Thursday, October 29, 2020


Normally, this blog concentrates on issues important to saltwater fishermen and to the nation’s marine resources, and in particular issues affecting the East and Gulf coasts, and doesn't examine much else.  But today, with the election looming, I'm going to broaden its scope just a bit, and take a look at the dilemma that affects not just saltwater anglers, but sportsmen of every stripe, whether they fish in fresh or salt water, or hunt upland game, big game, small game, or waterfowl.

How do we pick the right candidate?

That’s a particularly important question this time around, because the 2020 election is one of the big ones.  Based on current polling, we could potentially see the election of a new president, change of control in the Senate, and strengthening Democratic control of the House of Representatives. 

Still, as a recent article in Politico pointed out—and as we were shown, very clearly, in 2016—the polls could be wrong, and Donald Trump could win reelection.  The article notes that

“Republican registration has ticked up in key states at the same time Democratic field operations were in hibernation…

“There is uncertainty about the accuracy of polling in certain swing states, the efficacy of GOP voter suppression efforts and even the number of mail-in ballots that for one reason or another will be disqualified.

“’There are more known unknowns than we’ve ever had at any point,’ said Tom Bonier, CEO of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart.  ‘The instruments we have to gauge this race, the polling, our predictive models…those tools are built around quote-unquote normal elections.  And this is anything but a normal election.’”

Counting out a Trump win at this point would be a mistake.  It would also be a mistake to assume that Republicans will lose control of the Senate.  As an NPR article released today said,

“Control of the Senate remains a jump ball days out from Election Day.”

About the only thing that remains just about certain is that control of the House will not change.

Whoever wins, or maintains, control of the various offices, the election will have conseqences for every sportsman in the nation.

Given the differences in candidates’ positions on issues important to sportsmen, ranging from fossil fuels and firearms to fisheries conservation and clean air and water, we need to think long and hard about how our votes are cast, for few candidates, and neither party, offers us everything that we’d like.

The Democratic Party’s platform promises that

“We will support healthy coastal communities and marine ecosystems to sustain and enhance our economic well-being, including in the fishing, tourism and clean energy industries…

“America’s national parks and monuments, public lands, and marine protected areas are treasures that should be held in trust for future generations.  We will protect these precious places and preserve America’s unspoiled wilderness for hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping by codifying the roadless rule, and grow America’s outdoor recreation economy, which supports millions of jobs in rural areas…We will take actions to protect wildernesses and waters, and require full, rigorous, and transparent scientific and environmental review of any proposed mining projects near national treasures…”

That sounds good, and from a conservation perspective, it’s difficult disagree with such goals.

At the same time, we have to remember that any party’s platform is just a promise, and that there is no guarantee that the things that are promised will actually come to be.

That becomes a particularly interesting point this year, because the Republican Party elected not to fashion a new platform for the 2020 election.  Instead, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution that states that because of COVID-19, it was unable to hold a convention with all members present, didn’t want a small number of delegates establishing such new platform, and so resolved, among other things,

“That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda;

“That the 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention; …and

“That any motion to amend the 2016 Platform or to adopt a new Platform, including any motion to suspend the procedures that will allow doing so, will be ruled out of order.”

Based on that resolution, it seems that the Republicans’ 2020 position on issues should be viewed as the positions stated in the party’s 2016 Platform, as interpreted by the actions of the Trump Administration.

So how does that compare with the Democrats’ platform?

In 2016, the Republican platform said that

“We are the party of America’s growers, producers, farmers, ranchers, foresters, miners, commercial fishermen, and all those who bring from the earth the crops, minerals, energy, and the bounties of our seas that are the lifeblood of our economy.  Their labor and ingenuity, their determination in bad times and love of the land at all times, powers our economy, creates millions of jobs, and feeds billions of people around the world.  Only a few years ago, a bipartisan consensus in government valued the role of extractive industries and rewarded their enterprise by minimizing its interference…

“the Republican Party reaffirms the moral obligation to be good stewards of the God-given natural beauty and resources of our country.  We believe that people are the most valuable resources and that human health and safety are the proper measurements of a policy’s success.  We assert that private ownership has been the best guarantee of conscientious stewardship, while some of our worst instances of degradation have occurred under government control.  Poverty, not wealth, is the greatest threat to the environment, while steady economic growth brings the technological advances which make environmental progress possible…

“The environment is too important to be left to radical environmentalists…Over the last eight years, the Administration has triggered an avalanche of regulation that wreaks havoc across our economy and yields minimal environmental benefits…

“The federal government owns or controls over 640 million acres of land in the United States, most of which is in the West…It is absurd to think that all that acreage must remain under the absentee ownership or management of official Washington.  Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states…’

Thus, the 2016 Republican Platform clearly favors extractive industries, disfavors federal ownership of public lands, and clearly opposes most environmental regulation.  And the Trump Administration has been faithful to that platform, supporting such things as mountaintop removal coal mining and oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, removing obstacles to the huge, open pit “Pebble Mine” in the near pristine wilderness of Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed and to a smaller, but equally toxic copper mine in the headwaters of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Consistent with the 2016 Platform, Trump’s Commerce Department and its subsidiary National Marine Fisheries Service unjustifiably overturned the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service’s 2017 decision that New Jersey was out of compliance with ASMFC’s summer flounder management plan and, in the same year, illegally reopened the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico; more recently, it put bluefin tuna at risk by allowing pelagic longlining in their only confirmed western hemisphere spawning ground, and led the opposition to science-based management of shortfin mako sharks at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.  

Trump himself reopened the New England Canyons and Seamounts National Monument to commercial fishing, and issued an executive order instructing the regional fishery management councils to identify and remove regulatory obstacles to increased fish landings, and also authorized an offshore aquaculture permitting system, even though Congress had never delegated such permitting authority to the Administrative Branch.

On land, the Trump Administration removed protections from the struggling sage grouse in order to ease the way for oil drilling in much of its remaining habitat, halved the size of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments while opening up new mineral exploration and drilling opportunities in the region, and seeks to open public lands near the Grand Canyon to uranium mining.  

In California Trump, who supposedly supports states’ rights, signed an order that would divert water from rivers flowing into the San Francisco Bay delta to farms in the state’s Central Valley, even though such diversion threatens the remaining chinook salmon runs in such rivers, as well as the endangered delta smelt, and is opposed by California’s governor.

So when you contrast the Democrats’ 2020 platform with the Republican’s 2016 platform and the Trump Administration’s actions on conservation and environmental issues, it seems that sportsmen ought to be on the Democrats’ side.  

The contrast between the parties is so stark that author/angler Stephen Sautner wrote a piece for the Patagonia Journal titled “You Call Yourself an Angler?” questions how an angler could support the current administration.  In that piece, Mr. Sautner wrote, in part

“How can my fellow anglers support—even cheer—this administration and the wrecking ball it has taken to the rules that protect the same areas we fish?  If you need a reminder, this is the same administration rolling back more than 100 environmental laws.  They pulled out of the Paris climate accord.  They slashed the borders of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument so they could open it for mining.  They kneecapped regulations that protect half the nation’s wetlands.  They want to unlock even more public lands for drilling and fracking.  They are working to gut the Endangered Species Act—the landmark law that saved the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon.  This administration has never met a gas or oil pipeline they did not want to suck from.  They gave you Scott Pruitt, perhaps the most blatantly unethical EPA Administrator in history…”

I have to admit that, as an angler who has fished on every coast of the United States, and also in many fresh waters, as a hunter who depends on the production of the prairie pothole “duck factory” for much of my waterfowl, and who has seen the sun rise over the Wyoming grasslands where pronghorns outnumber the people, I understand where Mr. Sautner is coming from.

