Sunday, March 29, 2020


COVID-19 only affects mammals.  

There are a lot of other things that are unknown, or at least uncertain, about the virus, but one thing seems clear:  Fish are immune from infection.  It’s one of the advantages of not having lungs.

But that doesn’t mean that fish won't become victims of COVID-19.  This is the time of year when rivers run high, and anadromous fish, such as striped bass, shad and salmon, return from the sea to their upstream spawning grounds.  

And most of the rivers they spawn in are far from pristine.

Over the past 400 years or so, since the first European settlers put down roots in what would, in time, become the United States, our coastal rivers have suffered from multiple insults.  They have been dammed, and their shores denuded of timber.  They have become dumping grounds for sewage and industrial waste.  They have been dredged, their shores have been hardened, and their marshes drained.  Even up in their most remote headwaters, farms, golf courses, and other industries have been allowed to wash pesticides, excess fertilizer, manure and other pollutants into local waterways, through the spawning grounds, and into coastal estuaries.  

The health of the rivers declined.

Real progress had been made, but then COVID-19 intervened, and interrupted the patterns of human life, work and travel across the nation and the world.  Many people fell ill, and left their workplaces; far more stayed at home either voluntarily, or as those workplaces were shut down. 

Intentional, criminal violations of environmental rules will not be excused, and the policy does not apply to Superfund sites or certain other enforcement instruments.  However, in other instances, the EPA has announced that

“The consequences of the pandemic may constrain the ability of regulated entities to perform routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification.
“…In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request.”
On its face, the temporary policy doesn’t seem unreasonable.  There is, after all, a public health crisis going on, and as the virus continues to spread, it is very possible that companies won’t have sufficient staff on hand to conduct all of the necessary and routine environmental monitoring that it would perform during normal times.

But is staffing really the key issue?

Whether pollutants are released into the environment intentionally, negligently or because they slip past an inadequate monitoring regime, they do the same damage.  And in the spring, as anadromous fish run up rivers to their spawning ground, they are as badly impacted by an inadvertent pollution release as they are by intentional harmful discharges.  A shad, river herring or striped bass running past the extensive industrial chemical complexes on the Delaware River won’t survive a COVID-related toxic discharge any better than it would a discharge motivated purely by convenience and profit.

And, in the real world, there might not be any difference between the two.

The EPA’s temporary policy doesn’t, on its face, automatically let polluting companies off the hook.  It requires, among other things, that a company violating environmental standards

“Identify how COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance, and the decisions and actions taken in response, including best efforts to comply and steps taken to come into compliance.”
But that still leaves two problems outstanding:  The EPA has now established at least a temporary standard of not seeking penalties for noncompliance, which will undoubtedly remove some of industry’s incentive for doing things right.  And in the absence of required monitoring, sampling, laboratory analysis, etc., it’s not clear how the EPA or the relevant facility will even know that a pollution event occurred, and thus will be less able to both abate the event and report its occurrence.  

We may only learn of such events when hordes of fish begin floating and drifting downstream.

“There’s a direct link from monitoring to excessive pollution that may occur and may never be detected or reported to the public or regulators because of the direct grant of amnesty by the Trump EPA.”

“Critics say spikes in pollution from routine industrial operations will go unnoticed if no one is monitoring them, exceeding pollution levels allowed under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other laws.
“Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the EPA who previously served as director in the agency’s Office of Civil Enforcement, used benzene as an example.
“The cancer-causing substance can be leaked as oil refineries turn crude into fuel.  They’re often required to keep monitoring equipment in order to ensure high levels of benzine don’t leak into nearby neighborhoods.
“Schaeffer says the data the EPA normally collects shows companies can have spikes of as much as 10 times the legal limit.
“’If you don’t monitor, you don’t see the benzene, and then you have no obligation to do anything about it.  You don’t have the data to know if you need to act,’ he said.”
Comments like Schaeffer’s provide additional cause for concern when one learns that, as The Hill reported on March 26,

“In a 10-page letter to the EPA earlier this week, the American Petroleum Institute (API) asked for a suspension of the rules that require repairing leaky equipment as well as monitoring to make sure pollution doesn’t leak into nearby water.”
The American Petroleum Industry is hardly a model for environmental stewardship.  It represents an industry known for repeatedly causing very significant environmental harm through cost-cutting and negligent operations, as exemplified by the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills.  If the EPA's motivation for adopting the temporary policy was in any way connected to the petroleum industry's entreaties, the policy itself must be questioned.

