Friday, November 29, 2019


It’s not unusual to find the United States taking a different position on fisheries matters from the one staked out by Japan and China.  That scenario repeated itself again at last week’s annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, but with an interesting and disturbing twist.

Typically, the United States assumes the role of conservation advocate, while China and Japan are usually among the nations most resistant to conservation measures.  But when protections for the badly overfished shortfin mako shark were discussed that year, that historical relationship was stood on its head; while China and Japan joined a host of other nations that supported a complete ban on mako landings, the United States staked out the most conservation-averse position of any country at the meeting, although the European Union and Curacao also opposed a landings ban.

“failed to pass…due to objections from the European Union (EU) and the U.S., two political bodies not traditionally thought of as ocean conservation ‘bad guys.’”
Shiffman went on to explain that

“The specific proposal that ocean conservationists were closely following called for a total prohibition on landing mako sharks.  Any sharks accidentally caught by tuna fishermen would have to be released (or discarded dead, because saying ‘you can’t sell them unless they’re dead when they reach your boat’ creates some perverse incentives).  ICCAT’s scientific advisory committee recommended the total prohibition, and noted that it might take up to 50 years for overfished mako shark populations to recover even if all fishing stops now.  The measure, which was led by Senegal and Canada, was ultimately defeated because the EU and the U.S. (the top- and third-ranking fishing nations that are parties to ICCAT for mako sharks by landings) didn’t want a total prohibition on landings, preferring to still allow some fishing.”

“It is vital to this [EU pelagic longline] fleet to keep retaining on board individuals that arrive dead to the vessel in order to limit the socio-economic impacts of the non-retention policy,”
Shiffman observed that                                                                    
“the nation that proposed the most troubling alternative to the scientist-recommended total ban on keeping mako sharks caught as bycatch was the U.S.”

“Of three ICCAT proposals to limit the catch of mako sharks, the U.S. proposal was the only one that would allow killing of makos that make it to the boat alive.”

“The United States advanced a no retention measure that offered an incentive to member nations if they reduced their mortality of shortfin mako by 80%, which would have resulted in less mortality than a simple no-retention policy.”
Exactly how a proposal that permitted some killing of sharks would lead to less fishing mortality than a proposal which did not permit such killing at all was not explained in any way, although the claim is certainly counterintuitive--which in this context can be read as synonymous with “dubious.”

Given that the statement also notes that one of the United States’ priorities for the ICCAT meeting was

“A one-year extension of current management measures for North Atlantic shortfin mako shark while the Commission works toward adoption of a comprehensive rebuilding program,”
it’s easy to believe that the U.S. wasn’t all that interested in reaching consensus on mako management measures at the recent ICCAT meeting, and that it was probably happy to torpedo other members’ efforts to adopt stricter measures this year.

The big question is why the United States was on the wrong side of the shortfin mako conservation issue.  

Although it has the third-highest landings of all the ICCAT contracting members, it’s commercial fishery for shortfin makos isn’t really that big; in 2017, the last year for which data is available, such landings only totaled about 270,000 pounds, and had an ex vessel value of about $360,000.

However, the United States, unlike other ICCAT nations, also hosts a significant recreational fishery for shortfin makos.  It’s difficult to compare the landings in that fishery to those in the U.S. commercial fishery, for mako landings aren’t broken out in the Marine Recreational Information Program.  The best available source in the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Large Pelagics Survey, even though that survey is limited to anglers fishing from ports between Virginia and Maine, and only to those fishing during the months of June through October. 

The Large Pelagic Survey’s limited geographical coverage means that it undercounts recreational mako landings, because some such landings do occur in waters south of Virginia, even if most recreational shark fishing is concentrated in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions.

Even with the Large Pelagic Survey’s very real limitations, it reveals that, in 2017, anglers landed nearly 2,500 shortfin makos.  The survey only reports landings in numbers of fish, not in pounds, but even if we assume that such makos averaged a very modest 125 pounds apiece, 2017 recreational landings would have been well over 300,000 pounds, and thus more than 10 percent higher than the U.S.’s commercial landings for that year.

And as anyone who has done even a modest amount of offshore fishing knows, it’s not a cheap sport.  It’s a virtual certainty that the money that anglers spent to capture those fish totaled well over the $360,000 that the commercially-caught fish were initially sold for.

Just one offshore-capable fishing boat often costs far more than that.