But I also understand, even if I don’t agree with, the sportsmen who support the current administration.  That’s because it too often seems that the Democrats don’t understand, and don’t want to understand, sportsmen's concerns.  The Democratic Party has become increasingly urban, and often seems to have lost touch with citizens who live outside the ant farms of New York, Chicago, and the other big cities, and seem unwilling to make any concessions to the demands of our lifestyle. 

The Democratic Platform talks about ending “gun violence,” and in itself, that is good.  No one wants to see a friend, neighbor, or family member killed or seriously hurt, whether the damage is done by a felon with a firearm or knife, or by some drunk behind the wheel of a Mercedes.  Few rational shooters would, or should, oppose a background check program that helps to assure that firearms aren’t being sold to crazies or criminals.

But when a hunter or shooter reads that the party

“will incentivize states to enact licensing requirements for owning firearms,

it’s not unreasonable for such person to start wondering what their options would be if, for some unknown and arbitrary reason, the state licensing authority says “No.”

And there are always worries about accessing the fish and wildlife that we pursue.  Running a boat offshore requires quite a bit of fuel; running a freshwater bass boat is a little better, but then there’s the fuel for the truck that you need to haul that bass boat around.  Canoes don’t require any fuel at all, but when I head up to the Adirondacks, my canoe sits atop a Ford F-150 with four-wheel drive, big enough to carry my gear and capable enough to go off-road if I need to.

How do the Democrats’ views on “clean energy” and their focus on mass transit mesh with the need to just get out and into the outdoors?  Can their opposition to fossil fuel make our boats and vehicles obsolete?

And thus, the Sportsman’s Dilemma.

Do you vote for the party that will protect natural resources, but might restrict your ability to access them?  Or do you vote for the party that might guarantee gas and guns, but by supporting extractive industry, take away your reason for wanting them in the first place?

Everyone must make their own choice, but for me, it always comes down to the resource.  Not only our chosen sport, but our very quality of life, depend on clean air and water, on abundant fish and wildlife, and on extensive and available public lands and waters, where we, and the rest of nature, can wander.

Without healthy, abundant, and accessible populations of waterfowl, upland birds, and game, my rifles and shotguns will stay in the safe, for I’ll have no reason to use, or even own, them.

Without healthy oceans, that support an abundance of marine resources, there’s no reason for me to run a boat.

Without clean air and water, and wild places where beauty remains unsullied by drill rigs and unscarred by mines, I don’t have much need for my truck or canoe, because I can find plenty that’s polluted and ugly very close to home.

So, come next Tuesday, I’ll be voting for clean air and clean water.  I’ll be voting for science-based management of natural resources.  I’ll be voting for national monuments, and undrilled, unmined, and unfracked public lands.  I’ll be voting for beauty and life.

I’ve solved my own Sportsman’s Dilemma. 

You may find a different solution.

Although to be honest, I hope that you don’t.


Sunday, October 25, 2020



Sometime during our school years, maybe in junior high or maybe in high school, we were probably all exposed to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegorical fantasy of a once-idealistic government gone tragically wrong.  It’s safe to say that most remember the novel’s pivotal line:

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,”

given that, since the book came out in August 1945, it has proven applicable to far too many political situations.

Now, given some of the things that we’ve heard at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, we have to wonder whether it applies to fisheries management, too.

I’ve already dedicated a couple of essays to last Tuesday’s meeting of the ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, and though today’s blog focuses on menhaden too, it shouldn’t be read in such a narrow context.  What it really talks about is whether the public should have a greater say in how public resources are managed, or whether the relative handful of people who derive private profit from such public resources should be given greater sway. 

Still, last Tuesday’s meeting is a good place to start, because it included some troubling comments that illustrate how that question is being answered at the ASMFC.

In supporting the motion to set the annual catch limit at194,400 metric tons, a level of landings that the management board knew waslikely to exceed the fishing mortality target that the same management boardset just two months before, one state manager said that

“If we do it gradually…we will be able to bring all of our stakeholders with us as we move forward,”

with the “it” she referred to being reducing such landings to a level that will have at least a 50 percent probability of achieving the target fishing mortality level.

On its face, that comment might not seem so bad, but that changes when it’s read in the context of recent menhaden management actions, and stakeholder input on the actions that were or were not taken.

At its August meeting, the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board unanimously adopted so-called “ecological reference points” for menhaden management.  For the first time, menhaden landings wouldn’t be merely constrained by the amount of menhaden that could be removed from the population without harming the stock.  Instead, landings would be limited to the amount of menhaden that could be removed without causing harm to the fish, birds, and marine mammals that depend on the species as an important part of the forage base in Atlantic coastal ecosystems.

Striped bass were used as a proxy, or as some management board members said, an “indicator species” for the broad array of predators that feed on menhaden, because striped bass are more dependent on menhaden than any other fish species examined.  Thus, the menhaden abundance target was set at the level that would support the striped bass stock at its target level, while the abundance threshold was set at the level needed to support a striped bass stock that had declined in abundance and was teetering on the edge of becoming overfished.

The adoption of such ecosystem reference points was the culmination of an advocacy effort that began more than a decade ago, and was broadly supported.  In a presentation made by ASMFC staff to the menhaden management board at last August’s meeting, staff noted that

“Many comments were submitted on [ecological reference points,]”

including 16 letters signed by more than 100 organizations, more than 1,000 form letters, and over 200 individual comments.  Staff also noted that, out of all of those letters, an

Overwhelming majority:  approve [environmental reference points] to manage Atlantic menhaden.  [emphasis added]”

While many who commented did not state just what such ecological reference points ought to be (which is a perfectly logical position, given that the matter is best determined by qualified biologists), others wanted to see reference points that

“Specified [environmental reference points that allowed striped bass to rebuild”

and/or noted that menhaden are an

“Important forage species that supports recreational fisheries and coastal economies.”

So, based on the ASMFC’s own comments, it appears that just about all of the stakeholders, whether anglers or not, were concerned with menhaden’s impact on coastal ecosystems, and wanted to see ecological reference points adopted—and presumably wanted to see the menhaden management board take those reference points seriously, and establish harvest limits that were intended to achieve the reference point target.

And that is what makes the comment about “bringing all of our stakeholders with us” by not managing to the fishing mortality target, but instead establishing annual catch limits that will knowingly exceed that mark.

Because, in the ASMFC’s own words, it seems like the “overwhelming majority” of stakeholders were already on board with setting a harvest level that would achieve the fishing mortality target. 

Of course, not everyone agreed with that overwhelming majority.  The ASMFC publishes all of the comments that it receives on fisheries issues, and a review of the materials for the August meeting reveals that there were two letters in opposition to the ecological reference points.  One of those letters came from the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, an organization that describes itself as

“a group comprised of bait and reduction fishermen, dealers, and processors who rely on Atlantic menhaden to support themselves, their families, and other fisheries,”

and includes entities such as the Garden State Seafood Association, Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, Lund’s Fisheries, Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, North Carolina Fisheries Association, Omega Protein Inc., the Virginia Watermen’s Association and a number of smaller entities.

