Thursday, April 30, 2020


A lot of people interested in maintaining a healthy Chesapeake Bay ecosystem celebrated that vote, which was an important milestone in a conservation battle that dates back well over twenty years, and still has a way to go before all of the issues are resolved.  Now, there is reason to believe that a full resolution stands within reach.  How that occurred provides important lessons on the both the potential value of public advocacy, and of the need for patience.

Because whatever happened, and will yet happen, with respect to menhaden management, we should understand that it didn’t happen overnight.

I first got seriously involved in menhaden management issues around 1997, and there are people I know who were involved with those issues for years before that.  Back then, the ASMFC managed menhaden pursuant to a plan that established an Atlantic Menhaden Management Board that was composed of

“up to five state directors, up to five industry representatives, one National Marine Fisheries Service member, and one representative from the National Fish Meal and Oil Association.”
That was a big difference from the way all of the other ASMFC management boards were made up at the time.  

With the exception of the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, all of the ASMFC’s species management boards were composed of the directors of every state with a declared interest in the species, plus representatives from NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  No seats at all were reserved for industry reps on the other management boards.

The special treatment of the menhaden industry didn’t stop there.  The American Menhaden Advisory Committee, which provided technical support to the Management Board and was responsible for assessing the health of the stock and recommending regulatory action, was composed of

“members from interested states desiring to participate in the committee, industry representatives, personnel from NMFS, and a representative from the [National Fish Meal and Oil Association]”
Given that makeup, it’s not hard to understand why the Advisory Committee reliably gave the menhaden stock a clean bill of health regardless of trends in abundance, and even recommended an education program to support the menhaden reduction fishery, writing in the management plan itself that

“All too frequently, arguments made in support of [management] actions have been based on opinion, not fact.  Misconceptions continue about the menhaden stock and fishery, such as the following:  the stock is recruitment-overfished, purse seines take a large bycatch, and many gamefish are dependent on menhaden as forage to the exclusion of other forage species.  The ASMFC menhaden program and then industry have prepared a number of educational products since 1990.  A comprehensive positive education program aimed at the public, anglers, and government officials to present the facts concerning menhaden and the menhaden fishery should be implemented.  [emphasis added]”
In those days, it was common to hear folks who were trying to reform menhaden management to say that “the fox was watching the henhouse,” but if you took a good look at the management plan, it was clear that the fox wasn’t just watching the henhouse, but held all of the keys to the henhouse’s door.

But people were becoming more and more aware that “the facts concerning menhaden and the menhaden fishery” might not be the “facts” that the Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee wanted everyone to believe.

The first steps to finding out what the facts really were was to organize a fox hunt, toss the industry representatives—including the rep from the National Fish Meal and Oil Association—off the Management Board and Advisory Committee, and create a Management Board and Technical Committee that resembled those that managed every other species under the ASMFC’s jurisdiction.

That meant a Management Board representing not just five states with significant menhaden industries, but every state between Maine and Florida--without any industry seats.  And it meant a Technical Committee composed of independent state biologists, rather than persons representing and beholden to the reduction industry.

That was far easier said than done, because the fox truly loved being close to those hens, and wasn't going to give up without a fight.

The fox hunters got a break in 1998, after the ASMFC instituted a peer review process for stock assessmentsThe menhaden stock had been assessed in that same year, so that stock assessment was one of the first to go through the ASMFC’s peer review process.

“The Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Committee (AMAC) made no recommendations for changes in regulation of menhaden fisheries in 1998.  The Panel believes that this inaction was inappropriate based on the following:  1) indications of recruitment declines and stock contraction; and 2) lack of clear relationships between management indicators, actions, and evaluation of efficacy of management actions in the current management framework…The trigger-based management system has not served the function of guiding regulatory actions in the menhaden fishery.  The detailed information on stock status…has not been utilized in full advantage in guiding management.”
Which is about what you’d expect when the fox is in charge.

The need for change was becoming obvious, and public outcry was growing.  Conservation and angling organizations became more aggressive in their calls to oust industry from the Management Board and Advisory Committee.  Finally, in July 2001, the ASMFC adopted Amendment 1 to the Interstate Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden which, among other things, ousted industry from the Management Board, and replaced the Advisory Committee with a Technical Committee made up of scientists who were not connected to the menhaden industry.