When everything is considered, including the cost of boats and engines, maintenance, dockage, electronics, fishing tackle, fuel, bait and chum, not to mention the revenues connected with the many mako/shark tournaments that remain at least somewhat popular throughout southern New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic, it becomes clear that the recreational shortfin mako fishery currently confers substantial economic benefits on coastal communities in that region.

And given that recreational fishermen bring virtually all of their makos to the boat while those fish are still alive and can be successfully released, there is the real possibility that the prohibition on mako landings proposed at ICCAT could have resulted in real economic losses to some coastal businesses.  Although the U.S. ICCAT representatives haven’t yet made a public statement as to why they refused to go along with the landings prohibition, such prohibition’s impacts on the recreational mako fishery was probably high on their list.

The problem with that sort of thinking is that a continuing decline in shortfin mako abundance, and a continuing lack of availability of makos to anglers, is going to have the same sort of impact, and if the stock is allowed to decline further, such impacts are likely to extend for a much longer time.  

But it’s unlikely that any of the fishing-related businesses are thinking that far ahead.  Even if all shortfin mako harvest was halted today, it would still take around 50 years to rebuild the stock; given that timeframe, it’s likely that most recreational fishing businesses are adhering to their usual short-term outlook, and are trying to take as much as they can out of the fishery before it collapses, because they know that they won’t live long enough to profit from any eventual recovery.

That’s a sad way to look at fisheries issues, but it’s the only management philosophy which might explain the United States’ position at the recent ICCAT meeting.  That U.S. position, and its underlying philosophy, was widely condemned after ICCAT failed to follow scientific advice to the contrary.

“A clear and simple remedy was within reach.  Yet the EU and US put short-term fishing interests above all else and ruined a golden opportunity for real progress.  Its truly disheartening and awful.”

“Conservationists are shocked and distressed that the European Union and the United States—despite long promoting science-based shark conservation—were the main obstacles to the adoption of urgently needed protections for mako sharks at the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).  Ten countries, led by Senegal and Canada, proposed and fought for consensus on banning retention of seriously overfished North Atlantic shortfin makos, as ICCAT scientists advise.  Yet the EU and US refused to give up on exceptions for hundreds of tons of the Endangered species to be landed.  ICCAT scientists estimate this population could take four or five decades to recover, even if fishing stops.  Lack of consensus allows status quo fishing at unsustainable levels to continue.”
”…No countries spoke in favor of the competing EU or US proposals, although Curacao added their name to the US proposal.”
That last fact, alone, is eloquent testimony to the fact that the U.S. position lacked any real worth.

Now that the ICCAT meeting has ended, the mako’s fate is no better than it was before that meeting began.  The parties have agreed to a special meeting next summer, in an effort to work out an agreement that will end overfishing and perhaps begin a real effort to rebuild the stock.

It’s hard to be optimistic about that meeting's outcome.  Given the United States’ new-found hostility to marine resource conservation, and given the marked decline in mako populations that I’ve seen in my forty or so years in the northeastern shark fishery, I have a very hard time believing that anything will change for the good over the next few years.

Still, I hope for the best.

Given the outcome of the latest ICCAT meeting, it seems that hope is the only thing that I, and the mako, have left.

Sunday, November 24, 2019


“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley”
It’s a sentiment that applies to many things, certainly including the concept of “conservation equivalency,” as adopted and applied by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Conservation equivalency, as initially conceived by the ASMFC, seems like a perfectly sensible and very practical idea.  As noted in the Commission publication Conservation Equivalency:  Policy and Technical Guidance Document,

“Conservation equivalency allows states/jurisdictions (hereafter states) flexibility to develop alternative regulations that address specific state or regional differences while still achieving the goals and objectives of Interstate Fishery Management Plans (FMPs).  Allowing states to tailor their management programs in this way avoids the difficult task of developing one-size-fits-all management measures while still achieving equivalent conservation benefits to the resource.”
Stated that way, it hardly sounds problematic; an additional description from the ASMFC’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter, which is quoted in the Technical Guidance Document, sounds equally benign when it describes conservation equivalency as

“Actions taken by a state which differ from the specific requirements of the FMP, but which achieve the same quantified level of conservation for the resource under management.  One example can be, various combinations of size limits, gear restrictions, and season length can be demonstrated to achieve the same targeted level of fishing mortality.”
Unfortunately, what sounds good on paper doesn’t always work out in the real world.  The ASMFC probably had nothing but good intentions when it adopted its conservation equivalency policy, but as a French churchman noted back in the Middle Ages,

“L’enfer est plein de bonnes volantes ou desirs,”
which translates to

“Hell is full of good intentions and wishes,”
an observation that is probably the origin of the old English proverb

“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions,”
which pretty much says it all.