And as The Hill also noted, in addition to creating threats to human health,

“The suspension of rules could also be damaging to waterways, which many plants are allowed to directly discharge chemicals into, so long as they ensure their effluent is sufficiently free of toxins.
“’If you don’t really have information about the toxicity of your discharges, you just go about your merry way without knowing if you’re discharging something acutely hazardous,’ Schaeffer said.”
Given that the nation is facing a crisis situation, where business—and, arguably, government regulation of business—can’t go on as usual, yet also given that, as the NRDC’s Walke notes,

“There are always bad actors in the industrial economy when it comes to environmental safeguards,”
did the EPA strike a reasonable balance between such competing concerns when adopting the temporary policy?

Probably not.

In the first instance, it comes down to a matter of corporate priorities.  Companies willing and able to staff their production lines should be just as willing to staff positions needed to maintain environmental safeguards.  Yes, some might get sick, or be otherwise absent, but that doesn’t prevent the companies for filling the slots with other personnel—even if that means paying overtime—to get the job done.  As Mr. Schaeffer noted,

“It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws.”
Then, it also comes down to a matter of national priorities.  If a company cannot assure that it can run its production lines without causing harm to air and/or water, should the next step not be to take a long look at what such company is producing, and whether such products are essential to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, or to otherwise maintaining the health and security of United States citizens?  

If production found to be non-essential cannot be maintained without an increased risk of pollution, shouldn’t such production be halted unless or until adequate monitoring and testing can be resumed?

Finally, the EPA probably made a mistake in promising a broad amnesty for non-compliant levels of monitoring, testing, etc.  Doing so can only incentivize corporate bean-counters to devise ways to avoid the expense of environmental compliance, and then crafting arguments that blame non-compliance on COVID-19.  

A better alternative would have left all compliance requirements, including penalties and fines, intact, while providing non-compliant companies the right to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it made an effort to comply and would have done so had COVID-19 not made compliance impossible.

Such an approach would have left the supposed intent of the EPA’s temporary policy intact—companies would still be relieved of otherwise applicable penalties if they could prove that compliance failures were due solely to COVID-19—but any temptation to use COVID-19 as an excuse for lax compliance procedures would be deterred by imposing full penalties on any entity that could not prove that the virus was the sole cause of compliance failures.

Thus, the balance between protecting the public interest and accommodating legitimate industry concerns could have been struck, in a way that would better protect U.S. waterways, and U.S. residents, from harm.

Because COVID-19 will, in time, go away.  Eventually, most of us will survive, and when the virus is gone, we will want to get back out in the world and fully enjoy what it offers.

When that time comes, we want to be greeted by healthy rivers, estuaries and seas, and healthy fish populations that, perhaps, will even be a bit healthier than they were before we were compelled to stay in and near our homes.

The last thing we will need, in that time of healing, will be waters that run polluted and emptied of fish, so that corporate profits could thrive.

Thursday, March 26, 2020


Some things never change, and are constant wherever you go.

In the fisheries management arena, one of those constants is the oft-heard claim that fish stocks, despite undoubted signs of scarcity, are doing just fine.  Despite peer-reviewed stock assessments that show long-term overfishing, and reveal that a population is badly overfished, when the time comes to turn things around, there are always a legion of fishermen who oppose new regulations, and earnestly argue that fish aren’t less abundant, but just moved somewhere else, where people can't currently find them.

That’s been a common refrain in the northeast for as long as managers have been trying to rebuild fish stocks, but if it’s any consolation to anglers in New England and the mid-Atlantic, it’s not just a local phenomenon.  Most recently, the same “the fish are just fine” sort of comment cropped up in Louisiana, with respect to its speckled trout stock.

Thus, state regulations can have a big impact on speckled trout abundance.

And down in Louisiana, speckled trout aren’t abundant anymore.