That marked an important beginning.  While the reduction industry would continue to cast a large shadow on Management Board proceedings, it was no longer in a position to cast decisive votes.  Instead, it had to work through proxies, usually one or more of Virginia’s three Management Board representatives, which severely limited its influence.  For the first time in its history, the Management Board was able to focus on developing the science necessary to properly manage the menhaden resource, rather than serving as an adjunct of the reduction fleet.

For most of the next two decades, the Management Board focused on just two issues:  How to properly assess the health of the menhaden resource, and how the health of the menhaden resource affected the health of other fish stocks.

A dynamic emerged in which the public, typically represented by a coalition of angling and conservation groups, argued for precautionary management that recognized the menhaden’s role in coastal food webs, squared off against the reduction industry, which consistently maintained that the fish’s population was healthy, that harvests could be maintained or even increased, and that there was no clear connection between menhaden abundance and the health of other marine predators.

The latter issue led to a 15-year-long clash that was, in part, resolved by the Virginia Marine Fisheries Commission’s recent actions to cut reduction industry landings in Chesapeake Bay.  But the debate still echoes in efforts to have coastwide menhaden landings governed by “ecological reference points” that would limit harvest to a level that will allow Atlantic menhaden to also fulfill their role as forage fish.

The idea of limiting menhaden harvest in order to benefit predator populations first arose around 2005, as people and organizations voiced their concerns that too many of the fish were being removed from the Chesapeake Bay.  The upshot was Addendum II to Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden, which sought to prevent “localized depletion” of Chesapeake Bay menhaden, and the resultant negative impacts on striped bass and other predators, by establishing the first Bay Cap.

Thanks to the advocacy of various organizations and many private citizens, the Bay Cap is now far smaller than it once was.  It began as the average of landings for the years 1999-2004, went to 109,200 metric tons in 2006, was reduced to 87,216 metric tons in 2012, and cut again, to 51,000 metric tons, in 2017.  

Each time, the idea of a Bay Cap received very strong public support.

Omega Protein, the lone survivor in the Atlantic reduction fishery, grudgingly accepted the initial Bay Caps, but refused to abide by the 51,000 metric ton cap adopted in 2017.  It fished in the Virginia section of Chesapeake Bay (the reduction fleet is barred from Maryland waters) and was able to convince the Virginia legislature, which had the sole responsibility for managing menhaden in that state, not to adopt the 2017 cap.  

Thus, when Omega removed about 65,000 metric tons of menhaden from Chesapeake Bay in 2019, it didn’t break Virginia law.  But Virginia law was not in accord with the management plan.

Again, many people and organizations rose to the occasion.

And thus the stage was set for the final act in that particular play.  Virginia’s legislature still had to either adopt the new Bay Cap, or hand over management authority to the Virginia Marine Fisheries Commission, if it wanted to have any menhaden fishery at all.  Bills were introduced to cede authority to the Commission.  They garnered public support, and were passed into law, setting the stage for this week’s decision to reduce the Bay Cap.

One long fight had finally ended.  But the battle to adopt ecological reference points is yet to be won.

Now, due to COVID-19, the vote on that motion has been postponed again, perhaps to August, perhaps to sometime later.  But given the dedication of people and organizations who have been willing to fight for well over 20 years to get better menhaden management, and continue to do so, I believe that it will ultimately be adopted by the Management Board.

I tell this long story not merely to celebrate this week’s victory in the Chesapeake, and the hoped-for win on ecological reference points, but also to help reassure those fighting for other fisheries that a win is not out of reach.

I address this particularly to those who fight for striped bass. 

So I understand why people might be frustrated.

But there’s no reason to abandon the fight.  If menhaden teaches us anything, it is that persistence and patience are very powerful weapons, that can successfully defeat a well-financed adversary, if we’re only willing to use them.

So long as the fight continues, a win remains possible.  The only sure way to lose is to quit.