The other letter came from a group called the Science Center for Marine Fisheries, which claims to represent

“a federal initiative to bring together academic researchers and industry members to fund projects improving our understanding of the scientific uncertainties around fisheries assessments and evaluating economically important issues for fishing communities.”

There is substantial overlap between the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition and the Science Center for Marine Fisheries; Greg DiDomenico, who chairs the Science Center’s Industry Advisory Board, is also the Executive Director of the Coalition member Garden State Seafood Association.

While such organizations, and particularly the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition, claimed to support the adoption of ecological reference points, they also clearly supported maintenance of a status quo catch limit of 216,000 metric tons for the years 2021 and 2022.

And they were the only stakeholders who took such a position.

The same dynamic carried over into last Tuesday’s meeting.  

Although there were far fewer comments made overall, perhaps because many believed that, after adopting ecological reference points in August, the ASMFC would act consistently, and adopt a landings limit that was consistent with those reference points two months later, the only comments seeking to maintain the status quo, and not act in accord with the reference points, came from the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition and from the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, which is a Coalition member.

Once again, the majority of the stakeholders who commented were part of a broad coalition of anglers, conservation groups, and science professionals who supported setting a landings limit with at least a 50 percent probability of constraining harvest to or below the fishing mortality target.  The only ones who opposed such action were either menhaden harvesters, menhaden processors, menhaden wholesalers, or lobstermen who used menhaden as bait—in other words, were people who, in one way or another profited from dead menhaden.

And while the memberships of such financially interested parties isn’t small—the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association alone claims 1,800 members—the organizations who supported managing to the fishing mortality target didn’t have small memberships, either.  They included angling organizations such as the Coastal Conservation Association and International Game Fish Association, trade groups such as the American Sportfishing Association, American Saltwater Guides Association, and National Marine Manufacturers Association, conservation organizations such as Wild Oceans, the National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Conservation Law Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, The Nature Conservancy, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. 

Thus, even when membership is taken into account, the number of stakeholders who supported managing to the fishing mortality target far outweighed the number who supported less effective management.  Yet there was no concern about adopting a harvest limit that would "bring" that overwhelming majority of "stakeholders along."

Instead, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board opted to support the menhaden industry’s short-term financial interests, rather than the long-term interests of both the public and the Atlantic coast's ecosystems.

The only explanation for that is that the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board doesn’t view all stakeholders equally, but instead favors those who profit from a public resource, and elevates their concerns above those expressed by everyone else.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise.  ASMFC has a long history of elevating narrow, short-term economic concerns above scientific advice, the health of fish stocks or, as we see with menhaden, even ecosystem-wide concerns. 

The failure to manage menhaden to the fishing mortality reference point is just a new symptom of a very old problem, which manifested itself when the ASMFC ignored scientific advice with respect to the southern New England stock of American lobster in 2010,  permitted the now-collapsed northern shrimp stock to be overfished through 2013, adopted a 2017 amendment to the tautog management plan that allowed overfishing to continue in Long Island Sound until 2029 and, in a chain of events stretching back to 2011, ignored both scientific advice and the requirements of its own management plan to rebuild the striped bass spawning stock, decisions that left the stock both overfished and subject to overfishing at the end of 2017; even now, the weak measures adopted by its Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board a year ago have only a 42 percent chance of returning fishing mortality to the target level by the end of this year, partly because of concerns to protect Maryland’s for-hire and commercial fishing fleets.

Some stakeholders truly are more equal than others in the ASMFC’s eyes.  Those who profit from harvested fish, even when they constitute a very small minority of stakeholders, are and have always been “more equal” than those concerned with the long-term welfare of fish stocks.

That’s wrong.

And, one way or another, it needs to change.


Thursday, October 22, 2020



Just last Sunday, I asked “Will the ASMFC live up to last August’s promise” of managing menhaden in accordance with the newly-adopted environmental reference points. 

We learned on Tuesday that the answer to that question is no.

Instead of reducing the annual Atlantic menhaden catch limit from the current 216,000 metric tons down to 176,800 metric tons—the highest level of landings that would still have at least a 50 percent probability of keeping harvest at or below the target fishing mortality level—the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board opted to set the catch limit at 194,400 metric tons, a level that has only a 41.5 percent probability of keeping harvest at or below target in 2021, and a somewhat better, but still inadequate, 47.5 percent probability of keeping the fishing mortality below target in 2022.

In other words, for both years, the ASMFC chose to set annual catch limits that it knew were likely to fail to meet the fishing mortality targets that it had established just two months ago.

I have to admit that I was slightly surprised by that action. 

While I never dismiss the possibility of the ASMFC abandoning its conservation commitments to any species—it does that on a regular basis—I didn’t think that the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, which had unanimously adopted a target reference point in August would, come October, ignore that same reference point, almost before the ink of the August proceedings had enough time to dry.

But I should have known better.  We are, after all, dealing with the ASMFC, where there are no real limits to a management board’s discretion, where preventing overfishing, rebuilding stocks, basing decisions on the best available science, and even adhering to the terms of a management plan, are all viewed as mere options that, should they prove inconvenient, can be can be casually ignored without fear of any consequences at all.

That doesn’t mean that some members of the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board didn’t try to convince that board to live up to its commitments.  Dr. Justin Davis, a fisheries manager for the State of Connecticut, was the foremost among these. 

Noting that he was “proud” to have been part of the August meeting, where the ecological reference points were adopted, and declaring that such adoption was a “significant and precedent-setting decision,” Dr. Davis moved that the Management Board adopt a 176,800 metric ton catch limit for 2021 and a 187,400 metric ton catch limit for 2022.  Both would have a 50 percent probability of keeping fishing mortality at or below the ecological reference point target.

There were plenty of people on the Management Board who felt that such reference points were unduly conservative, but Dr. Davis noted that

“A 50 percent probability isn’t really risk averse,”

implicitly acknowledging that setting such a reference point also led to a 50 percent probability that such catch limits would result in the fishing mortality target being exceeded.  

He explicitly stated that the arguments for a higher catch limit weren’t very persuasive, and noted that such higher limits aren’t what the majority of stakeholders want.  He pointed out that his proposed catch limits, and their 50 percent probability of constraining landings to target, merely delivered on the ASMFC’s promise of taking action consistent with the environmental reference points.

Another speaker—I couldn’t hear her name—followed up on Dr. Davis’ thoughts, saying

“This decision is the first opportunity we have to walk the walk”

promised by the adoption of environmental reference points two months before.

But doing the right thing, and making good on the promise of the Management Board's actions in August, wasn’t all that important to many Management Board members.  All they could see is the short-term economic impacts of the harvest reductions, and at the ASMFC, short-term economic considerations will almost always be elevated above the long-term health of fish stocks, or even of entire ecosystems.

Almost as soon as the meeting began, and the suggestion of reducing landings arose, someone from New Jersey (again, because of a poor audio connection, I couldn’t quite make out who) tried to effectively negate the entire ecological reference point effort, and go back to single-species management.  He pointed out the current health of the menhaden population and said

“We should be proclaiming success,”

rather than reducing landings, because

“We would like to minimize the possibility of losing one million dollars in the menhaden fishery.”