“are designed to maximize angler yield while not putting the stock into a condition where we may see recruitment overfishing.”
But even as he said that, it appeared that Louisiana regulations were leading to growth overfishing, with very few of the oldest, largest and most fecund females managing to survive.  Things had reached the point where one fishing guide complained that

“On an average day, we’re throwing back between 50 and 150 fish [that fail to meet the state’s 12-inch minimum size].  My theory is that the fish aren’t getting a chance to grow up.  The minute they hit 12 inches, they’re getting killed.”
Three and a half years ago, the spawning potential of Louisiana’s speckled trout population had fallen to just 10 percent of that of an unfished stock, and well below the state’s spawning potential target of 18 percent.  Louisiana managers admitted that they

“walk a tightrope between getting full public use out of a renewable resource and harming a fishery at least in the short term.”
In other words, they manage speckled trout for an abundance of fish in folks’ coolers, instead of an abundance of fish in the Gulf, bays and bayous.  

Louisiana’s speckled trout regulations were—and remain—the most generous on the coast; while such generous regulations were good for filling coolers with trout, they were also very good for stripping trout from the water.  Now, the state has a real problem.

In response, those managers are proposing a number of possible regulatory changes, which could include a smaller bag limit, higher minimum size, closed areas, closed seasons, and special, more restrictive regulations after severe winters, as speckled trout are susceptible to winter kill if the water gets too cold.  Managers warned that

“changes would need to be significant and likely controversial.”

“Is overfishing really the cause of Louisiana’s speckled trout decline?”
and instead suggests that the population is fine, but that the fish have decided to go somewhere else.   At that point, he breaks into his own version of the same old song that we in the northeast have heard so many times, in relation to striped bass, bluefish and any other species of fish that falls on hard times.

First, of course, he takes the obligatory shots at responsible management and the conservation community, saying

“I predicted this day was coming in a column that I wrote for The Times-Picayune less than three years ago, and as I stated then, the regulation tightening is more politically motivated than biological.  Some extreme environmental groups HATE the fact that Louisiana’s regulations are so liberal and have been fighting hard behind the scenes to get them changed.”
It seems that wherever you happen to be, some fishermen, writers, and industry reps, who question the need for regulations, will try to impeach the integrity of managers and the management process, while also trying to paint anyone with conservation concerns as an “extreme environmentalist” and so compromise their credibility.  

Unnamed “extreme environmental groups” are one of the favorite boogeymen of the anti-regulation crowd, who love to invoke the shadowy threats that such groups purportedly pose, but aren't so fond of identifying the "extreme" groups in question, perhaps—just perhaps—because they don’t even exist in a relevant fisheries context.

Reading a little farther, one learns that the reason that speckled trout seem scarce in Lousisiana relates to heavy rains in the Mississippi basin, which led to legitimately catastrophic flooding on the Louisiana coast last year.  The writer argues that

“freshwater is GREAT for trout populations in general.  Juvenile specks thrive in the stuff, but when the fish get to be sexually mature, which is right about the time they reach harvestable size, they seek salty water to spawn.  If everything close to the coast is too fresh, they keep going until they find what they need.
“That’s particularly true of the really big sows that we all love to catch.  As a speckled trout ages, its osmoregulatory system degrades, and its ability to tolerate freshwater decreases.
“That necessarily means that the fish are farther out and more difficult to locate, so angler success is lower.  What’s also true is that there aren’t as many in the areas that biologists sample with gill nets.  So anglers are bringing fewer fish to the docks and scientists are netting fewer, so there appears to be a problem that may not actually exist.”
On it’s face, it’s not a completely implausible argument.  There has been a lot of rain in the Mississippi Basin over the past decade or so, and 2019 was an extremely severe flood year.  

But that doesn't "necessarily" mean that the fish moved offshore in response.  Such a conclusion rests on the questionable assumption that "the fish," and particularly "the really big sows" exist.  The writer in question supplied zero data in support of that assumption.  He's more or less just wishing and hoping that it might be true.

On the other hand, Louisiana fisheries managers, who are just as aware of local rainfall patterns as such writer, and have reams of data at their fingertips as well, don't seem to be blaming the missing speckled trout on rainfall.  They seem to think that there’s a real problem, and are basing that view on facts and hard data, and not on mere speculation. 

In view of the data that they have on hand, it seems more than a little far-fatched to suggest that Lousisiana fisheries managers are “politically motivated” to tighten regulations, due to pressure from some yet-unnamed “extreme environmental groups.” 

Bu there's a difference between an idea that's far-fetched and one that is out out of the ordinary.  

In the mid-Atlantic, we're hearing similar comments now that bluefish have been deemed overfished, as members of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Bluefish Advisory Panel claim that the stock’s health is fine, but the bluefish

“were…further offshore and not available to anglers that typically target them.”
“…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…”
There is a pattern here.