Because in practice, conservation equivalency hasn’t worked out very well.

If you read the Technical Guidance Document, you’ll learn that

“During the development of a management document the Plan Development Team (PDT) should recommend if conservation equivalency should be permitted for that species.  The [relevant species management] board should provide a specific determination if conservation equivalency is an approved option for the fishery management plan, since conservation equivalency may not be appropriate or necessary for all management programs.  The PDT should consider stock status, stock structure, data availability, range of the species, socio-economic information, and the potential for more conservative management when stocks are overfished or overfishing is occurring when making a recommendation on conservation equivalency.  During the approval of a management document the Board will make the final decision on the approval of conservation equivalency.  [emphasis added]”
Once again, it all sounds good.  But as so often happens at the ASMFC, the sensible provisions of the Commission’s guiding documents somehow get lost among the realities of putting together a management plan.

In the real world, there is little discussion as to whether conservation equivalency is appropriate to a particular management plan; instead, the various management boards merely assume that conservation equivalency will be incorporated into any management plan that they adopt.  And the states take it a step further, often trying to put together allegedly “conservation equivalent” management proposals that work well on paper, but are designed to maintain fish landings at the highest possible level while pushing the conservation burden onto the shoulders of other states.

For an example of why conservation equivalency doesn’t work, and how it has contributed to the ASMFC’s dismal record of failure to rebuild and successfully maintain any stock under its sole jurisdiction, it’s only necessary to turn to striped bass, a fishery that once stood as the Commissions sole success, and now arguably represents its greatest example of failure.

“The use of management program equivalency (hereafter referred to as ‘conservation equivalency’) is an integral component of the Commission’s Interstate Fishery Management Program, particularly for Atlantic striped bass…”
Except for the specific striped bass reference, such language was lifted directly out of the Technical Guidance Document, as was subsequent wording about conservation equivalency allowing the states flexibility, etc.  The draft Addendum VI went on to say

“Under Amendment 6 to the Striped Bass FMP, a state may submit a proposal for a change to its regulatory program for any mandatory compliance measure.  It is the responsibility of the state to demonstrate the proposed management program is equivalent to the measures selected through this addendum.  All conservation equivalency programs are subject to [Technical Committee] review and Board approval.”
Although states were advised to review the Technical Guidance Document before submitting their conservation equivalency proposals, there was no discussion of some of the Guidance Document’s most important language—whether conservation equivalency was even appropriate for the striped bass fishery, given its current condition.

Using some of the criteria included in the Technical Guidance document, it’s not hard to argue that the striped bass stock, being overfished and subject to overfishing, might well have benefitted from more conservative management, and not the more liberal landings limits that conservation equivalency typically allows.

As a coastal migratory stock, it might also benefit from consistent coastwide regulations.  That’s particularly true in hindsight, for after the Management Board voted to adopt a slot limit, coastal consistency became even more important.  The primary virtue of a slot limit is that it protects the older, larger, most fecund female fish, and if a state’s conservation equivalency program allows those fish to be caught, the value of the slot limit is substantially diminished.

But, although the draft Addendum VI contained default provisions that would allow the public to comment on status quo measures, which would have allowed overfishing to continue unabated, it offered the public no chance to comment on whether conservation equivalency should continue in the fishery, or whether consistent coastwide regulations would better serve the striped bass at this time.  It merely assumed that conservation equivalency would be allowed.

That seems to be a very different course from what the Policy and Technical Guidance Document calls for.

At the Management Board's August meeting, Dennis Abbot, the Legislative Proxy for New Hampshire, tried to address the situation, moving to put an option in the draft Addendum VI that would prohibit the use of conservation equivalency so long as the striped bass stock was overfished and overfishing was occurring.  Capt. John McMurray, Legislative Proxy from New York, seconded the motion.

In support of that motion, Mr. Abbot said

“Many anglers through the years have expressed to me and others their strong displeasure with varying regulations.
“Its disparity is generally due to the generous application of conservation equivalency.  I may be wrong, but I don’t know of any conservation equivalency application that isn’t really intended to increase mortality of striped bass.  In my many years in the State Legislature, I always held the belief that when one is advantaged someone else is going to be disadvantaged.
“We're here today in part because some of us have been advantaged, and we’re all here to pay the piper.  I think the public should be given an opportunity to make their voices heard…”
Soon after, he noted that

“We haven’t even approved [Addendum VI], and I’m sure that states are figuring out how they’re going to manipulate the Addendum for their own benefit, as we generally do…
“We really need to tighten up on how we do that.”
Mr. Abbot had just suggested that the Management Board consider making burgers out of a sacred cow, and a number of other Management Board members were quick to defend their long-worshipped bovine.