Roy Miller, the governor’s appointee from Delaware, expressed his support for the 194,400 metric ton catch limits that the Management Board ultimately adopted, noting

“There were no economic considerations factored into”

the lower catch limits that would have had an even shot at constraining fishing mortality to the target reference point, while Eric Reid, the legislative proxy from Rhode Island, complained that

“The science that’s lacking [from the motions to reduce landings] is the socio-economic science—and it is a science.”

Capt. John McMurray, the legislative proxy from New York, tried to turn things around.  He reminded the Management Board that if it proves unwilling to adopt a harvest limit consistent with its own ecological reference point target, after unanimously adopting such target just last August, such failure will only reinforce the public perception that the ASMFC is incapable of making the hard decisions necessary to properly manage the resource, but instead caters to special interests. 

Capt. McMurray then touched on an issue that lay at the heart of the question.  He said that the Management Board

“should be [adopting the 176,800/187,400 metric ton catch limits)…for the integrity of the Commission.”

But the Commission stopped worrying about its integrity long ago—or, if it still worries about such things, it never lets such concerns get in the way of promoting short-term economic gains.  It became completely clear that the Management Board was going to make the wrong decision, and abandon its reference point target, when Stephen Bowman, the Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner, supported the higher landing limits, saying

“The environmental reference points should have an opportunity to work…but at the same time should not be punitive in nature…

“You also have to consider the people who are involved in this [fishery] as well.  [emphasis added]”

Because yes, there is always a “but” at the ASMFC, where people want healthy fish stocks, and they want successful management plans, BUT they can’t and won’t make the decisions needed to get there, because they are afraid of causing even minor economic distress. 

So long as ASMFC commissioners view science-based conservation measures as “punitive” rather than reasonable and necessary, that will never change. 

New Hampshire’s governor’s appointee, G. Ritchie White, might have been alluding to that unfortunate truth when he asked, early in the meeting, whether the ASMFC had actually succeeded in managing any species to or above its target level.  

There was a sort of awkward silence after the question, then a staff reply that the ASMFC was “trying” to do that with striped bass—although no one mentioned that it was failing miserably in such attempt, with the striped bass stock now overfished and thelatest management measures having only a 42 percent chance of reducing fishingmortality to the target level—and another staff comment that

“I know that’s the goal…”

But the only species the staff mentioned as being managed to target were spiny dogfish and a very few others, all managed not just by the ASMFC, but also by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which is prohibited by law from adopting management measures that are more likely to fail than succeed.  If one only considers fish that are managed solely by the ASMFC, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find even one that is at the target level of abundance.

And the debate over the menhaden catch limit illustrates why.

The ASMFC just doesn’t take the idea of biomass or fishing mortality targets seriously. 

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a hunter and a recreational rifle shooter for most of my life, going back to when I got my first BB gun at the age of 9, but I’ve always thought of a target as something that you try very hard to hit. 

You might not succeed.  Maybe you misjudged the distance to the mark, and hit high or low, the equivalent of scientific uncertainty, or you misjudged the wind, which might be more or less analogous to management uncertainty.  But when you press the trigger, you do so expecting to center the shot.

ASMFC seems to view targets differently.  It sets them up, then maybe doesn’t try to hit them at all (take a look at the ASMFC’s history of tautog management before 2017) or, as in the case of the current menhaden target, just takes sloppy shots that are likely to fly wide.  If it does hit a target, it's largely through luck.

And despite the comments about management to the target level being “the goal,” the fact that the ASMFC suffers no consequences for repeatedly failing to hit its mark doesn’t provide any incentive to improve the accuracy of its management efforts.

So the ASMFC’s recent failure to adopt a catch limit with a realistic chance of achieving the fishing mortality target shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.  We should have expected the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board to break the promise it made last August.

Because that’s just what the ASMFC does.  And unless Congress steps in to make things right, that’s very unlikely to change.

Sunday, October 18, 2020



Two months ago, I wrote about a big step forward in menhaden management that was taken by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  That’s when its Atlantic Menhaden Management Board decided to adopt so-called “ecological reference points” that gauged the health of the menhaden stock, and the size of the menhaden harvest, not merely on whether the landings themselves were sustainable in the long term but, instead, on whether the menhaden biomass was sufficient to provide adequate forage for the predators that typically depend on that species for food.

It was an action that many marine scientists have been recommending for a very long time, not just for menhaden, but for all species of “forage fish,” the low trophic level species that, in their historic abundance, provided food not only for more sought-after and more valuable recreational and commercial fish species, but for seabirds and marine mammals as well.

Because so many different predator species depend, to a greater or lesser degree, on Atlantic menhaden, it was practically impossible for biologists to design a model that accounted for all predator species.  Instead, because striped bass were the fish species most dependent on menhaden, and because a menhaden population that supported striped bass would be adequate to support the other predators, menhaden managers used bass as a proxy, setting the target menhaden biomass at a level that would support a striped bass population at its target abundance, and setting the threshold menhaden biomass at the corresponding level that would support a striped bass population that lay just at the threshold of becoming overfished.

It seemed like a watershed in forage fish management, but as I warned two months ago, the value of the ASMFC’s actions on menhaden can’t really be judged by what the Management Board said it would do, managing menhaden to the new target reference points, but must instead be evaluated according to what the Management Board actually does when the time comes to set new harvest limits for 2021.

On the morning of Tuesday, October 20, the ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board will face that test:  Will it do what it had promised when it adopted the ecological reference points two months ago, and manage menhaden as one of the most important forage fish on the coast?

Or will it go back on its word to the public, ignore the actions that it took late last August, and return to managing menhaden as if it were just another industrial commodity, to be torn from the water, reduced into fish meal and oils, which will be fed to chickens and used as feed in salmon farms—themselves ecologically suspect—on the eastern Canadian coast?

Right now, I want to believe that the Management Board, which unanimously adopted ecological reference points less than ten weeks ago, is committed to that decision, and will set 2021 menhaden landings at a level that has at least a 50 percent probability of constraining such landings to the target level.  

Right now, I’d bet that, in the end, they’ll do the right thing.

But I’ll also admit that if I had to lay any real money on the line, I wouldn’t be particularly comfortable about that wager.

Although the ecological reference points have widespread support among anglers, academics, and the conservation community, there are powerful industry forces that aren’t committed to their use.  For example, after ecological reference points were adopted last August, the Virginia-based Daily Progress reported that

“The commercial fishing industry, which is dominated by Virginia-based Omega Protein, is anxious to ensure that the catch limit for Atlantic menhaden remains at its present level of 216,000 metric tons…

“In a letter sent to the ASMFC July 28, the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition offered support for the ecological reference points ‘provided they are considered and utilized flexibly.’  The members also in the same letter urged the board to consider maintaining the status quo when it comes to catch limits.”

As readers of this blog ought to realize by now, when people talk about “flexibility” in a fisheries management context, what they mean is postponing, ignoring, or otherwise getting around science-based management measures, in order to profit from larger short-term landings while placing the long-term health of fish stock at risk.

That’s certainly true in this case.

The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition reportedly offered support to the ecological reference points.  Yet, in order to have at least a 50 percent probability of not exceeding the ecological reference points’ fishing mortality target, 2021 menhaden harvest could not exceed 176,800 metric tons, which would represent a 40,000 metric ton reduction from the 2020 menhaden catch limit. 