Sunday, April 26, 2020


For those with short memories, or who somehow escaped all of the “Modern Fish Act” propaganda that was being slung around by the angling industry, boating industry and their “anglers’ rights” cronies a few years ago, the idea of “alternative management” was originally based on abandoning the current method of managing recreational fisheries in federal waters. 

Proponents of such alternative management wished to replace the current management system, which employs science-based annual catch limits, holds anglers accountable when they overfish, and has helped end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks on every coast of the United States, with a system similar to that employed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is based on “soft” fishing mortality targets (that may or may not reflect the scientific advice), does not hold anglers accountable if they overfish, does not require the timely rebuilding of overfished stocks, has never rebuilt and then maintained at healthy levels even a single stock under its sole jurisdiction, and has resulted in nearly twice as many stocks under ASMFC’s sole management being considered overfished/depleted compared to those that are considered rebuilt/sustainable.

Such report argued that

“The [National Marine Fisheries Service] should manage recreational fisheries based on long-term harvest rates, not strictly on poundage-based quotas.  This strategy has been successfully used by fisheries managers in the Atlantic striped bass fishery, which is the most sought-after recreational saltwater fishery the nation.  By managing the recreational sector based on harvest rate as opposed to a poundage-based quota, managers have been able to provide predictability in regulations while also sustaining a healthy population.”
Unfortunately, such alternative management, based on long-term harvest rates and not annual quotas, just doesn’t work.  

The best evidence of that may be that striped bass management, held out as perhaps the best example of alternative management measures, has failed.  A recent benchmark stock assessment has found that striped bass are now both overfished and experiencing overfishing.

When the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act passed in the waning days of the 115th Congress, it did contain language explicitly granting NMFS and the regional fishery management councils

“authority to use fishery management measures in a recreational fishery (or the recreational component of a mixed-use fishery) in developing a fishery management plan, plan amendment, or proposed regulations, such as extraction rates, fishing mortality targets, harvest control rules, or traditional or cultural practices of native communities in such fishery or fishery component.”
However, there were enough wise heads in Congress, and particularly in the Senate, to assure that the final version of that Act also contained language that read

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed as modifying the requirements of sections 301(a), 302(h)(6), 303(a)(15), or 304(e) of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (16 U.S.C. 1851(a), 1852(h)(6), 1853(a)(15), and 1854(e)), or the equal application of such requirements and other standards and requirements under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.) to commercial, charter, and recreational fisheries, including each component of mixed-use fisheries.”
Thanks to that final provision, Magnuson-Stevens’ prohibition on overfishing, as well as its requirements that annual catch limits be established for each managed fishery, that fishermen be held accountable for exceeding such annual catch limits, and that overfished stocks be rebuilt within a time certain were all preserved, even as applied to recreational fisheries.

Thus, it’s going to be interesting to see where the Joint Council Workgroup goes.

It’s possible to argue that there’s no need to go anywhere at all.

“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.”
While such guidelines do not have the force of law, they are still a very good determinant of what a regional fishery management council may or may not do when constructing a management measure.  And when you take a look at those guidelines, you find that they already permit the use of control rules, fishing mortality targets, indicator species (when managing a stock complex rather than an individual stock), and other “alternative” management measures, provided, however, that the management measures used must provide “measurable and objective” data that will permit NMFS to determine whether overfishing is occurring.

Based on such guidelines, it’s easy to argue that section 102 of the Modern Fish Act didn’t really change anything at all.  

But perhaps it's better to argue that the phrase "alternative management measures" encompasses a far broader range of concepts than just fishing mortality targets and control rules.

When it meets on May 18, the Joint Council Workgroup won’t only be looking at the law.  They’ll also look at the transcript of a Council Coordinating Committee meeting that was held last November, where alternative management was discussed, and at discussionsheld at the 2018 Recreational Fishing Summit.  Both of those sources include a much more expansive discussion of the "alternative management" issue; in both cases, it wasn’t annual catch limits or accountability that people objected to.  Instead, they questioned things like the lack of timely data that might let managers be more responsive to changing fishery conditions, and to a one-size-fits-all approach that focuses management efforts on maximizing landings, and ignores the value of fish left in the sea.