Not surprisingly, Tom Fote, Governor’s Representative from New Jersey, led the assault.  New Jersey has a long history of manipulating conservation equivalency proposals, to become what Mr. Abbot referred to as an “advantaged” state, and Mr. Fote clearly had no intention of changing that now.  And he was not alone.  Although a number of other speakers agreed that the ASMFC’s use of conservation equivalency needs to be reconsidered, in the end the motion failed by a vote of 2 to 12.

But just two months later, Mr. Abbot’s August words proved prophetic. 

By October 30, all of the public comment on Addendum VI had been made and summarized, and it was time for the Management Board to take final action.  An initial motion, to require both the commercial and recreational sectors to reduce fishing mortality by 18 percent, passed fairly easily, after a short discussion.

At that point, it was time to discuss specific management measures—whether the coastal recreational size limit should be fixed at 35 inches, or whether a slot limit of some sort should be adopted in its stead.  

But that discussion was quickly interrupted by Adam Nowalsky, Legislative Proxy for New Jersey, who didn’t want to address specific management measures until the issue of conservation equivalency was first settled.  It was pretty clear that whatever management measures the Board ultimately decided to adopt, Nowalsky, and the rest of the New Jersey delegation, intended to reject them in favor of conservation-equivalent measures that, in Mr. Abbot’s words of two months before, were “really intended to increase the mortality of striped  bass” in the State of New Jersey.

Although most of the other Management Board members wanted to focus on management measures, Nowalsky was adamant that conservation equivalency had to be dealt with first.  In the end, he actually went so far as move that the discussion on management measures be tabled, so that he could focus on conservation equivalency, and so helpt ot assure that New Jersey would be able to find a way to kill some extra bass.

That motion was ultimately defeated by the Board, but such defeat was only temporary.  After a motion to adopt a 28 to 35-inch slot limit was made, Nowalsky rose again, to amend such motion to include a conservation equivalency provision that allowed states to adopt alternative management measures, so long as they achieved an 18 percent reduction in fishing mortality.

Nowalsky—and New Jersey—won that round after the Management Board approved the amendment.  But the striped bass lost, for as soon as the conservation equivalency amendment passed, the probability of achieving the 18 percent coastwide reduction needed to reduce fishing mortality to a sustainable level was substantially reduced, and Addendum VI, which initially had a decent chance of succeeding, was likely doomed to fail.

That’s because the 28 to 35-inch slot limit didn’t impact every state in the same way.  Some would experience mortality reductions greater than 18 percent; some, because of the nature of their fisheries, would experience a lesser cut. 

New Jersey might have been facing the biggest harvest reduction of all, perhaps more than 40 percent.  And, based on 2017 landings, New Jersey contributes more to recreational fishing mortality than any other state.  So when New Jersey managed to limit its fishing mortality reduction to just 18 percent, instead of 40 percent or more, it threw a very big monkey wrench into Amendment VI’s chances of success.

Some members of the Management Board clearly understood the risk of what New Jersey was doing.  Jason McNamee, a fishery manager from Rhode Island, had the guts to observe that

“You’re either in our you’re out…Conservation equivalency can’t work like this, because we’re not going to achieve our goals.”
But no one was willing to ask the key question, and get a Technical Committee representative to opine on how Nowalsky’s conservation equivalency motion would impact Addendum VI’s chances for success.  Everyone probably knew the answer, but apparently no one wanted to be responsible for that answer appearing on the record.

Because they knew that by accepting an across-the-board 18 percent standard for conservation equivalency, the Management Board was essentially sabotaging Addendum VI's chances for success.