That’s where the flexibility comes in:  The Coalition is willing to support the idea of ecological reference points, so long as no one actually takes such reference points seriously and applies them in a way that might meaningfully constrain landings. 

That’s reflected in the Coalition’s recent comments on the 2021 harvest limit where, in an impressive bit of doubletalk, it says

“The Menhaden Fisheries Coalition has supported and continues to support management of menhaden to maintain both the fishery itself (and those who depend upon it) and the stock’s role in the ecosystem.  More specifically, the Coalition supports the use of current [ecological reference points] fishing mortality rate (F) target, which the Board adopted at the August 2020 meeting.

“The primary issue facing the Board next week is the trade-off in term of foregone allowable catch to marginally increase the certainty with which the target will be achieved.  For example, to get to a 50 percent certainty, it would require nearly a 20 percent cut in menhaden [total annual catch]…we do not believe the benefits of increased certainty outweigh the negative impacts that would result…”

In other words, the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition supports the ecological reference points, so long as no one actually uses them to manage the fishery.

That sort of comment could be expected from a trade association trying to protect its profits, and looking through the comments sent to the Management Board, represents what is clearly a minority view.  

Unfortunately, the notion that managers should ignore the target reference points was the majority view of the ASMFC’s Atlantic Menhaden Advisory Panel, where seven out of the twelve panel members commenting on the issue thought that the Management Board shouldn’t try to constrain 2021 harvest to a level that would have at least a 50 percent chance of keeping fishing mortality within the target.

Such advisors made comments like

“Given the precautionary nature of previous [total annual catch] decisions, which resulted in F below the ERP F target in recent years, a risk of 66% of exceeding the ERP F target will not adversely impact the role menhaden play in the environment.”

That is certainly an odd bit of logic, as the 2021 harvest limit would be based on the current menhaden biomass, which already reflects any benefits bestowed by “previous TAC decisions.” 


“It is overly precautionary to set the TAC for menhaden based on the risk of exceeding the ERP F target.  For example, the federal risk policy for setting an acceptable biological catch (ABC) is based on the risk of exceeding the overfishing limit (OFL), a value akin to the ERP F threshold; status quo has a 0% chance of exceeding the F threshold in both years,”

which is remarkable for throwing around a lot of loosely related fisheries management concepts in an attempt to prove a very dubious point.  

If one wants to bring federal fisheries management concepts into the debate, the most obvious candidate for mention—which that commenter clearly ignored—was the concept of “optimum yield,” which is defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act as

“the amount of fish which—will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems; is prescribed by such on the basis of maximum sustained yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor; and in the case of an overfished fishery, provides for rebuilding to a level consistent with producing the maximum sustainable yield from such fishery.  [emphasis added; internal formatting omitted]”

In light of that definition, it would seem clear that the ecological reference point fishing mortality target for menhaden, which is intended to protect marine ecosystems, and reduces landings from something closer to maximum sustainable yield to landings optimized to address ecological factors, is very probably equivalent to what “optimum yield” for menhaden would be under the federal management system.  References to ABC and OFL, which are primarily concerned with overfishing in a single-species, rather than ecosystem-based, management model, are irrelevant to the discussion.

Even so, there is a high likelihood that at least some members of the Management Board will prove sympathetic to such arguments, particularly the argument that

“The TAC should remain status quo particularly during this time of economic crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Additionally, harvest in 2020 will be well below the TAC due to lost fishing opportunity thus providing another buffer to the fishery.”

Various ASMFC management boards have, in the past, been prone to elevate short-term economic concerns above the long-term health of fish stocks, and it isn’t hard to envision some members of the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board swayed by an argument rooted in the real economic hardships caused by COVID-19.  If the majority of the Management Board feels that way, it’s easy to picture them supporting the long-term health of the various Atlantic coastal ecosystems at greater risk in order to increase economic returns to the handful of fishermen involved in the large-scale menhaden harvest.

Hopefully, that won’t occur this time.

Hopefully, the majority of Management Board members, who gave broad support to ecosystem reference points two months ago, will do so again, and set a 2021 harvest limit no higher than the 176,800 metric tons that will provide a 50 percent chance of achieving the management target.

For if they fail to do that, and instead ignore their own recent management actions in order to please the industrial menhaden fleet, they will not only throw away the most promising forage fish management action seen in the United States to date.  They will have broken faith with a public who believed that the ASMFC had taken an important and meaningful action, only to see it ignore the clear provisions of a management plan once again.


Thursday, October 15, 2020



It’s hard to say many good things about striped bass fishing right now.

For most people, in most places, this season, bass were few and far between.  While there are still a few big fish around from the big 1996, 2001, and 2003 year classes (and maybe even a very, very few ‘93s), large bass have been hard to come by.

On the other hand, there is a rush of small fish from the solid 2014 and 2015 year classes—some just entering into the bottom end of the prevailing 28- to 35-inch slot limit—popping up all along the northeast coast.  The good news is that these fish are doing all of the things that bass do in the fall, blitzing bait on the surface and keeping the boat and surf fishermen happy. 

The bad news is that these fish are, right now, the last, best hope of rebuilding the currently overfished striped bass population and, as I said, they’re entering the bottom end of the slot, meaning that for the next four or five years, they will be the focus of every coastal striped bass angler who wants to take a fish home.  Thus, attrition from angling—both from the “meat fishermen” who intentionally kill them and from the catch and release-oriented anglers who inadvertently kill about one out of every eleven fish they return to the water—is going to hit them hard, and make their contribution to the spawning stock a lot less than it probably ought to be.

After 2015, there aren’t a lot of fish coming up to replace them.

That fact was driven home yesterday, when Maryland’s juvenile abundance index for 2020 was revealed to be a dismal 2.48, as compared to a long-term average of around 11.5.

People may look at that number and say “but it’s only one year,” and argue that striped bass recruitment moves up and down, and one bad year can easily be redeemed by solid recruitment a year or two later.  

There’s some justification in thinking that way.  After all, there’s a very firm limit on how “below average” any one year can be.

If the long-term average is 11.5, then even in the worst-case situation, where no recruitment at all occurs (something that has never been recorded in the 63-year history of the juvenile abundance survey, although it got pretty close in 2012, when the young-of-the-year index recorded its all-time low of 0.89), the index could be more than 11.5 points below average, while the upside for good recruitment is theoretically unlimited.  We already saw an index of 59.39—nearly 40 points above average—in 1996, closely followed by a 50.75 in 2001.

Years like that can make up for a few sub-par spawns.

There's no real need to worry unless below-average recruitment continues for a few years.  Yet we have already experienced extended recruitment droughts, when the young-of-the-year index remained below average for a very long time.  

The worst of those was the 17-year period between 1972 and 1988, when the Maryland young-of-the-year index didn’t reach the current 11.5 average even once; for those years, the average young-of-the-year index was only 5.35.

And we all know what happened back then…

We saw something similar, though of shorter duration, in the seven years between 2004 and 2010.  It wasn’t as severe—the long-term average was exceeded twice in those years, and the seven-year average was a far less-distressing 9.05--but even that level of recruitment decline, coupled with an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that was—and still is--more interested in maintaining consistent regulations, and consistent harvest levels, than in maintaining a healthy striped bass stock, was enough to cause the stock to become overfished once again.