When people catch too many fish, whatever the species, fish begin to get scarce.  Responsible fisheries managers conduct stock assessments and, if the stock is found to be overfished, adopt regulations to fix the problem.

But some people in the fishing community want regulations to constrain their catch.  So instead of supporting the science, they make up stories to support their position that fish are abundant, but have just moved offshore, where no one can find them.

The stock assessments, and the resulting regulations, are supported by data and based on peer-reviewed science.

The stories that fish moved offshore are supported by other stories--if they're supported at all.

The best way to resolve such conflict is to follow the science, put restrictions in place, and see whether the fish “move back inshore” in a couple of years.

In such event, I strongly suspect that they will.

Sunday, March 22, 2020


2020 is an election year.  Moreover, it is one of the big ones.  

Nationally, we will choose a president, all of our representatives in the House, and one-third of those in the Senate.  Many elections for state legislatures will also be held.

Right now, the campaigns have been largely halted by the pestilence affecting the world and this nation; most of the political news in focused on COVID-19.  But work on other issues goes on behind closed doors, though it receives little attention.  Before the elections are held, votes will be held that address the pandemic.  But votes will also be held on taxes, on education, on defense.

And on conservation issues.

When people go to the polls in November, they will be voting, in part, on how elected officials exercised their roles during the crisis times.  But with the crisis hopefully abating by then, they will also cast votes based, in part, on other issues.  For many, how a legislator responds to issues affecting the conservation of our air, water and land, and the natural resources that exist within or upon them, will impact their voting decisions.

But information on conservation votes might be hard to find in the press, given the other, more newsworthy issues of the day.  Some organizations, such as the League of Conservation Voters, will issue “scorecards” on how legislators voted on various bills, using criteria proprietary to each particular group.  The League of Conservation Voters, for example, states that its

“Scorecard reflects the consensus of experts from about 20 respected environmental and conservation organizations who select the key votes on which members of Congress should be scored.  LCV scores votes on the most important issues of the year, including energy, global warming, public health, public lands and wildlife conservation, and spending for environmental programs.  The Scorecard is the nationally accepted yardstick used to rate members of Congress on environmental, public health, and energy issues.”
That last sentence is undoubtedly true.  I’ve used the League’s Scorecard more than once in this blog, usually when describing how a Long Island Congressman’s wrongheaded positions on fisheries issues are completely in tune with his dismal League rating on conservation issues in general.  

At the same time, a lot of the issues that the League designates “key votes” might have a tangential, if still important, connection with conservation issues, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the voting legislator’s overall conservation record. 

While there is no question that the political philosophy and judicial track record of the four appellate court appointees strongly suggest that they might be hostile to environmental regulation and so more likely to rule in favor of those who challenge such regulations in court, such persons, if their appointments were confirmed, would vote on other matters as well, and it is impossible to say with certainty whether any senator’s vote to confirm indicates that such senator is hostile to conservation matters, or was driven by other concerns.

The other problem with the League Scorecard is that it must, of necessity, focus on the big-picture issues; many other votes, on matters of less universal concern, are not included, even though they may be important to one or more sectors of the conservation community.

Thus, while high-level ratings like the League Scorecard are important, and will always be the primary benchmarks, there is need for another scoring system, which can get down in the weeds and address the bills that are important to subsets of the conservation community, and is flexible enough to be adopted by different groups who wish to address different sets of legislation.

I suggest a new standard for legislators’ votes that I call the “Leopold Principle,” and is based on the philosophy fleshed out by pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold in his book, A Sand County Almanac.  Such standard adopts Leopold's view, which places humans within, rather than apart from, the natural biotic community, which must, for our nown good, be kept healthy and intact.

Under such standard, the primary criteria used in rating a legislator’s vote, is whether it demonstrates that such legislator chose to

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.  A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
That's a very simple standard to understand, which can be applied across the spectrum of conservation issues.  

But it has wider application; a clean-water advocate could apply the same rule to a vote on mountaintop removal mining, while public land supporters could use it to rate a legislator’s position on the creation and maintenance of national monuments.  The integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community is, or at least should be, important to everyone.