And it gets even worse.  The Technical Guidance Document clearly states that

“If conservation equivalency is determined to be appropriate, the conservation equivalency process should be clearly defined and specific guidance should be supplied in the fishery management documents.  Each of the new fishery management plans, amendments, or addenda should include the details of the conservation equivalency program.  The guidance should include, at a minimum, a list of management measures that can be modified through conservation equivalency, evaluation criteria, review process, and monitoring requirements…
The management programs should place a limit on the length of time that a conservation equivalency program can remain in place without re-approval by the Board…Approval of a conservation equivalency program may be terminated if a state is not completing the necessary monitoring to evaluate the effects of the program.  [emphasis added]” 
Yet Addendum VI fails to meet those requirements.  Although the final Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass does make reference to a memo that outlines the criteria to be used in evaluating conservation equivalency proposals, such memo does not fulfil the minimum requirements specified in the Technical Guidance Document, as it does not list the management measures that can be modified through conservation equivalency, does not set out the full review process, makes no mention at all of monitoring requirements, and does not limit the length of time that a conservation equivalency program can remain in place without re-approval.

Thus, Addendum VI has the potential to repeat the mistakes of Addendum IV, which saw a conservation equivalency proposal calculated to reduce recreational fishing mortality in Chesapeake Bay by 20.5 percent (compared to 2012) actually increase such fishing mortality by more than 50 percent, but failed to provide any mechanism for ending such conservation equivalency measure, or requiring its re-approval, in view of its failure to adequately constrain landings.  

Addendum VI allows conservation equivalency, but provides no mechanism for monitoring conservation equivalency proposals, or halting the continuation of conservation equivalency proposals that, in practice, fail to achieve the needed harvest reductions.

Thus, although conservation equivalency may be a desirable option in theory, in practice it has proven to be an obstacle to ending overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks.  

“one of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission,”
and has recently begun offering stickers bearing the simple legend

“Conservation equivalency sucks.”
When an element of the ASMFC’s fishery management process has so alienated stakeholders that they feel the need to make such extreme statements, the ASMFC would be well advised to do some soul searching, and make an earnest effort to figure out whether those stakeholders are right.

Because right now, particularly with respect to striped bass, it’s hard to understand or explain why that Rhode Island shop might be wrong.

Thursday, November 21, 2019


It is now official.  The Secretary of Commerce, acting through the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, has formally notified the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council that bluefish are overfished.  

The notification that bluefish are overfished triggered several provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  Section 303(a) of Magnuson-Stevens requires that

“Any fishery management plan which is prepared by any Council, or by the Secretary [of Commerce], with respect to any fishery, shall contain the conservation and management measures, applicable to foreign fishing and fishing by vessels of the United States, which are necessary and appropriate for the conservation and management of the fishery to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, and to protect, restore, and promote the long-term health and stability of the fishery…  [internal numbering and some internal formatting omitted]”
That section later goes on to require that such fishery management plan

“specify objective and measurable criteria for identifying when the fishery to which the plan applies is overfished…and, in the case of a fishery which the [relevant regional fishery management] Council or the Secretary has determined is approaching an overfished condition or is overfished, contain conservation and management measures to prevent overfishing or end overfishing and rebuild the fishery.”
Section 304(e) then provides a timeline for putting a rebuilding plan in place, specifying that

“…If the Secretary determines at any time that a fishery is overfished, the Secretary shall immediately notify the appropriate Council and request that action be taken to end overfishing in the fishery and implement conservation and management measures to rebuild affected stocks of fish…
“Within 2 years after…notification under [the foregoing paragraph], the appropriate Council…shall prepare and implement a fishery management plan, plan amendment, or proposed regulation for the fishery to which the…notice applies, to end overfishing immediately in the fishery and to rebuild affected stocks of fish…
“For a fishery that is overfished, any fishery management plan, amendment, or proposed regulations…for such fishery shall specify a time period for rebuilding the fishery that shall be as short as possible, taking into account the status and biology of any overfished stocks of fish, the needs of fishing communities, recommendations by international organizations in which the United States participates, and the interaction of the overfished stock within the marine ecosystem; and not exceed 10 years, except in cases where the biology of the stock of fish, other environmental conditions, or management measures under an international agreement in which the United States participates dictate otherwise…  [internal numbering and some internal formatting
And, of course, all federal fisheries must be managed for “optimum” yield, which is defined, in part, as

“the amount of fish which…in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield in such fishery.”
So, now that the Mid-Atlantic Council has received the required secretarial notice that the bluefish stock is overfished, such Council must prepare a plan that rebuilds that overfished stock “to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield in such fishery” within a time period “that is as short as possible…and is “not [to] exceed 10 years.”  Annual catch limits may not exceed “the amount of fish which…provides for rebuilding to” the biomass target, which is the biomass required to produce maximum sustainable yield in the bluefish fishery.