If we want another, less conservative measure of sustainable recruitment, we can take a look at Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass, which established the management measures that successfully nurtured the striped bass stock back to health in the late 1980s.  Amendment 3 provided, in part,

“That the states prevent directed fishing mortality on at least 95% of the 1982 year class females, and females of all subsequent year classes of Chesapeake Bay stocks until 95% of the females in these year classes have an opportunity to reproduce at least once.  This objective is intended to apply to the fishery until the 3-year running average of Maryland’s young-of-year index attains 8.0.  [emphasis added]”

Now, the striped bass stock had collapsed by 1985, when Amendment 3 was adopted, and as bad as its condition may be today, the stock hasn't collapsed and the spawning stock biomass is still about four times the size that it was back then, so the two situations aren’t directly comparable.  While Amendment 3 effectively shut down the striped bass fishery—while it was in effect, recreational landings ranged between roughly 114,000 and 270,000 bass per year, as compared to nearly 2,200,000 bass in 2019—the current state of the striped bass stock doesn’t call for anything near such stringent measures. 

Still, it’s significant that the managers then at the ASMFC felt that a three-year running average of 8.0 or more would be needed to justify more lenient regulations.

So looking at some of those past figures—the young-of-the-year average of 5.35, that prevailed during the collapse years, the average of 9.05 for the most recent period of below-average recruitment, or the three-year rolling average of 8.0 used in Amendment 3 as a trigger for more relaxed regulations (1 fish at 34 inches on the coast, and a restricted commercial fishery, regulations that probably aren’t too different, on a conservation equivalency basis, from where things stand today)—how does current recruitment compare?

If you look at the Maryland young-of-the-year index for the past three years, you get an average of 6.88, more than 4 ½ points below the long-term average, with each individual year’s index continuing to decline.  The average for the past three years is only 1 ½ points higher than the average during the years leading up to and extending through the stock collapse, is nearly 1 ½ points below the Amendment 3 standard for reopening the directed fishery, and 2 ½ points below the average for 2004-2010, the most recent period of sub-par recruitment.

So over the past few years, it’s safe to say that striped bass recruitment, when judged on a historical basis, has not been very good, and so there is reason to be concerned about this year’s low index number.

Looking back five years instead of three provides the opportunity to incorporate all of the year classes since the big one in 2015 into a similar comparison.  The average for those years--2016-2020--is 7.20.  That's slightly better than the average of the most recent 3 years, as it captures both 2017 and 2018, which both returned indices that were marginally above average.  

Yet it still falls below the Amendment 3 standard for a recovering stock, and is well below both the long-term average and the average for the sub-par 2004-2010 period.  

That provides even more reason for concern, because we’re at the point when most of the big females are aging out of or being removed from the population, the big 2011 year class did not recruit into the spawning stock in the numbers expected, and the fish that represent the best current chance to replenish the population—the 2014s and 2015s—recruited in good numbers, but are now entering a slot size that will make them the exclusive target of coastal striped bass anglers who want to harvest their catch for the next four or five years.

And once the 2014s and 2015s have run that gauntlet, there are currently no big year classes poised to take their place.

When you have a lot of fish being removed from the population, either through fishing or natural mortality, and you have five consecutive years when the recruitment of fish to replace them is well below average, a little worrying is not out of line.

So, are the striped bass in crisis?

Probably not.  At least, not yet.

But they are in a place where managers should be carefully monitoring the situation and, more importantly, should be placing their greatest emphasis on maximizing the number of females that not only enter the spawning stock, but remain there for years, to become the sort of “BOFFFs”—big, old, fecund female fish—that are needed to buffer the population against years of sub-par recruitment.

Without such big females, bass will face a greater likelihood of another stock collapse.

Thus, as the ASMFC begins work on a new amendment to the striped bass management plan, anglers who want to see a healthy striped bass stock need to tell its Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board that they are charting a dangerous course.

Currently, when contemplating the new amendment.

“The [Atlantic Striped Bass Management] Board identified management stability, flexibility, and regulatory consistency as guiding themes for future striped bass management, and discussed the desire to balance these principles to the extent practical.”

That’s nice for the folks on the Management Board.  Those principles would give them carte blance to allow overfishing to continue, fail to rebuild an overfished stock, and let the population decline in the face of declining recruitment, without having to lift a finger to protect the future of the fishery.  It would let them avoid irking the folks, in both the recreational and commercial sectors, who see nothing but dollars on the heads of dead bass, and consistently oppose conservation measures.

In other words, it would let the Management Board continue to do what they’ve been doing for the past two decades or more, although the new measures would make ignoring the striped bass’ future official ASMFC policy, instead of merely another ASMFC failure.

I propose a different set of principles.

How about, for the first time in this century and part of the last, the Management Board makes maintaining the health of the striped bass stock, preventing overfishing, and rebuilding the population its guiding principles.

I recognize that, for the ASMFC and the Management Board, that’s a radical notion, and goes against everything they’ve done since, perhaps, 1985.  But maybe it’s worth another try.

Just maybe, for the first time in three decades or so, the Management Board can really make a good-faith effort to take care of the bass.

And just maube, if the do that, they’ll find that the bass, once restored to abundance, will take care of the recreational and commercial fisheries all by themselves, and everyone, including the fish, can finally claim a real win.



Sunday, October 11, 2020



About four years ago, a group that then called itself the Center for Coastal Conservation, along with a number of affiliated entities, issued a report titled “A Vision for Marine Fisheries Management in the 21st Century; Priorities for a New Administration.”

The assemblage of organizations supporting the Center’s report was similar to the collection of groups supporting the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act—the so-called “Modern Fish Act”—in recent years. 

There were anglers’ rights groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association and Recreational Fishing Alliance, each trying to find ways to let anglers kill more fish and escape any accountability should their overfishing threaten the continued health of fish stocks. 

There were industry organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association and National Marine Manufacturers Association, which apparently believed that the promise of greater short-term profits, derived from anglers killing more fish than they should, somehow offset the risk that if fish stocks declined too far, there might not be any profits at all. 

And there were groups such as the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which generally did good work on other issues, and seemed to have no clear interest in weakening the federal fishery management system, but apparently received some benefit from trying to do so.

About a month after that report came out, the Center for Coastal Conservation changed its name to the Center for Sportfishing Policy, noting that

“The new name more accurately reflects the Center’s purpose, which is to organize, focus and engage recreational fishing stakeholders to shape federal marine fisheries management policies.”

As the Center’s President, Jeff Angers, stated

“Recreational fishing and boating are two of America’s oldest and most beloved pastimes.  They are family-friendly activities that connect people to nature and help them to develop an abiding respect for our natural resources.  We hope that our new website will help lawmakers and the general public gain a deeper understanding of how current federal fisheries law is disenfranchising America’s recreational anglers to the detriment of resource conservation and the country’s economy.  Revising federal law and agency guidance will ensure fair and reasonable access to America’s marine fisheries, and improve fisheries management to guide the future of recreational fishing and boating.”

The name change was a commendable exercise in honesty (for the past half-dozen years or so, I have felt that, in the interests of ethical marketing, the Coastal Conservation Association, which once was a legitimate conservation organization, also ought to change its name to something like the Coastal Sportfishing Association, to reflect its pivot from prioritizing the health of the resource to an anglers’ rights agenda).  