Chris Horton, from the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, described it this way in his comments to the Council Coordinating Committee:

“And for…a predominantly recreational fishery, even if you’re managing to [maximum sustainable yield], more towards MSY, with hard-poundage quotas, if there was some way that you could adjust the [annual catch limit] based on a predetermined framework so that you had some measure, some index of abundance come into population like discards or release data on any given year and all of a sudden you see this bump come up because there’s so many more fish come in the fishery that we missed, is there a way to adjust the [annual catch limit] based on, again, another framework for that following year to respond to what you’re seeing on the water rather than waiting for the next dock [sic] assessment to go out because anglers are going to be catching more fish.
“Is managing to something like that going to require different data sets beyond what MRIP provides, no doubt.  Absolutely will…”
Trying to figure out what sort of data that might be, as opposed to figure out how to derive some a new way to manage recreational landings, would probably be a good direction for the Joint Council Workgroup to take.

One data source that constantly comes up is electronic reporting by anglers, but when that issue came up at the Council Coordinating Committee, Mr. Horton responded

“Right now, we really don’t trust recreational anglers, just honestly, and a lot of areas don’t necessarily trust Federal fisheries management.
“And I know some of them think, and I’ve had this discussion that went on, well, if we don’t report, well then it doesn’t show that we’re catching as many fish and we’ll be able to fish longer…”
The same issue came up at the Recreational Summit, and received the same general response, although what most fishermen don’t realize is that by not reporting their catch, they’re actually making the stock look like it might be headed for trouble, and paving the way for more restrictive regulations.

Another issue that was raised at both the Council Coordinating Committee and at the Recreational Summit was managing recreational fish not merely for harvest, but for the opportunities provided by fish left in the water.  Again quoting Mr. Horton,

“Some examples of [Optimum Yield] to the extreme could probably be found with Kingfish in the Gulf of Mexico and Bluefish in the Atlantic.  Where we’re leaving a lot of fish in the water, yes.  And there’s talk about shifting some of that quota back over to the commercial side because the rec side is not catching them.  But I can assure you that there is a lot of value to leaving those fish in the water…
“…I mean, what’s the value of those kingfish we leave in the water.  We’ll argue that there’s absolutely significant value to that.  That we will fill our boats, and we will buy tackle and we will go try to catch those fish that are still left in the water.  And again, not necessarily to harvest, but to have that option to harvest if we want…”
If the Joint Council Workgroup wants to investigate managing for abundance, for keeping more fish in the water rather than putting more fish on the dock, they’d be spending time on something worthwhile.

Thus, there are reasons to believe that the new effort to consider “alternative” management measures may prove to be far more valuable than the original effort, initiated by the "Vision" report, that would have merely allowed anglers to avoid poundage-based catch limits and extend rebuilding times. 

Over time, the concept of “alternative management measures” has evolved away from merely shifting the conservation burden off anglers' shoulders, and toward an effort to develop better streams of data, and to manage at least some recreational species for abundance rather than yield.

If that’s where the Joint Council Workgroup decides to head, it has a chance of prodicing a real breakthrough in recreational fisheries management.  Let us hope that it does.

Thursday, April 23, 2020


“I am writing to inform Atlantic Large Pelagics Advisory Committee (ALPAC) members of a decision that the Department has taken with respect to North Atlantic Shortfin mako sharks.
“In fisheries that have interactions with North Atlantic Shortfin mako, the Department will to prohibit [sic] any retention (dead or alive) going forward.  This will be reflected in license conditions for large pelagic fisheries beginning in the 2020/2021 season.
“This decision has been informed by views of ALPAC members as well as the most recent science available for this species.
“Should you have any questions related to this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
It was signed by David Whorley, Chair, ALPAC.

With that announcement, Canada took the lead in mako shark conservation. 

Canada’s support for shortfin mako conservation is a relatively new, but much welcomed.  Last August, Canada opposed an effort to list makos on Appendix II to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—better known as CITES—although such listing merely requires that trade in shortfin makos be properly documented.  It set no limits on landings.  Eventually, the CITES proposal was adopted with strong international support.

Unfortunately, neither the European Union nor the United States were among the supporters, and the proposal was defeated in favor of one that offered some limited protections for shortfin makos, but still permitted substantial harvest.  