From there, the principle can be tweaked.  Leopold was correct when he observed that

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’  If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.  If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?  To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Current debates over seals and white sharks in New England, over cormorants in the East and wolves in the West, if and when they come to votes, should certainly be informed by such comment.  

Finally, and closely related to the other two considerations, is Leopold’s injunction to

“Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays.”
Given the current public health crisis, it’s not clear how many bills will come before Congress this year, and whether any will impact marine fisheries issues.  However, should any such votes on significant fisheries related bills take place, my current intent is to use the criteria set forth above—the “Leopold Principle”—to rate the votes of, at least, legislators from coastal districts on those bills, and present them in late October/very early November to this blog's readers as a sort of “Marine Fisheries Conservation Voting Guide.”

I encourage others, whether involved in the marine fisheries conservation arena or elsewhere to consider doing something similar.  In a time of national peril, there is a tendency to focus on the immediate threat, and that allows those who focus solely on their own interests to push bad bills through.

If legislators allow that to happen, and so threaten the biotic community to which we all belong, voters ought to know.

Thursday, March 19, 2020


When I was young, river herring—bluebacks and alewives—filled our local rivers each spring.

They started to run about this time, or maybe just a bit later.  I know that they were always around for Good Friday, when the schools were closed and my friends and I could head to the river and celebrate the new pulse of life that was headed upstream.

I can write about huge schools of fish so desperate to spawn that even when the tide was out, they turned on their sides and splashed through the trickles, always looking upstream where the fresh water flowed. 

I can conjure up pictures of fish, and of the waters, but that was only a part of the story, that doesn’t include the sweet smell of live fish that hung, unseen, above the water, contained by the banks and the bulkheads and dam.  It doesn’t take in the sound of crashing water that carved out a trough at the base of the dam, where herring massed, safe from gulls but not from people, after the dropping tide left most of the river bottom bare.  It doesn’t describe the flash of striving herring that somehow climbed halfway up the man-made freshet that tumbled down the cliff at the corner of the dam, but probably—because we’ll never know for sure—made it all the way to the still water above.

It was one of my favorite times of the year back, something that those of us who were there still talk about at times, remembering the fun we had, and the outrageous things that happened—that had to happen—when enough people, more than enough alcohol and a carnival mood mix in a very small place.

We remember the joy of being young—but just old enough—when it was still socially acceptable for young boys to wander, unsupervised, at the water’s edge.

And we admit, as talk quiets down and maybe the third or fourth glass has been poured, that we probably sensed, even then, that the run woiuldn't last.

The herring came to spawn in fresh water, but a dam blocked their path.  Perhaps a few beat the odds and managed to swim up the spates at the edge of the dam.  A few more were carried up in buckets and dumped over the dam by folks tryinbg to help then reach their spawning grounds. 

But a few buckets of fish was scant compensation for the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of fish denied a route upstream.  Yes, a few herring spawned, because I saw the young fish in the summer, when I rowed my patched dinghy on the lake just above.  But any contribution they made was tiny compared to the spawning potential of the fish that never made it into fresh water.

Out in the ocean, fishermen grew more efficient.  For many years, until the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 became law, foreign factory ships fished close to U.S. shores.  Atlantic herring and Atlantic mackerel were among their targets, which they caught by the tons.  Among those Atlantic herring and mackerel swam schools of river herring, which spend most of their lives at sea.  They were netted and processed, and didn’t return to the rivers to spawn.

Even after the foreign ships were gone, the herring fell victim, this time to nets pulled by American vessels, which eventually began to tow huge midwater trawls that caught large quantities of alewives and bluebacks.  When the survivors returned inshore, small-scale fisheries caught them in smaller numbers; most were used as bait.

Spring on the rivers grew quiet.  The people disappeared with the herring.  Something important was being lost.

But some people didn’t want to lose it.

Offshore, both the New England and Mid-Atlantic fishery management councils have put limits on the amount of river herring that can be killed in the Atlantic herring and Atlantic mackerel fisheries.  More needs to be done to protect the fish while they’re out at sea, but real progress has been made.

I started my monitoring on Monday.

One place that I watch is a long shot, a pool beneath a small dam.  To reach it, the herring would have to swim through an underground culvert for hundreds of feet; I have no way of knowing whether the culvert is clear of debris, or whether it presents such a tangle of dead limbs and trash that herring could never ascend. 

The other spot is pregnant with possibility. 