The comments about the Center seeking to influence federal fisheries legislation and policy also ring true.  As for the rest, the professed concerns about “respect for our natural resources” and “resource conservation” and such, it’s probably best to just say that actions speak louder than words, and that the Center’s record on conservation is dismal enough to say all that needs to be said in that regard.

The report that purported to provide “Priorities for a New Administration” was a perfect example of that, laying out an agenda that made a nebulous and factually-unsupported case for undermining the federal fisheries management system in order to let anglers pile more dead fish on the dock while angling- and boating-related businesses piled up bigger profits—at least while the party lasted, and before the country’s fish stocks came crashing down.

And unlike the Center’s name change, the Priorities report was certainly not a model of forthrightness and full disclosure.

Now, with another Presidential election looming, a new version of the report has been issued.  This one bears an almost identical title—“A Vision for Marine Fisheries Management in the 21st Century; Priorities for the Next Administration”  [emphasis added], which seems to suggest that the Center doesn’t believe that the current Trump Administration will be sticking around—and almost identical content.

As I’ll soon demonstrate, the new report isn’t any more forthright than its predecessor, and both share many of the same, one might call them, “alternate” facts.  But it’s in the places where the two reports differ that the essential dishonesty of both is revealed.

Both the 2016 and 2020 versions of the reports are based on a few misleading premises.  One is that recreational fishermen generate greater economic returns than does the commercial sector, while accounting for only a very small percentage of the fish landed.  Another is that managing federal recreational fisheries through the use of hard quotas is inappropriate.  A third is that state managers do a better job of managing fisheries than their federal counterparts do.

To understand why each of those statements is deceptive, it’s necessary to look at some hard numbers—something that both reports try very hard not to do. 

The first premise—that recreational fishermen generate economic returns that equal or exceed those of the commercial sector, while catching far fewer fish—is probably the only one of the three that contains even a small grain of truth. 

Depending on how fisheries are valued—and economists can use different approaches, that will place different values on identical fisheries—the recreational fishery may well be more valuable than the commercial fishery (it’s interesting to note that even the Center's two reports value the recreational fishery differently, with the 2016 version claiming that saltwater angling generated $70 billion in “economic activity,” which may be defined as “the activity of producing, buying, or selling products or services,” while the 2020 version talks about $74 billion in “sales impacts,” a less well-defined term; it isn’t clear whether “sales impacts” is synonymous with “economic activity,” but one must wonder why, in reports which use much of the same language, those terms were different).

And it’s true that overall commercial landings are much higher than overall recreational landings.

But what the reports fail to state is that much of the commercial landings involve fish of little or no interest to anglers, which are sought by industrial fleets.  I wrote about just this issue two years ago, when I noted that, while it was true that 2015 commercial landings totaled about 9.8 billion pounds, which dwarfed anglers 170 million pound harvest, much of the commercial landings were comprised of things anglers couldn't care less about, such as 3.26 billion pounds of walleye pollock, 1.63 billion pounds of menhaden, and 699 million pounds of Pacific cod.  But when you get down to the fish that anglers actually want to catch, in many cases, it turns out to be anglers who account for most of the kill.

Going back to 2015, just to keep using the same point of reference, Atlantic-coast anglers accounted for about 95 percent of all wahoo landings, 94 percent of the cobia, and 90 percent of the dolphin.  In the South Atlantic, anglers landed 89 percent of the mutton snapper, 86 percent of the yellowtail, 64 percent of the greater amberjack, and 60 percent of the red grouper.  In the Mid-Atlantic, they landed about 74 percent of both the black sea bass and bluefish.

And that’s just the federally-managed species.

At the state level, Atlantic-coast anglers harvested 95 percent of the red drum, 89 percent of the tautog (“blackfish”), 84 percent of the black drum, 83 percent of the spotted seatrout, 81 percent of the sheepshead, and 60 percent of the pompano.

And the last benchmark stock assessment showed that anglers are responsible for fully 90 percent of all fishing mortality for striped bass.

Thus, far from the report’s reassuring reference to

“the scientific reality of the light footprint recreational access has on our fishery resources,”

the hard data shows that, when it comes down to the fish species that really matter—that is, the ones that anglers typically pursue—the recreational fishery’s footprint is far from “light.”  In fact, it’s more like the footprint one might make jumping off of a riverbank in a pair of hobnailed boots.

Which makes one wonder why the Center, in its report, tries so hard to ignore, dissemble—I’m sorely tempted to say lie about—and mislead the targeted policymakers about that particular fact. 

The only reason I can see for doing that is because the truth is just not on the Center’s side.

Then we come to the Center’s constant refrain that

“recreational fishing is a fundamentally different activity than commercial fishing, requiring different management approaches.”

Certainly, the commercial sector is typically comprised of a relatively small number of individual fishermen, who each land large volumes of fish, while the recreational sector is its mirror image, featuring a large number of fishermen who each land small numbers of fish—if they land any at all.  But what that scenario fails to admit is that while individuals may each only land one or two fish, collectively, the recreational fishery may land millions of pounds of a single species; as mentioned above, for many species, recreational landings can far exceed those of the commercial sector.

So why, exactly, should the sector responsible for the lion’s share of removals not be constrained by a hard quota, and not be held accountable if it overfishes?

The Center’s report evades that question, instead throwing up smokescreens such as the statement that

“The Magnuson-Stevens Act relies heavily on fixed, hard-poundage quotas…”

(which is true)

“…that can be managed in real-time, often using limited entry and catch share programs,”

The smoke in that statement emanates from the word “can” because. while hard-poundage quotas can be managed in real time, they don’t have to be.  The typical current practice of setting a recreational harvest limit—effectively, a hard-poundage recreational quota—and then adjusting regulations after the season ends, based on the fishery’s performance, works quite well to constrain recreational landings.

Anglers don’t like the consequences, in the form of additional restrictions, when they overfish, and the Center argues that

“Recreational anglers need predictable, dependable access to healthy and abundant fisheries,”

but achieving such access doesn’t require an overthrow of the federal management system.  There’s a much simpler approach that will even help to assure that fisheries remain “healthy and abundant.”

Don’t try to catch every last fish.

Instead, recognize that there is management uncertainty in every landings estimate.  Rather than adopting a recreational catch limit equal to anglers’ share of the acceptable biological catch (ABC), and basing the recreational harvest limit on that, regional fishery management councils might simply incorporate a buffer that accounts for such management uncertainty into its calculations, adopt an annual catch target lower than the recreational share of the ABC, and base the harvest limit on that.  The National Marine Fisheries Service actually suggests such an approach, which would significantly reduce the likelihood that recreational overharvest would force managers to adjust regulations on a near-annual basis.

The use of a more conservative annual catch target would go a long way to ensure that federal fisheries managers could maintain the sort of predictable, dependable regulations that the Center seems to be seeking.

Of course, such an annual catch target would also reduce the recreational kill, which may be why the Center is suggesting a more radical approach.  While an annual catch limit would be an effective conservation measure, we’re talking about the Center for Sportfishing Policy here; they’re not the Center for Coastal Conservation anymore.

Thus, instead of promoting sound conservation measures, they make unsupported attacks on the federal management system, hoping that increased harvest will be the result.

And so we come to the Center's final—yes, this time I’ll say it—lie, that state fisheries managers do a better job than their federal counterparts.  This is one of those things that, no matter how you play with the numbers, is demonstrably untrue.  