We should expect the Council and Management Board to hold a limited number of scoping hearings, and seek public comment, on the pending Amendment in late December and/or early next year.  Fishery managers are going to have to move quickly to get the rebuilding plan in place, for the National Marine Fisheries Service must not only draft, but implement the new Amendment within two years—as a practical matter, in time for the 2022 fishing season—which means that the Council and Management Board needs to finish their work sometime around June 2021, to give the agency sufficient time to do a thorough review, post preliminary regulations, accept and evaluate such comments, and then put the rebuilding plan in place before 2022 begins.

Hopefully, they won’t hit any snags.  But bluefish still need to be managed in the meantime.

The foundation for next year’s regulations has already been built.  In October, the Mid-Atlantic Council and Bluefish Management Board held a joint meeting, where they agreed to a commercial quota of 2.77 million pounds and a recreational harvest limit of 9.48 million pounds.  In December, after additional 2019 recreational landings data becomes available, they will meet again to determine what the 2020 recreational bluefish regulations will look like.

While the final regulations won’t be set for a few weeks, one thing is completely clear:  The current 15-fish bag limit is a thing of the past.

“the perception you can catch to the higher limit helps sell trips,”

Just how much landings need to be reduced to prevent overfishing next year depends on how many bluefish anglers land this year.  There are a few ways to estimate that number.

Anglers landed about 13.27 million pounds of bluefish in 2018, and managers can assume that they will land the same amount of fish again this year.

To prevent that, managers can take two different approaches.  They can use the average recreational landings for the past three years, in the hope that the averaged number is more likely to reflect current and future reality.  Or, they can look at the landings through August 31 of this year, and then use the typical relationship of the first eight months of landings to those of the full year to calculate what 2019 landings are likely to be.

Even if the Monitoring Committee is right, the 13.27 million pounds of bluefish landed in 2018 is well above the 9.48 million pound recreational harvest limit established for the upcoming year.  Recreational landings would have to be reduced by 28.78 percent if they are to be kept within the 2020 harvest limit. 

That would require reducing the bag limit from 15 bluefish to 3.

Of course, there are other ways to achieve the needed reduction.  At last Tuesday’s meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, a senior member of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Division mentioned that the bag limit could probably be increased to 5, if it was accompanied by a 19-inch minimum size.

“Size limit alternatives have been proposed but are not recommended due to angler preference to often harvest smaller fish since larger bluefish are deemed less desirable [as table fare],”
but the Council and Management Board are not bound to follow that recommendation.

Because 2018 recreational landings were so much lower than those in the immediately preceding years, there is a real chance that, if the 3-fish bag limit, or some equivalent management measure, is adopted, anglers will still overfish next year.  As bluefish is a federally managed fishery, Magnuson-Stevens requires that fishermen be held accountable when overfishing occurs, so there will be real consequences if anglers harvest more than 9.48 million pounds in 2020.

If 2020 landings end up being substantially above the 9.48 million pound harvest limit, there will be another, bigger round of landings cuts in 2021, that not only reduces landings to what they should have been in 2020, but also goes beyond that to impose a pound-for-pound payback for the 2020 overage.

The question for the Council and Management Board, then, is largely one of allocating risk.  They can base 2020 regulations on 2018 landings, minimizing harvest reductions in 2020 but knowing, as they do so, that they’re taking the course most likely to lead to overfishing, further cutbacks, and pound-for-pound paybacks in 2021.

Or they can take a more risk-averse path in 2020, impose greater harvest cuts in the short term, and by doing so avoid both overfishing in 2020 and further restrictions, including paybacks, in 2021.

We’ll find out which course they choose about three weeks from now.

Sunday, November 17, 2019


Last Friday, I had the privilege of participating in a “listening session” arranged by Rep. Jarred Huffman (D-CA), the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee.  Eleven persons, not including the Congressman, sat at the front table.  All were drawn from the academic, fisheries management, angling, commercial fishing, and conservation communities, and all were good representatives of their respective communities.

Our session, intended to address Mid-Atlantic concerns, was held at the National Aquarium’s Animal Care and Rescue Center in Baltimore.  Two similar sessions have already been held in California, and more will be held in other coastal venues.  Seattle is next on the agenda; fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast, will also have a chance to be  heard.

The purpose of all of the sessions was to examine issues related to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and perhaps other, related legislation, in order to provide Rep. Huffman with the background information that he needs to move forward with a Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill at some point during the next year.

Given the diversity of the invitees, with respect to experience, formal education and their relationship to Mid-Atlantic fisheries, it would have been reasonable to expect that each of us would have presented a very different set of comments.  Yet, while all of us emphasized a slightly different aspect of fisheries management, there were a few common themes that united all of the speakers.