Years ago, when I first monitored the runs, I watched a stream where a new fish passage had just been installed; previous to that, such access to fresh water had been blocked for more than a century.  On one March evening, I came to that water and spotted a herring that stranded itself on a gravel bar after swimming off the fish ladder’s edge.  I later learned that other monitors had found hundreds more that had successfully entered fresh water after negotiating their way around the first dam.

Now, I'm watching a spot farther up the same river, trying to learn how far up the river they run.  If I can confirm that they’re going as far as the second dam, there may be a chance to build another fish passage that will open up additional miles of river.   

So every year, as winter dies, I look forward to returning to the river and resuming my watch.  It’s not quite the same as it was half a century ago, for it’s a different river, in a different state, and after so many years, I’m different, too.  But it still feels right and familiar to walk along the bank, returning time after time to see the buds on the trees swell and burst into leaves, to watch ospreys and herons hunt for the same fish that I seek, and to know that a new abundance of life is displacing winter’s desolation.

But this year, things are somewhat different.

Before, when I came to the river, my sole concern was the herring run.  Now, when every voice on the radio and so much in the news warns of COVID-19, I am concerned about the health of family and friends as well. 

This is not a normal time, yet a return to the river is also a return to a sort of timeless normalcy.  

The water runs high and clear one day, and is stained by rain the next; a few days after the rain, it runs clear once again. 

On Long Island, the herring’s return moves from east to west.  As far as I know, on my river, the herring haven’t yet passed the first dam.  But they’re on their way, and the strong runs out east hold out the possibility that, just maybe, the crisis has passed, and herring might be poised for a slow, if uncertain, recovery.

Maybe tonight, the herring will ascend my river, and pass the first dam.  Some might continue upstream.  Perhaps, some already have.  

Two years ago, a trout fisherman, who seemed to know what an alewife was told, me that he had accidentally caught a couple well up in the river, just below the second dam.  I don’t know whether or not that was true. 

But in these first days of spring, I’ll looking down through the water, trying to discdern the thin, circling shapes of alewives on their spawning run.  Maybe I'll see them, maybe I won't.  But so long as herring still run up rivers, despite dams and nets and the warming sea, I’ll continue my vigil.

With hope.

Sunday, March 15, 2020


As the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board meeting ended last February 4, the striped bass, and striped bass anglers, were facing a very mixed bag. 

The Management Board had adopted a coastwide 28 to 35-inch slot limit; that measure was contrary to the expressed wishes of most striped bass anglers, who supported a 35-inch minimum size, but it was calculated to achieve the needed 18 percent reduction in fishing mortality, and had the advantage of protecting the largest and most important females in the spawning stock.

While many striped bass anglers were displeased with that outcome, once the decision was made, most seemed to get behind the idea of a single, 28 to 35-inch size limit that applied in every state between Maine and North Carolina, with the exception of Chesapeake Bay.  For if the purpose of a slot limit was to protect the small fish until they were old enough to spawn at least once, and to protect the largest, most prolific spawners, then such limit would be most effective if every state adopted the same rules, so that the large females wouldn’t be protected in one state, and then be vulnerable to harvest as soon as they swam into another state’s waters.

While that might have been what anglers wanted, by the end of the meeting, they knew that it wasn’t what they were going to get.  New Jersey had no more intention of conforming t the coastwide slot as it had of conforming to Management Board-preferred regulations in any other year.  When it was given the ability to craft its own regulations, which only had to reduce the state’s fishing mortality by at least 18 percent and would allow New Jersey anglers a bigger striped bass kill, everyone knew that it was going to do so, coastwide consistency be damned.

The same was true in Maryland, where fishery mangers made it clear that the proposed 1 fish bag and 18-inch minimum size in Chesapeake Bay was dead on arrival.  Maryland, which arguably hosts the single most important set of spawning rivers anywhere on the coast, was intent on letting its anglers kill some of the big, fecund females, off limits everywhere else, that will be needed to rebuild the currently overfished stock.  Maryland was also intent on letting its charter boat fleet kill two bass per person, even though every other Maryland angler would be limited to just one.

And that left Rhode Island.

The Management Board left the door open for Rhode Island to adopt a 32 to 40-inch bag limit, perhaps coupled with a 30 to 40-inch bag limit for its for-hire fleet.  On paper, those limits would achieve a 19 percent fishing mortality reduction for Rhode Island, as opposed to a 14 percent Rhode Island reduction for the Management Board’s preferred slot.  

