charm.  The ideas proposed in H.R. 3697 were bad when they were first introduced in 2013, and they’re still bad today,”

“America is a fishing nation.  We need strong laws to ensure we can protect the jobs and livelihoods that depend on this truly American way of life.  Unfortunately, the bill introduced yesterday is yet one more example of U.S. leadership being jeopardized by special interests.  This legislation would be catastrophic for the health of the oceans—and it could cost us some of our favorite seafood too.”
Other conservation groups will undoubtedly be announcing their positions soon.

But whatever they say, it’s clear that the Beast has risen from the dead one more time.  And its also clear that conservation-minded anglers will have to join together and, along with everyone one else who supports healthy fish stocks, prepare to fight the same old fight at least one more time.