The U.S. originally argued for 700 metric tons of annual landings, largely composed of fish that were dead when brought to the boat, which was the most liberal landings  measure put forward by any ICCAT member.

It’s disappointing that the United States has failed to join its northern neighbor in support of shortfin mako conservation.

“projected that spawning stock fecundity, defined as the number of pups produced each year, will continue to decline until approximately 2035 even with no fishing, because the cohorts that have been depleted in the past will age into the mature population over the next few decades (the median age at maturity is 21 years).”
Furthermore, that assessment stated that

“For runs 1 and 2, a [total allowable catch] of between 800-900 [metric tons], including dead discards, resulted in a >50% probability of…the joint probability of [a fishing mortality rate that is below the rate that results in maximum sustainable yield] and [spawning stock fecundity that is above the fecundity level necessary for the shortfin mako stock to produce maximum sustainable yield] by 2070.  Run 3, which assumed a low productivity stock-recruitment relationship, showed that only [a total allowable catch] between 0 and 100 [metric tons] (including dead discards) resulted in a >50% probability of [achieving that desired result] by 2070.  [emphasis added]”
That means that the harvest level proposed by the United States at last year’s ICCAT meeting would have, at best, created a 50 percent likelihood that the shortfin mako stock could be fully rebuilt fifty years from now, while at worst, it authorized a landings rate at least seven times the rate that would allow the stock to be rebuilt in that time.  

So it’s pretty clear that the U.S. has ceded the conservation high ground on shortfin mako management, and it’s nice to see Canada step up to accept the mantle of leadership that the United States has declined.

Canada’s action has received praise from the conservation community.  A spokesperson for the Nova Scotia-based Ecology Action Centre said

“We applaud the Canadian government for stepping up to protect one of the Atlantic’s most threatened sharks, the shortfin mako.  Yesterday’s action represents a milestone in Canada’s remarkable emergence as a leader in global shark conservation, and one of the most significant steps to date in an urgent effort to save this exceptionally imperiled mako population.”

“Although similar action is needed by other countries to save the highly migratory mako shark, Canada’s new ban is a pivotal development for this valuable, vulnerable species.  We urge other North Atlantic fishing nations to follow Canada’s lead to protect this shared population, as scientists advise.”
ICCAT agreed to hold an intersessional meeting this year to further address the shortfin mako issue, which will hopefully result in recommendations that can be addressed when ICCAT holds its regular meeting this fall.  Provided that COVID-19 allows both meetings to proceed, we can only hope that the United States will finally drop its opposition to shortfin mako conservation, and join Canada and the other responsible states in taking whatever action is needed to rebuild the mako stock.

“mako shark be given a chance to make a comeback we have voluntarily placed a moratorium on Mako Mania.”

We can only hope that the United States delegation will follow the example of such anglers, and start taking action that might provide the shortfin mako with a brighter future.  

Sunday, April 19, 2020


The thresher shark weighed about 400 pounds, and I had been pulling on it long enough that I had begun to worry that the fish might not survive the fight.

I usually release all of my sharks, but every now and then, one exhausts itself to the point that it effectively dies on the line.  That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does I never consider it much of a tragedy, because it typically happens with threshers, which are one of the best-eating sharks in the ocean.  A dead thresher just meant that I’d have a full freezer, and that a few of my friends would be eating fish, too.

But I didn’t want this particular thresher to die.  In part, that was because of its size; a 400-pound fish would yield more meat than I could reasonably eat, and it would be tough to find enough people who would take the excess.  I didn’t want any of the fish to go to waste.  Yet I also had a more basic concern. Many of our popular offshore food fish, including thresher sharks, have elevated levels of mercury in their flesh, enough to possibly cause health problems if too much of that flesh is eaten. 