However, when the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Technical Committee reviewed and approved such measures, it only had to determine whether they would achieve an 18 percent reduction in Rhode Island’s waters.  They did not have to calculate the impact of killing 35 to 40-inch fish on coastwide fishing mortality, nor on the spawning stock itself.

A similar situation existed five years ago, after the Management Board adopted Addendum IV to Amendment 6 of the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which adopted a 1-fish bag limit and a 28-inch minimum size in coastal fisheries.  

Back then, there was a strong push by the for-hire fleet, particularly in Rhode Island, to carve out special regulations that would favor anglers on for-hire vessels.  However, other northeastern states (including, I’m proud to say, my own state of New York) engaged in some very effective interstate diplomacy, which resulted in a single, consistent set of recreational striped bass regulations in every state between New York and Maine.

So this year, the question was whether history would repeat itself, and see Rhode Island make common cause with its neighboring states, or whether Rhode Island would strike out on its own and, perhaps, put the success of the new ASMFC action at risk.

I was reasonably optimistic.  Rhode Island had done the right thing before, despite significant pressure from some of the for-hires, and I fully expected it to do the right thing again.  There might be a few bumps along the way, but in the end, I expected Rhode Island managers to recognize the advantages of maintaining consistent regulations throughout the northeast, and do the right thing for the bass.

Massachusetts publicly urged Rhode Island to adopt the same slot as the rest of the northeastern states, and it's a pretty good bet that fisheries in other northeastern states were doing something similar, if not in as public a way.

“The perspectives of stakeholders and advisors are given due consideration in the decision-making process.  Upon review of the record, it is apparent that the opinions of the RI recreational fishing community are split between the three management options offered at the hearing.  However, given that the striped bass stock is overfished and experiencing overfishing, the factor that emerges as the most important, and upon which my final decision rests, is risk to the resource.  Minimizing such risk is essential to maximizing the efficacy of our management response.  Of the three options, I find the coastwide measure to be the most risk-averse and best suited to quickly and effectively reduce fishing mortality and rebuild the striped bass stock.  Other key factors I considered in making my decision included resource conservation, compliance and enforcement, and equity.  [emphasis added]”
I’ve been involved with fisheries management issues in general, and striped bass management issues in particular, for a very long time.  I can date that involvement back more than 40 years, to the mid-1970s, when I first met Bob Pond and heard him warn of the coming collapse of the stock.  Yet in all of those years, there were very few times when I witnessed a state fisheries manager so clearly and accurately articulate the key issue:  “that the striped bass is overfished and experiencing overfishing, [and so] the factor that emerges as most important…is risk to the resource,” and then lend unambiguous support to a management measure because it is “the most risk-averse and best suited to quickly and effectively reduce fishing mortality and rebuild the striped bass stock.”

To say that those words provided a breath of fresh air was an understatement, particularly given some of the arguments being made in Rhode Island this year.  To provide some idea of what went on, writer Todd Corayer quoted some comments made at the Marine Fisheries Council meeting, described an exchange between a charter boat captain and a local surfcaster, and then observed

“The exchange confirmed that all were not there to support the fish.  Words like ‘us” were used, as opposed to a word like “those” [referring to fish caught by a different sector].  It seems rebuilding a fishery begins with separating amounts of fish for ‘us’ as opposed to ensuring ‘those’ fish are protected.  Some supported taking smaller fish while others were trying to rebuild before a collapse.  It was also disappointing to hear a well-known local captain support [sector-specific slots].”
But Director Coit managed to dig through all of the comments and controversy, and come up with the right answer, realizing that in the end, the most important thing isn’t taking care of a few people’s wants.  

When managing fisheries, managers’ primary concern is and should always be taking care of the needs of the fish, because without a healthy fish population, all of the stakeholders will, in the long term, be out of luck.

In singling Director Coit out for praise, I don’t want to suggest that fisheries managers in other states—those in all of New England, as well as those in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina and even the District of Columbia—weren’t doing their jobs.  All have played an important role in the effort to conserve striped bass.

But Director Coit’s language demonstrates, better than anything else released to the public so far, how fisheries decisions ought to be made, particularly when an overfished stock is involved:  First and foremost, you look to the health of the fish stock itself. 

For doing just, Director Coit deserves thanks.