Just start with the 2020 report’s statement that

“States are now the experts at managing—very successfully—numerous fish species such as red drum, spotted sea trout, and snook.”

You see, the 2016 version of the report tried to say the same thing, but worded it just a little differently.  In 2016, that line read

“States are the experts in managing—very successfully—numerous fish species such as red drum, spotted sea trout, and striped bass.  [emphasis added]”

But that sentence had to be reworded for 2020, because the truth is that state managers, managing cooperatively through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, didn’t manage striped bass “very successfully” at all.  In fact, they completely screwed the pooch—and not just once, but on numerous occasions.

There was November 2011 when, after being told that the stock would become overfished within six years, they declared the striped bass a “green light” fishery and made no move to tighten regulations, even though recruitment had been sub-par for years.

Then, there was August 2014 when, after a benchmark stock assessment informed ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board that fishing mortality had been above target, and female spawning stock biomass below target, for a few years, state managers failed to initiate a 10-year rebuilding plan, even though the ASMFC’s striped bass management plan explicitly stated that they “must” do so.

After that, there was October 2016, when state managers learned that, instead of reducing their fishing mortality by 20.5 percent, as the management plan required them to do, anglers in the Chesapeake Bay had actually increased such mortality by more than 50 percent.  And the state managers did nothing.

So it was hardly surprising that when the most recent stock assessment was completed in 2018, it found that the striped bass stock was both overfished and subject to overfishing.  In response, managers adopted a new addendum to the management plan, that has less than a 50 percent chance of reducing fishing mortality to the target level.  But once again, state managers failed to initiate a rebuilding plan, despite the management plan’s clear requirement that they do so.

So yes, it’s pretty clear why the Center might not want to mention state manager’s “success” with striped bass in the 2020 report…

The problem is that the state managers on the East Coast, working through the ASMFC, haven’t been any more successful in managing other species.  Right now, of the 24 fish stocks and stock complexes managed by the ASMFC, only five are listed as “not overfished/not depleted.”  Eleven stocks are “depleted” or “overfished,” while the condition of the rest is “unknown.”

That’s hardly a record of state management “success,” despite the Center’s claims to the contrary.  In fact, the state managers at the ASMFC have been so unsuccessful that, in the more than 75 years of the ASMFC’s existence, that organization has failed to rebuild even one overfished stock, and then maintain such stock at sustainable levels in the long term.

If we look at the Center’s other two examples of “very successful” state management—red drum and spotted sea trout—we only find more failures. 

In Texas, state managers have been unable, or unwilling, to constrain recreational harvest of either species to levels that can be supported by natural reproduction.  Instead, anglers chronically overfish, and their landings can only be sustained by hatcheries, the pump many thousands of man-made fish into coastal waters.  As the state itself admits,

“Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s marine hatcheries produce juvenile red drum, spotted seatrout and southern flounder for stock enhancement…It serves as a tool used by TPWD to manage the marine fishery along the Texas coast to ensure that harvest levels are sustained and stocks are replenished.  [emphasis added]”

Thus, in Texas at least, sustaining harvest levels is deemed more important than sustaining naturally reproducing fish stocks at levels that are sustainable in the long term.  Such reliance on hatcheries is a tacit admission that the state's fishery management process has failed, for good fisheries management is all about constraining harvest to levels that are naturally sustainable in the long term.  Hatcheries, on the other hand, are all about maintaining levels of harvest that are not naturally sustainable.

Thus, in Texas at least, it’s hard to argue that state fishery managers have successfully managed either red drum or spotted sea trout.

In Louisiana, red drum seem to be doing OK, but spotted sea trout are having serious problems.  Data indicates

“serious problems with statewide estimates of spawning stock biomass, spawning potential ratio and fishing mortality.”

It appears that the stock has been overfished since 2014, overfishing has occurred in 6 of the last 10 years, and the proportion of older fish—age three and older—in the population is the lowest ever recorded.  Yet managers are only now considering measures to rebuild the spawning stock. 

Mississippi recently also took action to rebuild its spotted sea trout population, which managers allowed to shrink to low levels, while, just last year, Alabama biologists found that that state’s spotted sea trout

“breeding stock are not at a sustainable level.”

Such facts give lie to the Center’s claim that management or red drum and spotted sea trout are “very successfully” managed at the state level.  (It should be noted that the foregoing discussion was limited to fisheries in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, as Atlantic states’ fisheries managers haven’t even been able to figure out whether their red drum and spotted sea trout fisheries are overfished or not, which in itself is raises questions about the efficacy of state management efforts.)

The Center’s related claim that

“many coastal states have created world-class data systems to manage their coastal and marine fisheries.   The State systems have proven far more accurate and timely than the Federal system, and NOAA Fisheries should recognize such certified programs as the best available science”

is also dishonest, and needs to be debunked.

The statement seems to draw a distinction between the “state” recreational fisheries data systems and the “Federal system” when, in fact, the state systems are merely a supplement to the federal Marine Recreational Information Program.  In the words of the National Marine Fisheries Service,

“Since last December, NOAA Fisheries has certified designs for three surveys in the Gulf of Mexico:  Louisiana’s all species, general survey LA Creel; Mississippi’s red snapper-specific Tails ‘n Scales; and Alabama’s red snapper-specific Snapper Check.  Florida’s Gulf Reef Fish Survey, which supplements MRIP’s general surveys for a limited group of reef fish species, is expected to be certified later this year.  Each survey uses a different methodology to gather data and produce estimates based on the unique characteristics of the state’s fishery…

The MRIP state surveys are designed to improve regional monitoring of the recreational red snapper catch and effort.  Estimates from these surveys can be used for federal scientific stock assessments and fishery management once there is a transition plan that describes how to integrate state and general data, and how to calibrate new and historical catch and effort estimates.  [emphasis added]”

Thus, in truth, there are no separate state and federal data systems; the state angler surveys are, in truth, incorporated into the Marine Recreational Information Program, and are intended to supplement, and not supersede, the federal fisheries data-gathering process.  The Center’s language suggesting otherwise is just not true.

And even if the Center was accurate in that respect, just who has determined that "State systems have proven far more accurate...than the Federal system"?  Should we just take the Center's word for it?  Because it certainly didn't provide any proof that might support such a claim.

Once again, the Center is just trying to relax recreational fishing regulations, by seeking to use raw data from the state surveys, which has not yet been calibrated to work with the federal data gathering system and, in its raw form, suggests that anglers caught fewer fish than indicated by the federal estimates.  But calibration is necessary to allow managers to consider the state and federal data in the same context.  Without calibration, the state data is worthless.

The bottom line is that the 2020 report, like its predecessor from 2016, is a deceptive and essentially dishonest document, intended to mislead policymakers in what the Center seems to believe will be “the Next” Biden Administration, and convince them to abandon the proven federal fishery management system in favor of management approaches that will allow a larger recreational kill, while disclaiming any real recreational responsibility for the health of fish stocks.

Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, Dune, begins with the words

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”

There is no more profound a beginning than a change of Presidential administrations.

And if we cannot balance the Center’s self-serving demands with a steadfast support of science-based management and the long-term health of fish stocks, then any balance that may have existed will be destroyed.

If that happens, the fish, and ultimately all fishermen, will surely suffer.