“cautions parents of young children and certain women to avoid certain types of fish that typically have higher mercury levels: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico; shark; swordfish; orange roughy; bigeye tuna; marlin; and king mackerel.  [emphasis added]”
There is probably a natural tendency to downplay the risk of such mercury contamination.  I’ve been fishing offshore for just about all of my adult life, and regularly ate shark and tuna without ever giving it much thought.  But then I worked with someone whose wife had an addiction to sushi, and ate it nearly every day, until a routine blood test revealed elevated mercury levels, and her doctor put her on chelation therapy as a result.  Not too much later, I was at my fishing club’s annual Christmas party, and one of the folks at the table, who spends a lot of time fishing offshore and eats an inordinate amount of tuna, mentioned that he had found himself in a similar situation, and had to undergo chelation therapy, too.

Fortunately, the last time I saw the big thresher, it still seemed strong and healthy as it swam away, because the idea of killing the fish was a lot less attractive than it once might have been.

Some of the mercury tainting fish flesh occurs naturally, but most is of human origin.  An article in Oceanus, the magazine of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, explained that

“The biggest single source is the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, which releases 160 tons of mercury into the air in the United States alone.  From there, rainfall washes the mercury into the ocean.
…High-sulfur (‘dirty’) coal tends to be high in mercury as well, and mercury tends to stick to sulfur.  When dirty coal burns, the mercury is released into the atmosphere along with the sulfur.  From there, they can be washed back to Earth by rain or they can diffuse directly into bodies of water.
“That’s bad news…because bacteria use sulfur in biochemical reactions that eventually convert the mercury into methylmercury, the highly toxic form that accumulates to deadly levels as it passes up the food chain.”
The good news is—or at least was—that the level of methylmercury in at least some offshore fish was beginning to decline.  Researchers at New York’s Stony Brook University conducted an extensive study of methylmercury levels in bluefin tuna, and reported that

“The date demonstrate that, while tissue concentrations were higher than in most other fish species, there has been a consistent decline in mercury concentrations in these fish over time, regardless of the age of the fish.
“The rate of decline parallels the decline—over the same time period—of mercury emissions, mercury levels in North Atlantic air, and mercury concentrations in North Atlantic seawater…
“…the finding appears to indicate that changes in mercury levels in fish tissues respond in real time to changes in mercury loadings into the ocean.  The study suggests that mercury levels may be improving as a result of declining coal use, reducing emissions that drift over the Atlantic.”

“The Trump administration on Thursday gutted an Obama-era rule that compelled the country’s coal plants to cut back on emissions of mercury and other human health hazards, a move designed to limit future regulation of air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.
“Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler said the rollback was reversing what he depicted as agency overreach by the Obama administration.  ‘We have put together an honest accounting measure that balances’ the cost to utilities with public safety, he said.”

“completed a reconsideration of the appropriate and necessary finding for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, correcting flaws in the 2016 supplemental cost finding while ensuring that power plants will emit no more mercury into the air than before.  After primarily considering compliance costs relative to the [Hazardous Air Pollutants] benefits of [Mercury and Air Toxics Standards], EPA is concluding that it is not ‘appropriate and necessary’ to regulate electric utility steam generating units under section 112 of the Clean Air Act.”
However, the Associated Press took a deeper look at the new EPA action, and observed that

“The EPA move leaves in place standards for emissions of mercury, which damages the developing brains of children and has been linked to a series of other ailments.  But the changes greatly reduce the health benefits that regulators can consider in crafting future rules for power plant emissions.  That undermines the 2011 mercury rule and limits regulators’ ability to tackle the range of soot, heavy metals, toxic gasses and other hazards from fossil fuel power plants.”
The AP also noted that

“EPA staffers’ own analysis said the [former] rule curbed mercury’s devastating neurological damage to children and prevented thousands of premature deaths annually, among other public health benefits.”

“one reason focus was placed on the freshwater angler scenario was increased confidence in modeling the exposure pathway given our ability to link patterns of U.S. [Energy Generating Utility] mercury deposition (relative to total deposition) over specific watersheds to sampled fish tissue concentrations in those same watersheds.”
Research linking mercury concentrations in saltwater fish with the mercury emissions from U.S. industry was supposedly not considered because in such research