Everyone at the table who spoke on the issue generally endorsed Magnuson-Stevens as a successful fishery management law, even if some of the speakers questioned whether the law was overly rigid and precautionary, and so prevented some healthy stocks from being fully--but safely—exploited.

The need for the best possible scientific information, including but not limited to landings data, was certainly one of the dominant themes.  Whether the comments were made by Dr. John Wiedenmann, a professor at Rutgers University who focuses on sustainable fisheries issues, by Michael Waine, the American Sportfishing Association’s Atlantic Fisheries Policy Director, or by Robert Beal, the Executive Director of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, all agreed that good fisheries management depends on good fisheries data.

Of course, while there was broad consensus that fisheries managers require good data, there was less agreement on how to improve the data-gathering process, and how to deal with the uncertainty that will never be completely eliminated from the final product.

In recent years, largely in connection with the so-called “ModernFish Act” and the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, members of therecreational fishing industry have been calling for things such as anglers providingcatch data via a smart phone application, or providing data that can be includedin stock assessments and other research efforts.  Those suggestions were made at the listening session as well, but other members of the panel, including Richard Robins, former Chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, noted that there is still a long way to go before data provided by anglers can be adequately scrubbed of bias, and so rendered reliable enough to be suitable for use by fisheries managers.

As far as the uncertainty issue went, I pointed out that Magnuson-Stevens already includes a provision which states that

“annual catch limits for each of [a regional fishery management council’s] managed fisheries…may not exceed the fishing level recommendations of [that council’s] scientific and statistical committee or the peer review process established under [another provision of the law],”

“When specifying limits and accountability measures, Councils must take an approach that considers uncertainty in scientific information and management control of the fishery.”
While I didn’t quote that language word-for-word, I cited the general concepts, and suggested that because some level of uncertainty will always be inherent in fisheries data, it might make sense to amend the language of Magnuson-Stevens to require that each regional fishery management council’s scientific and statistical committee, when setting the acceptable biological catch used to develop annual catch limits, specifically include scientific and management uncertainty in its calculations, and thus create a buffer that would probably prevent overfishing despite whatever problems persisted in the data.

I still like the idea, but Rep. Huffman correctly noted that such a change probably wouldn’t go over too well with those who shared the views of Greg DiDomenico, Executive Director of the Garden State Seafood Association, who had earlier argued that Magnuson-Stevens already caused federal fisheries managers to be overly precautionary, and thus led to the “underfishing” of healthy stocks.

And, despite my preference for precautionary management,  I can’t say that Mr. DiDomenico’s comment was wrong, for there is no reason not to fully exploit fish stocks, so long as that exploitation doesn’t threaten such stocks’ long-term health.

It’s clear that Rep. Huffman is facing a difficult job, trying to sort this issue out in a way that addresses all of the public’s concerns.

Adding to the problems with uncertain data is the certainty of climate change, and its impact on coastal waters.  Dr. Wiedenmann has been doing a lot of work with New England groundfish, and noted that because of warming waters, and the related effects of that warming, in our northeastern sea, there is a lot of question as to whether past estimates of stock biomass, and rebuilding plans that are based on such estimates, are still realistic today.  

In a slightly different riff on the “underfishing” theme, he noted that the measures required to rebuild some groundfish stocks to the target level (he mentioned yellowtail flounder as an example) within Magnuson-Stevens’ default 10-year timeline could force fishermen to land smaller amounts of other species that remain at or near healthy levels of abundance, in order to avoid excessive bycatch that leads to overfishing the depleted populations.  The remedy for that problem, he suggested, might be more liberal rebuilding timelines.

But such extended timelines could lead to their own set of problems.

Robert Beal mentioned two ASMFC-managed stocks, northern shrimp and the southern New England stock of American lobster, which have been so badly impacted by warming waters and climate change that they may never recover, regardless of what managers do.

A solution to that problem remains elusive.

Even the seemingly obvious issues turn out to be harder than they seem. 

Pam Lyons Gromen, Executive Director for Wild Oceans, was the second panelist to speak, and the first to mention the forage fish issue.  She spoke of the need to manage forage fish not just for human harvest, but for their role in marine ecosystems, where they serve as prey for fish, a plethora of seabirds and marine mammals.  Comments along the same theme were made by Michael Waine and by Capt. Paul Eidmann who, besides being the owner/operator of Reel Therapy Fly & Light Tackle Fishing Charters, heads the organization Menhaden Defenders which, as its name suggests, is dedicated to forage fish conservation.