“the authors utilize U.S. [Electric Generating Utility] deposition (as a fraction of total) in specific broad fishing regions (e.g., Atlantic) to estimate the fraction of methylmercury in commercially sourced fish caught in those broad regions attributable to U.S. [Electric Generating Utilities].  Both of these simplifying assumptions mask the potential complexity associated with linking U.S. [Electric Generating Utility]-sourced mercury to methylmercury concentrations in these commercial fish species.  In particular, a larger region such as the Atlantic likely displays smaller-scale variation in critical factors such as fish species habitat/location, patterns of mercury deposition, and factors related to the methylation of mercury and associated bioaccumulation/biomagnification.  In developing these kinds of more sophisticated models aimed at factoring commercial fish consumption into a benefits analysis involving U.S. [Electric Generating Utility] mercury, additional analysis could be needed to understand this critical element of spatial scale and the generalizing assumptions used by these authors in linking mercury emissions and deposition to commercial fish.”
The language used is telling.  The EPA never found any fault with the saltwater fish study.  Instead, it used speculative phrases such as “mask the potential complexity,” “a larger region such as the Atlantic likely displays smaller-scale variation,” and “additional analysis could be needed” to cast doubt on peer-reviewed science and avoid having to consider research that would militate against the agency’s desired conclusion.

For saltwater fishermen, and for anyone who enjoys consuming tuna, shark and other offshore fish, the bottom line is that the EPA has discounted mercury’s threat to their health, in order to relieve coal-burning utilities of the cost of complying with regulations designed to minimize mercury emissions.

So if you enjoy sushi, or a grilled thresher steak, the EPA is forcing you to decide whether having a good meal is worth putting your good health at risk.

Thursday, April 16, 2020


Fishing is a lot more enjoyable when there’s fish in the water.

That’s why, more than once, I and many others have writtenabout the need to manage recreationally important fish for abundance, and notmerely for the highest practical level of landings.  It seems a self-evident premise, and one that would be very hard to contest with a straight face, but over the years there have been people who've tried. 

Without exception, the naysayers have either belonged to those in the for-hire fishing community who still operate their business on last century’s paradigm of bringing as many dead fish as possible back to the dock, or they represent organizations or publications that receive significant membership or advertising revenues from such businesses. 

Abundance or access?  That became the gray area in the ensuing half-hour debate between those who wish to leave [the] Magnuson[-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act] as is, and those who believe that fluke, sea bass and red snapper in particular showcase the inherent problems with the way the federal fisheries law is written.
“In representing the upstart American Saltwater Guides Association, New York fly and light tackle guide, Capt. John McMurray, spoke for 5 minutes about the benefit of more conservative management of species like fluke and sea bass, and the need to ‘keep more fish in the water’ for increased abundance.
“According to McMurray, the ‘abundance’ of popular species such as summer flounder has resulted in improved access for anglers because fish can now be caught ‘with some consistency close to shore, in the bays, and even from the beaches and docks.’
“New Jersey’s Nick Cicero of the Folsom Corporation, a wholesale distributor and manufacturer of fishing tackle, followed with 5 minutes of testimony related to the local fishing community at home where he said, ‘Statistically, we’re losing anglers and recreational fishing businesses too.’
“A member of the board of directors of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), an advisor on the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and a former professional captain himself, Cicero pointed to the 40% increase in fluke quota for 2019 where anglers saw ‘a zero net gain’ as prime example of the problem with Magnuson.
“’The true intent of Magnuson is clearly not being met,’ Cicero said in his testimony, adding ‘we’re no longer managing for sustainability, we’re managing for abundance and preservation, and it’s killing our recreational fishing community.’”
The House hearing was held, and the article written, in early May 2019, when anglers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic were looking forward to a new season, albeit a season that, in some ways wasn’t looking too promising. 

A benchmark stock assessment for striped bass and summer flounder had just been released.  It found that striped bass were both overfished and experiencing overfishing, conclusions that came as no surprise to striped bass anglers, who had been complaining about declining abundance, making fewer trips in response, for a few years.

The assessment found the summer flounder stock to be healthy and, as noted by Cicero at the House hearing, allowed a substantial increase in quota as a result.  But what Cicero didn’t say was that the assessment also found that recreational fishermen substantially overfished their allocation in 2018; thus, anglers received “a zero net gain” in landings in 2019, compared to the previous year, because of their earlier excess.  Had the flounder been less abundant, and had the quota not been increased, 2019 regulations would have been substantially tightened, to get recreational landings back under control.

Cicero also didn’t mention that the assessment noted that recruitment of new fish into the spawning stock had been below average since 2010, which caused a steady decline in the biomass and in angler interest.

A lack of abundance was already affecting our fishing last season.  Compared to 2015, summer flounder landings had fallen by 40 percent, striped bass landings by 30 percent and bluefish landings by about 6 percent.  And that was before COVID-19, when we were free to travel when and where we wanted, by foot, boat or car.  Marinas and launching ramps were open up and down the coast; party and charter boats sailed every day and on most nights.

Last year, people could go where the fish were, whether that meant running up to the Cape Cod Canal or out to Block Island for stripers, searching the coast for schools of blues, or running out to offshore wrecks, the shoals off Nantucket or the Rhode Island wind farm for big summer flounder.

This year, COVID-19 has severely limited our mobility.  With marinas shut down in some states, fishing and boating limited in others, and much of the for-hire fleet tied up at their docks, most anglers aren’t going to be able to follow the fish.  Instead, they’re going to have to rely on fish coming to them, in the inlets, in the bays and estuaries, and near the ocean beaches.

This is when the need for abundance becomes manifest.  

This is when Capt. John McMurray’s testimony, although scorned by that Fisherman writer, is shown to be true.  

Right now, when we can’t travel far, and perhaps can’t get out on the water at all, we need the kind of abundance that allows fish to be caught “with some consistency close to shore, in the bays, and even from the beaches and docks.”
Because if we aren’t able to catch them there, then until this crisis ends, most of us won’t be able to catch them at all.

Folks with more than a little gray in their hair will recall a time when, at this time of year, they could catch winter flounder without setting foot in a boat.  Although the boatmen did better, you could catch quite a few flounder from just about any pier, bulkhead or strip of shore that abutted an inshore waterway located between New Jersey and Maine.  Data from 1981 shows East Coast anglers taking home nearly 11.8 million shore-caught winter flounder that year.  Last year, that figure had dropped to less than 15,000, all caught in Maine, and even that estimate is so imprecise that it is effectively meaningless.

That’s one opportunity lost.

Fifty years ago, tautog (a/k/a “blackfish”) were readily caught from shore when they entered the shallows to spawn, and then spread out along rocky coastlines where they spent the summer.  But three of the four stocks of tautog are now overfished.  In response to such severely reduced abundance, some states, including New York, have closed or severely limited their summer seasons. 

That’s another fish lost to fishermen stuck on the shore during May and June.

And then there are striped bass and bluefish, the surfcasters’ standbys.  Sharp decreases in the abundance of both has severely reduced the encounter rate; in places where bluefish traditionally raided menhaden bunched up in the harbors just about every day, months can now pass without significant action.  Inshore striped bass blitzes, once a fixture of the fall striper coast, have grown rare in recent years.

Some people pooh-pooh such comments, and claim that there are plenty of bass and blues offshore.  But there’s no point even entering into that debate, because it ignores one basic fact:  The most important thing about real abundance is that when it occurs, fish expand their range.  

Maybe most of the bass and bluefish are further offshore (although I don’t believe that is true).  But even if that is the case, when fish are abundant, some of those fish will wander and, as Capt. McMurray averred, those wanderers will show up “with some consistency close to shore, in the bays, and even from the beaches and docks.”

With both stocks overfished, they are likely to be bunched up in small pockets of local abundance, and largely absent everywhere else.  With travel restricted, that means that most people, along most of the coast, are likely to see very few blues or bass this year.

Contrary to what the Fisherman piece would have you believe, anglers and fisheries managers don’t have to choose between abundance or access.  The truth, which The Fisherman tried to deny, is that abundance better ensures access for everyone.

Of course, when I say that, I’m defining “access” as the ability to get near and possibly catch a fish, while The Fisherman was defining “access” as the ability not only to catch a fish, but to kill it and keep it.

Yet even using that definition, The Fisherman’s premise is wrong.  Especially in times like these, abundance will be the key to catching fish. 

And you can’t keep a fish, take it home, or eat it, if you don’t catch it first.  

Abundance still matters.