Protecting key elements of the marine food web might, at first glance, seem to be a no-brainer, but as is often the case with fisheries matters, the reality is much more nuanced.  

Dr. Michelle Duval, an experienced fisheries scientist who operates Mellivora Consulting, noted that the definition of “forage fish” is not as clean-cut as people might believe, and pointed out that marine ecosystems hold a number of key species, and that all need to be adequately conserved.  Dr. Wiedenmann also recommended giving some real thought to the forage fish issue, because different predators require different forage species, and many forage species are subject to wide swings in abundance due to natural circumstances, which are completely unrelated to fishing effort.

Mr. DiDomenico objected to placing forage fish-specific provisions in Magnuson-Stevens, arguing that the current law is already protecting marine resources, including forage species, well as it is currently worded, and that there is no need to add an additional layer of legislation and regulation that might unnecessarily burden fishermen.

Thus, it became obvious that in the fisheries arena, even an idea that is a “no-brainer” will require considerable thought.

As the last three panel members had their turn to speak, a final topic was brought to the floor.  All three speakers were recreational fishermen, and all three had decided to speak not just about how well Magnuson-Stevens was working to manage federal fisheries, but how inshore fisheries, which not managed pursuant to Magnuson-Stevens, but instead by the states, acting cooperatively through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, were not doing nearly as well.

We hadn’t discussed what we would say among ourselves.  None of us had seen the other persons’ comments before they were made.  But all of us, on our own, had decided that it was time to ask Congress, in the form of Rep. Huffman, for its help in transforming the ASMFC into a truly effective management body that, in its own sphere, might finally claim the same sort of successes that federal fisheries managers have long achieved.

Capt. Eidmann was the first to raise the issue, focusing on the ASMFC’s failure to properly manage striped bass, and pointing out the need for it to do more to protect Atlantic menhaden.  Tony Friedrich, Vice President and  Policy Director for the American Saltwater Guides Association, then picked up on the theme, noting that we must find a way to compel the ASMFC to do better and to concentrate on what fishermen really need—rebuilding and maintaining healthy fish stocks.  I was the last panel member to speak.

Magnuson-Stevens works.  Other speakers more than adequately covered the other topics I had thought to address--forage fish and ocean warming.So my comments focused solely on the need for changes to the law that governs ASMFC.  

They weren’t easy comments to write, because I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t attacking the ASMFC’s staff, who in their competence and dedication are at least the equal of federal fisheries managers.  What I decried, and asked Rep. Huffman to help change, was an ASMFC structure and management system that seems built to guarantee failure.

The final words of my comments read

“The failure to rebuild and maintain healthy inshore fish stocks is not the fault of Commission staff, who are good people, and do a good job, but of its species-specific management boards, which are dominated by individuals who have close ties to fishermen and the fishing industry, and tend to elevate fishermen’s short-term wants above the long-term needs of the fish stocks that they manage.
“After the regional fishery management councils proved themselves unwilling and unable to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, for much the same reasons, Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 which, for the first time, required that federal fishery managers end overfishing, promptly rebuild overfished stocks, and base their management actions on the best available science.  Actions which failed to meet those basic standards could be challenged in court.
“Now, for the Commission to live up to its potential, we need what might be called the ‘Sustainable Atlantic Coast Fisheries Act,’ which amends the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, that governs the Commission, in a similar way.
I have often pointed out that, if you want to have a fishingindustry, it helps to have fish.  That’s particularly true in recreational fisheries, where abundance clearly drives effort, and effort drives revenues.  A strong Magnuson-Stevens helps to create and maintain such abundance; requiring the Commission to end overfishing and promptly rebuild overfished stocks would provide the same benefits for our inshore fish stocks.
“Thank you.”
I know that Rep. Huffman was listening to the comments that all of us made.

His listening sessions are just the opening rounds in a discussion, and then a debate, that will take a year, and probably years, to resolve.  How many of our suggestions make it into the eventual draft of whatever bill results, and then survive the political process in both houses of Congress, is impossible to predict at this point.

Right now, all we can do is thank Rep. Huffman for reaching out to stakeholders on every coast, stay involved with the political process as it evolves, and keep striving to convince legislators in both the House and Senate that a strong Magnuson-Stevens—and, on the East Coast, ASMFC reform—is in the best long term interests of both fish and fisherman.